What’s different about playing center, Annie Pankowski?
The laugh that came out of the University of Wisconsin women’s hockey senior’s mouth in response was the kind that suggests that the question didn’t adequately anticipate the potential depth of the answer.
OK, so how long is the list of things that are different about playing center for Pankowski, a right wing who shifted positions in the last two weeks?
“It’s long,” she said. “It’s definitely not a natural position for me.”
Pankowski moved over to center when the Badgers lost Emily Clark to a left ankle injury in the opening 90 seconds of the Oct. 13 game against Minnesota Duluth. And UW has kept Pankowski there for the three games since, asking her to quickly expand her knowledge of the different responsibilities that a center has all over the ice.
With Clark on crutches this week, the center spot appears to still be Pankowski’s as the top-ranked Badgers face their biggest test so far this season. No. 3 Minnesota comes to LaBahn Arena for a series between Western Collegiate Hockey Association powers Saturday and Sunday.
Pankowski said she’s just “holding down the fort” until Clark can return, although there’s no official word on when that will be.
So Pankowski has taken the situation as an opportunity for growth, working with assistant coach Jackie Crum to analyze video and get feedback.
“There’s a lot of defensive stuff that goes into it,” Pankowski said. “And I think right now I’m working out the fine details of, do I always have to be the first one back in the zone? Do I always have to do this one thing or this other thing? Faceoffs are different, hard. You have to make sure everyone’s on the same page, and that’s usually not something I’m accustomed to.”
She’s also not used to getting the puck below the faceoff circles in the defensive zone and looking up for an open wing to receive a pass. Her hockey career has been on the other side of that, taking a pass from deep in the zone and starting a rush.
A center generally is the first forward into the defensive zone, playing nearer to the net than the wings. She also gets into the offensive zone last in normal circumstances.
All of that is new to Pankowski, who ranks in the top 10 on the Badgers’ all-time lists for career points, goals, assists and plus/minus rating.
But one of the benefits about being a center is that the puck is on your stick more often. For someone who can handle it well like Pankowski, that’s a bonus.
“That’s something that just comes along with being a center,” said sophomore Brette Pettet, who stepped into Pankowski’s former role as the right wing on the line. “You’ve got to support everyone. I think she’s adapted really well and done a great job.”
Pankowski, Pettet and left wing Alexis Mauermann got together after last Friday’s 4-3 victory over Princeton to dissect their performance in a game where the Badgers had trouble in the neutral zone.
Pankowski has had some pointers for Pettet, and the wingers had suggestions for their new center.
“Working through that kind of X’s and O’s together was awesome,” Pankowski said. “And it’s really nice when you have linemates who are really receptive to that because sometimes it can be taken as I’m telling them what to do. But a lot of the times it’s like, ‘Well, do you like it better this way or that way?’ That helps me, too.”
UW (8-0, 2-0 WCHA) has lost just once in its previous nine games against the Golden Gophers (6-1-1, 4-1-1-0), the best stretch against its archrivals since a stretch from February 2008 to February 2010.
The Badgers won all four regular-season meetings for the first time last season before the teams split postseason games. Minnesota made it to the NCAA tournament by beating UW in the WCHA Final Faceoff championship game, but the Badgers ended the Gophers’ season in the NCAA quarterfinals.
Pankowski didn’t play in those games last season during an Olympic redshirt season. But she was back with the team for the second semester after being cut from the U.S. roster.
“I know how great it is to come out on top on a Border Battle and how terrible it feels Monday when you lose both games,” she said. “It certainly doesn’t need any extra energy.”