It wasn’t until the third period that I realized I wasn’t ready for the hockey season to be over.
Listening to WIBA’s Brian Posick’s call the final game of a best-of-three series Sunday night against Denver was one of the very few times in my reporting career I felt the onset of melancholy – as DU tallied the golden goal just over a minute into overtime, effectively ending the Badgers’ season.
And what a forgettable season it was.
Before the year started, I was asked to participate in a hockey roundtable for Bucky’s Fifth Quarter with the likes of Posick and NBC 15’s Robb Vogel.
Predicting Mike Eaves’ squad to finish under 20 wins and in the middle-bottom of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, I had the most pessimistic outlook for the 2011-12 season. With 20 underclassmen on a 26-man roster, Wisconsin faced one of its most undeveloped teams in several seasons.
Despite the return of All-American defenseman Justin Schultz, the young Badger pups did not have any clear offensive leader. That’s where sophomore centerman Mark Zengerle stepped in. Pegged to lead the offense, there was still a question mark lingering over the Rochester, N.Y., native, but he quickly quieted skeptics en route to a 50-point season that included a 20-game point streak.
But, similar to my prediction, the Badgers finished their season in the first round of WCHA playoffs after earning a 10th place finish in the regular season. They were only a few games away from a 20-win season, finishing at a 17-18-2 mark and 11-15-2 in conference play.
With all this in mind, heading into the playoffs I was optimistic about the Badgers’ chances to at least win the first round. They were facing a Denver team they had success against very recently in their final home game of the season Feb. 18 with a 5-2 win. The win sparked a four-game streak as Wisconsin rolled over Bemidji State on the road, earning a 4-2 win each night, and then went on to embarrass Minnesota 4-1 in game one of the final series of the regular season. Even though UW dropped game two 2-1, they still showed promise, leading U of M 1-0 headed into the third.
Along came Denver again. And with a 1-0 victory in game one of the series, Wisconsin had the fire and momentum that made them a dangerous team to face.
Unfortunately, after a few mistakes that led to key goals for the Pioneers in the ensuing nights, UW had to pack its bags and set its sights on the offseason, letting go of its forgettable ’11-’12 campaign.
But the potential for next year is nothing to scoff at.
Despite losing freshman blueliner Patrick Daly March 13 – two days after Wisconsin’s overtime heartbreak – because he wished to focus on school, the Badgers are currently expecting to return their entire roster sans senior Eric Springer and hot NHL prospect Schultz. In regard to Schultz, while he hasn’t announced anything yet, word on the street is he’ll finish out the semester but the kid is as good as gone. I won’t complain if I’m wrong, though.
In all honesty, none of the freshmen are quite ready to say auf wiedersehen to college hockey just yet. The only other Badger besides Schultz who could realistically make the jump would be Zengerle, but as he told Andy Baggot from the Wisconsin State Journal on March 9, he’ll be “right here, 100 percent.”
Zengerle and the rest of the underclassmen faced a lot of playing time and gained a great deal of experience this season that will pay dividends as next season rolls around.
While Zengerle’s 50-point season stands out, other guys started to take important strides as the season wound down. Forwards Tyler Barnes and Michael Mersch both posted 11 and 14 goals respectively on the season and finished with a total of 56 points between them.
Defenseman Frankie Simonelli – paired for the vast majority of the season with Schultz – finished with 18 points on five goals and 13 assists clearly learned a lot from his d-partner, turning into one of the Badgers’ best defensemen.
Speaking of defensemen, freshman Jake McCabe – the youngest player currently on the Badgers roster – proved to be one of the Badgers’ stingiest and most promising blueliners, posting 12 points in 26 games (he missed 11 games due to a freak hand-to-skate accident on the bench). In fact, he made one of the biggest assists of the season Friday night in Denver, bringing the puck down the ice and crashing to the net, where he slid the puck through a Denver player’s skates and put it on net where Sean Little was waiting to knock it in. The future is certainly bright for the kid.
The freshman forwards certainly enjoyed a lot of playing time – something that drew Joseph LaBate to Wisconsin in the first place. He led the freshman class this season with five goals and 15 assists, seeing a lot of playing time on UW’s top line.
Most notably, the Badgers will have both freshmen Joel Rumpel and Landon Peterson back between the pipes. The two largely split time through the first half of the season before Rumpel became Eaves’ go-to netminder. Rumpel finished the year with a .919 save percentage through 26 games, earning a 12-12-2 record and three shutouts.
While the individual efforts should be noted, the season essentially proved when the Badgers were on as a team, they could be as dangerous as any team out there. They created success against some of the nation’s top teams, snatching wins here and there along the way.
With all these returning weapons and those that have remained unmentioned, next year certainly seems to be a promising campaign for the Badgers, with the variety of experiences they’ve faced in the last year.
Kelly is a junior majoring in journalism. Looking forward to next year? Let her know at [email protected] or send her a tweet @kellymerickson.