Not many people would have thought that the Wisconsin men’s hockey team, with a rag-team of youngsters, would be sitting at 7-9-2 at the halfway point in the season.
The Badgers’ record is not overwhelmingly astonishing, but three of those wins and one of those ties came against three teams that were ranked among the top five in the nation.
Ultimately, they’re pleased with where they are at – for the time being.
“It’s kind of up in the air right now; it could go both ways,” junior defensemen John Ramage said. “But for right now, we’re just trying to focus on the positives.”
On Oct. 21, 1-3 Wisconsin welcomed WCHA rival No. 5 North Dakota, who at the time boasted a 2-1-1 record.
The Badgers were undoubtedly the underdog, having won only one game against a non-conference team with their youth-ridden squad.
UW scored a total of 10 goals in the series, sweeping UND with a 5-3 win Friday night and a 5-4 win Saturday night.
Only two weeks later, the Badgers faced another top-five team at home. This time, No. 1 Minnesota crossed over the border to face the 4-5-1 Badgers.
Once again, Wisconsin pulled through with a huge 3-1 upset Friday night, outskating Minnesota and looking mightily similar to a top-five team itself.
“That Friday night against Minnesota, we really played our best hockey,” Ramage said. “I think we really played well as a unit and showed that we can play with the top team in the country.”
But the following night spelled troubled for the Badgers as a three-goal third period by the Gophers put a rest to the hopes of another sweep. UW lost 4-1, splitting the series.
Last weekend, Wisconsin played host once again to a No. 1, but this time it was Minnesota-Duluth.
The Bulldogs were on a 12-game unbeaten streak and had yet to lose on the road. Unfortunately for the Badgers, they were not able to reverse that trend.
Wisconsin led early Friday night, leading 2-0 after the first. In the third period, the Badgers were on top 3-2, and another upset seemed within reach. UW gave up another goal, and the contest ended at 4-4. The following night, the Bulldogs showed why they are ranked so highly, dominating the Badgers 4-2.
“The emotion before Minnesota was really cool,” Rumpel said. “Any home series has been really fun with the crowd. It’s a really neat experience, nothing like I’ve ever seen before.”
The Badgers have time and again shown they can play with the best. In doing so, their youth has already started to improve and come up with big plays.
Two noted freshmen are the goaltenders, Landon Peterson and Joel Rumpel.
Rumpel minded net in the 3-1 Minnesota win and has started to stand out and head coach Mike Eaves’ go-to guy in big games. So far this season, he’s played in 11 games and made 304 saves with a .902 save percentage. The freshman boasts a winning record at 5-4-2.
And Rumpel feels more than happy with his short collegiate career so far.
“I feel like we’ve had a pretty good year,” he said. “I’ve grown quite a bit from when I first got here. I’ve learned a lot, and how to manage hockey and school was a little tough at the start, but I feel like I’m at where I should be. Obviously, there’s always room for improvement, always room to get better, but I’m happy with how things are so far.”
Peterson only trails Rumpel’s stats by a few steps, playing in only eight games but credited with a 2-5 record. Peterson has made 199 saves with a .884 save percentage.
But the Oregon, Wis., native probably made the most notable save of the first half of the season.
In game two against Minnesota-Duluth, Peterson relieved Rumpel midway through the second period. By that time, UMD already had a 4-0 lead and was not looking to slow down any time soon.
Facing a UMD break, Peterson followed the puck as it was passed between two Bulldogs, who faked the final pass. The freshman dove across the crease for an incredible glove save, keeping the Bulldogs up by only four goals with half the game left to go.
While Peterson’s save was astounding and exemplary of UW’s potential, it was not the best play of the season. That belongs to sophomore forward Mark Zengerle.
In the WCHA home opener against Nebraska-Omaha, Zengerle took the puck into UNO’s zone and spun around 180 degrees before passing the puck to sophomore forward Tyler Barnes, who was waiting in the slot.
Barnes simply had to tap it in, giving UW a 2-0 lead at the time.
“A fantastic play,” Barnes said in post-game interviews of the pass. “It’s not hard to tap those home.”
Zengerle has undoubtedly taken a step forward from last year and is currently one of the Badgers’ offensive leaders with 27 points on eight goals and 19 assists and a 17-game point streak. The sophomore is second only to all-American junior defenseman Justin Schultz, who has 28 points on nine goals and 19 assists.
But on such a young team, it’s the freshmen who have improved the most.
“It’s tough to say,” Rumpel said. “Everyone has gotten a lot better from the beginning of the year. We had to grow quick because there’s so many of us. We all had to take a pretty big step and kind of make our transition a little quicker than other teams.”
Barnes specifically pointed out freshmen forwards Joseph LaBate and Brad Navin, who have both made big plays for the Badgers so far this season. Barnes also wanted to note that this does not mean they were terrible initially; they have just adapted to the game well.
“I’d say like Navin or Labate,” Barnes said. “Those two are making strides, and I think every day they’re getting noticeably better and working towards becoming a top player.”
But while the Badgers have made plenty of progress and maybe even surprised a few people given the amount of youth they field, the Badgers still have plenty of growing to do.
Wisconsin has yet to win on the road and essentially needs to make their amazing moments more consistent.
According to Barnes, the Badgers need to figure out how to close out games.
“Closing out games and doing what it takes to win,” Barnes said. “I think that’s something that we need to figure out – our team identity in that sense and figure out what it takes for us to get the job done.”
Ultimately, UW needs more wins, and Rumpel is ready to stop making excuses for their losses.
“We can’t use any more excuses about bad bounces or anything; we’ve just got to battle through it, and when it comes down to it, we need to get some victories under our belt,” Rumpel said.