WCHA season preview: Wisconsin looks to fight off Minnesota in the WCHA

Wisconsin Badgers Annie Pankowski (19) handles the puck during an NCAA WCHA Conference women's hockey game against the North Dakota Fighting Hawks Sunday, January 22, 2017, in Madison, Wis. The Badgers won 3-2. (Photo by David Stluka) (David Stluka/David Stluka David Stluka)
Annie Pankowski’s return should boost Wisconsin’s scoring. (Photo by David Stluka) (David Stluka/David Stluka David Stluka)

The WCHA has four teams in the USCHO preseason poll. Wisconsin and Minnesota are ranked second and third, while Ohio State comes in at the seventh spot and Minnesota-Duluth earns the ninth slot. The Gophers, Bulldogs, and Badgers all return players from the Olympics and centralization. Last season was the first in the history of NCAA women’s hockey that a WCHA team did not play in the national championship game. Wisconsin and Minnesota tied for first in the preseason conference coaches’ poll. The Badgers lost to Colgate in overtime in the national semifinal after making their fifth straight Frozen Four appearance. Ohio State made their first-ever Frozen Four appearance and lost to Clarkson in overtime in the other national semifinal. Wisconsin won the conference regular season title, while Minnesota took the Frozen Faceoff crown.

Bemidji State

Last season: 16-19-3, 9-13-2, (fifth). Lost to Wisconsin in the WCHA semifinals.

“We’re excited to get going. We have eight of our top 10 scorers returning,” said coach Jim Scanlan. “This year is a really different in terms of what we have coming back. The core of our team is made up of our sophomore and junior classes.”

Names to know
Sophomore Clair DeGeorge was third on the team in scoring and named the WCHA All-Rookie team. Lauren Bench split time in net with the now-graduated Erin Deters. Kerigan Dowhy started just eight games, but her goals-against was near a full goal less than Bench’s. Sophomore Mak Langei was also named to the WCHA All-Rookie team and was second among rookie defenders in the league with 18 points.

Three questions
1. Can they pick up the defense? Last year, the story was Bemidji was a young team. Now they’ve got experience and need to figure things out in net and on the blue line. They allowed 2.53 goals per game, and they have to do better if they’re going to move up in the potent WCHA.
2. How do they handle the opening weeks? I asked this question last season, and the schedule’s actually worse this year. In their first 14 games the Beavers will play a pair against Clarkson, Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ohio State — all nationally ranked teams. That’s definitely going to be trial by fire for this squad.
3. Can they find a consistent starter in net? Having the stability of a solid goaltender would go a long way toward the Beavers improving. They were able to be more offensive minded in the past when Britni Mowat was back there giving the team confidence.

Crystal Ball
I expect the Beavers to finish fifth.


Last season: 24-11-3, 13-8-3 (third). Lost to Wisconsin in the NCAA quarterfinals.

Names to know
Senior Kelly Pannek won gold with Team USA in Pyeongchang. Two seasons ago, she led the country in scoring with 62 points. There’s no doubt she’ll be one of the most interesting players to watch this season. Sophomore Grace Zumwinkle was named to the WCHA All-Rookie team and First Team All-WCHA. She led the Gophers and the WCHA in scoring. A huge force for the depleted Gophers last season, it’ll be interesting to see how she’s used now that Minnesota has Pannek and the Potomak sisters back on the roster. Sydney Scobee is a Minnesota native that transferred to the Gophers from Vermont. Minnesota has some question marks at the goaltender position, so expect Scobee to push Alex Gulstene for the starting job.

“We’re super excited about our team and the opportunity that we have to try and create some more memories here this season,” said coach Brad Frost. “We’re thrilled to have Kelly Pannek and Sarah and Amy Potomak with us, as well as a great rookie class. Our returners have come back in great shape and ready to compete. I’m looking forward to having the opportunity to experiment quite a bit with our deep roster and see who is clicking and who’s connecting.”

Three questions
1. Will they return to the Frozen Four? The Gophers made it into the NCAA tournament by the skin of their teeth, earning the league’s auto-bid by defeating Wisconsin in the WCHA tournament championship. The Badgers got revenge a week later, defeating the Gophers in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament. With their revitalized roster, it seems inevitable that the Gophers return to the top, but there’s a lot of competition this year, even just within their own league.
2. Will they gel? There’s been a lot of change on the Minnesota roster over the past two seasons. Pannek is returning to a roster to lead a team where she’s never played with half the players. Sarah Potomak hasn’t skated with a team since 2017. There are seven freshmen, plus Scobee. The Gophers face Minnesota-Duluth in the second week of the season, so they have to hope that the chemistry that is usually a hallmark of this program can come together quickly.
3. Can they overtake Wisconsin? Coaches tend to like the regular season title more because it represents a body of work. It shows consistency across several months. The Badgers have won the regular-season title the last three years running, and you know that’s not something that sits well with the Gophers. They’ll be gunning to take that top spot back, but Wisconsin isn’t going to give it up easily.

