Badgers face early season test

The No. 7 Wisconsin women's hockey team drops the puck with the nation's top-ranked team this weekend

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What: No. 7 Wisconsin (4-0-0 overall, 0-0-0 WCHA) versus No. 1 Minnesota (2-0-0, 2-0-0)

When: Saturday, Oct. 25 and Sunday, Oct. 26 at 2:05 p.m.

Site: Kohl Center in Madison, Wis.

Broadcasts: Sunday's game will be broadcast live on WIBA 1310 AM

Series notes: Minnesota leads the all-time series 16-3-1 and won four of five matches last season. This is the first time the teams have met in the Kohl Center (this is the first season the women's hockey team is primarily playing home games in the Kohl Center).


Wisconsin had its way with its first two opponents, Vermont and Maine, outshooting the Catamounts and Black Bears a combined 212-50 in four wins.


The first two weekends, though, could be considered tune-ups for the challenge the Badgers face against top-ranked Minnesota. Wisconsin's first opponent, Vermont, was completely overmatched against the highly-skilled Badgers, while Maine at least put up a fight.


The Gophers, meanwhile, are No. 1 with authority, having dominated a touted Ohio State team, 6-3 and 7-0, last week.


"We played well against Vermont and we played well and had a little bit of adversity in Maine, but yet we responded well on the road," Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson said. "There were a lot of nice signs, but now it is time to step up to the plate and hit a 95-mile an hour fastball. We can do it. It is a good test for us."


The fastballs will be coming often from Minnesota's sharp shooting forwards, headlined by sophomores Natalie Darwitz and Krissy Wendell, both members of the 2002 USA Olympic team. Wendell is the reigning WCHA Player of the Week after tallying four goals in one game against the Buckeyes, and six points in the series.


"Obviously when Krissy comes in, when Natalie comes in, they are special players and you have to do some things to try to keep them off the scoreboard," Johnson said. "They are going to get chances, they are going to get opportunities. Hopefully we will be up to the test to contain those players, but they are surrounded this year with a better team than they had last year."


Part of the Gophers new nucleus is a third member of Team USA, freshman defender Lindsey Wall, who contributed three assists last weekend.


The Badgers defense, though, has been suffocating. Led by junior defenders Molly Engstrom, Carla MacLeod and Nicole Uliasz and freshman Bobbi-Jo Slusar, Wisconsin thrives with one of the best blue lines in the nation. The Badgers did not allow a goal and nary a shot against Vermont and allowed just five goals to Maine.


"The forwards have done a great job backchecking as well," sophomore goalie Meghan Horras said. "So they don't really give me (many pucks) to work with."


Strong defensive play has helped the Badgers young goal tenders ease into competition. For the past four years Wisconsin relied on the goaltending exploits of Jackie MacMillan, who finished her UW career with 75 of the program's then-81 all-time wins.


Entering the season the team's most experienced goalie was Horras, who played in three games last year in relief. Wisconsin has rotated its three young goaltenders through the first four games, with Horras receiving two starts and sophomore Jessica Bernal and freshman Christine Dufour one apiece.


Johnson said Wednesday that he had not decided whether the team would continue rotating the trio this week.


"We don't have a clear picture yet," Johnson said. "It is a work in progress. I think we will get more answers this weekend because we are playing good competition."


Prior to the season Johnson said he wanted to see where the team's goal scoring would come from. Early on, the answer is from everywhere. The team's 20 goals have been scored by 10 different players; junior forward Jackie Friesen leads the way with four. Freshman forward Sara Bauer has only taken five shots but she leads the team in assists and points with six.


Wisconsin will need that balance against the Gophers, with Wall leading the defense corps and one of the nation best goalies, Jody Horak, between the pipes.


The Badgers have only been challenged once this season, when Maine scored three uncontested goals last Sunday in the first game of  a two-game road series to pull within 5-4.


"Maine made it 5-4 and we played very well—for the rest of the game I don't think we gave up a shot on net," Johnson said. "I would rather have that happen to us early in the season then win 7-, 8-, 9-1. The object is to try to make your team better. I think in a situation like we had Sunday out in Maine we became a better team because of the situation we got ourselves into. It is a learning tool and that is what you have to take."

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