In the first two weeks back from a monthlong break, the University of Wisconsin women’s hockey team can take major steps toward an unprecedented accomplishment.
Its players, however, say they aren’t much interested in looking around that particular corner.
Top-ranked UW plays at No. 7 Ohio State today and Saturday, then faces a two-game series at No. 2 Minnesota next weekend. The Badgers, Buckeyes and Golden Gophers are the only teams with winning records in Western Collegiate Hockey Association play, so the title chase will take shape over the next nine days.
“Depending on what happens this weekend and next weekend, if you’re successful it puts you in a real good position,” Badgers coach Mark Johnson said. “If you’re not, then you might be climbing the ladder a little bit.
“I think in the back of the players’ minds, they understand the magnitude. But more importantly is the cliche of one at a time, and that’s what you’ve got to do.”
Given recent and long-term history, it’s a tall order for UW to emerge unscathed through the next two weeks. But if it does, it will have cleared the major hurdles in the way of a fourth straight WCHA regular-season title.
No team has ever won more than three in a row. With seven weeks to play, the Badgers are in second place, one point behind Minnesota, but have two games in hand and own the league’s best winning percentage.
Being in the driver’s seat doesn’t seem to matter to the players yet.
“We’ve learned in the past that if we get too focused on titles or labels or the future that’s not this weekend, we get wrapped up in the wrong things and focused on the wrong things,” senior defenseman Mikaela Gardner said.
This weekend’s series at Ohio State is easier to focus on because of what happened there last February. The Badgers were 26-1-1 and on an 11-game unbeaten streak before they scored only one goal over two losses to the Buckeyes.
Both teams ended up making the Frozen Four a little more than a month later before losing in overtime in the semifinals.
How fresh is the memory of the only time that Ohio State has swept the Badgers in Columbus?
“Coach definitely brought that up,” senior co-captain Sophia Shaver said. “And he said now’s our time to get revenge, basically, in that sense.”
The Badgers are 19-1 entering this series against the Buckeyes, with a nine-game winning streak since an Oct. 27 home loss to Minnesota.
But with four weekends off since their last game Dec. 8 at St. Cloud State, the Badgers have to build back up to where they left off.
“That momentum that you had, especially in our last couple of weekends, is forgotten about,” Johnson said. “So now you have to start anew.”
UW has had some long practices centered around battles during the break to try to keep players in a game mentality, Shaver said.
The Badgers don’t have much time for ramping back up with a top-10 opponent on the road in their first game back.
“It’s like the first game of the season,” Shaver said. “You get those jitters out in the first couple shifts.”
Then they go to Minnesota, where they have avoided a loss in only five of 19 regular-season series.
Maybe Badgers players had the challenges ahead on their minds through the break, because Gardner said they haven’t had to spend extra time on conditioning work after returning to Madison.
“That just shows the accountability of our team, that we do the work when the coaches aren’t watching,” Gardner said.