Crystal Ball
I’m putting the Gophers second, but the margin between them and the Badgers will be razor thin.


Last season: 15-16-4, 10-11-3 (fourth). Lost to Bemidji State in the opening round of the WCHA tournament.

Names to know
Maddie Rooney returns to the Bulldogs after making herself a household name in leading Team USA to a gold medal in Pyeongchang. She was particularly stellar for UMD in the postseason in 2016-17, setting a WCHA tournament record with 112 saves over the course of the weekend. She’ll be an incredible base from which the Bulldogs can build. Sophomore Ashton Bell was second on the team in scoring last season with 11 goals and 12 assists. Freshman Kailee Skinner is a 5-foot-10 defender that could make a big impact on the blue line.

“It’s a good outlook between the pipes (with Maddie Rooney returning from the Olympics),” said coach Maura Crowell. “(We have) a lot of international experience, which is exciting. Maddie is almost a different person than she was. She has grown tremendously off the ice. It’s hard to not notice her. She loves to play the puck — she always has — but now she really embraces it, so it feels like we have six players out there, which is a huge benefit to our program.”

Three questions
1. Can they support Rooney? Teams are going to have to work to score on UMD. They averaged just 2.03 goals per game last season and would probably like to have a bit more cushion. No matter how good Rooney is, they need to be able to put pucks in the net to win.
2. Can they split the opening weekends? There are squads with tough schedules, and then there’s Minnesota-Duluth, which has a pair of games against Boston College, Minnesota, and then Wisconsin all before mid-October. It’s a brutal stretch, and while they’ll hope to come out with a winning record, anything less than a split probably doesn’t bode well for their chances come February and March.
3. Can they maintain the momentum? UMD returned themselves to prominence last season, and they’re starting the season ranked ninth in the country. There were dynasties in Duluth in the past — can these Bulldogs continue what was started two years ago?

Crystal Ball
I’ve got Minnesota-Duluth third.

Minnesota State

Last season: 5-28-1, 3-21-0 (seventh). Lost to Ohio State in the first round of the WCHA tournament.

Names to know
Senior Jordan McLaughlin led the team with nine goals. Rookie Anna Wilgren was the state of Wisconsin award winner for the best defender in 2016 and 2017 and set the record for scoring at her high school.

“I think our team did a great job since last spring of preparing themselves to start this season,” said coach John Harrington. “They’ve worked hard and they want to be better, and I think that’s something we’ve really emphasized since last spring. We have some great returners and some young players who performed well for us last year.”

Three questions
1. Who is going to score? The Mavericks scored just 57 goals all season and had only five players score in double digits — and two of those players graduated.
2. What will it take to make the next step? A few years ago, MSU didn’t win a single conference game. The past two years, they’ve won a few. There’s been clear growth for this program, and now they need to figure out what the steps are to keep growing. Last season, they beat Ohio State, a Frozen Four team. With a roster that’s finally full of Harrington’s recruits, can they figure out what it will take to move up?
3. Can they finish strong? The Mavericks run the gauntlet, facing Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Minnesota-Duluth over the final three weekends of the regular season. It’ll be a good test to show their growth this season, but it isn’t an easy prospect for any team fighting for position to end the year.

Crystal Ball
I have the Mavericks in seventh.

Ohio State

Last season: 24-11-4, 14-6-4 (second) Lost to Clarkson in overtime in the national semifinal.

Names to know
Redshirt junior Jincy Dunne was named to the ACHA All-American second team last season and was First Team All-WCHA. A team captain this year, she was tied for first in the team with 24 assists. Sophomore Emma Maltais was second in the WCHA in scoring with 10 goals and 14 assists and 40 points overall for the season. Sophomore Tatum Skaggs has one of the best shots in the league and was second in the WCHA with 12 goals last season.

“They picked up where we left off in March. They took their off ice and off season seriously,” said coach Nadine Muzerall. “We’re excited to have the majority of our team come back, so that gives us a lot of depth. We’ve added more to the defensive side of the game. (We have) more depth than we’ve known to have at Ohio State. They’re very hungry with the experience they had last year and want to continue to grow from that.”

Three questions
1. What’s going to happen in net? Kassidy Sauvé transferred to Clarkson, so now the Buckeyes have to figure out who’s going to be their goalie. Sophomore Amanda Zeglen started seven games last season when Sauvé was injured. Sophomore Lynsey Wallace has not seen ice time, and Andrea Braendli is an incoming freshman who played for Team Switzerland in Pyeongchang. No one knows who’s going to be the starter, but for Ohio State to stay relevant on the national level, the Buckeyes have to figure it out.
2. Can they weather the first few weeks? They play Quinnipiac, Colgate, and St. Lawrence before the end of October. It’s a tough start for a team that could probably use a few weeks to settle in on defense. They’re not going to have that luxury, so how they handle these first few weeks is going to be really important.
3. Are they here to stay? The past two seasons in the preview I asked if Ohio State could do more than just play spoiler. With their Frozen Four appearance, they put that question to bed. So now the question becomes whether or not Ohio State has made that step into elite company. So many of the pieces are in place, and Muzerall seems to provide the stability that this program has needed for quite awhile. Another solid finish this year would certainly give credence to the idea that this is now a top-tier program.

