There were two minutes left in the second period at Madison Ice Arena last Friday night, and the orange-and-black-clad Viroqua Blackhawks were just trying to survive. They stopped attacking the passing lanes and challenging shooters, opting instead to simply clog the area in front of the net hoping to keep the Madison Metro Lynx from getting off a decent shot.
It's a strategy often used by hockey teams hoping to ride out a penalty. But the Blackhawks were not down a skater, they were just exhausted. Despite having much less depth on the bench, the Lynx were a formidable rival, skating strongly and moving the puck with precision.
"We really try to dig down deep and go at it," says Lynx head coach Michelle Mancuso. "Other teams look at us and say, ‘Oh, it's just 11 girls.' But then we come out hard and rough. I think we have kind of a pond-hockey thing going on."
The Lynx, Madison's girls high school hockey team, draws members from various schools. Midway through the team's second season, it's compiled a solid 6-3-3 record.
"The girls are skating their butts off," says Mancuso. "In a lot of games, we're going up against 20 girls."
The program has also juggled three coaches since the end of last year's inaugural season. Jon Spencer moved on to become head coach of the Madison Memorial boys team. His replacement, Clay Winsand, became ill just as practices were starting in the fall, leaving the Lynx without a head coach for a couple weeks until Mancuso stepped in.
"I was pleasantly surprised at my first practice when I saw the girls skate," says Mancuso, who coached the girls team at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire for three years before moving to Madison last spring to finish a graduate degree at the UW.
"I didn't know what to expect. We have girls who have been playing for nine years and we have a couple girls whose first time on the ice was in November. I can't even believe how well they've been doing."
The profile of girls hockey, locally, has been raised by the success of the Badger women's team, the current NCAA national champions. But the more experienced players on the Lynx discovered the sport long before the UW had a team. "My dad played with an old men's league," says senior co-captain Emily Meier. "I'd go with him at six on Sunday mornings, and we'd use the extra ice time to skate. I was about 10 years old. Ten sounds pretty young, but for girls hockey, it's old now."
As a co-op program, the Lynx has players from six area high schools: Madison West, Memorial and La Follette, Waunakee, Monona Grove and Middleton. This creates an added challenge, as there are fewer opportunities for bonding and chemistry building that successful high school teams require.
"One of the hardest things I've found this season is getting the team warmed up and pumped up," says Meier. "Everybody is doing their own thing, and different drama happened at different schools to different girls. It's interesting to try and get the team all focused on the same goal and get them pumped up to play."
That didn't seem to be a problem last Friday. Huddling up with her teammates before the second period, Lynx goaltender Emily Engel adopted a rock-star pose in her pads and lip-synched the chorus to Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar on Me" as it blared over the Madison Ice Arena sound system. She then proceeded to shut out the Blackhawks for the period on the way to a 6-1 victory. The Lynx dominated the game by balancing finesse and toughness, a mixed identity the players are proud of.
"We've got some goons," senior co-captain Christina Valdes says with a laugh. "There are some girls who are known for getting penalties, but we have a lot of skill on the team too."
But the team's other identity, which should remain with the players long after they graduate from high school and hang up their skates, has to do with their role in helping to create an opportunity for female high school athletes. Meier wraps it up nicely:
"One of the things that defines our team is that we're pioneers."
The Madison Lynx's next home game is Thursday, Feb. 1, against the South Central Freeze at Hartmeyer Arena, 8 pm.