MADISON, Wis. — Six months ago, the Wisconsin women’s team opened LaBahn Arena in somewhat auspicious fashion, failing to score in a heartbreaking 1-0 decision to Bemidji State.
Friday night, the Badgers made amends in front 1,189 red-clad fans, claiming the first-ever playoff game at the new rink with a 5-0 victory over St. Cloud State.
Senior forward Brianna Decker stole the show, picking up points on the first three Badger goals, while linemate Madison Packer chipped in four assists.
“We’ve been looked to put the puck in the net all season,” Packer said. “It’s kind of our job and our role, so we were prepared for that and really stepped up.”
Riding a season long six-game winning streak heading into the contest, sixth-ranked Wisconsin (22-9-2, 17-9-2-2 WCHA) went to work early with numerous chances in the opening few minutes. However, it would take nearly the entire first frame to get on the scoreboard as sophomore forward Karley Sylvester earned her place in the history books as the first-ever playoff scorer in LaBahn Arena history.
Decker, the 2012 Patty Kazmaier Award winner, started the play, cutting out to net from the right corner. Huskies’ sophomore goaltender Julie Friend stopped the initial backhand shot and Packer’s rebound, but could only watch as Sylvester’s blast flew by.
“Assists are just half the play,” Packer said. “I think my teammates saw the ice well tonight and did a good job of putting the pucks away.”
After killing the first penalty of the game in the second period, St. Cloud offered up some quality scoring chances against Badgers’ junior goaltender Alex Rigsby, but it was Wisconsin that netted the next goal on a vintage Decker play eight minutes into the second period.
The speedster cruised down the right boards from the blueline, cut to the middle around St. Cloud State forward Haylea Schmid and split the Huskies’ defense before ripping a shot over Friend’s glove hand.
“Not many people are going to score that goal,” Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson said. “She’s a special player and she’s been a special player for four years now and hopefully, she’s got a few more great games in her.”
Decker and the Badgers got the power play right on their second opportunity, taking a 3-0 lead with just over five minutes left in the middle stanza. The Dousman, Wis., native got the puck to Packer, who made a perfect pass through traffic to Sylvester. The sophomore forward fought through her check to redirect the puck past Friend.
“We can’t just let [Decker] dance around there like that,” St. Cloud State coach Jeff Geisen said. “She’s going to get that goal and make plays like that every time.”
Wisconsin capped the scoring with two goals both off of point shots in the final period.
Freshman forward Erika Sowchuk made it 4-0 on a screened deflection of forward Kim Drake’s shot and then senior defenseman Jordan Brickner closed out the scoring with a long shot set up by Packer.
Rigsby backstopped the Wisconsin win with a vintage effort of her own, picking up the 23rd shutout of her career with a 17-save effort. Friend took the loss for St. Cloud State (9-23-3, 5-22-2-1) despite 27 stops.
Wisconsin can close out the series with a win Saturday in game two of the WCHA opening-round series.
“The atmosphere was great, there was a lot of energy and it made for a fun night,” Johnson said. “We’ll enjoy it for now, but we’ll make sure we stay focused because tomorrow will probably be toughest game of the year.”
Meanwhile, the Huskies will try to keep their season alive and force a deciding game on Sunday.
“We’ve got to play a better game tomorrow,” Giesen said. “I don’t know if we got caught up in the atmosphere, but we’re capable of playing better than that and much better defensively.”