On the final weekend of the regular season, No. 1 Wisconsin puts its five-game winning streak on the line against the only team that boasts three Badger defeats in the past two seasons.
The No. 10 Ohio State women’s hockey team (18-12, 12-10 WCHA) will hope to bolster its NCAA tournament resume ahead of the WCHA tournament when it faces No. 1 Wisconsin (28-4, 18-4 WCHA) in Madison, Wisconsin.
“Every team, as the season goes on, becomes more vulnerable,” Ohio State sophomore forward Emma Maltais said. “I think we’re scary because we are in a position where we have to win and I think that other teams know that.”
Ohio State lost to Wisconsin on Jan. 12, leading to a five-game losing streak in the middle of the season.
Now at the tail-end of the season, Ohio State risks being eliminated from consideration in the eight-team NCAA Tournament. But a second season win on the road against the nation’s third-highest scoring offense could earn the Buckeyes favor among the selection committee heading into the WCHA Tournament.
Coming off a bye week, Ohio State head coach Nadine Muzerall said getting her team to refocus is not a concern.
“They know what’s at stake,” Muzerall said. “They read all that stuff and they overanalyze it. You don’t have to get them revved up because at this level they’re already mentally prepared.”
Wisconsin enters the series having outscored opponents 24-4 during a dominant five-game stretch. A series sweep of the Buckeyes would grant the Badgers their fourth consecutive regular season conference title.
Spearheading the potent Wisconsin front line are freshman forwards Sophie Shirley and Britta Curl, as well as senior Annie Pankowski, who are three of the top four goal scorers in the WCHA. The trio has accounted for 42 percent of the Badgers’ 122 season goals and have racked up a combined 21 points during their win streak.
Though all three forwards scored in Wisconsin’s most recent matchup against Ohio State, a 5-2 dismantling in Columbus, Muzerall said they will not be the focal point of her game plan.
“The one tricky thing when you have a team of that depth, if you focus on those three, the others will catch you,” Muzerall said.
Facing the brunt of the Wisconsin attack for the Buckeyes will be freshman goalie Andrea Braendli, who returns this weekend from a two-game absence due to an international tournament with the Swiss national team. Braendli holds the WCHA’s second-best save percentage at .934.
On the opposite end of the ice, Wisconsin redshirt junior goalie Kristen Campbell is fresh off her NCAA-leading seventh shutout of the season against Minnesota Duluth last weekend, which earned her WCHA Goaltender of the Week honors.
Maltais, the conference’s second-leading point scorer at 1.27 points a game, helms a Buckeye offense that has come alive of late, scoring 16 goals in its past four games, nearly doubling the nine goals the offense could muster in five straight losses before that.
When facing a team of this caliber, Muzerall said the Buckeyes, who lead the conference with 7.5 penalty minutes per game, cannot afford to beat themselves.
“[The Badgers] don’t have a terrible weakness. We just have to stay out of the box,” Muzerall said. “That’s what killed us in that second game that we lost.”
Though the Buckeyes have been the victor in three of the past four Wisconsin matchups, including a 1-0 win this season, Muzerall said none of that will matter come Friday.
“It is a different situation because it’s their senior weekend, it’s their opportunity to win the conference, it’s going to be sold out,” Muzerall said. “We have to start wrapping our mind around that and start visualizing what that sounds like, smells like, tastes like.”
The WCHA rivals begin their final regular season series at 8:07 p.m. Friday in Madison.