I asked Nicole Haase, the Women's Hockey writer for Bucky's 5th Quarter some questions on the Badgers team going into their Frozen Four semi-final match-up with the Gophers. You can see my answers to her questions over at Bucky's 5th Quarter Here:
GG: Obviously Wisconsin has been on a recent tear, winning the WCHA Final Faceoff and destroying a very good BU team in the quarterfinals? What if anything has changed in the last few weeks for the Badgers?
NH: I think don't think anything fundamental has changed, but it's just been the general momentum and coming together of a season. A lot was made of the scoring drought and while it was certainly the story of individual games, I don't think it was ever symptomatic of a bigger problem or issue. It was just bad puck bounces and a slump. It was, however, frustrating and maybe a little demoralizing. Having shaken some of that off and shown what their capable of has increased the confidence and swagger ten-fold and it's that sort of intangible attitude that seemed to show on the ice the past few weeks. As every player that scored shook off some of that, it reflected in their play.
Additionally, it's not just the past few weeks, but the emergence of the second line, which features Annie Pankowski, Emily Clark and Baylee Wellhausen, has certainly been crucial for the Badgers as the season winds down. Pankowski (USA) and Clark (CAN) are both on their respective countries' squads for the IIHF Women's World Cup. Pankowski is averaging 1.11 points per game. Big time players are at their best in big time situations and it feels like Pankowski's season has been building to this. She was poised and polished against BU and looked next-level. She wears it well. BU didn't prepare for that line at all and didn't have the depth to handle them. Obviously that's not the case with Minnesota. But when the line I'm not even talking about features the shot, pace and skating ability of Sarah Nurse, it's easy to get excited about the depth UW puts on the ice.
GG: What do you see as the key for Wisconsin to do well to get a victory Friday night?
NH: The need to have shots on goal, not just shots. In one of the games at Ridder in January, they were shooting pucks as soon as they crossed the blue line and not really shooting with purpose. One of the things that helped them shake off their slump was being able to get second and third chances. Leveille will give up those opportunities, but usually Stecklein et, al are there to make sure that doesn't bite her. If Wisconsin has to find a way to get any sort of pressure around the crease.
Secondarily, they need a solid game from Desbiens. This goes without saying for the most part, but ARD hasn't been tested a ton this season and she has a tendency to stray from her net. She's just the tiniest bit reckless and I love that about her. Most of the time, it's what makes her so great. But every so often she ends up too far our or out of position because of it. It's the sort of bad that comes with so much good from her style, but Wisconsin can't afford to give Minnesota an inch.
GG: Minnesota has not lost to Wisconsin in 15 consecutive games. Is it all psychological? Is it just bad luck? Is Minnesota just better? Why the streak?
NH: It's probably a little bit of all of those things. To be fair, before the current losing streak, Wisconsin had dominated the rivalry for something like six years. It does seem to cycle.
One of the things that has frustrated me in the past season and a half or so is that the teams have been pretty evenly matched. For a stretch there, the Badgers were totally outclassed and it was clear that they never had a chance. That hasn't been the case more recently, but they've still been unable to break through. The fact that they got the tie the last time out is definitely something the team is proud and very aware of it. It's a step in the right direction to breaking away from this streak.
GG: What scares you about Minnesota? What do they do really well that Wisconsin will need to overcome?
NH: Is it weird to say nothing scares me? That's not to say that they're not a good team/opponent. Maybe it's just that I'm familiar with them and so I feel confident that the Badgers can match up well with them? The potent offense is definitely a problem and they struck for most of their goals in the Saturday game in January against UW's second line, so balancing those matchp-ups will be a big point, but Mark Johnson can read a plus/minus sheet, so I'm guessing it's something Wisconsin's addressed and worked on.It's the Minnesota defense and the clogging of both the zone and in the crease that concern me. The defense is giant and solid.
Any Badgers reading, don't be offended, but this year's Badger team is eons better than last year's that had Minnesota down 3-2 headed into the third period of the national semi-final. This team has everything that that one lacked - experience, depth, scoring ability - as well as being as good in goal and on D. I'm by no means assured of a win, but I'm confident in this year's team and what they can do.
That and the power play. Wisconsin has allowed just four PP goals all season and Minny has one of them in addition to the top PP unit in the country. The Gophers move and cycle the puck better than anyone I've seen. I expect a physical game. Who knows what the refs will call, but odd-man situations are going to be crucial to this game and Wisconsin needs to come out ahead.
GG: Will anyone actually be watching our game, or will all the Badger fans just be waiting for the basketball game to start later Friday night, and all the Gopher fans not at the game be watching the Men's Hockey team in the Big Ten Tournament?
NH: Put me down for a deep and hearty sigh as I started to answer this. A peek at the front page of Badger Athletics showed all five stories were about the men's basketball team, which is so disheartening. The basketball game isn't meant to start til around 8:30 pm, but I don't think there's a ton of overlap in fanbases there. I know there were quite a few of the hardcore fans who were disappointed in the inability to get Frozen Four tickets, but it's obviously not a surprise there aren't many available.
I'm pretty vocal about how ridiculous it is that these games aren't televised and I'll be making my annual list of things televised this weekend instead of the Frozen Four. A quick check of the schedule shows preseason softball, the NIT, a replay of the 2014 CrossFit Games and every iteration of SportsCenter and SportsCenterU. That's just ESPN, since they own the rights and make them too expensive for anyone else to buy despite refusing to air the games themselves.
Thanks Nicole. And of course....