As University of Wisconsin women's hockey players returned to LaBahn Arena last week from a Christmas break and had individual meetings with coach Mark Johnson, a course for the next two months emerged.
Setting aside the danger inherent in looking even more than a day ahead in a pandemic season, the rest of the top-ranked Badgers' Western Collegiate Hockey Association schedule falls into two legs, Johnson said.
UW played a series at Minnesota State on Saturday, Jan. 2, and Sunday, Jan. 3, to kick off play for four consecutive weekends in January. That stretch, which includes two home games each against No. 4 Ohio State and No. 2 Minnesota, is the setup for the finishing kick.
By the time the season reaches February, Johnson wants the Badgers feeling comfortable and confident in their game even though they'll be — at best — only 10 games into the schedule.
"If we can do that, that's going to give us a chance to be in a position to take a run at things in February," he said. "I'm looking at the next three to four weekends to really get ourselves into game shape. And part of that process is going to be playing games. So I'm hopeful that we get in those eight games prior to our first weekend off in February and evaluate where we are."
The Badgers always have to get their legs back under them after the break, but they've never faced the circumstances presented to them in the 2020-2021 season.
The pandemic delayed the start from late September until late November. A coronavirus outbreak that touched a quarter of the roster then wiped out the six games UW was supposed to play in December.
When the Badgers (1-1) took the ice in Mankato, Minnesota, this weekend, they were itching for competition but also had bugs to work out.
After the games at Minnesota State (2-5-1), which ended a 28-game losing streak to the Badgers in the teams' last meeting on Feb. 8, UW returns home to face the Buckeyes and the Golden Gophers. A series at St. Cloud State and a bye weekend wrap up January.
Over those games, Johnson wants the Badgers to ramp up toward where they normally would be entering the final month of the regular season.
Over the next few weeks, UW also is hoping to work senior defenseman Nicole Buchbinder back into the lineup. She missed the first semester with an injury but started practicing with the team on Tuesday, Johnson said.
"The next three weeks is a fun time for everybody because we don't have school," Johnson said. "We can focus in on hockey. We can relax. We can take care of ourselves. We can have a bunch of fun and try to get better as a team. And if we can get by the next three or four weekends and be playing at a high level, that sets us up for February."
Series at Minnesota and at home against Bemidji State in February lead into another bye before the Badgers close the regular season at Minnesota Duluth.
All of that is if there are no other COVID-19 disruptions to the season — a big ask given that six of the 14 WCHA series originally planned for between Nov. 20 and Dec. 19 didn't go off as scheduled. Monday and Tuesday games between Minnesota and Minnesota Duluth also have been postponed because the Bulldogs won't have enough players.
No changes have been announced to a postseason schedule that has the WCHA Final Faceoff on the first weekend in March and the NCAA tournament on the following two weekends.
"I'm looking to be playing our best hockey as we get into February," Johnson said. "And then it's going to be a short run. If we're doing our best hockey and we're confident, then we have a chance to do something special."
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