HAMDEN, Conn. — When members of the University of Wisconsin women’s hockey team gathered for a meeting in their locker room three weeks ago, they had just experienced the door to one of their goals being slammed in their face.
Coach Mark Johnson wanted them to see that the portals to bigger rewards were wide open.
The angst with a last-weekend drop to finish second in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association couldn’t linger when the Badgers gathered to set the table for the postseason.
At that point on the last Monday in February, they had a maximum of four weeks of hockey left, with trophies waiting at the end of two of them.
“I just felt I needed to take some time with the team to understand that it was disappointing, nobody liked the feeling of what happened that weekend,” Johnson said, alluding to a pair of home ties against Ohio State that kept UW from winning a fourth straight WCHA regular-season title. “But here’s what we’ve got for the next two weeks. And then if we do well, another opportunity’s going to come.”
And it’s here. The Badgers (33-4-2), ranked first or second in the national polls all season, play two-time defending champion Clarkson (30-7-2) in the NCAA Frozen Four semifinals at around 6 tonight at People’s United Center.
In five Frozen Four appearances in the past five years, UW made it to the championship game only once, when it lost to Clarkson in 2017. If the Badgers get past the first challenge, either archrival Minnesota or ECAC Hockey regular-season champion Cornell will be waiting in Sunday’s championship game.
Before those details were confirmed, however, the Badgers had to flush the end of the regular season out of their systems. They did that with a pair of discussions in the locker room in the week leading up to the WCHA quarterfinal series against St. Cloud State.
One was led by Johnson and the coaching staff, the other by the players themselves.
Johnson laid out the team’s road map, highlighting the championship chances. First, the home series against St. Cloud State that the Badgers breezed past, winning 5-0 and 8-0.
Then a rematch against Ohio State in the WCHA semifinals, a come-from-behind 3-2 victory. A 3-1 victory over Minnesota the next day fulfilled Johnson’s prediction — or maybe a directive — to the team at the end of a practice earlier in the week that UW wasn’t leaving Minneapolis without the trophy.
The victory over the Gophers also netted the Badgers the No. 1 overall seed for the NCAA tournament and a quarterfinal home game against Syracuse. A 4-0 triumph last Saturday set up a Frozen Four return.
“We talked about buying in,” Badgers associate head coach Dan Koch said of the meeting led by the coaches. “That they need to want it more than we want it, and people accepting roles that may be different. It was a good conversation. It was a good little meeting and I think they were encouraged. They started to see the picture.”
UW’s captains and alternates organized the players’ meeting, where the leaders wanted everyone else to have a say in where the team was and where they wanted to go.
“We didn’t want to be the ones talking at the girls,” senior captain Sophia Shaver said. “And I guess you could say that’s the trust that we’ve built throughout the whole team. Seniors trust freshmen. Freshmen trust seniors, and all the way around.”
The issue of finding the right places for mind and body was raised.
“During the (regular season), you can afford to stay up until midnight before one game or eat a cheeseburger for a pregame meal once or twice,” senior alternate captain Maddie Rolfes said. “But now is when you really need to dial in, focus. Preparation is huge. We can’t afford to be making those little mistakes.”
Now they’ll see how well prepared they are.
“At this time of the season, if you’re still playing, it just creates a lot of excitement within your group, within the families of the players,” Johnson said. “It’s a fun time of year.
“You’ve got to stay focused. You’ve got to pay attention. ... You’ve got to be able to relax and play the way you’ve played all season. The team that does that the best usually ends up winning it.”
Senior Annie Pankowski was named a first-team All-American by the American Hockey Coaches Association, making her the third three-time award winner in school history.
She joined Brianna Decker (first team in 2012, second team in 2011 and 2013) and Hilary Knight (first team in 2009 and 2011, second team in 2012) among UW’s three-time All-Americans.
Junior goaltender Kristen Campbell was named a second-team All-American.