Returning 21 players, including nine seniors to its squad, the Wisconsin men’s hockey team will open the inaugural Big Ten ice hockey season with one of the highest caliber teams the program has seen in years.
Ranked No. 3 in USCHO preseason polls — atop all conference foes — the Badgers are eager to make an early statement to begin the era of Big Ten hockey.
“There will be some new rivalries this year and having to play some new names will hopefully bring some more fans to the seats which is always nice to have,” senior forward Michael Mersch said. “I am excited to be able to play in some new rinks this year and have a new, fresh outlook”
UW will open the season this weekend at home, facing off against Northern Michigan. The Badgers took on the Wildcats in last year’s season opener, and while NMU finished with a 15-19-4 overall record, they started the season off in a frenzy, sweeping Wisconsin 2-1 and 4-2.
NMU returns its two leading goal scorers in Reed Seckel and Ryan Daugherty, who combined for 23 goals and 43 points last season. However, the depth of this Badger team, the sure-to-be electric Kohl Center crowd and the desire for revenge will be a tough combination for the Wildcats to overcome.
“Obviously, we have to have a little bit of revenge against them. Last year that was a tough way to start the season but we’ve got a different team this year with some new guys coming in,” Mersch said. “Personally I am excited for this weekend and being able to start here at the Kohl Center makes it better.”
Joining the returning players are five freshman ready to adorn the cardinal and white for the first time Friday night. While less pressure will be on the Badger cubs to contribute right away, they will have to fight for playing time with such depth already on the team.
“History tells us you really don’t know until Christmas time and after Christmas what they are capable of doing, but I am hoping there are good surprises as we get going early,” head coach Mike Eaves said.
For freshman forward Grant Besse, Friday’s game is met with a combination of excitement and nerves.
“It is my first collegiate game, and there aren’t too many things you can do to prepare for that … you are playing in front of however many thousand people and you’re not used to that,” Besse said. “My main goal is just to get into the lineup every day no matter where it is, fourth-line guy, first-line guy … and just to play my best at every opportunity.”
However, the plethora of senior leadership means Besse and his fellow first-year players are getting plenty of advice, which will likely help smooth the transition to collegiate level hockey.
On the ice, UW is already progressing past preseason basics to areas few teams will have had the opportunity to cover so early in the year.
“It gives us the opportunity to work on different parts of the game that we usually wouldn’t be able to get at this early in the season so having an older team helps,” Mersch said. “And we can give tips to the younger guys waiting in line for drills and stuff like that. It’s been very beneficial.”
Leading the pack as captain is senior defenseman Frankie Simonelli, who is slated for a starting position in the back alongside assistant captain, junior Jake McCabe.
Both made monumental strides throughout last season, becoming sources of stability for the team. Simonelli recorded seven of his season-total 12 points in the last 10 games of the season while McCabe led scoring for UW defensemen with 21 points including 18 assists.
Up top, the Badgers exude strength in the center with senior Mark Zengerle returning to lead the first line. Zengerle’s quickness and stick handling allowed him to finish with a team-high 23 assists last season. Senior Tyler Barnes will play the wing along with redshirt freshman Morgan Zulinick, who returns to the ice after suffering a season-ending leg injury last November.
Sophomore Nic Kerdiles moves from the wing to center, playing with junior Joseph LaBate and Mersch, who will be looking to take over the Big Ten leader board after finishing last year’s regular season atop the WCHA in goals with 22.
Although primed for a season with post-season potential, the Badgers know getting things done early starting with NMU is something that is easier said than done. Wisconsin began its last season with an abysmal 1-7-3 record.
Digging themselves into a hole nearly impossible of escape, Wisconsin fought back to finish the regular season 17-12-7 and earn home-ice advantage for the WCHA tournament. They went on to win the tournament in the team’s last ever WCHA game, earning them a spot in the NCAA tournament where they fell to UMass-Lowell in the first round.
“We don’t have to remind them what’s at stake, and I think that’s part of being an older group now,” Eaves said.
Beginning a new era of ice hockey, Wisconsin will face a new set of foes while keeping some old rivalries alive. UW opens its B1G season at archrival Minnesota over Thanksgiving weekend. The Badgers will open the conference season at home against Penn State the following weekend to begin a 12-game home stretch through December and January.
While history in the WCHA will not be forgotten, the Badgers are excited to initiate new rivalries and make their mark in the new conference right away.
“Growing up it has always been Wisconsin, Minnesota, UMD [Minnesota-Duluth], North Dakota, CC [Colorado College], Denver … now it is a whole different dynamic,” Besse said. “I think it will be good for the game and it will be positive in the long run.”
The smaller conference also allows UW the opportunity to take on tougher competition outside the Big Ten. UW will travel to Boston Oct. 18 and 19 to play single-games against Boston College and Boston University.
This weekend the Badgers will face off against NMU Friday night at 7 p.m. and Saturday night at 8 p.m. at the Kohl Center.