After a late season nonconference series, the Wisconsin women’s hockey team heads on the road to face struggling Minnesota State, who still has yet to record a conference win.Badgers’ freshman forward Annie Pankowski, who notched her second career hat trick this past weekend against Clarkson, will face the team that gave her the first one. Pankowski led the Badgers (19-4-3 overall, 14-4-2 WCHA) with four goals in the previous series against the Mavericks in mid-November.The Badgers outscored Minnesota State (2-21-1, 0-17-1) 16-2 in their last series at LaBahn Arena and want to continue to improve down the final stretch.“Now you have eight games left, and the main thing is to maintain what you’ve done the past three weeks and try to make some improvements in some areas where you need to improve and get yourselves ready for the playoffs,” Wisconsin head coach Mark Johnson said.Despite Minnesota State having a difficult season, Wisconsin cannot take them lightly.“I think if we start to worry about the opponent and what they are doing, or worrying about individual play, that could throw us off,” sophomore Sydney McKibbon said. “But if we stick to our game, we will be fine.”The familiarity of playing a conference opponent again helps the Badgers come out confident and strong.“We obviously know them better because we played them before and we know their style,” freshman Maddie Rolfes said. “We know what to expect, so we can go in harder and not timid because we know how they play.”A winless conference season thus far could make the Mavericks come out fired-up for the third-ranked Badgers, but Wisconsin will try not to let an upset-minded team throw them off.“Focusing on ourselves and looking at them as if we are playing Minnesota or Clarkson, or anyone else,” McKibbon said. “They are no different and we have to come out ready to play Friday night.”This last stretch of games, no matter who the opponent, will be vital in getting the Badgers prepared for a potential playoff run. For Wisconsin the goal is to win all of the games, but the most important aspect is improving in all areas to make a complete team.The puck drops at 7 p.m. Friday night for the series opener in Mankato, and 3 p.m. Saturday to close out the series.
In a season that the Wisconsin men’s hockey team has taken a step backwards with just a 2-15-3 overall record and a 0-5-1 record in Big Ten play, sophomore forward Grant Besse has taken a big step forward on his way to quietly having a breakout season.Besse began his career as a Badger last year with a promising freshman season, compiling eight goals and six assists, playing in 36 of the team’s 37 games. A year later, with Wisconsin’s top five goal scorers from last season no longer on the team, Besse has elevated his game to a much higher level and stepped into a leadership role for this year’s young Wisconsin team.Not being a top-line guy last season took some getting used to for Besse since he had never played a role like that before in his hockey career. Coming out of Plymouth, Minnesota, Besse was named 2013 Mr. Hockey in Minnesota, thus when he came to Madison he was unaccustomed to a reserve role. However, it ended up being a beneficial learning experience for Besse that allowed him to learn from the veteran Badgers on last year’s team.“It was a bit frustrating at first obviously coming from high school where you’re the go-to guy,” Besse said. “But I’m glad it was like that. I learned from those older guys.”Just 20 games into this season, Besse is leading Wisconsin in goals (seven) and his six assists are tied for second most on the team, making him only one goal away from matching his goal and assist total from all of last season.Besse believes that increased playing time and having more chances to make plays has been a major factor in his emergence as a go-to guy for the Badgers.“I’m getting a lot more opportunities,” Besse said. “Being on the top line and on the power play, you just have more opportunities and more ways to show what I can do.”Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves credited much of Besse’s improvement to gaining strength and using it to keep defenders from taking the puck from him.“Having a year under his belt, he’s bigger, stronger and knows what to expect,” Eaves said. “He’s stronger over the puck, so he has it a lot more.”Eaves also praised Besse for his impressive shooting ability that even caught their attention back when they recruited him out of high school. Eaves called Besse a “sniper” in reference to his gifted ability to shoot with pinpoint accuracy and overall knack for finding the back of the net.“He’s got a great gift to shoot the puck, something that’s not taught,” Eaves said. “When you shoot like that, you want him to shoot the puck as much as possible because not everybody can shoot like that.”Much like Eaves, Wisconsin senior goaltender Joel Rumpel has seen the improved play in Besse. Anytime Besse gets the puck is a reason to get excited due to his wide-ranging skillset that can threaten defenses in different ways.“Grant’s one of those special players that, when he gets the puck, you’re excited because he can make things happen,” Rumpel said. “He can turn a nothing play into something, whether it’s using his quick hands to get through guys or his deceiving shot to beat a goalie from a bad angle. He just brings that energy and that offensive dynamic that we need this year.”With so many leaders from last year’s team gone this season, Besse has not only taken a bigger role on the ice but has welcomed a bigger role off the ice as a leader of the team. Despite being new to the leadership role for this team, and just a sophomore, it hasn’t been an issue for him.Rumpel sees Besse’s maturity level as the main reason why he has been able to handle being a leader on a team with 11 true freshmen.“When you’re a young team, we’ve got to have guys like Grant, who’s mature beyond his age, and guys can look to him in the dressing room, whether it’s modeling our play after him or the things he does off the ice,” Rumpel said.But despite Besse’s strong play this season, the Badgers have been unable to have the same success as a team on the ice, as they’re still looking for their first Big Ten win of the season.The team will be looking for the sophomore forward to step up his game even more to get that first win. Besse said he feels he can do that by becoming a player who always delivers night in and night out.“I’d say consistency is probably the biggest thing I’ve been working on,” Besse said of where he could improve. “Coming game in and game out and being able to produce and not get beat defensively.”Only a sophomore, Besse has plenty of time to continue writing his story as a Badger. Regardless of where that story goes, it will undoubtedly serve as a bright spot amid a season of considerable darkness.