Do you like to have access to a forecast far in advance of an actual event? I’m not talking about seven-day forecasts, but more like “The Farmer’s Almanac,” where you can read how much snow you’ll be shoveling while still basking in summer sunshine.
If so, the place to be this past weekend was AMSOIL Arena in Duluth, Minn. Admittedly, most teams weren’t represented, including about a dozen capable of hoisting the ultimate hardware in the same venue come March.
Nonetheless, the two teams that were competing, Minnesota-Duluth and Wisconsin, have owned the last six NCAA titles, and nine of the 11 awarded to date. Most people would concede that the current era could be classified as the Wisconsin Dynasty; the Badgers have appeared in five of the last six NCAA title games, taking four. The Bulldogs have been almost as dominant; for the last five NCAA tournaments, UMD has either won the championship or been eliminated by a Wisconsin team that did. So the season’s first series between these two hockey superpowers served as an early indicator of what one might expect come tournament time.
Both Wisconsin and UMD are in the midst of a stretch where they face the teams projected to join them in the upper half of the WCHA in three consecutive series. The Badgers completed those half-dozen games on Saturday, posting an impressive 5-1 record, punctuated by the road sweep in Duluth. They hadn’t accomplished that since January of 2002, the season before Mark Johnson became their coach.
Minnesota-Duluth is just embarking on its gauntlet and got off to rocky start. Based on the 60 minutes of hockey I witnessed from UMD, I feel confident making one prediction. The Bulldogs won’t win the WCHA regular-season title; they are too inexperienced on defense, and the league is too competitive.
“We do have seven freshmen,” UMD coach Shannon Miller said. “It’s going to be a long season.”
The long season can be a positive as well, because it offers more time to improve.
“Because I’m a teacher and I really teach every day in practice, I love more time with my team before we play the top teams in the country,” Miller said. “When you’ve got freshmen that are on the first line, and on the power play, and on PK, and on the blue line, it just takes time.”
The Bulldogs rookies possess considerable talent, particularly Jenna McParland, a 5 foot 9 inch wing from Schreiber, Ont., and 5 foot 6 inch defenseman Brigette Lacquette out of Mallard, Man. McParland, skating on the first line with a pair of Olympic medalists in senior Haley Irwin and junior Pernilla Winberg, looks likely to rack up a boatload of points once she adjusts to the college game. The problem for the UMD blue line is that Lacquette is one of four freshmen in the rotation. At times, their inexperience was displayed on the ice and reflected on the scoreboard.
“New players come in and we’re all making adjustments and trying to give those kids quality ice time,” Johnson said. “Certainly Shannon and her group, as the season wears on, are going to continue to get stronger, as those young players gain more experience, as they start to make some road trips and start playing in other buildings. Playing more college games, they’re going to get better.”
UMD is no stranger to being on the wrong end of a sweep on the way to a national title. Only the 2002-2003 edition of Bulldogs avoided being swept before ultimately being crowned champions.
After the most recent pair of losses, Miller plans to tell her team, “Hey, here’s the best team in the country. They do have more talent than us, they do have more depth than us, but we can beat them, and we’ve got until March to figure it out.”
Johnson and the Badgers, despite their fast start and top ranking, have figuring of their own to do.
“We’ve got a long way to go, and we’ve got some work to do ahead of us,” he said.
One advantage Wisconsin has is a number of proven performers that can be relied on to produce while the team is still taking shape. They have a forward in senior Hilary Knight that entered the season with over 200 career points, senior Brooke Ammerman and junior Brianna Decker have reached the 100-point plateau, and senior Carolyne Prévost is just three points shy of doing so.
“Obviously, the deeper you are, the better suited you are to win hockey games,” Johnson said. “If you have a couple kids that can step up in different areas on different nights, it’s going to make you tougher to play against.”
Wisconsin has an early edge in net as well. The Bulldogs’ Jennifer Harss is adjusting to playing every game after splitting time with Kim Martin last season, while Alex Rigsby has carried forward the momentum of the run to the NCAA title for the Badgers.
“Obviously what she went through last year at the beginning of the year with her injury — getting healthy and playing well and being successful, helped her prepare for this season,” Johnson said. “When you come in your sophomore year, that experience that you gained over your freshmen year is going to help you. So she’s worked hard and she’s put together back-to-back-to-back weekends where she’s given us a chance to win every night.”
The early indicators are hinting at another Wisconsin title. However, patterns forming on the Bulldogs’ bench suggest that they could unleash a storm on AMSOIL Arena come March, and force other teams to postpone their planned celebrations.