With rivals Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth out of the picture for the Frozen Four, the Wisconsin Badgers have emerged as the odds-on favorite to win a national championship. Of the four remaining teams, Cornell, Boston University, Boston College and Wisconsin, only the Badgers — national champions in 2006, 2007 and 2009 — have titles to their credit.
Leading this year’s rendition of Wisconsin are three of most dangerous scorers in college hockey, forwards Meghan Duggan, Hilary Knight, and Brianna Decker, who have combined for a staggering 238 points this season.
Having three of the nation’s top four point producers on the same team has helped Wisconsin achieve the top ranking for most of the season and sport the nation’s best record at 35-2-2 heading into this weekend’s competition at Erie, Pa.
A reunited line of Duggan, Knight, and Decker was responsible for both Badgers goals in Wisconsin’s 2-1 NCAA quarterfinal win over defending champion Minnesota-Duluth.
“Against the Bulldogs, (Duggan, Knight and Decker) took advantage of their matchup and made a play for us,” Badgers coach Mark Johnson said. “Those three together can really create scoring opportunities and give our team energy.”
It was Duggan who delivered Wisconsin to the Frozen Four, scoring the game-winning goal in the third period against UMD that punched the Badgers’ ticket. However, the goal was just the latest chapter in what has been a storybook senior year for the Danvers, Mass., native.
Prior to the 2010-2011, Duggan never managed more than 56 points in a single campaign. This season, Wisconsin’s captain is second nationally with 83 points and could overtake Mercyhurst forward Meghan Agosta for the top spot in the scoring race with four points in the Frozen Four.
However, Johnson knows Duggan’s value goes far beyond her offensive production. The Badgers’ all-time points leader with 234, is Johnson’s top defensive specialist and sports a team best +67 rating in 39 games.
“(Duggan) is probably the best two-way player in the world right now,” Johnson said. “Whether we’ve needed her to score, to setup a play or do the little things like winning a faceoff or blocking a shot on a penalty kill, she’s been consistent all season for our team.”
Duggan has stepped up her game to another level during the playoffs, leading her team with six goals in five postseason games.
“As a senior, I want to have a great end to the year,” Duggan said. “I have been doing everything I can to help the team and be the best leader I can.”
Duggan’s spectacular play this season has earned her plenty of recognition nationally. Two weeks ago, Duggan was named player of the year in the WCHA. Then last Thursday, Duggan, Agosta, and Kelli Stack of Boston College were selected as finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award as the nation’s top player.
But for Duggan, winning the Patty Kazmaier Saturday afternoon would mean little unless it went accompanied by her third national championship the day after.
“It’s an incredible honor to be put on a level with those two players with a chance to win such a prestigious award,” Duggan said. “But my main focus is on our team and preparing for the Frozen Four.”
Duggan’s fellow American Olympian, Knight, represents college hockey’s most dangerous one-on-one player. The junior forward’s production this season, a nation-leading 47 goals in 39 games, is most of any player since Harvard’s Nicole Corriero scored 59 times in 2004-2005.
“Anytime (Knight’s) on the ice, she is a threat,” Johnson said. “She’s a classic power forward and has a great knack for getting the puck in the net. There are not many kids that will go a season and have the chance to score 50 goals, so her statistics speak for themselves.”
In her most recent games, the Sun Valley, Idaho, native found another place to terrorize her opponents — setting up on the top of the umbrella in the Badgers’ first power play unit. Wisconsin’s tying goal against the Bulldogs came off of this formation.
“It’s been really nice working on the top of the umbrella with Meghan (Duggan) on one side and Stefanie (McKeough) on the other,” Knight said. “It makes for a really dynamic power play that is challenging for other teams to try to defend (against).”
At 5’4″, Brianna Decker might be the shortest and least well-known of the Badgers’ big three forwards. However, the Dousman, Wis., native packs an offensive punch equivalent to her Olympic teammates and a goal-scoring ability that rivals Knight. After fighting through injuries during her freshman season, Decker has racked up 77 points (33 goals and 44 assists) to date in 2010-2011.
“(Decker) is an up-and-coming star,” said Knight of her younger teammate. “We’re really fortunate to have her on our team.”
Signs of Decker’s breakout dates back to an amazing short-handed goal she scored against Minnesota on January 29. Skating singlehandedly on a 150-foot rush, the sophomore forward weaved through four Golden Gophers’ defenders before burying the eventual game-winning goal in a 3-1 victory that all but clinched the WCHA title.
Decker’s play found another gear during the playoffs, as the sophomore leads the Badgers with 12 points in five postseason games, but Ducker just relishes competing alongside players who create considerable matchup problems for their opponents.
“I think teams have trouble sticking with us when we are put together,” Decker said. “We usually play against an opponent’s top line, but we’re always a threat (to score because) we’re all quick and we like to move the puck.”
Wisconsin’s big three will try to drive home their school’s fourth national championship this weekend.
“I am really excited about competing in the Frozen Four,” Decker said. “But Hilary, Meghan and most of our seniors and juniors have been there before, and I think their experience will really help us this weekend and pull us through (to a title).”