For the first time since the season opener, when the Wisconsin men’s hockey team was ranked No. 15, there is an air of excitement surrounding the Badgers as they head across the country this weekend for their series against No. 5 Denver Friday and Saturday.
With the first 10 games of the season now behind them, the Badgers will finally see the debut of freshman forward Nic Kerdiles after he served a 10-game suspension for allegedly breaking the NCAA “code of amateurism” during this past offseason.
While head coach Mike Eaves admitted many fans will be expecting instant offense from the 6-foot-2 freshman, he said he hopes Kerdiles won’t put too much pressure on himself to single-handedly right the ship that is UW hockey.
“They want it now, and they want it all,” Eaves said at a press conference Monday. “I think just the understanding process that he is going to be a little rusty. I think he’s got to understand that he might fall down a couple of times, not figuratively. … He’s not going to be the guy that leads us out of the desert here.”
While his teammates know his insertion into the lineup will not produce changes overnight for a team that has opened up the season with only one win in 10 tries, they believe his presence could be the spark UW needs to jumpstart its season.
“Nic brings an offensive presence,” junior forward Michael Mersch said. “He is obviously going to have freshman growing pains like every other freshman does, but we are looking forward to having some new energy.”
Besides Kerdiles’ imminent debut, the stars seem to finally be aligning for UW across the entire team heading to the Denver series.
After the resignation of assistant coach Bill Butters Nov. 7, Eaves announced Butters’ replacement, Matt Walsh, Nov. 23, the same day the team hosted Minnesota State at the Kohl Center.
Now, with his first week of practice at UW under his belt, Walsh and his players have had more time to become acquainted — something sophomore defenseman Jake McCabe said should help the team find stability moving forward.
“It’s been a really smooth transition, ” McCabe said. “Coach Walsh is finally getting a little bit more comfortable after just testing the waters here for now. … It does kind of feel like a full team again.”
Even better news came with star junior forward Mark Zengerle, who has sat out the last four games with a broken index finger. Zengerle had the stitches taken out of his finger this week, and Eaves said he expects him to make his return to the lineup in the next couple of weeks.
Playing Denver certainly won’t hurt Wisconsin’s motivation heading into the series, either.
Last year, UW split its regular season series with the Pioneers before losing in heartbreaking fashion in the third and final game of their first-round WCHA playoff series by a 3-2 margin in overtime.
With the stinging season-ending defeat still fairly fresh in their minds, it was obvious through the intensity of team practices this week this series has a bit more motivation and urgency behind it for the Badgers.
“Every game is important for us going forward,” Mersch said. “Denver beat us last year in the playoffs. I know I still have a little bit of a grudge with them, so I’m looking forward to going there and maybe stealing a few points.”
While Denver was nearly unstoppable early in the season — winning nine of its first 10 games — it has lost its last two since, including a 6-4 loss to No. 3 New Hampshire Nov. 24.
Combine the six goals allowed by Denver in its last game with a UW offense slowing regaining confidence, and McCabe and his teammates believe they are poised to give the No. 5 Pioneers a difficult matchup this weekend.
“We just have to have confidence going into [Denver],” McCabe said. “We just need to get shots through, and chances are going to come.”