For the Wisconsin men’s hockey team, the season could not have started much worse.
After a disappointing pair of losses to Northern Michigan Oct. 12 and 13 in the opening series of the season, UW heads into a vital series against Minnesota-Duluth (2-2) Friday and Saturday if it is to avoid further setbacks to a season filled with high expectations.
After a rebuilding year of sorts for the Badgers in 2011-12 — UW finished with a 17-18-2 record and a first-round exit in the WCHA playoffs — the preseason rankings saw them open up the regular season with a No. 15 ranking. But after back-to-back losses to start the season, the Badgers quickly fell out of the polls.
In both games against Northern Michigan, Wisconsin gave up five goals after being outshot 26-8 over the course of the series in the third period.
Having not played in a competitive game since Oct. 13, UW has used practice over the last two weeks to regain its composure before heading to Duluth for its first WCHA game of the season Friday.
“We are pretty fired up after having a tough start; we have been battling our rears off here at practice this past couple of weeks,” sophomore defenseman Jake McCabe said. “I think we are eager to get out there and play against someone else other than ourselves.”
Providing even more motivation for Wisconsin in its upcoming series are the haunting memories of last year’s matchup with UMD at the Kohl Center.
With a lead heading into the third period of the first game in their two-game series last season, the Badgers gave up a late goal that evened the score at 3-3. The game would eventually end in a 3-3 tie after overtime. Then, in the second game, UMD’s lead stretched to four goals midway through the final period before UW pulled back with two consolation goals later in the game, ultimately losing 4-2.
Without a game to focus on last weekend, speculation swirled around the alleged breaking of Nic Kerdiles’ amateur status, a situation that would have proved distracting for many teams.
Still, sophomore forward Brad Navin said since Kerdiles is a freshman and has yet to play a game for the Badgers, his absence should have little affect on the team’s performance.
“I think the guys had kind of accepted the fact that Nic can’t play for these eight games; he has to sit out,” Navin said. “We know he is going to be a key player when he gets in the lineup, so [until then] guys are definitely stepping up and helping us fill that position.
“We haven’t played with him this year, so we don’t really know what we can do with him yet.”
Despite the struggles Wisconsin faced when they played the Bulldogs last season, UMD comes into this season a much different team.
After losing star right-winger J.T. Brown — who led the team in goals and finished third on the team in points (60) last year with 24 goals and added 23 assists — to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the NHL in March, UMD was left with a major void to fill in its offense this offseason.
But like any quality team, new players have stepped in to fill the void left by Brown’s departure. In particular, senior forward Mike Seidel, who finished with 17 goals and 13 assists last season, currently leads the team with three goals and three assists heading into UMD’s fifth and sixth games of the 2012-13 season. Despite Seidel’s impressive start to the season, UW’s defense will tackle UMD’s offense, and Seidel, the same as any other team, according to McCabe.
“We just have to be aware of if a player is hot right now or [if] the top line is out there,” McCabe said. “You have to be aware of their top line. … When they have that top line out there you have to make sure that you keep everyone in front of you.
“You don’t really have that much of a different mindset though. It’s more just, ‘Hey, this is their top line here guys; bring your A game.’”
One key player who will be missing for the Badgers against UMD is senior forward Derek Lee, an assistant captain for Wisconsin, who was injured in a moped incident over the weekend.
Still, despite missing two of its key offensive threats in Kerdiles and Lee, UW has high expectations for the upcoming conference season, and head coach Mike Eaves said at his press conference Monday he is excited for the team to get on the road as the season is finally under way.
“We’re excited to get on the road,” Eaves said. “It’s a unique experience to try to get some points when you’re on the road. We’re looking forward to that challenge. We had a good week of practice. We’ll continue to build this week and see if we can get down on the road.”