Wisconsin senior forward Hilary Knight is used to being the center of attention in the women’s hockey world.
In her three prior years with the Badgers, all the Sun Valley, Idaho, native has managed to do is contribute a staggering 112 goals and 202 points, win two national championships, capture a national scoring title (45 goals and 83 points in 2008-2009) and earn two nominations for the Patty Kazmaier Award as the nation’s top player.
During her one-year break from Wisconsin in 2009-2010, Knight starred for U.S. Olympic Team as its youngest member, scoring eight points at the Vancouver Winter Olympics while helping her team claim a silver medal.
This season however, a more well-rounded Knight has slipped out of the spotlight as others, notably Badgers junior forward Brianna Decker and the North Dakota wonder twins, juniors Jocelyne Lamoureux and Monique Lamoureux-Kolls, garner headlines.
“I am trying to do a lot of little things better this season,” Knight said. “Those are things that do not necessarily (lead) to being interviewed after games.”
Heading into this weekend’s WCHA playoffs, Knight’s 28 goals and 26 assists rank her as the nation’s 10th leading scorer, the lowest position she’s held since her freshman year. Even more surprising is her spot on her own league’s scoring chart, where Knight looks up at seven other conference rivals.
“I’ve been relied on to score for the past three years, so (being off that pace) has been frustrating,” Knight said. “But I am confident with how everyone else on our team is producing.”
Part of reason why Knight’s seen a statistical drop (she ranks just 15th nationally in points-per-game at 1.59) has to do with the evolution of her overall game. In past years, the gifted goal scorer dominated play off the wing, especially when she was paired alongside playmaking talents like Meghan Duggan and Erika Lawler.
This season, Knight moved into a less natural center position, taking on more responsibilities as a two-way forward.
“(What I’ve tried to improve on) is blocking shots, chipping the puck out of the zone and making goal-saving plays at my own end,” Knight said. “I am trying to be more of a dynamic player that isn’t just one-minded.”
Her coach, fellow American Olympian Mark Johnson, sees plenty of improvement in all aspects of Knight’s game.
“We’ve been asking her to play a position in center ice when maybe she’s more comfortable on the wing,” Johnson said. “But I don’t have any problems with the way she’s been playing because she always works hard and does a lot of things in other areas that go unnoticed.”
Knight’s scoring slump reached its peak during January, when the sniper went goal-less in seven games. However, the 22-year-old broke out in spectacular fashion by scoring the game-winner in a 1-0 victory over Bemidji State on January 28 in front of an NCAA record 12,402 fans.
“I don’t get frustrated when I get a lot of opportunities, and (this season) I’ve been getting a lot of opportunities,” Knight said. “I knew one of them was going to go in eventually.”
After the series with the Beavers, Knight went on a tear, scoring in five straight games. She then busted out of the doldrums in a big way with a six-point night at St. Cloud State on February 11, earning WCHA Offensive Player of the Week honors for her efforts.
“Goal scorers like to score, and if they go multiple games without scoring, generally they’re not happy,” Johnson said. “But if you look at scoring opportunities and quality opportunities, she’s certainly getting a bunch of them right now, and hopefully that will continue in the future.”
Knight’s year-long contributions (she captained Wisconsin to another WCHA regular season title) were enough to make the initial Patty Kazmaier Award list released Monday afternoon. Two teammates, sophomore goaltender Alex Rigsby and Decker, were also nominated.
Decker in particular has enjoyed a sensational 2011-2012 campaign, jumping to the top of her team’s scoring chart with a 32-goal, 72-point season. With Knight and Decker generally occupying different lines, the Badgers’ opponents have a tough time keeping Wisconsin’s top two offensive threats in check.
Knight credits Decker’s rise to another factor.
“I think it helped a lot for (Brianna) to play for the (U.S.) national team over the past year,” Knight said. “She’s applied what she learned there to hockey at the collegiate level and that’s really helped her build confidence (in her game).”
Unlike Decker, Knight will not be a Patty Kazmaier favorite as she expected to be before the season. However, Knight cares little about how that award shakes down. All the senior wants to do in her final collegiate playoff run is to lead top-ranked Wisconsin to another national championship.
“I do not want to lose my last game (because) I did that at the Olympics and it did not feel great,” Knight said. “(But) if we can continue to progress and play with the realization that everyone is trying to knock us off, hopefully we will find ourselves in another national final.”