A few weeks ago, the odds that Caitlin Schneider would be the one to open the scoring for the University of Wisconsin women's hockey team in the league championship game were extremely long.
Schneider, a sophomore, was on the fourth line and seeing only limited ice time as the Badgers rotated through their first three groups in close games.
An injury to third-liner Sam Cogan, however, pushed Schneider up, and she was in the right spot to put a shot into the top corner of the net last Sunday in the Badgers' Western Collegiate Hockey Association Final Faceoff victory over Minnesota.
"There's honestly no feeling like there was on Sunday when I scored that first goal," Schneider said. "The excitement that I just had, I can't even — it's one of those incredible feelings."
She has enjoyed a couple of them in the last two weeks as she has gained more ice time.
Going into the top-ranked Badgers' NCAA quarterfinal game against Syracuse at 2 p.m. Saturday at LaBahn Arena, Schneider has scored two goals in her last three outings. That followed 16 games without a point, most of it spent waiting for a chance on the fourth line.
Cogan was injured in the Badgers' regular-season finale against Ohio State on Feb. 23 and missed the WCHA quarterfinals sweep of St. Cloud State. She returned last weekend but was listed with the fourth line as Schneider stayed on the left side with center Sophia Shaver and Presley Norby.
Schneider has been noticeable in the last two weeks with the third line, Badgers coach Mark Johnson said.
"Her speed and her ability to track the puck down and get the puck certainly makes it challenging for the defending team," he said. "It's nice to see that once her minutes went up she took that opportunity and has made the most of it."
After scoring five goals as a freshman, when she saw more time off the fourth line, she had just two through 35 games this season. Then she scored against St. Cloud State on March 2 by hitting a small opening between the goaltender and the near post from the right side.
Then she found the top corner against Minnesota last Sunday on a slap shot from the inside of the left circle that first sailed past two defenders.
"It's a weight off my shoulders because I've been waiting a long time to get back to where I felt I was when I came in," Schneider said. "It's hard when you're playing with such high-level players and they have experience. It's hard. I can't lie to you and say that it's easy."
Contributing postseason scoring and getting in the swing of things offensively — she's fifth on the team with 13 shots on goal in four playoff games — has been rewarding to Schneider.
"It just makes me feel like all this year, putting in the extra effort, the extra time on the ice and the extra workouts, it makes it all feel like it was worth it," she said.
Second chance for Syracuse
Syracuse didn't look like a championship-caliber team when it played in Madison earlier this season. The Badgers dispatched the Orange on Dec. 1-2, winning two games by a combined 15-2 to drop them to 4-12-1.
But 11th-year coach Paul Flanagan's team won three games in three days last week to win the College Hockey America playoff title and the league's automatic NCAA bid, the first for the school.
After Syracuse's rematch with UW was confirmed on Sunday, Flanagan reflected on the December series when he talked to reporters.
"What happened previously was experience," said Flanagan, who led St. Lawrence to five Frozen Fours in nine seasons there before taking over at Syracuse in 2008. "You draw off your experiences. We've got a hungry group here. They're motivated, and I'm sure Wisconsin's probably looking past us. So I think a lot of things can be in our favor."
The Badgers (32-4-2) have won all six meetings with the Orange (13-21-3), with 1-0 and 5-2 victories in New York in October 2017 to go with a 3-0, 8-0 sweep at the Kohl Center early in the 2008-09 season.
UW is 5-0 against CHA teams in the NCAA tournament, having defeated Mercyhurst 6-0 in 2016 and Robert Morris 7-0 in 2017.
Complacency is one of the Badgers' enemies this week.
"We're focusing really hard on not taking this team lightly," senior defenseman Maddie Rolfes said. "And kind of trying to put the focus on us and our hard work and our good habits and playing to win. It doesn't matter who's on the other side of the ice."
Syracuse won its first CHA playoff title in its seventh try, defeating Robert Morris 6-2 last Friday behind a four-goal second period.
Another wins list topped
In a season where Johnson had his UW men's hockey jersey retired and became the all-time coaching wins leader in Division I women's hockey, he collected another milestone last weekend.
The WCHA semifinal victory over Ohio State gave him 490 victories with the Badgers, passing Jeff Sauer for the most for a UW coach. After the Badgers defeated Minnesota on Sunday, his record is 491-87-44 in 16 seasons.