By Andrew Vitalis, Special to WCHA.com
As the saying goes, streaks are made to be broken - even if you weren't aware of one.
Last weekend, the Badgers fell for the first time this season, dropping a 3-2 decision to Northeastern. It was their first loss after rattling off 16-straight wins to start the year. Leading up to the Northeastern game, you might have thought that the "streak" was a constant topic of conversation around the rink and inside of the locker room. Indeed, you might have thought that; instead, while the Badgers were aware of it, the Wisconsin women's hockey team never put much thought into the streak until after it was over.
"There really wasn't much emphasis on the streak. We really didn't talk about it much in the locker room. We were just focusing on the game we had coming up next, and one game led into another," remarked senior forward and team co-captain Claudia Kepler. "At the end of it, we were like 'wow, we had a 16-game winning streak.' That's when I first started hearing about it; when it was over. During it, we just focused on playing the best game that we could."
"I wouldn't say there was any pressure when it came to the undefeated season. We were playing very good and consistent every game and we just happened to not be losing, which typically comes when you play well," continued Mekenzie Steffen. "We lost last weekend. We played pretty good and we learned some things from that game that we can take away. We were able to come back the next day, which was very important for us to do. Yes, an undefeated season is great, but it's not something that's going to ruin our season. We are definitely past the fact that we lost. It wasn't really a huge thing for us."
Winning streaks have become the norm for the Wisconsin Badgers over the past several seasons, which is one of the reasons why Steffen and company didn't put a lot of stock into this one- however fun it was. Take the 2016-17 season- a campaign which saw Wisconsin win its second-straight WCHA regular season championship and its third-consecutive league playoff crown, for example. During a stretch of games from early-December through early-February, UW won 12 in a row. More impressively, from early-December leading up to the national championship game last March, the Badgers had a 22-game unbeaten streak. A unique commitment to excellence- and consistency- defines a program which, once again, finds itself at the top of the mountain in women's college hockey. Despite last weekend's loss, the Badgers remain the top-ranked team in the nation- a position they have held since the first poll of the 2017-18 regular season.
And, for good reason.
When it comes to the Badgers, the conversation typically begins with a dominant defense. Their 3-2 loss to Northeastern not only marked their first (and only) loss of the season, but it was also the first time this season Wisconsin surrendered more than two goals in a game. During their first 16 games, the Badgers had shutout their opponent four times and held their opponents to just one goal nine times. Not surprisingly, as a team, UW leads all NCAA Division I programs by giving up a paltry 1.11 goals per game. While it's a team concept, Badgers sophomore goaltender Kristen Campbell has been nothing short of spectacular between the pipes. She leads D-I goalies in GAA (1.12), ranks second in save percentage (.944), is tied for second in shutouts (four) and- not surprisingly- is tops with 17 wins.
"It starts with our goalie; she's great- but it also starts with our D and us having the puck a lot. One of the things our team does well is, we control the puck and we have it for the vast majority of the game," commented Kepler, who skates into this weekend with a fantastic plus/minus rating of plus-17. "If you look at the shots on net, we don't give up a lot of shots. I think that helps our goalie out a lot and it helps our D a lot and allows them to jump up and become an offensive threat. In most of the games we have played, we have only given up 20 or 18 shots, and that's really good for us."
"We have so much speed and the D block the shots when they need to block the shots. They do a solid job in front of me and give up a limited amount of breakaways," remarked Campbell, who transferred to Wisconsin after North Dakota eliminated its program- and promptly set the UW record by winning her first 16 starts in the Badger net. "It's just unbelievable how they can be so consistent. I think every game you know that they are going to be solid in front of me, and I think that brings my game to another level and makes me even more confident in net, knowing that they are all going to be doing their job and doing whatever it takes to win."
Unbelievable is a term that has been used early and often when it comes to describing the 2017-18 Badgers to this point. It's not just the wins. It's not just the defensive effort that UW has been able to give each and every game. It's not just the fact that along with their defense, Wisconsin has also been an extremely balanced team on the offensive side of the puck (eight players with 10 points or more). Maybe the most impressive thing about their 2017-18 run to date has been the fact that they have done it with just four seniors on the roster, to go along with seven freshmen and two transfers. Make no mistake, the two transfers have been game-changers in Kepler (who was with the program as a redshirt in 2016-17) and Campbell; still, the way the roster has been able to gel in such a short period of time has been…well…unbelievable. If they are this good now- how good can they be?
"I think we have a super unique group. We are a very young team. Our leadership comes from every class and I think that's what is really special about us and why we are so strong. We don't look up to just a few seniors for all of our leadership. Every single class brings some kind of leadership and we all bring something to the table that makes this team special," replied Steffen. "I don't think a lot of people realize how much stress hockey can put on you. We don't just come to practice every day; we have to balance that with our school and our social life. We have a really close bond on our team and I think it's something that is special- how close we are and how we are always there for each other all of the time. That does translate on the ice. If your whole life is together, your school is going well, your social life is going well; you are going to perform well. How we have each other's backs affects our success."
"Everyone is motivated to come in and work hard, and be the best they can be and be the best team we can create," added Kepler, who leads the team and ranks second in the WCHA with 10 goals. "Automatically, the University of Wisconsin creates that for us. It motivates every person that comes here. Starting with our freshmen, they came in pretty excited and they worked really hard over the summer, and so did the rest of my teammates. We got stronger, worked together and I think that's what matters the most when you talk about the start to our season, because we started off strong in the summer."
They also came into the season with motivation. Kepler, who had to sit out last season after transferring from Ohio State, recalls watching Clarkson defeat Wisconsin in the national championship game, 3-0. The Verona, Wis. native transferred to her home state to have fun playing Badger hockey; but also, to win. Make no mistake; while this year's Badger team only chooses to focus on the game in front of them, they remember how their 2016-17 season came to a close. They can still taste it. That added incentive helps them focus even more. One game at a time because that one game is all that matters at the time. Indeed, while winning streaks are nice and a byproduct of the process, bigger goals are at stake for the 2017-18 Badgers.
"At the end of the day, the season is going to end with hard work, and that's why we want to keep practicing and working every day. You can't predict the outcome, but you can work hard day in and day out and do the little things on the ice," stated Kepler. "We can put our heads together and be a great team, and I think we just need to work on going into it knowing that every game we have is a learning experience. That will help us prepare for things when it comes to the playoffs; but right now, we are just taking it game after game and focusing on what's in front of us."
"Of course it's motivational. The girls who played last year will always have that game in the back of their minds, but it's not something that is talked about regularly. Obviously it happened and I think it just makes everyone even hungrier to have a better outcome this season," continued Campbell. "The biggest thing about this season is just trusting the process. If you hit a bump in the road like we did last weekend, it's not about looking back; you learn from that experience and you move on. When your next opportunity comes, it comes down to what are you going to do with that? I really liked the way our team responded this past weekend. We came out and showed what we are made of. I think that's a really encouraging sign that if something does go wrong, we can bounce back from it."
The last three times Wisconsin lost, the team has bounced back with authority. Last December, after losing to Minnesota 2-0, the Badgers didn't lose again until falling to Clarkson in the title game. After dropping the championship game, the Badgers opened their 2017-18 campaign with 16 straight victories. Finally, last weekend, after falling to Northeastern, UW bounced back the next day by defeating Boston University, 4-2. Next up for the Badgers this week is Minnesota Duluth at home. It marks the first of 16-straight WCHA games- their final 16 games of the regular season. Do they have another win streak in their back pocket? If history tells you anything, the answer is sure to delight the packed houses at LaBahn Arena.