The calendar reads November. The matchup has the feel of March. Out west, Wisconsin has ripped off 11 consecutive wins since a season-opening loss to regain the No. 1 ranking in the latest USCHO.com poll. Back east, No. 4 New Hampshire has posted eight dominating victories in 10 outings and seeks a trophy nonconference win as the next step in achieving the program’s first national tournament berth since 1999. Both teams have depth, both have received contributions from rookies and veterans like, and the first meeting between the Badgers and Wildcats since 2001-02 should offer an explosive finale to the Game of the Week’s Thanksgiving trifecta.
Game Time: Sun. 1 p.m. ET (Broadcast Links)
No. 4 New Hampshire (8-2-0, 3-1-0 Hockey East)
Top Scorers: Nicole Hekle, Jr., F (5-10-15), Leah Craig, So., F (10-1-11), Sadie Wright-Ward, So., F (7-4-11)
Top Goaltender: Melissa Bourdon, Jr. (7-2-0, 1.55, .894)
Scoring Offense: 4.60 (1st)
Scoring Defense: 1.40 (2nd)
Penalty Minutes: 12.5 (21st)
Power Play: 19 of 61, 33.9% (1st)
Penalty Kill: 47 of 54, 87.0% (13th)
What sophomore jinx? Leah Craig, Sadie Wright-Ward (2003-04), Jennifer Hitchcock, and Taylor Palazeti combined for 51 goals as freshmen in 35 games. So far in 2005-06, the second-year quartet has produced 24 goals in just 10 games. Their improvement has helped fill the void left by sniper Stephanie Jones, taken pressure off of Lindsay Hansen and Nicole Hekle, and their 10 power-play goals have helped sparked a dramatic surge in power-play efficiency to a nation-leading 31%.
However, questions remain regarding UNH’s recent performance in close games away from the spacious sheet of the Whittemore Center. The Wildcats are just 1-5 in their last six one-goal decisions on NHL-sized ice, their only setbacks this season were both of that variety, and came at the hands of two teams (Brown, Boston College) that New Hampshire handled comfortably at home. Sunday’s matchup places UNH on slightly larger-than-standard ice (Thompson Arena goes 200×90) against another team used to Olympic dimensions, but top-ranked Wisconsin also offers a significant step up in opposition. None of the Wildcats’ first 10 games have come against ranked teams, compared to the Badgers’ 5-1 mark against the USCHO top 10.
No. 1 Wisconsin (11-1-0, 9-1-0 WCHA)
Top Scorers: Sara Bauer, Jr., F (9-15-24), Bobbi-Jo Slusar, Jr., D (4-16-20), Jinelle Zaugg, So., F (10-6-16)
Top Goaltenders: Meghan Horras, Sr. (6-0-0, 1.33, .934), Christine Dufour, Jr. (5-1-0, 1.34, .934)
Scoring Offense: 4.50 (2nd)
Scoring Defense: 1.42 (T-2nd)
Penalty Minutes: 10.8 (31st)
Power Play: 16 of 75, 21.3% (7th)
Penalty Kill: 47 of 55, 85.5% (15th)
Pop quiz: Who is the nation’s top-scoring defenseman? The pacesetter is Wisconsin’s Bobbi-Jo Slusar. The 5’4 Saskatchewan native came into the season with the formidable task of taking the lead role in replacing Molly Engstrom, Carla MacLeod, and Nicole Uliasz. However, the junior has not only helped Wisconsin’s new-look defense settle into familiar territory (just 9 goals allowed in the last 10 games), but has also racked up 20 points in 12 games (1.67 PPG) after putting up a grand total of 19 her first two seasons in Madison.
The other positive sign for Coach Mark Johnson has been his team’s ability to produce wins against the kind of opposition that figures to block the Badgers’ path to their first-ever Frozen Four. Last season, Wisconsin was just 3-8-1 against Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth, Harvard, and Dartmouth. This season, the Badgers have already matched that win total with a split against the Bulldogs and a convincing road sweep of the Gophers last weekend. Indeed the formula for handling the defending NCAA champions last weekend read like a checklist of fixing things that hurt Wisconsin in big-game losses a year ago: 1) significant production from the top line (5-4-9 for Sharon Cole, Sara Bauer, and Jinelle Zaugg); 2) limited trips to the penalty box (just eight, even with the Gophers); and 3) a +3 margin on special teams.