The back-to-back women’s college hockey national champions opened their season this past weekend against Lindenwood University in Missouri.
The Badgers dominated both games, winning 8-1 Friday and 10-0 Saturday.
This season’s Wisconsin team might have higher expectations than any other in the history of the program. With the main cast of characters from the two national championship winning teams including Daryl Watts, Sophie Shirley, Grace Bowlby and Kennedy Blair all back in Madison for a final year, it is certainly national championship or bust.
With college hockey returning to normal, that will mean a sold out LaBahn Arena, non-conference games and a full slate of Women’s Collegiate Hockey Association games in a year the conference might have more talent than ever.
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For Mark Johnson’s squad, they will once again rely on their duo of Watts and Shirley. Watts is far and away the best player in women’s college hockey and Shirley is somewhere in the top five. These two experienced forwards carried Wisconsin all the way to a national championship a year ago, and it will fall on them if the Badgers make it all the way back to the title game.
On the back end, Blair will once again run the Wisconsin net. The fifth year transfer from Mercyhurst was outstanding last year as she started in every game while posting six shutouts, a goals against average of 1.54 and a save percentage of 9.31. Blair was a much needed spark in net, and was once again phenomenal in the opening series against Lindenwood.
The defense in front of Blair is led by two upperclassmen — team captain Bowlby and Nicole LaMantia. Bowlby is the definition of a lockdown defender in hockey. She was a first team All-American last year and played like it in all 21 games for Wisconsin. While she did not have a goal last year, she put up 18 points in 18 regular season games.
Without a doubt, Bowlby was the heart and soul of an unusually young team last season. Her leadership and play style are things that Wisconsin can not survive without.
LaMantia is another important force on Wisconsin’s blue line. The senior from Illinois will be wearing a letter for the first time in her Wisconsin career, as she has established herself as a borderline superstar in college hockey.
She showed off this weekend, with a three point night against Lindenwood Saturday. LaMantia will be crucial to this year’s team after Natalie Buchbinder opted to redshirt. Along with Chayla Edwards and Bowlby, Lamantia represents one of the few major defensive contributors from last year’s squad. They will have a tall task on their hands with slowing down some of the most explosive offenses in the country with their loaded schedule.
After two road non-conference series against Lindenwood and Merrimack, Wisconsin will reopen LaBahn Arena to fans and start off a gauntlet of WCHA play when St. Cloud State visits town. As I mentioned earlier, the WCHA will be incredibly strong once again this year and it will be important for Wisconsin to beat up on teams like SCSU that figure to fall around the bottom of the conference.
St. Cloud State opens a run of 16 straight WCHA games for Wisconsin that will run them all the way until 2022 when they play a non-conference matchup with Quinnipiac on New Years Day at LaBahn. From there, Wisconsin will play 12 more WCHA games in six consecutive weekends. The breaks are few and far between on this schedule.
The Badgers are in for a wild ride in this 2021-2022 campaign.
They are the two-time defending national champions and the preseason number one team in the nation. There is a massive target on their backs. It will be up to hall-of-famer Johnson to once again lead Wisconsin back to the only place they belong — the national title game March 20, 2022.