As the college hockey world bears down on the playoffs, mystery and excitement fill the air as the 59 teams in the collegiate ranks fight to become the No. 1 team in the land. Although not nearly as much hype surrounds college hockey compared to the craze that envelops the country when March Madness rolls around, the NCAA hockey tournament and Frozen Four is no less magical than its basketball equivalent. This year, expect to see the Wisconsin men’s hockey team right in the thick of the magic and hockey hubbub as the game heats up in the coming weeks.
And yes, if you feel like you have heard this before, you’re right. I did, in fact, write a similar column right around this time last year, claiming that the Badgers had what it took to go the distance. Maybe it’s the Cubs fan in me that compels me to make a bold, yearly claim about Wisconsin winning the national title. But, unlike the Cubs, Wisconsin has fielded competitive teams in the Mike Eaves era, and these last two seasons have been among his best.
The notion that Wisconsin could go to the National Championship last season wasn’t far off the mark. While the Badgers lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament last season, they had to make an impressive run in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs to even get into the NCAA tournament.
UW had all the elements of a championship contender, evidenced by the fact that it won every single game in the WCHA playoffs on the way to the tournament championship in the Badgers’ final year in the league. But the idea that Wisconsin could string together such a long winning streak bridging the conference tournament to the NCAA tournament was asking a lot, and after a week off from playing, it fell flat on its face on the way to a 5-0 defeat to UMass-Lowell in the regional semifinal game.
The game was certainly a disappointment after the Badgers had the magic about them that comes with a title run — they just couldn’t put the pieces together, or as Eaves is apt to say, the Badgers couldn’t find the solution to the riddle.
Luckily for Wisconsin, unlike what usually happens in the offseason in college hockey, it kept most of its roster intact heading into this year. Many times in the offseason, as has happened multiple times with Eaves as coach, the depth chart thins upon graduation, compounded when the NHL comes calling, scooping up the best remaining players on the roster and leaving the coaching staff scrambling to piece the disaster back together.
That’s exactly what happened after the Badgers made the run to the national title game in 2010. Upon the season’s conclusion, Wisconsin lost seven seniors and key parts of what had made it so successful that year. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the three best remaining players on the roster — Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan and Brendan Smith — all decided to forgo their remaining eligibility to pursue their professional aspirations in the NHL.
That mass exodus left Wisconsin’s roster a bare bones enterprise, which Eaves has had the task of rebuilding over the past four years.
After a tough two years following the departure of 10 athletes after the 2010 season and a miserable start to the 2012-2013 season last year, Wisconsin has finally looked like it has recovered and returned to the hockey program’s usual levels of success.
With the NHL always lurking in the shadows waiting to steal players, it’s an even tougher task to put together a winning squad in college hockey than it is in many other college sports. The stars don’t align very often, but when they do, the opportunity has to be seized.
Wisconsin is in that situation right now and, for many reasons, the team resembles the 2010 national runner-up and the 2006 national champion Badger teams. For starters, the Badgers have the biggest senior class they’ve ever had under Eaves with nine seniors on this year’s roster. Although they have plenty of talent in that group, the Badgers have several key players that will not graduate after this season.
One of Wisconsin’s key strengths right now is junior goaltender Joel Rumpel who, according to Eaves, has had a quantum leap in his play this season. After recording the second best season statistically in Wisconsin hockey history last season with his .929 save percentage and 1.96 goals-against-average, Rumpel is back and better than ever this year, leading the Big Ten in GAA (1.83), save percentage (.936) and win percentage (.786).
The defense pairs that have played in front of Rumpel have also been exceedingly strong this season, especially the play of junior Jake McCabe and senior captain Frankie Simonelli. At one point the two were a defensive pair together, but even after the pairs got switched up — Simonelli and Kevin Schulze and McCabe and Joe Faust are now paired — the two have continued their standout play. Not only are McCabe and Simonelli defensively sound, but they both have a knack for scoring, harkening back to Wisconsin’s tradition of offensively minded defensemen such as McDonagh and Smith and more recently Justin Schultz, all of whom are now in the NHL.
But Wisconsin is hardly limited in scoring to its defenseman, as four forwards have more than 20 points this season and four players have more than 10 goals. Michael Mersch leads Wisconsin in scoring and also leads the Big Ten with his 19 goals this season. But outside of Mersch, Wisconsin still has reliable sources of offense in Mark Zengerle (30 points), Nic Kerdiles (24 points) and Tyler Barnes (22 points), among others.
But Wisconsin is more than just a one trick pony. Wisconsin is in its best form since going to the National Championship in 2010 and a glaring weakness doesn’t seem to exist. Maybe the one knock this year has been the inconsistency of the Badgers, who have struggled on the road with a 2-7-1 record away from the Kohl Center. But after a tough start to the season, Wisconsin has improved a great deal on the road and in its inconsistent ways.
The final two series of the regular season will come on the road and will bring tough tests, as both Penn State and Michigan State pose threats despite their records.
Those two series will provide insight as to how much mettle the Badgers have away from home. Regardless of the outcomes, No. 6 Wisconsin will almost certainly find its way into the NCAA tournament, and the Badgers have a good chance of bringing home some hardware as well. If they don’t, it’s going to be a few years before they have another realistic shot.
Dan is a sophomore who is still deciding what he wants to do with his life. Think Dan has a future in fortune telling and the Badgers have a shot to bring home a championship? Let him know by emailing him at [email protected] or shooting him a tweet @DanCoco7.