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Why Wisconsin women’s hockey will run the table

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The Badgers will hang another banner in LaBahn

David Stluka/Wisconsin Athletic Communications

I know I have received thousands of zero emails and tweets asking about my drop in contributions to B5Q, but to your joy I am back and ready to talk sports once again.

Listen folks, in half of my analysis pieces for women’s hockey, I’ve mentioned the long national championship drought Mark Johnson’s crew has endured. While I may be a homer, I did not pick Wisconsin last year—and for a brag nobody cares about, I correctly picked Clarkson.

My heart and mind are telling me something different this year. Wisconsin’s going to run the table.

::Begins Howard Dean-style rant::

The Badgers will sweep Ohio State this weekend winning the WCHA. Then it’s going to win the WCHA tournament! Then it’s going to the Frozen Four, and then it’s going to win the national title!

Yeah, it’s been a rough ride for Badger hockey fans, and for the women’s team it has been full of last-minute disappointment since the last national title in 2011. Here is why I believe this season will end the drought.

Wisconsin is historically positioned for success

Let’s take a look at how Wisconsin has done the past baker’s dozen seasons and see if we can glean anything:

Women’s Hockey Polling Data and Results Since 2006

Season (* = Olympic Season) USCHO poll mid-february (number of first place votes out of 15 voters) NCAA Tournament Outcome
Season (* = Olympic Season) USCHO poll mid-february (number of first place votes out of 15 voters) NCAA Tournament Outcome
2006* No Data Champion
2007 2 (4) Champion
2008 5 Runner-Up
2009 2 (7) Champion
2010* 8 DNQ
2011 1 (12) Champion
2012 1 (14) Runner-Up
2013 7 DNQ
2014* 2 Frozen Four
2015 3 Frozen Four
2016 2 Frozen Four
2017 1 (15) Runner-Up
2018* 1 (12) Frozen Four
2019 1 (9) TBD

The first thing that sticks out to me is that two of the last three seasons that followed an Olympic year, the Badgers have won the title.

Guess what? This season follows an Olympic year.

This makes sense for Wisconsin, which usually loses some players to centralization only for those players to return one season later. This season is no different with Annie Pankowski and Emily Clark returning. The stars have aligned in this regard.

The next part of the graph that sticks out (and perhaps isn’t as interesting of a point, but whatevs) is that if the Badgers are not receiving first-place votes in February, it does not have a chance. Well good news, as Wisconsin is receiving first-place votes here in 2019, and that almost always means UW makes it to the final round of the NCAA Tournament.

Wisconsin has the offensive and defensive stats that indicate a successful NCAA run

Wisconsin Team Stats and Season Outcome

Season Goals Per Game (NCAA ranking) Goals Against Per Game (NCAA Rank) Goals for minus goals against NCAA Tournament Outcome
Season Goals Per Game (NCAA ranking) Goals Against Per Game (NCAA Rank) Goals for minus goals against NCAA Tournament Outcome
2006* 3.78 (3) 1.24 (2) 2.54 Champion
2007 4.05 (6) 0.88 (1) 3.17 Champion
2008 3.46 (8) 1.41 (3) 2.05 Runner-Up
2009 5.05 (1) 1.29 (1) 3.76 Champion
2010* 2.97 (9) 2.28 (16) 0.69 DNQ
2011 5.17 (1) 1.71 (4) 3.46 Champion
2012 4.53 (2) 1.50 (2) 3.03 Runner-Up
2013 2.94 (10) 1.51 (3) 1.43 DNQ
2014* 3.00 (6) 1.24 (3) 1.76 Frozen Four
2015 3.45 (5) 1.12 (1) 2.33 Frozen Four
2016 3.85 (5) 0.72 (1) 3.13 Frozen Four
2017 3.92 (1) 0.88 (1) 4.04 Runner-Up
2018* 3.32 (8) 1.26 (3) 2.06 Frozen Four
2019 (As of 2/18/2019) 3.81 (T-3) 1.16 (1) 2.65 TBD

First of all, Wisconsin has a top-3 offense, which has historically been a prerequisite for it making it to the final round. Additionally, the 2.5 goal spread between goals for and goals against is a critical benchmark. Except for 2016, the other six times Wisconsin has achieved a plus-2.5 goal spread, it has made it to the final round of the tournament.

Yes, I know that making it to the final round is different than winning the final round, but we are working our way into this. Only twice since 2011 has Wisconsin made it to the final round, so that is undoubtedly a critical barrier to cross.

The pressure is gone for most of these players

Nobody on this team has been on the Wisconsin roster with another player who won a national title. At some point, you grow numb to the “no titles since 2011” talk and just go out there and play hockey.

This team is hungry, not backed against the wall of maintaining a dynasty. It is hungry to build a new dynasty. Clark fell short of winning a gold medal, and Pankowski was unjustly cut from Team USA. Freshmen Britta Curl and Sophie Shirley have an opportunity to win multiple titles. No one is worried about the missed opportunities of the past; this team is on the verge of reaffirming its rightful place at the top.

Format might benefit Wisconsin for the first time in a while

Wisconsin has had some challenges in the transition to the NCAA tournament the past few years that have negatively impacted its performance. One problem has been the tighter refereeing of the Frozen Four versus WCHA play. Players like Abby Roque were so much stronger than the other team that they would draw disproportionate penalties in the Frozen Four. While Wisconsin is just as physically strong as it has been the past few years, it also has a number of players with elite agility and speed like Shirley and Presley Norby.

Also, Wisconsin’s historical strength has been conditioning and depth. Granted, Wisconsin’s top line has been elite for a long time, but it beat other top teams by having a dominant third and even fourth line as well. This has backfired in the past during the televised NCAA tournament when opposing teams have been able to rest during TV timeouts and keep their top lines on the ice almost exclusively.

While Wisconsin does have excellent depth this season, it also has a pretty serious talent gap in the top two lines. Last year, Wisconsin had only one player in the top-50 for points, Roque (41 points). To date, Wisconsin has four players in the top-50 for points: Pankowski (37), Roque (34), Shirley (33), and Curl (26). These players have all shown elite talent and production; therefore, increased time on the ice for the top two lines does not narrow the talent gap like in years past.

Wisconsin might be just hitting its stride again now

The Badgers were on a serious roll in the first half of the season, going 19-1 in the 2018 portion of the campaign. After a six-week break, UW wobbled out of the gates for the 2019 portion, starting out 4-3. Since then, Wisconsin has woken up to a five-game winning streak. If Wisconsin can find the quality of hockey it displayed in December and goaltender Kristen Campbell finds a hot hand for the next month, it will cruise to a national title.

Youth is experienced

In most sports, fans are cautiously optimistic about freshmen. What if their inexperience gets caught up with them? Can they perform under pressure?

Well, Wisconsin has leaned heavily on freshmen Shirley and Curl, but they hare hardly typical freshmen. Both of these players have serious national team experience, and Shirley even has played a season in the professional Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

Do not expect these freshmen to buckle under pressure; look for them to rise up.

No better way to accent Mark Johnson’s jersey retirement.

2019 has already been a banner year for head coach Mark Johnson, as he became the first men’s hockey player to have his jersey hung in the rafters of the Kohl Center. There would be no better way to accent this year for Johnson than earning his fifth national title as head coach.

(Please don’t point out my ought-is fallacy).