Heading into the 2011-12 season, a lot was expected of rookie defensemen Jake McCabe.
The Eau Claire native was in the starting lineup from the beginning of the season alongside All-American blue liner Justin Schultz. Like any freshman, McCabe was adjusting to the pace of the game and trying to make his mark on his new team.
“I knew I had the chance to jump right in, and I was looking forward to the opportunity,” McCabe said. “Those first two weekends, playing with Schultz, it helped having a guy back there, an All-American. It’s encouraging that there’s someone back there if you do mess up.”
Throughout the first couple weeks it was clear McCabe was adjusting well to the game, but before he could find his way onto the stat sheet, his season was derailed by a half-inch cut to his hand.
In Wisconsin’s conference home opener against North Dakota, the Badgers skated to a 5-3 win over the Fighting Sioux, but not before they would lose a player to hand injury No. 1 of the season (three other Badger skaters have gone on to have a hand injury so far this season).
McCabe took off his glove as he went to take a swig of water on the bench. In what can only be described as an unforeseen freak accident, McCabe removed his glove as a fellow Badger was hopping over the board and his skate accidentally swiped McCabe’s knuckle.
The freshman didn’t think anything of it and went back out on the ice for his next shift. That’s when he knew something was wrong.
“It was literally a half-inch cut, I thought it was innocent,” McCabe said. “As I was going out there squeezing my stick and couldn’t really unsqueeze I realized something wasn’t quite right.”
The small, simple gash cut through his tendon and cost him the next six weeks of his rookie season.
“No kidding, I couldn’t lift my middle finger up,” McCabe said. “It was tough, but I made my way back.
“It was frustrating, but it’s nice to get back in the lineup and start contributing to the guys and moving forward every game.”
Certainly McCabe has had a very peculiar freshman year, but a little time watching from the stands may actually have been a good thing.
While nothing can replace game experience, McCabe was able to consistently observe his team and get a different, but helpful, perspective.
“I think him being able to watch a couple games in the stands after being injured has really showed him to calm the game down and let the game come to him,” junior defensemen John Ramage said. “He definitely has the ability to do that.
“It does help watching the game and trying to get better. To have that urge to come back makes you want it a little more.”
Before the first half of the season was over, McCabe got the chance to get his season headed in the right direction – otherwise known as normalcy.
McCabe made his post-injury debut against No. 1 Minnesota-Duluth Dec. 9 at the Kohl Center. As Wisconsin skated to a 3-3 tie against the nation’s best, McCabe notched his first point of the season on an assist and only continued to score from there.
Through eight games back, the rookie blue liner has amassed six points with three goals – two of which were game-winning scores – and three assists.
According to McCabe, finally getting the chance to play and find his spot on the roster has simply allowed him to gain more confidence.
“Oh, tons of confidence,” McCabe added. “You build off that confidence. Our power play has really been clicking lately – obviously that’s where my two goals came from; both happened to be game winners. … Once you have confidence, you’re more poised with the puck and you’re more confident making plays by yourself; you’re not relying on the others around you.”
The freshman may still be getting used to the game now, but the expectations that were held for him at the beginning of the season are starting to be met.
Even his new defensive partner, Ramage, has said he’s learned a few new things from McCabe.
“I know being paired with him the last couple weekends have really helped both him and me,” Ramage said. “We work well off each other, and it’s exciting to see him start doing well, putting up the points he’s able to put up.”
Head coach Mike Eaves is just happy to have the talented freshman active once again.
“The things that he has naturally – his puck handling, his ability to shoot the puck, his ability to see the game, his ability to have poise and confidence with the puck – those are things you miss from the lineup when he’s not there,” Eaves said.