AJ MACLEAN/Herald photoThe top-ranked Badger women’s hockey team opens its season this weekend against conference rival Minnesota-Duluth in an important series for both teams. An interesting scheduling decision pitted No. 4 UMD against Wisconsin in the first series of the year, with both teams working on just two weeks of practice.”I think it’s exciting,” senior captain Sharon Cole said. “We’ll jump right into the season with one of our biggest opponents. It should be interesting.”These teams last met in the WCHA semifinals when the Badgers upset the Bulldogs in overtime to move on to the championship game against Minnesota. This time around, however, the Badgers will be favored in the series.”Our message to [the players] is one that it’s irrelevant where you’re ranked, and it doesn’t matter who you’re playing,” head coach Mark Johnson said. “You have to compete every night, you have to play hard, and if you’re willing to do that and work together as a group, you have a chance to be successful.”For UMD and Wisconsin, it has been a tale of two off-seasons. The Badgers lost two Olympic-caliber players in defenders Molly Engstrom and Carla MacLeod, but they retained much of their offensive weaponry as well as many of their experienced players.Duluth, on the other hand, has had several players graduate, with other current players either on or trying out for Olympic teams.What the Bulldogs do bring with them is one of the best goaltenders in the WCHA, Riitta Schaublin. The junior goalie out of Switzerland led the country last year with a .944 save percentage and was third with a 1.46 goals-against average.The Badgers have several options in goal this season, with freshman Jessie Vetter, who redshirted last season, joining the mix along with veterans Meghan Horras and Christine Dufour. Vetter will be unable to play this weekend due to illness, but the Badgers have the luxury of playing two goalies that combined last season for a 1.54 GAA.”It’ll be an interesting year, and there will be difficult choices as we go through, but it’s a good [problem] to have because it’s like all of a sudden Jessie’s not able to do the things we need her to do, and so we have two reliable goalies that people are comfortable with,” said Johnson.The Bulldogs also bring back two very capable forwards in Jessica Koizumi and Noemie Marin. The two junior forwards combined for almost 30 percent of Duluth’s total points last season.The Badgers can take heart, though, with the fact that they return much of their offensive talent as well. Along with scorers like Nikki Burish, Cyndy Kenyon and Jinelle Zaugg, Wisconsin should get some production from the duo of Sara Bauer and Sharon Cole. Bauer, with 55 points last season, led the team in scoring and shared a line with Cole, who assisted on many of Bauer’s 26 goals. The two will have a new linemate this season, however, with freshman Kayla Hagen getting the nod for now.”Me and Bauer obviously have played together a long time, and we know those little things like where each other are,” Cole said. “It’s just a matter of getting used to Hagen and kind of getting her into things.”The Badgers should see some new looks on defense starting this weekend. With MacLeod and Engstrom out, junior Bobbi Jo Slusar will be looked to as the leader on defense.The Badgers also have two former forwards on defense this year as Meaghan Mikkelson and Vicki Davis make the switch from offense. Johnson told Mikkelson last spring she would be getting a new role, and she responded.”I took the summer to prepare and stuff, and I feel pretty comfortable back there right now. The other girls are helping me out in practice,” Mikkelson said of her new role.The Badgers begin their season with a new look and high expectations. The opening puck drops Saturday afternoon at the Kohl Center.