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Women’s hockey: Badgers’ defense picks up pace down stretch

first_imgIn five straight games, the Wisconsin women’s hockey team has not given up more than one goal per game.This strong defensive streak could be credited to outstanding play from goalkeeper Ann-Renée Desbiens, or to a complete team effort on the defensive side that has improved throughout the season.Although the outings have been impressive, the coming weeks could prove difficult for this Badger squad. This week’s opponent, Minnesota Duluth, has two players in the top ten in scoring in the WCHA, Zoe Hickel and Ashleigh Brykaliuk, who are tied for ninth with 28 points apiece.  Wisconsin hasn’t faced such individual scoring threats since it played Minnesota, which has four such players in the league top 10.“I think I found a way to stay focused and in the game, even in games when you don’t receive as many shots,” Desbiens said. “So just make sure you communicate with the defense and do the little things that is going to keep you motivated and focused.”The La Malbaie, Quebec, native had the opportunity to play and travel with Team Canada over winter break.Desbiens and the rest of the Canadian squad played games in Germany against other top national teams, and she received advice from new coaches, who helped her from getting into bad practice habits.“I think it was a lot about habits. It was good to have different people there to give you different advice,” Desbiens said. “So I think just being with them and making sure I get good habits in practice and push hard every single time and follow my rebounds are all little things you don’t really think about doing when you practice so often here.”With the majority of the defense composed of younger players, and Katarina Zgraja being the only player with more than two years of experience, Desbiens has taken on a key role as a leader on the defensive side in only her sophomore season.After filling in for eight straight games a season ago for the injured Alex Rigsby, Desbiens has now taken over the reins as the leader of the Wisconsin defense this season. As the season goes on and the young team gains more experience and better chemistry, the defensive pairing has helped UW turn up the defensive intensity.That defensive poise has helped UW hold 13 of its last 16 opponents to one goal or fewer since Nov. 13, allowing an average of 0.81 goals per game.“We are really confident playing with her behind us,” sophomore defenseman Jenny Ryan said of Desbiens. “I think her confidence with us as a defensive core has grown really well. I think she feels more confident in us to get the puck away, so she can do more of her job and we can do more of our job.”The trust that has built up throughout the season will be necessary, as Wisconsin’s opponents become tougher come playoff time.“I think overall as a team, as we keep practicing together, we get to know each other better, so we know how each other react, so it’s really a team effort,” Desbiens said. “So as the season goes on, we really got better.”It helps that the Wisconsin offense at many points this season has played well enough to prevent opposing teams from even entering into the UW defensive zone.The Badgers currently lead the country in shots on goal per game, and with how much it controls possession, Wisconsin hasn’t allowed opponents many scoring opportunities. The team has allowed just 19.3 shots on goal per game, the second-lowest mark in the country.Despite the large discrepancy in scoring opportunities, Wisconsin can continue to improve on getting the defense to help create more offensive chances for their goal scorers.“I think we just need to focus on making simple, smart plays and not doing too much,” Ryan said. “We need to make good first breakout passes so we can make it easy for our offense to get up. And we need to keep our gaps tight so that we can protect our zone and jump in the rush when we can.”Getting its defense to lead to offense could help in close games down the stretch. Wisconsin head coach Mark Johnson said he continues to find things for the team to work on to make each player better, which makes for a more complete team.“I think as you wind the season down, and we’re sort of in that phase right now where you have six games left and then you have the postseason upon you,” Johnson said. “You try to hone in on a lot of little things, obviously [defense] being one, and just the awareness of every situation, every part of the game.”last_img read more