Coach Mark Johnson couldn’t completely discount the possibility that a five-week layoff from game action disrupted the University of Wisconsin women’s hockey team enough to produce a shutout loss last Friday.
Still, there were enough distressing signs to Johnson that he used the next morning’s team meeting to show clips of the shortfalls in a 1-0 defeat at seventh-ranked Ohio State. He was particularly unimpressed with the No. 1 Badgers’ work on faceoffs and other competitions for loose pucks.
“I just thought we didn’t compete consistently for the entire 60 minutes,” Johnson said.
That’s the kind of thing that’ll eat away at Johnson. Consistency and competition are two of the biggest emphases to Badgers players, the elements they’ll hear about on a loop.
Over a season that can stretch to nearly seven months long, keeping a team on message every game is one of the biggest challenges for a coaching staff.
“It’s an interesting job we have, to try to motivate,” Johnson said this week as the Badgers prepare for a critical series at No. 2 Minnesota on Friday and Saturday.
“As I’ve always said since day one when I took over, (the goal) was to try to find a team that can play consistently, every period, every game, throughout the season. And if you’re able to do that, chances are you’re going to be pretty successful.”
By and large, the Badgers have been majorly successful through that approach. They’re 20-2 this season (10-2 in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association), with their only losses both coming by 1-0 scores. Over the last four seasons, they’re 119-14-7, losing consecutive games only twice.
So the times when the Badgers aren’t playing at a consistently high level tend to stand out, especially against the better teams in college hockey.
For a team like UW, the season is a gradual incline toward the one-and-done games of March. But it’s not without obstacles like the one faced last Friday and it’s not without big-time challenges like what it faces against the Golden Gophers this weekend.
“I think it’s easy sometimes when we’re winning games and we’re on a long winning streak to just get a little complacent,” freshman left wing Britta Curl said. “And I think maybe we needed that game on Friday just to show us that if we’re not going to show up for 60 minutes then teams are going to take that away from us. I think it was good to relight that fire in us.”
Curl scored twice and added an assist in the Badgers’ 5-2 victory over the Buckeyes last Saturday, a response that pleased Johnson because of a focus on details that was lacking a night earlier.
UW players know they need more of the same against Minnesota (21-2-1, 11-2-1 WCHA), which holds first place but has played more games than the Badgers have. The outcome of the series between teams who split a pair of games at LaBahn Arena in October could go a long way toward deciding the WCHA regular-season title.
“We want these games; they want these games,” junior center and leading scorer Abby Roque said. “They want to be No. 1; we want to stay No. 1. I think these are really important, especially for league standings. These games can decide a lot of stuff down the road.”
The Badgers saw the difference last week between winning the so-called 50-50 battles — races for loose pucks and other small details where effort determines success — and falling short.
For a team that’s used to winning, losing has a way of casting a harsh light on the shortcomings. It’s not easy to keep the competitive level on high over the whole season, but teammates pushing each other is key to the effort, Roque said.
“When somebody’s struggling, that’s the time for somebody else to step up and really show that they have the momentum on their side, they’re playing really well that game,” she said. “And I think that’s where a team comes into account. If somebody’s having a bad game, you pump them up, try to get them back out there, try to get them to win the battles. And I think that’s where the consistency comes from.”