In 2017, Wisconsin travelled to St. Charles, MO, as the nation’s top-ranked team, with the country’s best offense, best defense and the best goaltender in NCAA history.
The Badgers lost 3-0 to Clarkson in the national title game, their fourth-straight Frozen Four loss.
Two years later, 12 players from the team that lost to Clarkson will take the ice again in Hamden, CT, as No. 1 Wisconsin takes on the No. 4 Golden Knights in the national semfinals.
On paper, the Badgers look much the same as they did two years ago, with the NCAA’s stingiest defense, third-best offense, and yet another WCHA tournament title under their belt. But inside the locker room, the players say this team is different from years past.
“I think the pressure isn't as immense. We're having more fun than we usually do. It doesn't feel as business-y or as life and death. In the past we've kind of had this looming cloud over us, like this pressure, this do or die mentality,” senior defender Maddie Rolfes said. “This year ... we have fun working hard together and supporting each other and I don't think that's necessarily been the case as much in the past.”
Wisconsin still enters its nation-leading sixth straight Frozen Four with plenty of pressure as the top seed, especially for the six seniors who are taking their last shot at a national title.
Despite the lack of a championship, Wisconsin’s upperclassmen are phenomenally experienced at the national level. The Badgers’ senior class has a combined 48 games of NCAA tournament experience, and 18 players have seen the ice in a tournament game.
The Badgers have come away from those last five Frozen Four appearances empty-handed, but they’ve managed to use that experience to lighten the load they face mentally this time around.
Players say the losses they’ve endured have given them perspective on the tournament, and rather than entering their matchup with Clarkson nervously, they’re confident in their ability to handle any outcome.
“I'm lucky that I know what it feels like to lose those big games,” said senior forward Emily Clark, who also suffered defeat in the 2018 Olympic final with Team Canada. "I'm not scared to feel that because I know what it's like to lose.”
The Badgers may enter the Frozen Four with 33 wins under their belt, but this season hasn’t been easy sailing compared to other years. The Badgers suffered their first home loss in nearly two years in October, when rival Minnesota came to Madison shut Wisconsin out in front of its home crowd.
Even the wins haven’t been easy, as the Badgers fell behind 1-0 to lowly Lindenwood in their first game of the year and had to claw back to a narrow 3-2 win. Most humbling of all, Wisconsin entered its final home series of the year needing just a win and a tie to lock up the WCHA regular season title, but lost two straight shootouts to Ohio State.
The players say that these losses have forced them to confront failure and disappointment in a way earlier than many Badgers squads in recent years.
“In the past I feel like our team has just been so good the last four years we're not used to being down a goal, we panic, we lose our energy a little bit,” Rolfes said. “This team has been battling against the adversity really, really well so I think that'll be a huge difference-maker.”
Wisconsin has already started on a bit of a revenge tour in recent weeks, although no one within the program would call it that. The Badgers paid back Ohio State on March 9 in the WCHA tournament semifinals with a 3-2 comeback win, after trailing late in the second period. The next day, they beat the Gophers for the conference crown.
“There was just a type of feeling going into those games, no one had a doubt,” Rolfes said.
The Badgers have a chance to deliver another piece of payback on Friday in Connecticut. And when they take the ice against Clarkson, they’ll have the confidence that only a loss can provide.