Crystal Ball
Ohio State and Minnesota-Duluth feel like they’re basically interchangeable this season. I currently have OSU fourth, but it’s all up for grabs.

St. Cloud State

Last season: 8-20-5, 6-14-4 (sixth). Lost to Minnesota in the first round of the WCHA tournament.

“We have a lot of enthusiasm going into this season at St. Cloud State,” said coach Eric Rud. “Last year we had nine freshman, two transfers, and a red-shirt freshman in the lineup every night. We had some growing pains early. Our team left the season last year very confident with how far we’d come as a group. They’re ready to get after it. … We’re the kind of program where in the summer, we like to leave our kids alone. We don’t do a lot in terms of required staying on campus. I would rather see that mature organically. This summer we had a lot of kids staying because they wanted to be here and train on their own. I thought that was impressive. It was led by our seniors and juniors who are fully invested in the program and looking for us to fully turn the tide. We’re looking for great things from this group.”

Names to know
Sophomore Laura Kluge led the team with 24 points. Junior Janine Adler missed part of the season as she played with Team Switzerland at the Olympics. She has been a big part of the improvements happening in St. Cloud, so having her back full time will be crucial.

Three questions
1. What does it take to win in overtime? The Huskies played in five overtime games last season and won just one of them. Being able to pull out tough games is going to be necessary for them to take that next step in the WCHA, and finding the fortitude and that little bit extra to pull out wins in those situations would be so big for their confidence.
2. Can they score? They were better than just two D-I teams last season with 1.58 goals scored per game. They’ve got a solid defense, especially considering their conference opponents, but they have to find a way to put more pucks in the net. Kluge was the only player with more than 20 points. There has to be more consistent, spread out offense.
3. Can they pick up the power play? The penalty kill was third in the country and just under 90 percent. It was a stellar part of their game, but they had just 64 power plays, 21 fewer than the next closest team. Becoming a bigger force on offense should help them cause more mistakes by opposing defenses. They have to force teams to defend them tough and commit penalties so they can have those extra-attacker opportunities.

Crystal Ball
I have SCSU at sixth.


Last season: 31-5-2, 20-2-2 (first). Lost to Colgate in the national semifinals.

“We’re excited with some of the additions to our team this year. We’re looking forward to Emily Clark and Annie Pankowski coming back on campus. We have a lot of good pieces,” said coach Mark Johnson. “(The bigger roster) adds depth to our team. It adds competition to our practices.”

Names to know
Emily Clark was the youngest member of the Canada team that won silver in Pyeongchang. Freshman Sophie Shirley had eight goals and 11 assists and was a top-20 scorer in the CWHL last year. Goalie Kristin Campbell led the country with a 1.19 goals-against average and was second with a .939 save percentage. She was a Patty Kazmaier top-10 finalist in her first year with the Badgers after transferring from North Dakota. Coach Mark Johnson is just five wins behind Harvard’s Katey Stone at the top of the all-time wins list. Stone is currently at 464 wins, Mercyhurst’s Mike Sisti has 462, and Johnson has 459.

Three questions
1. Can they get better on special teams? The Badgers were 14th in the country on the power play and 13th on the penalty kill. Both are OK rankings, but are also much lower than is typical for Wisconsin. Scoring doesn’t look like it will be an issue for the Badgers, but with as close as both the WCHA and the national rankings will be, every point will matter and improving this part of their game would definitely help.
2. What will it take to win a national title? The Badgers have played in the past five Frozen Fours. They haven’t won a title since 2011. Injuries and the Olympics mean they have a stacked roster this season that no one really could have foreseen a few years ago. There is a ton of talent at Wisconsin, and they don’t want to let this class graduate without having cashed in on that. They’ll have their work cut out for them with the rosters at Minnesota, Clarkson, and Boston College this year, but I think another year passing without a title would be a disappointment.
3. Will they score? That question seems a little ludicrous, but it’s been an issue at times for them over the past few years. Claudia Kepler had twice as many goals as anyone else on last year’s team, and she’s now graduated. The return of Pankowski and Clark from Olympic centralization and the addition of Shirley should solve any scoring questions, but after the past few seasons, it feels like nothing is for certain in that manner.

Crystal Ball
I have the Badgers finishing first, but it’s going to be a tight race with Minnesota.