February 9, 2011
by John Gilbert, WCHA.com
Wisconsin junior forward Hilary Knight
It seems like a pretty simple solution. When Wisconsin's top-ranked women's hockey team wins almost all the time, but whenever things gets a little sticky, Hilary Knight often scores a pivotal goal to make it non-sticky.
Behind Knight's amazing 36 goals, maybe these are the Teflon Badgers who have run away with the championship in a Western Collegiate Hockey Association that is hotly competitive – from second place on. Knight's 36 goals are in all games, where Wisconsin has run up a 26-2-2 record. In the WCHA, Wisconsin is 20-2-2, while nobody else in the league has fewer than seven losses in WCHA play. There has been no letdown by the Badgers, or by Knight, for that matter, and none seems foreseeable.
"We've got so many good players this year," Knight said. "It all helps who you play with, but we've got three lines that can score. I know that when I'm not scoring, somebody else will score."
Wait a second. When the team has played 30 games, and Knight has scored 36 goals, just when is it that she doesn't score?
Knight laughed a sheepish laugh at the question, but when pressed how many games there have been where she has failed to register a point, she said, "I don't know, something like three."
Exactly right. Knight, a junior from Sun Valley, Idaho, has scored at least one goal in all but nine games all season, and she has failed to get a goal or an assist only three times – back on October 10, in a 2-0 victory over Bemidji State; on October 29, in a 3-2 victory over Minnesota State-Mankato; and on December 5, in a 6-2 victory at North Dakota. The third-place Sioux face the Badgers in this next-to-last league weekend.
One of those goal-less games was two weeks ago, when Wisconsin tied Minnesota 2-2 and won the shootout with goals by Brooke Ammerman, Meghan Duggan and Brianna Decker. The next night, Knight scored to open the game, and the Badgers won 3-1 in front of 10,668 fans at Kohl Center – the largest crowd ever for a women's college hockey game. Last weekend, Wisconsin romped 7-1 at Bemidji, then had a tough 2-2 standoff in the rematch, but Knight scored at 2:14 of overtime and the Badgers prevailed 3-2.
It was a similar scenario at Duluth, where the Badgers won the first game 4-1 but faced a furious UMD rally in the second game to gain a 4-4 tie. Nobody scored in the overtime, so it went to a shootout. Knight went out third of the three designated Badgers, and she swept in at goaltender Jennifer Harss before making a serious deke, cutting to her backhand, and lifting the winning goal into the net.
Shootout goals don't count in the season total, of course, but the fact that coach Mark Johnson could pick three shooters without naming Knight explains just what kind of scoring depth the Badgers have. When Knight said she's always confident that somebody else will score if she doesn't, she is mostly thinking about Duggan, a senior right wing who has 25 goals, while Brianna Decker is also over 20 for goals.
Duggan, in fact, leads the team, and the WCHA, in total points for all games, with 25 goals, 35 assists for 60 points, meaning she, too, has scored in almost every game. Knight is one point behind, with 36-23=59, and sophomore Decker is 23-30=53.
Decker centers Brooke Ammerman and Duggan on the first line, while Knight centers freshmen Brittany Amerman and Madison Packer on the second unit. Coach Johnson is not suppressing Knight by playing her on the second line, instead he knows she can help the second line be a big-scoring unit.
"She's amazing," said Johnson. "She can do everything we ask. If she doesn't play well, we usually have a tough game."
Knight is the tallest Badger, and at 5-foot-11, her reach seems endless, which gives her an unfair advantage when she comes in alone at a goaltender, because most of her can go one way and she can still reach back to score the other way.
Wisconsin's two losses came one each to Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota, the two top rivals for the Badgers any year. At Duluth, the Badgers led 3-1 in the third period when Jessica Wong scored a power-play goal for UMD, closing the deficit to 3-2 at 9:40. It was 54 seconds later when Knight's line flew down the ice. Brittany Ammerman carried in on the right side, and left a neat drop pass in the slot for Madison Packer, who promptly left another drop pass. Knight was there, and snapped her shot into the lower right corner to make it 4-2.
"That was a good rush for our line," said Knight. "Somehow, Packer found a way to get the puck to me. I saw a little opening, but I wasn't sure when I let it go."
Still, two more UMD goals in the last 2:31 lifted UMD into a tie. The teams battled through the 5-minute overtime, then it went to a shootout. Brooke Ammerman scored for Wisconsin, but Elin Holmlov beat Alex Rigsby for the equalizer. Duggan went next, but Harss saved her shot. Minnesota Duluth's Haley Irwin zoomed in, but her shot went off the crossbar. Knight then did her thing to put the Badgers one up again, and Rigsby stopped UMD's Jamie Kenyon to secure the victory.
That means that while scoring her 36 goals, Knight scored two more non-counters to give Wisconsin victories in the two shootouts that followed the only two ties the Badgers have faced all season.
Because Knight played for Johnson on the U.S. Olympic team last season, both of them know that their consistent strong play all season is a major asset, but also that the regular season will only take the Badgers so far.
"We're doing well, but we'll find out for sure when we get into the playoffs, and get into some elimination games," said Johnson.
Of course, that's true for every team. But Johnson can rely on the unsung goaltending stardom of Rigsby, a freshman from Deerfield, Wis., is unbeaten in 13 straight games, and leads the WCHA in goalie statistics, even though her teammates' prolific scoring commands the spotlight. That's also understandable, because whether it's regular season or playoffs, when things get sticky, other coaches don't have Hilary Knight and Meghan Duggan scoring virtually every night.