After winning just one of its first 10 games this season, the Wisconsin men’s hockey team doubled that total over the weekend with a 3-1 win over No. 5 Denver, the team that still sits atop the WCHA standings.
The Badgers also notched a 1-1 tie against the Pioneers (9-4-1, 7-2-1 WCHA) at Magness Arena Friday. If some saw UW (2-7-3, 2-5-3) as a sinking ship through the first 10 games of the season, head coach Mike Eaves said he thought his squad righted the ship while gaining some momentum over the weekend.
“From the coaching standpoint, it was the exact medicine we needed to get ourselves going in the right direction,” Eaves said at his weekly press conference Monday.
“Maybe that ship is starting to come around, and we’ve got some wind at our back now,” Eaves added.
The Badgers’ record now stands at 2-7-3 overall, and Eaves laid out a new goal over the weekend – reaching the .500 mark, an unexpected goal given the team’s No. 15 preseason ranking.
“We can pull up and get in closer to .500,” Eaves said. “I think that’s our next, most tangible goal is to do that. If we can play well and get some wins, we have a chance to do that.”
Those wins could come easier for the Badgers with the return of preseason all-WCHA center Mark Zengerle from a broken index finger. Despite playing in only half UW’s games this year, Zengerle is tied for second on the team in points with six, and he is tied for second in goals with two.
The nation’s leading returning scoring from last season, Zengerle has not seen the ice since he suffered the injury against Colorado College Nov. 3.
“Mark is closer to playing this weekend,” Eaves said. “We’ll put him in regular gear today and see what he can handle. He joined us on the road trip. I think the mindset was to be around the team and get him ready. … He wants to get back in the lineup.”
Additionally, freshman forward Nic Kerdiles returned from a 10-game suspension for breaking the NCAA’s code of amateurism Friday. Kerdiles recorded two assists and four shots on goal against Denver.
Eaves lauded the highly-touted recruit’s playmaking ability and his propensity for always being around the puck.
“You could see the energy he brought to the ice,” Eaves said. “He won battles. He had a couple of assists on Saturday because he was around the puck. … He has that intangible as a hockey player; it was very much a positive weekend from that end.”
Eaves also noted his squad’s improved defensive play, especially against a high-powered Denver offense that ranks second in the league in goals per game at 3.7, an area where UW sits last at 1.9.
Over the weekend, however, the Badgers outscored Denver 4-2, and Eaves extolled the defensive play on the road. It marked Wisconsin’s first series of the season in which they have not lost at least one of the games.
Eaves credited the 35 blocked shots by goaltender Landon Peterson Saturday (highest on the season), better scoring opportunities in the offensive zone and the defense’s ability to prevent scoring opportunities even when out-numbered on the ice for the successful weekend.
Eaves said it is necessary for the Badgers to carry that momentum to the Kohl Center this weekend when Michigan Tech visits. UW is still winless at home, having lost all four of its games in Madison, and has been outscored by an average of two goals per game on its home ice.
“There are a lot of reasons that these next four games are important,” Eaves said. “… We’ve had some challenges at scoring goals and winning games, especially at home.”
That said, Eaves said he remains hopeful his team can continue to turn in solid performances through the remainder of the season. He noted improved play dating back to the home series against Minnesota State-Mankato two weekends ago.
“Our last home game against Mankato, we felt the ship was turning somewhat, and then we carried it on to this week,” Eaves said.
“Friday was on a national stage, and people were pumped up to see us play well against a top-ranked team. Let’s let our own fans see that live and score some goals,” he added.
Continuing the ship metaphor throughout the press conference, Eaves contended that his team needs to keep sailing, steadfastly optimistic Wisconsin can turn the wind now at its back into wins on the ice.
“That’s the most important thing, is to keep that wind at our backs,” he said.