I don’t know exactly when it happened, but Wisconsin is no longer a women’s hockey dynasty.
Perhaps it was sometime in the transition between “four national titles in seven years” and “four national titles in 13 years.” If you’ve heard of a thing called college football before, dear B5Q reader, then I would say that Wisconsin’s women’s hockey program is closer to Oklahoma football than Alabama football.
Nonetheless, top to bottom, the Badgers have been the best team in the country for many seasons since their last national title in 2011. Wisconsin’s bread and butter is depth and consistency, yet this is not necessarily rewarded in the single-elimination NCAA tournament. For one, hockey is statistically the easiest team sport in which to score an upset.
The sport’s design itself is out to get Wisconsin, and a three-game, single-elimination tournament is the worst way to actually crown the best team.
Next, as women’s hockey writer and B5Q alum Nicole Haase has pointed out, the regular season rewards depth while the Frozen Four rewards top-end talent. There are unfortunately very few televised games in the regular season for NCAA women’s hockey, meaning teams need to get meaningful minutes out of their third (and occasionally fourth) lines with the lack of TV timeouts. For Wisconsin, the production does not drop off too much, and Wisconsin’s third and fourth lines have easily been the best in the country the last several years.
However, when you add commercial breaks, players are able to rest more and Wisconsin’s third-line advantage disappears when other teams barely use their third lines.
No. 2 Wisconsin could have the best team in the country again this year in the regular season, but it may not be built to end its eight-year national title drought. This was certainly the case for Wisconsin’s 2017–18 season.
The story for the 2018–19 season has yet to be written, and here are my thoughts heading into another exciting hockey season.
What You Need to Know
Olympian and Team USA Members Return
NCAA women’s hockey is unique in that players can compete at the highest level and return to contribute to their school. Seniors Annie Pankowski and Emily Clark return from international hockey to make one final run at a national title at Wisconsin. While Pankowski barely missed the cut for Team USA’s roster, she was certainly viewed as a terrible snub.
The last time Pankowski and Clark wore the cardinal and white, they absolutely tore it up. They combined for an amazing 45 goals and 56 assists in the 2016–17 season. Since then, they’ve been battle tested at the highest level of international competition, so you know they are only going to come back stronger.
Coach Johnson: "It's an exciting time of the year. We're excited with some of the additions to our team this year with Emily Clark and Annie Pankowski taking the year off last year to play with their national teams."— Wisconsin Hockey (@BadgerWHockey) September 18, 2018
In what ways have these two grown in the last year and a half?
“There are a lot of things I learned from the past year,” Pankowski said. “There’s a lot more that goes into playing well, feeling great, and doing the things you set out to do than just showing up. You have to put in more than just showing up on time and doing what you’re told. It takes a lot of heart and a lot of hard work, and sometimes you don’t realize that when you show up here. With a team as good as ours, you can still be successful.”
“Last year, I focused on just hockey for an entire year,” Clark added. “I grew a lot as a person and a player, so you can expect a pretty similar game from me, and I’m excited for puck drop.”
Clark is also heeding the advice of her mentors on Hockey Canada heading into her senior season after a year away at the Olympics: just enjoy it.
“You know what it’s like not having [college hockey],” Clark said, “so I’m pretty lucky to have my senior year.”
Honestly, Pankowski and Clark should be earning retire-at-32 type money as professional athletes. They’re electric players who are guaranteed to entertain in one of our country’s dominant sports.
The good news, dear Badgers fans, is you can watch world-class athletes play for $7 a game, assuming they don’t sell out all the home games. Very few college teams across any sport can claim that.
It’s usually correct to say that first-year players are going to be inexperienced.
First, there is Sophie Shirley, who played professional hockey last year and was named Rookie of the Year in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. This year, she will be a freshman for Wisconsin. Let that one sink in. (Author’s note: this was possible because Shirley didn’t accept pay.)
Next, you have Britta Curl, who has been a staple of the Team USA development program and had a good showing in the U.S.-Canada series earlier this summer. Freshman goaltender Cami Kronish has experience on Team USA’s development team. Defender Nicole LaMantia also has international experience, winning gold in the 2017 IIHF Under-18 Women’s World Championship.
The freshman class is rounded out with forward Jesse DeVito, who has done well in national competitions. DeVito might have fewer accolades than the other freshmen, but she certainly could be another elite Badger.
