The Wisconsin Badgers men’s hockey team has exceeded expectations from day one and looks to continue that into the playoffs, but before tournament time approaches, let’s take a look back at the Badger’s regular season.
Where the Badgers stand
The No. 18 Wisconsin team has secured the second spot in the Big Ten after preseason predictions had the team finishing fifth in the conference. Despite a tough three-game skid, the Badgers have managed to net a program second-best 12 Big Ten wins and have earned themselves a first-round bye in their conference tournament.
Key regular season matchups
That position did not come easy, as the Badgers faced off against ranked opponent after ranked opponent in the regular season.
The team’s first real test came against a then-No. 6 Boston College team, who Wisconsin split with in just their second series of the season. This series was a wakeup call to Badger nation, giving hope to a deprived fan base.
The Badgers looked poised to be a solid team but lacked consistency in nonconference matchups. But the truth of the tale would be told when Big Ten play began.
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In their third conference series of the year, Wisconsin faced a now-No. 5 Minnesota Gopher team who featured one of the best offenses in the country. In a thrilling overtime loss and a dominating victory the following evening the Badgers split with the top-ranked Gophers, proving they were a serious contender in the Big Ten.
That win propelled Wisconsin into its hottest streak of the season, winning five straight, including a sweep of a now-No. 13 Ohio State team.
It is possible the biggest indication of the potential of this Wisconsin team came in their second series against the top ranked Gophers. In a hostile environment at Mariucci Arena, the Badgers snagged another key victory Friday night, and nearly stole the weekend sweep but succumbed to a tight, one-goal loss the following evening.
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Much of Wisconsin’s regular-season success is due in part to their highly skilled and highly talented offense, which ranks eighth in the nation with 3.5 goals per game.
For the first time since 2009-10, the Badgers have eight or more players with 20 or more points on the season. The team has also scored five or more goals in 13 matchups, again the most since the 2009-10 team did it 18 times.
Sophomore forward and team captain Luke Kunin has been the undeniable face of leadership for the Badgers this season. Kunin, who secured a career-high 36 points on the year, including 21 goals, currently ranks eighth in the nation for points scored.
Freshman phoneme Trent Frederic has been right behind the sophomore captain all year, earning 33 points on the season and a National Rookie of the Month award in February.
“I think as a whole we’ve been pretty successful together, and I think a big part is how easy he is to play with,” Kunin said regarding his line mate Frederic. “He makes guys around him better and he’s just a great player.”
Special specialty units
For a good chunk of the season, the Badgers were the only team in the country to rank in the top 11 in power play and penalty kill percentages. They now hold the ninth spot for power-play conversions, but have dropped down to No. 13 on the penalty kill.
In Big Ten, play the Badgers hold the top penalty kill percentage and are number three in power play percentage.
If it isn’t apparent already, this Badgers team is young and full of talent.
Three of the top five point-scorers for the Badgers this season are of freshman or sophomore status, as is more than half of their roster.
“We really like youth,” assistant coach Don Granato said. “The youth mentality is one of the larger appetite. You know you want more, your eyes are open to absorb more, to find ways to get better, to improve and that kind of exemplifies our team.”
Included in this young corhort are defensemen Peter Tischke and Toronto Maple Leaf’s third-rounder J.D. Greenway, who have been key contributors in the defensive unit’s improvement.
Staying on the defensive end, Wisconsin goaltenders freshman Jack Berry and sophomore Matt Jurusik have been solid all year for the Badgers, taking turns in front of the net throughout conference play.
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New coaches, early impact
Following two sub-par years for Wisconsin men’s hockey, the program hired a brand-new coaching staff in hope of beginning an improved era of Badger hockey. Former Badgers Mark Osiecki, Don Granato and head coach Tony Granato headlined this group.
“I guess they call it the ‘Granato Era’ or something like that; it’s kinda just getting started and you see how successful we already are, so it’s pretty sweet,” Frederic said.
The minute the trio stepped onto campus, things seemed to change. With a new look and some fresh talent, the coaching staff has taken this team from last in the Big Ten to a first-round bye in the conference tournament.
“They’ve been huge, a big part of it is them [new coaching staff] and what they’re doing,” Kunin said about the change of coaches. “Just as a whole I think everyone’s been doing things to make us successful but for sure it starts with those guys up top.”
The Badgers have fallen out of the top 16 in the country, making an NCAA bid more precarious but by no means unattainable. With a solid Big Ten Tournament and some help from the committee, Wisconsin could be looking at their first NCAA Tournament since the 2013-14 campaign, when they fell in the first round to North Dakota.
Wisconsin heads to Detroit this weekend for the Big Ten Tournament and will see the winner of the Ohio State-Michigan State matchup.
“We’ve played each team four times now and we’ve beat each team at least once, so I think we have a good idea what each team plays like and we have a good feeling, we win two games when we’re in the tournament and we win the Big Ten so I think we can easily do that,” Frederic said about the upcoming tournament.
Following the conference tournament’s conclusion, teams will discover their fate in terms of the NCAA Tournament Sunday morning.