ST. CLOUD, Minn. — In a battle of two top teams playing without key components because of national team commitments, the Wisconsin Badgers did a slightly better job of compensating for the absences in a 7-4 win over the Mercyhurst Lakers in the Easton Holiday Showcase.
One plus that the Badgers (18-2-0, 12-2-0 WCHA) enjoyed was having their top line of Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker, and Meghan Duggan intact. The trio combined for four goals, led by Knight’s two goals and two assists.
“They’re very good, and all the credit goes to all three of them,” Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson said. “Certainly I’ve had Meghan and Hillary longer than I’ve had Brianna, but each one of them at some point in their careers made that commitment that they wanted to go to the next level. They’re a lot of fun to have on our team and certainly a lot of fun for people to watch.”
Those associated with Mercyhurst (14-4-0, 5-0-0 CHA) may not have enjoyed the view quite as much.
In a game with eleven goals, the two scored by Knight were arguably the two biggest. When the Lakers looked poised to carry a 1-0 lead into the first intermission, Knight fired a routine looking shot from the slot that goalie Hillary Pattenden slowed, but the puck slid through her and trickled over the line to tie the score at 19:29. It would prove to be the only Mercyhurst lead of the day.
Later, when the third period was half gone and the teams were knotted at 3-3, the Badgers took advantage of a quick-developing three-on-one. Duggan held the puck as Decker broke to the net, and then she slid it over to Knight, who buried her shot for a lasting 4-3 lead.
“Playing with Meghan and Brianna, it’s kind of like a no-look game,” Knight said. “You already know where they’re going to be, and they are great players. It’s awesome to feed off of their energy.”
When it wasn’t the Badger first line doing damage, it was Brooke Ammerman. She had two goals and an assist in the contest, including one just 32 seconds after Knight had put the Badgers on top. Though that would prove to be the game-winning goal, her unassisted tally early in the second period was more worthy of a highlight reel.
“The defenseman fed the puck behind the net, and I was just there,” Ammerman said. “I walked out looking for a pass to my sister and Geena Prough cutting to the net, and the goalie just dropped, I didn’t even fake a shot. So I just held it, I knew I had time, and just slid it in when I knew I could get it into a wide-open net.”
Duggan followed with a bad-angle snipe over Pattenden’s shoulder, Wisconsin had a 3-1 lead and looked to be in charge. But the Lakers responded with goals by Meghan Corbett and Christie Cicero two minutes apart, leading to a rare stretch of over 22 minutes without a goal in the slugfest before Wisconsin pulled away.
“We lost Jess Jones, who is a big part of our team and special teams midway through the game, and that hurt us a bit,” Mercyhurst coach Mike Sisti said.
Jones scored the game’s first goal, taking a pass from Meghan Agosta to send her in alone and snapping a shot by Alex Rigsby’s blocker. Jones was assisted from the ice favoring her leg, and the Lakers were forced to shuffle their top line.
The teams were already missing players due to the MLP Cup — forwards Bailey Bram and Vicki Bendus for Mercyhurst, and Badger forwards Mallory Deluce and Carolyne Prévost, plus defensemen Brittany Haverstock and Stefanie McKeough.
“Until both sides of the border change some of the events they do, we’re going to still live in that world,” Johnson said. “The hard part is that teams don’t have their best players, or some of their best players at given times, and it effects people nationally. We didn’t have a practice for three weeks. I pick my players up on Friday, and here we come.”
It was left to those players still available on each roster to decide a game that could have implications on seedings at NCAA tournament selection time.
“The team fought hard,” Sisti said. “We made some mistakes and paid for them, which you often do against good teams.”
“I think it’s just a good measuring stick; it threw a lot of things at both teams. Both teams got to see some strengths and weaknesses. You use the games to get you better.”
The Lakers hope they improve enough to make it to their third straight Frozen Four, this year taking place in Erie, Pa.
“The city and the organizers are doing a fabulous job,” Sisti said. “The people at Mercyhurst and the area are really proud to host that. It’s going to be a great event.”
For both teams, there’s a lot of hockey between now and the postseason in March. The Lakers host Syracuse next weekend, while the Badgers head to Columbus to take on the Buckeyes.
“It’s easy this week because we don’t have any school,” Knight said. “We can go out there and play hockey. Keep on going, keep on grinding, because this is the thick of the season right here. So stay healthy, and have fun.”