“I think a lot of them have shown they’re really talented players. Right now, playing with the new girls, you can’t really tell they’re new,” junior forward Abby Roque said, “They’re obviously getting used to the systems; that’s taking a little bit. Their skill level and how they’re competing shows they can compete with anyone in college hockey.”
What this freshman group doesn’t have, however, is experience playing in front of the sold-out crowds they will see at LaBahn Arena.
“I think they’re going to be a little nervous at first,” Roque said, “but I think the energy will help them get a little boost.”
WCHA and NCAA at Full Strength
“This may be the strongest group of teams that I’ve seen at the DI level,” coach Mark Johnson told the media on Monday. “There will be a bunch of great games. Strap your belt on, and it’s going to be a fun year.”
It’s a worn cliché around women’s hockey to grow the game. Well, consider it grown after an excellent Olympic season, professional hockey continuing to expand, and the NCAA fielding the deepest and best players in history.
Pankowski is looking forward to the tough competition this year.
“Look at the national camp we were just at, there was a lot of representation from a bunch of different schools. I think in that, it shows the growth of the game, which is very exciting. It’s also exciting for us because we love the games that are close, that are tough battles. It’s really exciting to see that there will be a lot of good competition.”
The most important home games come early in the year for Bucky, with a home series Oct. 13–14 against No. 9 Duluth and Maddie Rooney. Two weeks later, Wisconsin will take on No. 3 Minnesota Oct. 27–28.
I must gripe with the powers that be on this one. Why bury the best match-ups of the year in October, five months away from post-season play?
Sure, they will play Duluth and Minnesota later in the year, but those will be road games. Wisconsin might not win by less than three at home after that point in the season.
Pankowski is going to be hungry. She was robbed of a spot on USA’s gold-medal roster and has seen multiple national championships slip out of her grasp.
When asked if she was at peace with being cut from team USA, Pankowski said, “I wouldn’t say peace. It still hurts. It was a really tough experience, but to be honest, Madison’s been here to pick me up. Everybody here, the teammates that were here last year, the coaching staff, everybody’s been amazing since January when I did come back. They were really the driving forces to get me back on my feet, and I’m really grateful for that. I’m really excited to be back.”
When asked if she was going to play angry, Pankowski said, “I don’t know about angry, but for sure to prove a point. That’s another tool I have in my back pocket.”
“I would say she’s in an interesting situation,” Roque added. “She came back, got ahead in classes, and just trained really hard for this year. She has been working for this season since January when she came back for school. I think she’s going to be a really a special player this year, especially after all she’s worked for. I think she wants to show that she can be an unbelievable player.”
I expect a huge season out of Pankowski—over 30 goals and 40 assists. That would give Pankowski a top-10 season in program history.
Freshman of the Year
It’s got to be Shirley. You don’t win Rookie of the Year in the CWHL and then don’t win freshman of the year on your team. I think Shirley could score 35+ points this year.
Breakout Player of the Year
This is the toughest one to pick since the field of proven talent on this roster is so robust. I’ll go with sophomore defender Natalie Buchbinder. Last season, Buchbinder scored one goal and added five assists, but she also blocked 38 shots. That was good for fourth on the team. Look for Buchbinder to get 15–20 assists this year if she can get the puck to the wing quickly on turnovers and breakaways.
Wisconsin has eight tough games on its schedule: four against Duluth and four against Minnesota. I expect the Badgers to split the season series against Minnesota and win three of four against Duluth. In the other 26 games, they might get upset on the road once, but I highly doubt it.
Wisconsin will enter post-season play with a record of 30–4, ranked third in the country.
Wisconsin will have the exact same record as Minnesota at the end of the year, sharing the WCHA title. Wisconsin will get revenge for last year’s WCHA tournament, and will win the tournament and earn the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Frozen Four Predictions
Worst case: Wisconsin earns the fourth seed and hosts Duluth in the quarterfinals. Maddie Rooney saves all 65 Wisconsin shots and Duluth upsets Wisconsin 1–0, missing the Frozen Four for the first time in six years.
Likely case: Wisconsin will suffer another heartbreaking overtime loss in the national semifinals, probably to Clarkson.
Best case: Badgers go 33–1, earn the top seed in the tournament, and get hot at the right time. They take their first national title since 2011 just in time for people to stop bothering Mark Johnson about it.
You’ve got to go to LaBahn this year and watch some hockey. Yes, Wisconsin may not be a dynasty anymore, but it is an excellent team that will put together an amazing product on the ice.
It all starts on Friday and Saturday when Wisconsin hosts Lindenwood.