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Wisconsin women’s hockey heads to postseason play

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March Madness on the ice.

UW Athletic Communications

The top-ranked Wisconsin women’s hockey team (29–3–2) finished the regular season with a sweep of Minnesota, and by finishing first in the WCHA, the Badgers earned a bye week this last weekend.

While the rest of the WCHA was fighting for a spot in the Final Faceoff, the Badgers were resting and reflecting. Sounds like a great reason for us to do the same, looking back at the regular season and previewing the postseason.

What went well in the regular season for the Badgers?

  • Beating expectations. Yes, they are the top-ranked team in the country, and by definition they are at least meeting expectations. In the preseason polls, Wisconsin was ranked second by USCHO.com, and my season preview had the Badgers at 29–5 but ranked third in the country. Do I get any bragging points for correctly identifying their win total?
  • Kepler rises. Going into this season, Wisconsin had to replace roughly 60% percent of its offense, and senior captain Claudia Kepler did a number to fill that void. She finished second in the WCHA with 20 goals on the season and led the way for Wisconsin. Her 20th goal was perhaps the biggest of her career.
  • Defensive rankings. Wisconsin finished first in the NCAA in scoring defense among tournament-eligible teams. Its 1.18 goals against average edged out Clarkson for the top spot.
  • No soup for you! Yes, a joke that’s getting a bit stale, but sophomore goaltender Kristen Campbell is not stale at all. Campbell’s solid goaltending makes her one of only two goalies in the running for the Patty Kazmaier Award this season. She leads the NCAA in all major statistical categories.
  • Resting time. Earning the first-round bye in the WCHA tournament gives Wisconsin some extra rest heading into three consecutive weekends of intense hockey. The Badgers have been riddled with a barrage of key injuries the last few months of the season.

Top underdog? I don’t know how Mark Johnson does it, but it appears that Wisconsin views itself as the underdog heading into postseason play. Given that they were consistently a unanimous No. 1 team in the country most of the season, the Badgers are looking for motivation wherever they can find it.

What went poorly?

We have to really nitpick here, as I mentioned previously they accomplished every goal so far and met or exceeded all expectations.

  • Road struggles. I covered this in my third-quarter recap, and it hasn’t changed all that much. This team still struggles on the road. Will its play improve at neutral sites with near-sellout crowds?
  • Injuries. Wisconsin has struggled to stay healthy, losing Alexis Mauermann, Mikaela Gardner, Baylee Wellhausen, and Sophpia Shaver for portions of the season. When the Badgers aren’t full-strength, they struggle to adjust with line changes.
  • Where’s the Roque? With injuries and line changes in the 2018 portion of the season, WCHA Offensive Player of the Year Abby Roque has slumped a little down the stretch. While the whole team has struggled a little offensively of late, she is one of the key offensive leaders on the team. Her goals per game went from 0.36 in September-December down to 0.09 in January-February, and her points per game went from 1.14 in the 2017 portion of the schedule down to 0.81 in 2018. If she can play at top form down the stretch, Wisconsin will be in great shape to take home its first national title in seven years.

What should we expect in the WCHA Final Faceoff?

  • Battle with Bemidji St.: Bucky Badger vs. Bucky Beaver. Puck drops 2 p.m. on Saturday for this interesting rematch. Wisconsin crushed the Beavers with a pair of 5–1 victories in October at LaBahn Arena, but BSU was much more competitive in their January series in Bemidji. While Wisconsin escaped Bemidji with five of six available points, the Badgers’ road struggles remain a concern.
  • 2 vs. 3. The other semifinal is much more interesting on paper: a match-up between Ohio State and Minnesota 5 p.m. on Saturday. This top 10 competition should provide excellent entertainment. Ohio State has dominated the season series so far, but I smell an upset. That is, if you can ever call Minnesota beating OSU in the Twin Cities an upset.
  • Automatic bids. The winner of the Final Faceoff gains an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. However, it looks like Minnesota, Ohio State, and Wisconsin will all earn at-large bids. The only exception is Minnesota, who could lose its Pairwise footing if chaos ensues next weekend. That leaves Bemidji as the team with nothing to lose and everything to gain. Bemidji has a history of playing each of these teams strong. While it could get blown out in the semifinals, it certainly could indeed steal a pair of games to earn an automatic bid. If that happens, then Wisconsin would host Bemidji March 10 in the NCAA quarterfinals.

What should we expect in the NCAA Tournament?

According to Grant Salzano’s tournament projection calculator, there is no way that Wisconsin is lower than a No. 3 seed. Therefore, the Badgers are a lock to host the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament on March 10. Additionally, it does not appear Division-II team Saint Anslem has met the requirements for an at-large bid and has no pathway to an automatic bid, so that opens up an extra spot in the Pairwise rankings. Finally, if Wisconsin wins the Final Faceoff semifinal round against Bemidji, it would take a complete disaster for Wisconsin to lose the No. 1 seed.

Due to NCAA selection criteria, Wisconsin will host a fifth–to-eighth-seeded team in the tournament that reduces the total number of flights. Therefore, if Minnesota or Ohio State is in that range of Nos. 5-8, you can bet a rematch with Minnesota or Ohio State is likely in the quarterfinals. If both Minnesota and Ohio State are seeded between Nos. 5 and 8, bet on Minnesota. Clearly, this is the worst-case scenario for Wisconsin, as Minnesota and Ohio State are quite a bit stronger than the automatic-bid No. 8 seed.

Alright, so here’s my projection.

March 10 (NCAA quarterfinals at LaBahn Arena): Minnesota vs. Wisconsin

And, if Wisconsin beats Minnesota again...

March 16 & 18 (Frozen Four in Minneapolis). I’m going chalk on this one. Wisconsin, Clarkson, Boston College, and Colgate are my picks for the Frozen Four. There’s a good chance that Wisconsin’s path to a title this season will have to go through BC and Clarkson in a retry of the 2017 Frozen Four.

If that’s what we see in a few weeks, it’s really hard to make any predictions. Wisconsin beat Minnesota four times this season, but each game was tight. Expect the NCAA quarterfinal match-up to be one of the most intense games ever played at LaBahn—it would be a must-watch.