Wisconsin Women's Hockey Roller Coaster Season

  • Post Author
    by Sports director
  • Post Date
    Fri Mar 04 2022

Author: Anthony Winker

Fairly or unfairly, the Wisconsin Badgers women's hockey team is held to an extremely high standard. After all, they are the two-time defending national champions. They boast three players in the top-10 this season in scoring in stellar top-line Daryl Watts, Casey O'Brien and Makenna Webster. In fact, Watts, who has a Patty Kazmaier award to her name from her incredible freshman season at Boston College, is second on the NCAA all-time scoring list. Watts and O'Brien are each finalists for this season's Patty Kazmaier award. On the blueline, they returned a First Team All-American from last season in Grace Bowlby.

On paper, this team is every bit as good as last year and should be heralded as a national championship contender. So why is there so much concern amongst fans and journalists alike?

A Rough Finish

In 2022, UW was 6-5-2 before their opening-round series victory against the Bemidji State Beavers. They were 18-1-2 before that and were skating like the top team in the nation. That team seems like a far cry to the team that went out with a whimper in a regular season-ending sweep in Columbus at the hands of No. 2 Ohio State. There was plenty on the line for UW: second place in the WCHA with a chance to jump into the top spot should Minnesota falter. Additionally, there is the prospect of hosting a quarterfinal game in the NCAA tournament. One for sure slipped through their fingers.

With the 5-2 loss in game one against the Buckeyes, any hope Wisconsin had of winning the regular-season WCHA crown was extinguished. The other is still to be determined. Following the 2-1 loss in game two, both Northeastern and Yale jumped over the Badgers in the PairWise rankings, the main criteria for seeding in the NCAA tournament. UW needs to finish in the top four in order to secure a home game in the NCAA tournament. Following this past weekend, they are fourth again, but they'll likely need at least one win this weekend in order to consolidate that.

The season seems to be unraveling a bit for the Badgers, but the truth is we probably should have seen this coming. The deck has been stacked against the Badgers from the start. 

The Lead Up

The Badgers started this season with only 21 players and teams are allowed to dress 22 for each game. Defenseman Natalie Buchbinder, and forwards Britta Curl and Lacey Eden, all key contributors on last season's championship team, were all in the Team USA Olympic residency program, none of whom ended up making the final squad.

Curl was tabbed to be the replacement when UW alum Breanna Decker went down with a gruesome injury in Team USA's first game, but a positive COVID test prevented her from going. Incoming recruit Caroline Harvey was also supposed to be on the team this season, but she ended up making the Olympic team instead as the seventh defenseman. On top of that, forward and preseason Co-Freshman of the Year forward Marianne Picard and Cornell grad transfer Kendra Nealy each suffered season-ending injuries early on.

With the Olympians, the full strength roster size would be 25, but none of them decided to use up a year of eligibility this season to return. So, even when UW was skating like the number one team in the nation as they did for most of 2021, they were still shorthanded. As a result, the two injuries to Picard and Nealy were significant. So significant in fact, that UW head coach Mark Johnson had to call Delaney Drake to see if she was willing to come back and play.

With three active goalies, that left the Badgers with just seventeen skaters, and this is the lineup they've used for most of the season: 

Daryl Watts, Casey O'Brien, Makenna Webster, Maddi Wheeler, Brette Petet, Sophie Shirley, Caitlin Schneider, Grace Shirley, Sarah Wozniewicz and Delaney Drake.

Grace Bowlby, Katie Kotlowski, Nicole LaMantia, Chayla Edwards, Mayson Toft, Sophie Helgeson and Maddie Posick. 

Kennedy Blair, Cami Kronish and Jane Gervais.

To make matters worse, last weekend against Ohio State, the Badgers were without second-line left winger Maddi Wheeler, who injured her left leg and was in a walking boot during the week leading up to the game. Sarah Wozniewicz went out of game two early after taking a check from Ohio State's Kenzie Hauswirth that resulted in a penalty. That injury caused Maddie Posick, who was converted from forward to defense at the start of the season, to go back to forward so that UW could run three full forward lines. Finally, Kennedy Blair, who has started in all but one game so far for UW, did not start in game two with an apparent upper-body injury. That left the Badgers with just fifteen skaters and two goalies by series end. 

Looking Ahead

Therein lies the main reason for concern for the Badgers: simple manpower. At its healthiest, UW will only be able to dress seventeen skaters and three goalies. Most teams are four forward lines deep and have some scratches, but UW is essentially running three. It goes without saying that they can't really afford to have anyone miss time. Thankfully for Wisconsin, both Blair and Wheeler did return to the lineup in the playoff series. Wheeler, listed as the extra forward on the depth chart for both games, was effective in her return to the lineup, posting a goal and an assist over the weekend, both in game one.

Wozniewicz, who is a member of this season's WCHA All-Freshman Team, did not, but should be good to go for Saturday's game against Ohio State. In her return, Blair was ok, giving up just one goal all weekend but she was not really tested at all. Although she's an HCA National Goaltender of the Year semifinalist, she has not been sharp lately, letting in some soft goals here and there. Wisconsin will need her to return to form fast, starting this weekend against the Buckeyes.

The bottom line is the season is a grind. It would make sense to attribute some of these late-season struggles to simple fatigue. Take the top line for instance. At one point in December, O'Brien, Webster and Watts were 1-2-3 respectively in the NCAA in scoring. As the calendar turned though, they faded and now Watts sits in 6th, O'Brien is tied for 7th and Webster is tied for 11th.

Standing at a mere 5'2, Webster has been taking punishment out in front of opposing goaltenders all season long as that seems to be her spot on UW's top power-play unit. O'Brien is just 5'3, and collectively, her and Webster's speedy style is representative of the way these Badgers are constructed. They're susceptible to being shut down by bigger and more physical teams and those styles of opponents are degrading for a team with such little depth. Exhibit A is the season series against the Gophers. That whole line combined for just six points across all four games (4-2) as the Badgers went winless versus their rivals to the west for the first time in seven years.

The competition is starting to heat up and UW will only face more teams like the Gophers from here on as the rest of the herd is thinned out. Will UW's lack of depth hurt them when it matters most? It's made for a tumultuous 2022, but let's hope the weary twenty Badgers who are left can stay healthy and muster up enough energy to carry UW to the three-peat. If they can't, it would be disappointing, but not be so surprising at all.