It wasn’t long ago, on Nov. 27 to be exact, that I wrote a column concerning the dire situation that was Wisconsin men’s hockey.
At the end of the first half of the season and heading into final exams here at the University of Wisconsin, the team sat at a disappointing 3-7-3 after starting the season with big expectations and a No. 15 ranking to boot. Fans began to wonder what had become of their perennial title-contender, while I wrote about the lingering effects a poor season could have on the long-term success of the program.
Fast forward nearly two months and the situation could not be more different.
UW has clawed its way back into the rankings at No. 19 and head into their series this weekend at North Dakota on a 10-game unbeaten streak in WCHA play. More importantly, they sit just four points back from first place in the WCHA.
So what changed?
To be frank, the Badgers have not faced the most difficult of schedules in that time frame. Since Dec. 13, UW has faced only two ranked opponents in No. 11 Minnesota State and No. 8 Miami, while beating up on WCHA cellar-dweller Alaska-Anchorage (1-15-4 in WCHA play) for four of those victories in that span.
But there is another reason for Wisconsin’s season turnaround too, and it is an answer a modest coach would tend to avoid using: the players have all been healthy and eligible to play.
While Eaves never made it an excuse, trying to compete in the cutthroat WCHA with two key absences at the same time early this season in Mark Zengerle — the nation’s returning leading scorer in 2011-12 with 50 points — and heavily-hyped freshman Nic Kerdiles was no easy task.
After years of consistent success, it is certainly understandable fans began to think of the UW hockey program as infallible. Winning was the norm. So it seemed almost destined the next guys in line would be able to keep things going as if Zengerle and Kerdiles had never been missing at all.
But after it became clear that Kerdiles would be forced to sit out the first 10 games after what the NCAA called a violation of the “code of amateurism” and Zengerle would miss six games after being diagnosed with a broken index finger, that quickly became impossible.
Unfortunately, as much as coaches hate to admit it — taking it almost as a personal insult to their ability to adjust to what the season gives them as they aim to build a successful team — some players just can’t be replaced no matter how hard you try.
Zengerle is one of those players.
Almost more important than Zengerle’s goal tally for the team over his time at UW is the 5-foot-11 center’s ability to make his whole team better around him.
So far this season, Zengerle has nine assists despite missing six games this season. In both his freshman and sophomore campaigns, he finished with 31 and 37 assists, respectively — a mark that puts him in an exclusive club with Badger greats Theran Welsh, Mark Johnson and Chris Chelios as the only ones to earn at least 30 assists in their first two seasons.
While assists certainly add to Zengerle’s individual points total, more importantly they mean one of his teammates will be credited with a goal — something that came few and far between at times for the Badgers earlier this season, especially in his absence.
Combine his output with three goals and seven assists from Kerdiles and it becomes clear without those two on the ice, Wisconsin was short two of its top five assist producers this season — the engine room of any successful team.
And so it was only fitting Friday night, as the team sought to finally break their power play drought extending all the way back to Dec. 13 against Alabama-Huntsville, a Zengerle pass would make the difference in helping set up a goal from junior forward Michael Mersch on the team’s first power play chance of the night. Even more telling is the fact Kerdiles or Zengerle scored or had a hand in all but one of UW’s five goals that night.
With both players now healthy, fit and firing on all cylinders since their returns to the lineup last month, the Badgers look like a team to be reckoned with moving forward — as long as Zengerle and Kerdiles are on the ice, that is.
Nick is a junior majoring in journalism and political science. Think that the Wisconsin hockey team has something else to thank for it’s dramatic turnaround this season? Send him an email at email@example.com or tweet him @npdaniels31.