Coming into this season, the expectations for the Wisconsin men’s hockey team were riding high as the favorite to win the inaugural Big Ten crown while starting off the year with a No. 2 national ranking. But despite the Badgers’ wealth of veterans, they struggled on their first road trip of the season and only just picked up their second road win this past weekend, leaving a large discrepancy between their play at home and away.
Although winning on the road is no easy task, last year Wisconsin lost just two games away from the Kohl Center all season, winning eight. But even with many variables being held constant, the results have not been the same on the way to a 2-7-1 road mark this year for the Badgers, UW assistant coach Gary Shuchuk said.
“If you look at this team that we have this year, besides a couple players, we’re the exact same team that we were last year and we had a pretty good road record,” Shuchuk said of losing just four players from last year’s squad. “So it’s just kind of weird that it’s like that. If you look at all the games we’ve lost, except for the ones out in Boston, we’ve been in every game. Some mistakes here and there cost us. But it’s different.”
The first series in Boston saw Wisconsin get pummeled by Boston College and Boston University in back-to-back nights, giving up 16 goals in the process. But that weekend out east has proved an outlier as Wisconsin’s play has leveled off on the road. Still, despite better road play than in that first weekend, the Badgers have only two wins to show for it and a record of 2-7-1.
Part of that struggle away from the Kohl Center might have something to do with the fact the Badgers have only played five total road series thus far this season and four since the first road weekend.
Situated just about halfway through those five series was a school-record 12-game homestand, giving Wisconsin only four road games since Nov. 30.
“We haven’t really had the opportunity to get in a groove on the road as far as planning a few in the early half of the year and then with the big homestand and then going back on it. That’s just kind of stretching for something,” senior Mark Zengerle said of a reason as to why the away record is so much different. “Maybe it’s just coincidence that that’s our record like that.”
It very well might be coincidence, but what’s maybe even more striking about the Badgers’ season to this point is their home record. After bumbling to a 10-8-3 record at the Kohl Center last year, Wisconsin has been nearly unstoppable at home having lost only two games on home ice with a record of 15-2-1.
Attendance lagged early in the season, but now, in the thick of the home Big Ten schedule, Wisconsin has drawn the three largest crowds at home since 2010 and once drew 15,359 spectators, the largest crowd ever to witness a hockey game at the Kohl Center.
“As we’ve gotten down in the Big Ten here toward the end, we’ve had great crowds. It’s been an unbelievable atmosphere,” senior defenseman Joe Faust said. “It’s definitely the most exciting place to play in the league and I’m happy to call it home.”
But although the large crowds and unique atmosphere may make playing at home more exciting for the players, the mindsets of playing at home versus playing on the road make the contrast between the records surprising.
“That’s why it’s weird that our home record is so good because you’re trying to impress the students. You’re trying to impress the full building. You try to do certain things,” Shuchuk said. “On the road, it’s kind of a meat and potato way to play. You don’t do anything fancy. You just try to simplify the game.”
Outside of intangibles, the biggest difference in Wisconsin’s play on the road has a lot to do with a lack of scoring. At home the Badgers average almost twice as many goals per game (3.83) as they do on the road (2.00). This past Saturday against Ohio State, Wisconsin did something offensively it had yet to do this season away from home: score more than three goals. It’s not just the four-goal mark that has proved elusive, though, as the Badgers have only reached three goals or more four times this year out of the 10 total road games.
To make matters worse, the Wisconsin defense has had its struggles, too. The Badgers are giving up just under twice as many goals on the road, with a goal-allowed per game of 3.7 on the road and 1.89 mark at home.
However, if the first two games are thrown out, Wisconsin allows only 2.63 goals per contest on the road, and for the most part the last eight road games have been quite close — four have been decided by one goal or less.
“I don’t know if I’d say it’s completely accurate but it is what it is,” Faust said of the road record. “There’s nothing we can do about it at this point.”
With just one home series left this weekend, the only thing Wisconsin can do now is find a solution to reverse their road woes before it’s too late.
“If we want to end up second place or first place in the Big Ten we’ve got to win on the road. Even when you get to the NCAA tournament you’re not playing at home. You’re playing on the road, so you got to win in different environments, hostile environments,” Shuchuk said. “You can’t have any excuses. You’re one and done.
“The way I look at it, this is the same team we had last year that had the mindset of being road warriors. We just got to find that going down the stretch now.”