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Wisconsin women’s hockey: No. 1 vs. No. 2 preview

The Badgers and Buckeyes are set for a titanic clash at LaBahn Arena this weekend.

NCAA HOCKEY: MAR 20 Div I Women’s Championship - Northeastern v Wisconsin
Casey O’Brien has been lighting the lamp with regularity this season.
Photo by Michael Longo/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

These are the kind of matchups you don’t always get this early in the season, but this weekend at LaBahn Arena the No. 1 Wisconsin Badgers (8-0-0 overall, 4-0-1 WCHA) host the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes (6-0-0 overall, 6-0-0 WCHA) and the eyes of the college hockey world will turn towards Madison.

We had some questions about how this matchup will go and thankfully friend of the blog (and former writer!) Nicole Haase was available to chat with us. Haase writes for and The Victory Press while also doing freelance hockey writing around the ol’ World Wide Web.

Here is what Nicole had to say about the Badgers/Buckeyes clash this weekend.

After only allowing two goals through the first seven games, the Badgers gave up four in their last game against Duluth. Is this a troubling defensive trend or a one game blip against a good team?

With no offense meant to the rest of the teams the Badgers have played so far, Minnesota Duluth is just a much better team. They have way more offensive firepower than anyone else Wisconsin has played so far. That alone accounts for a lot of it.

The Badgers win because they possess the puck for most of the game. Yes, they have great goal-scorers and are good on defense and in net, but also it’s just really hard to score goals if you don’t have the puck on your stick and that’s where Wisconsin excels. And it’s where things went wrong in Duluth on Saturday.

NCAA HOCKEY: MAR 18 Div I Women’s Frozen Four - Ohio St. v Wisconsin
Goalie Kennedy Blair feels “more mature” this year and ready for tough matchups like this weekend’s.
Photo by Michael Longo/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

UW played one of their worst periods of hockey in a very long time. They weren’t completing passes and they struggled to move the puck at all. They barely got into the offensive zone, much less spent any extended time there. UMD dominated play and that’s how you score goals. The Badgers were down 2-0 heading into the first intermission and I’m still a little shocked that game turned out the way it did (Editor’s note: 5-4 Wisconsin victory).

It’s a good sign for UW that they were able to turn things around after the intermission and to me says we probably won’t be seeing more periods like that from them in the future, so I don’t think it’s a troubling sign of things to come. I think Wisconsin is stronger on defense this season than they were last and goalie Kennedy Blair has said herself she feels more mature this year. There will be higher scoring games based solely on the level of competition in the WCHA, but I don’t think any of them will be emblematic of bigger issues.

Casey O’Brien started off the season like she was shot out of a cannon, scoring nine goals in the first four games, but she has slowed down a bit over her past four games. Who has stepped up recently to shoulder the offensive burden?

O’Brien is on the top line with Makenna Webster and Daryl Watts and that group accounts for more than 40% of the team’s points so far this season. Teams knew they had to put their strongest defender on Watts, and what’s been great for UW about the early barrage from O’Brien is it has forced teams to decide who to defend more closely, her or Watts.

Additionally, these three are just playing incredibly well together. They have the kind of chemistry that usually takes longer to build and are moving around each other and sending no-look passes like it’s not only week five. That’s what’s making them so magical right now. Individually, they’re all very good players who would be scoring goals no matter who they’re playing with, but the ease with which they’re reading each other and moving the pucks among themselves makes them even more potent. To some extent, it really doesn’t matter which one of them is the one to put it past the goalie.

I’ll add, too, that Watts obviously gets a lot of attention and O’Brien’s early numbers were gaudy, so she was everyone’s lips, but Webster is the one leading the team in points. She was the breakout star of the NCAA tournament for the Badgers - and won Most Outstanding Player at the Frozen Four. She has gotten less ink, but is no less impressive.

I suppose I haven’t really answered your question. Freshman Sarah Wozniewicz is on the third line, but already has six goals through the first eight games - on just 23 shots. She’s very smart with the puck, especially for a rookie. She’s paired with Caitlin Schneider on the other wing and I like how those two are moving the puck, especially in transition.

Ohio State also comes into this game undefeated, although having played two fewer games and having three goalies take a start this year. Who is going to start between the pipes for the Buckeyes this weekend?

Unless there’s some information we’re not privy to, I can’t imagine it won’t be Andrea Braendli. Not only is she their starter and most experienced netminder, but she’s played the best games of her collegiate career against Wisconsin. (I actually wrote about this a bit this summer when Braendli was tearing it up at the World Championships).

United States v Switzerland: Group A - 2021 IIHF Women’s World Championship
Andrea Braendli at the IIHF World Championship this past summer.
Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images

Raygan Kirk is a transfer from the shuttered Robert Morris program that is her likely successor and who will also probably take over duties when Braendli is at the Olympics this winter, but I would be surprised if Nadine Muzerall made any big changes for this series, especially since it’s in Madison, in front of that loud sell out crowd.

Most collegiate players don’t get to experience an environment like the one in LaBahn. Braendli’s experience - and success - with the Badgers, with the environment and with handling the likely high number of shots makes her the obvious choice.

Do you have a prediction for the weekend in this No. 1 vs. No. 2 clash? Any other storylines you’d like to mention?

I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen, but I’m choosing to embrace that and just know that we’re going to get to watch some really great hockey this weekend. I’m thrilled that Sunday’s game is on Big Ten Network. The thing is, no outcome would really be surprising to me. Either team could sweep. It seems likely we’ll see a split, with each team taking a game.

The two coaches here have different approaches and philosophies. It’s pretty fun to watch them on the benches and see how it plays out, especially since they’re both successful. It’s a good reminder that there’s no one good, right way to build a successful program.

LaBahn’s ice sheet is wider than Ohio State’s home rink, so watch for the Badgers to stretch things wider and take advantage of their familiarity with using all that space.

Saturday puck drop is set for 2 p.m. CT while Sunday’s game will begin at 3 p.m. CT.

Fans who are unable to make it to LaBahn can listen to Reid Magnum and Mark Greenhalgh call both games on U100.9FM. Saturday’s game will also be available on BTN+ while Sunday’s game will be aired on the Big Ten Network. Sloane Martin and Annie Pankowski, a co-captain of the 2019 NCAA Championship team, will be on the call on UW’s first regular-season BTN home game since the start of the 2015 season.