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Kaz Watch: After Three Glorious Seasons, Wisconsin’s Casey O’Brien Set Out to Do More In Year Four

03/11/2024, 11:45am MDT
By Nicole Haase

The senior forward ranked Second in the nation in scoring while focusing on improved defense and faceoffs.

Senior forward Casey O'Brien, wearing Wisconsin's white and red uniform, skates toward the goaltender

An award of The USA Hockey Foundation, the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award is presented annually to the top player in NCAA Division I women’s ice hockey. The 2024 Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award winner will be announced on March 23 in conjunction with the NCAA Women’s Frozen Four in Durham, New Hampshire. The 2024 Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award Show will be broadcast live from the Whittemore Center Arena Lobby beginning at 12:30 p.m. ET on NHL Network.

Casey O’Brien just about did it all during her first three seasons at Wisconsin.

The center from Milton, Massachusetts, won a pair of national titles. She registered a goal and two assists in the Frozen Four her freshman year, became Patty Kazmaier Award Top-10 Finalist her sophomore season and led the Badgers in all offensive categories her junior season while serving as assistant captain for another national title-winning team.

It might seem like there wasn’t much for her to accomplish her senior season this year, but O’Brien didn’t see it that way.

“When I was setting goals for myself coming into this year, the biggest thing— the one thing I said (was), ‘I want to be the best center in the country,’”O’Brien said.

O’Brien set two priorities for herself in pursuit of that goal: be better defensively and improve on faceoffs. She knows that as the top-line centerfor Wisconsin that her role is to produce offensively — and she has, with an NCAA-best 48 assists to go with 71 points, second only to teammate and fellow top-10 finalist Kirsten Simms — but she really wanted to become more dynamic.

Patty Kaz: Casey O'Brien Daniels (School: Wisconsin, Class: Sophomore, Position: Forward, Hometown: Milton, Mass, Statistics: 71 points in 39 games - 23G, 48A)

Known as a quick forward who can take off in transition, O’Brien said she’s only started to understand how to utilize her speed in other ways. For example, because her first few strides are so explosive, on defense she’s able to close quickly, which gives her an advantage when a puck deflects into the corner or bounces out to a player at the top of the zone. She’s also learned to channel those same speedy instincts into a great reaction time in the faceoff circle.

“A way to separate yourself from anybody else is to really play to your strengths, and speed is mine,” O’Brien said. “I’ve always known that speed has been my greatest asset, and kind of until this year, I haven’t fully weaponized that.”

The Badgers play a fast-paced game that is rooted in puck possession. The best way to ensure they have the puck is to win faceoffs. Winning on the dot had not been a strong suit for O’Brien prior to this season, so she put in a lot of time working on her reflexes and how to read her opponents.

“I realized how important faceoffs are for the team and how they can change the game,” she said. “If you win a faceoff, you’re going to get the puck, and that helps the whole team. Having possession can change the dynamic of the game. Winning faceoffs is something that I can control and something that I can do for my linemates, for my team, so I’ve just tried to become the best at faceoffs that I could possibly be.”

O’Brien doesn’t switch her hands or react too much to what an opponent is showing her when they approach the dot. A smaller player at 5 feet, 4inches, she knows she’s not going to overpower an opponent in the circle, so she relies on her instincts. If they show that they’re hoping to push the puck forward, she is prepared to use her skating speed to keep them from taking off.

“I’m very confident in my form and my ability to win faceoffs,” said O’Brien, who uses virtual reality tools to hone her reaction time. “Going up to that dot, there might be some minor things, but I’m hoping that they’re not going to be quick enough to react to what I do. I’m planning to make them adjust to me instead of the other way around.”

The work has paid off as O’Brien is among the best in the country in the faceoff circle this season with a 59.8 percent win rate. On a team where four of six defenders and one member of their goalie tandem are underclassmen, being able to reliably win the puck and clear the defensive zone makes O’Brien’s faceoff prowess even more vital.

As she’s gotten older and taken on a role as an assistant captain, O’Brien has spent more time thinking about leadership and impact. She knew to be the best player and teammate she could be, she needed to make her game more dynamic. Improving on the defensive side was a big part of that.

“Playing with younger players and accepting my role as a leader, I think I need to show by example,” said O’Brien, who over the weekend was named Outstanding Player while helping lead Wisconsin to its 10th WCHA Final Faceoff title. “It’s not all about producing; it’s not all about the offense. A lot of it has to do with the little things that might not show up on a scoresheet like backchecking and play in the defensive zone.”

This season she’s learned to use the same explosive speed that makes her offensive game threatening and apply it to playing defense. She can catch opponents on the backcheck and get to loose pucks before the defense. Her speed becomes an even more potent weapon when she closes with speed and causes an opponent to panic, which often leads to a fumbled puck, bad pass or turnover that she quickly takes off with down the ice.

Teammate and fellow top-10 finalist Caroline Harvey said O’Brien’s commitment to the defensive side of her game has been obvious and made the Badgers an even tougher team to play against.

“She’s so good at taking away lanes, which is super hard to play against,” Harvey said. “She’s one of the best anglers on the team and she’s so good at taking away space.”

With great vision on the ice that has only improved as she’s started to see the potential in any play both offensively and defensively, O’Brien has thrived this season, especially in the second half. All said, she has leveled up her game in a way that makes Wisconsin even better.

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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