Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson knew his defending national championship team meant business when his players returned from summer break in good shape.
“That tells me they didn’t spend the summer celebrating their national championship,” he said. “I don’t see any complacency because of last year. I see a group that’s competitive and working hard, and they have been rewarded by playing some very good games.”
Though it’s still very early in this long, grueling nine-month season, so far that hasn’t happened. This past weekend the Badgers extended their winning streak to 18 games, with back to back victories over Ohio State. They are 6-0-0 going into a crucial pair of games this weekend at home against Minnesota.
Because everything old is new again, Johnson said they don’t talk too much about last season, when the Badgers won their first ever NCAA national title, shutting out Minnesota 3-0 in the championship game.
“We haven’t talked much about last year … we had a great year but now it’s more difficult because everyone’s gunning for you,” Johnson said. “Everyone wants to beat the national champions.”
The team is concentrating on establishing its own identity in the fresh season. Much of that identity is going to be established by junior forward Jinelle Zaugg and senior linemate and Patty Kazmaier winner Sara Bauer, a powerful combination of forwards who know how to get the puck into the net. So far the pair has combined for 23 points. Last season they combined for 95 points.
Johnson said they will get plenty of attention from the opposition, so it will be necessary to bring along other players as scoring threats.
“The upperclassmen are committed, but they will have to set the tone for the younger players,” he said.
Bauer’s intelligence as the center iceman is one of her strengths, and she sees the entire ice well. Zaugg is tall (6’1) and strong and has a knack for putting the puck in the net. As of this week, she leads all Division I players with eight goals and 12 total points, and six of her goals have been game-winners. Bauer leads the nation in assists with eight.
The Zaugg and Bauer line has been filled out by a highly-recruited freshman, Kyla Sanders, who is from the unlikely hockey community of Parrish, Fla., but went to the North American Hockey Academy in Vermont where she was offensive player of the year (34 goals, 32 assists) her senior year. So far, the linemates have complimented each others’ skills, and Sanders has two goals, including the winning tally against Ohio State Saturday.
“We’re real excited about her future. She does a lot of things real well,” Johnson said, emphasizing that Sanders is a fast skater with good hands.
Johnson said he has enough attackers for three lines. Through the season, he hopes to develop a fourth so that when games are 7 p.m. one day and 2 p.m. the next, he has enough fresh players. Another top young forward is sophomore Erika Lawler, who was recently named to the U.S. Women’s Select Team along with Zaugg. The pair will compete in the Four Nations Cup in Kitchener, Ontario Nov. 7-11, and Johnson will coach the squad.
Wisconsin’s defense should be strong again this season, as all the critical players from last year are back, as well as two experienced goaltenders in Christine Dufour and Jessie Vetter. Strong defense has always been the Badgers’ trademark. The team hardly missed a beat there last season, only surrendering more than three goals in the season opener, despite losing two Olympian defensemen in Carla MacLeod and Molly Engstrom.
“We should be comfortable as long as they don’t try to do too much. If all of a sudden they’re doing things they shouldn’t it can cause trouble,” Johnson said.
Johnson is cautious but optimistic about repeating.
“We lost five seniors off of the championship team, but this year we have good pieces. It will take a while for younger kids to move into their roles,” he said.
In his mind, the biggest loss was Nicki Burishi. She didn’t light up the stat board but she did so many little things in a game that made the difference, such as winning faceoffs and killing penalties. She was USCHO’s Unsung Hero Award winner for 2006.
“If I could have one player come back from last season, it would be her,” he said.
In place of graduating senior Sharon Cole, the team has named senior Bobbi-Jo Slusar as captain. Slusar was one of the best defenders in the country and a member of the U-22 Canadian National Team. She had an assist in the 2006 national championship victory and led the nation in scoring among defenders with 40 points. So far this season, she has two goals, including the tying score (off of a rebound) against Ohio State Saturday, which the Badgers won on Sanders’ score.
Cole did a great job of dealing with adversity, Johnson said, and he expects the same of Slusar.
“She’s comfortable about talking about things, is likeable and has a lot of energy,” he said. “People gravitate to her and that’s what you want in a captain.”
But you never know. “As a coach you have to hope by putting a “C” on that jersey, they don’t act differently. So far, she’s been fine,” Johnson said.
Her team has been fine as well. Although some games have been very close, they’re still undefeated heading into this weekend. Scoring has been balanced, and the defense has held opponents to an average of 1.33 goals a game. But this is a long season, and Johnson is cautious.
“A lot can happen between now and then,” he said. “We have to stay consistent, and we have to stay away from injuries so that by the time we get to January and February, we’re a pretty good hockey team.”
Even last season had its ebbs and flows. The Badgers suffered their worst loss to open the campaign, a 5-2 thumping from Minnesota-Duluth, before opening up a 24-1-1 tear. They lost back-to-back games to St. Cloud and Minnesota in early February before embarking on the winning streak that continues to this day.
“In 05-06 we were able to do it even with injuries because people were stepping in and everyone accepted their roles,” Johnson said. “We became a team because people put their own egos aside. They made sacrifices.”
But that was then. This season, Johnson has the team on a fresh page.
“As great as we were last year, it’s a memory now,” he said. “The goal of winning a national championship is the same but the way to get there is different because we have difference players. It takes time to learn to work together. They have to be challenged, they have to have adversity and they have to figure out how to meet these challenges on their own,” he said.