Tonight at 7 p.m., the top-ranked Wisconsin women’s hockey team will drop the puck on a brand-new season in Maryland Heights, Mo. against Lindenwood. The women’s hockey season is a marathon, not a sprint; it spans 34 games and will not wrap up until Feb. 23.
Let’s take a look at what the next five months might bring as the Badgers try to repeat as national champions.
It was a good year. What else is there to say?
The Badgers had a strong regular season, but it just barely missed out on the WCHA regular season title after a disappointing final series against Ohio State.
However, the Badgers ran the table in the postseason, outscoring opponents 30-3 en route to a WCHA tournament title and the national championship.
Included in the 30-3 run was an amazing performance by goaltender Kristen Campbell who did not allow a single goal in the NCAA tournament.
Annie Pankowski, who put the team on her back in the NCAA tournament, is gone. Ranked the No. 1 player under 25 by The Ice Garden, Pankowski’s offensive skills are going to be severely missed. Last season, Pankowski scored 28 goals and 50 points overall; both of these marks lead the team.
Of the 28 goals Pankowski scored last year, 11 were in the seven-game post-season run.
Emily Clark, a silver-medal winner in the 2018 Winter Olympics, will also be missed. Unfortunately, her 2018-2019 campaign was hindered a bit by injuries, and she never really seemed 100%.
Do not underestimate the loss of Sam Cogan and Sophia Shaver. These two brought a lot of leadership to the table even though they did not top the stat sheet. Cogan especially brought a high level of physicality to the offense.
On defense, it will be difficult to replace Mikaela Gardner. Like Cogan, Gardner was gritty.
With all of that said, the Badgers have a knack of reloading, and the Badgers are not strangers to losing stars like Pankowski and Clark.
Watts won the Patty Kazmaier award in 2018 with Boston College as a freshman. In two years, she has 64 goals, and the junior will take her talents to LaBahn arena.
One of Watts’ strengths is she is extraordinarily quick to fire her shots and is pinpoint accurate. If you give her an inch, she can take it before you can blink.
Okay, I’M ONLY GOING TO SAY THIS ONCE, so listen up.
Grace is Sophie Shirley’s younger sister.
Like her sister, she is very good, and she received two votes for preseason All-WCHA freshman of the year.
Greig has experience in Hockey Canada’s U18 team, and she also received one vote for WCHA preseason rookie of the year.
Question 1: Will Watts flourish in the WCHA? Or will the transition be a challenge?
Watts, in spite of her credentials, is the biggest question mark for the Badgers. There’s no doubt that Watts will score goals, but the WCHA is known for being more physical than the East Coast conferences. What will the adjustment period be for Watts? Is it possible that the WCHA turns out to be a better fit for her?
Question 2: What lineups will coach Mark Johnson go with?
Pre-season WCHA co-player-of-the-year Abby Roque is the best center and passer on the team. Johnson has a bit of an interesting decision here. He can either put Roque with the best scorers on the team (probably Shirley and Watts) and turn them into super-scorers, or he can match Roque with Presley Norby and Britta Curl and elevate their play to balance the lines a bit.
Todd Milewski of madison.com was gracious enough to share some of the lineups he saw at practice a few days ago.
Tough to read helmet numbers from a distance, but the few I saw yesterday were:— Todd Milewski (@ToddMilewski) September 24, 2019
Here are the lines Milewski noted:
Watts — Roque — S. Shirley
Curl -- Brette Pettet — Norby
Alexis Mauermann — G. Shirley — Caitlin Schneider
Johnson is surely going to massage his lines early in the season, and he only has four games until his first top-ten matchup at No. 9 Ohio State on Oct. 11.
Question 3: Which sophomore takes the biggest step forward?
Shirley and Curl had excellent freshmen seasons, combining for 44 goals. It’s probable with the addition of Watts that the Curl / Roque / Shirley line that was so effective in 2019 could be broken up this season. That may allow for one of these two to cement themselves as the new standard-bearers.
Oh, and they’re showing off their skills already in practice. Don’t peak too soon!
The #Badgers ended their scrimmage with overtime, first 5 minutes of 5-on-5, then 5 minutes of 3-on-3 as will be used in the WCHA this season. Here's Sophie Shirley getting left alone for a one-on-one. pic.twitter.com/T7xoewbDkK— Todd Milewski (@ToddMilewski) September 21, 2019
Not to be outdone, Britta Curl did this on her shootout try. Hello. pic.twitter.com/6NZxN3e4Ks— Todd Milewski (@ToddMilewski) September 21, 2019
Frankly, I expect Curl and Shirley to pick up where the Pankowski / Clark duo left off.
Question 4: Will Kristen Campbell walk away a legend? Or just amazing?
Asking “who is the best Badgers goalie of all time” is a futile query. Badger goalie alumnae Jessie Vetter, Alex Rigsby and Ann-Renée Desbiens are already an elite crowd. With Campbell’s excellent 2019 post-season run, she is already a deserving member of this sorority.
However, if Campbell can run the post-season gauntlet again, she could be the best post-season goalie to ever play for the Badgers. Kind of hard to imagine that the Badgers have consistently been excellent at this position.
Question 5: Can the Badgers defense stay healthy?
Wisconsin makes up more than half of the preseason All-WCHA team (Mekenzie Steffen, Campbell, Roque, and Shirley). The Badgers have plenty of depth at forward, but a few injuries among the defenders could cause UW some issues.
Say, for example, Natalie Buchbinder and Steffen both went down for injury. In that worst-case scenario, the Badgers would need two of their three freshmen defenders to take meaningful shifts.
Who could challenge UW?
Like Wisconsin, Minnesota rarely has a down year. The Badgers and Gophers are No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the WCHA and both ranking systems. The Gophers’ Grace Zumwinkle is a preseason All-WCHA forward, and fellow Gopher Madeline Wethington is the preseason WCHA freshman-of-the-year.
Out East, Clarskson will likely survive the loss of Loren Gabel and Kassidy Sauve and be a Frozen Four contender again.
Outside of Clarkson and Minnesota, any other top-ten team could beat Wisconsin, but they certianly would be significant underdogs.
Key games / series
- Nov. 2-3 at Minnesota (Minneapolis)
- Nov. 30 vs. Boston College (Nashville, Tenn.)
- Jan. 24-25 vs. Minnesota (Madison, Wis.)
- Feb. 15-16 vs. Ohio State (Madison, Wis.)
Most goals: S. Shirley
Most assists: Roque
Most penalties: Roque
Team freshman of the year: G. Shirley
Regular season record: 29-3-2
Post-season: National championship