The first series is in the books, and already the young Wisconsin men’s hockey team is being thrust into the dual challenge of its first road and WCHA conference series.
The Badgers (1-1-0) are heading to Michigan Tech to take on the Huskies (2-0-0) in a series that has been dominated by the Badgers in the previous 13 matchups. Wisconsin has won the past 11 games and is 12-0-1 in that 13-game stretch between the two schools.
Atypical of many other collegiate sports in that teams have multiple non-conference games to prepare for league play, the important games come soon and often in hockey, but sophomore forward Mark Zengerle is not backing down from the competition.
“I think it’s good that you start playing teams that are good off the bat,” Zengerle said. “We have [Michigan Tech], North Dakota, Nebraska and a real tough schedule right away. We have a young team, and its good for them to get that experience right away and for the whole team [by] playing good teams, and you kind of know what college hockey is going to be like for the whole year.”
Despite the disparaging recent history, Michigan Tech is not the same team it was in last year’s series or the previous nine defeats before that. The Huskies welcome in Mel Pearson, an alum of the school, after he spent his previous 23 years as an assistant coach at Michigan, where the Wolverines appeared in 11 Frozen Fours and three NCAA championship games, winning two of them during that span.
The matchup could pose a real challenge for a Wisconsin team with 20 underclassmen.
“They play in a small rink with big bodies, so it’s going to be fast, furious — isn’t there a movie named that?” Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves joked. “There will be a lot of contact. They will play hard. A new coach, new beginnings and there is a lot to be said for hope right now so, they are going to be banking on that.”
The Badgers proved that they could handle themselves in a tough situation, falling behind 2-0 in both games at the Kohl Center before making consecutive comebacks in their season-opening series against Northern Michigan, but there is some uncertainty heading into the weekend.
Freshman forward Joseph LaBate, who scored the first goal of his collegiate career last series, is just trying to keep everything in perspective.
“I don’t really know what to expect [going on the road], so I just go in prepared and helping my team get prepared,” LaBate said. “I’m just going to try to play my game and keep things simple and play tough.”
Eaves says that while he was proud of his team’s comeback ability, the two-game sample size is just too small to make projections headed into Friday.
“We only have two games under our belt, so all I know is that we made progress in the way we want to play, and they made progress in the way they are going to want to play in terms of their systems,” Eaves said. “I think it’s going to come down to people playing hard, playing smart, and if they can play together better than they did the weekend before then they are going to get the results they want.”
It isn’t just Michigan Tech’s excitement of potentially turning around a program and the road environment that will be different from the confines of home for Wisconsin. The rink itself is a different size from the rink inside the Kohl Center. John MacInnes Student Ice Arena’s smaller size could change the pace of the series.
To prepare, the Badgers have been practicing at the Shell Facility.
“Going into a smaller rink at Michigan Tech, we are not going to have as much time as we do when we play in the Kohl Center,” junior defender Justin Schultz said. “We just have to worry about moving the puck a little quicker and supporting each other a little more.”
The mood from many of the players seems to be that this road trip could be as crucial to the season as any series throughout the rest of the year, and Zengerle made the team’s goals and focus crystal clear headed into this WCHA showdown.
“We expect four points and nothing less,” Zengerle said.