Entering the 2019-20 University of Wisconsin men’s hockey season, a lot of optimism surrounded the team. A collection of veteran talent combined with the addition of freshman phenoms Cole Caufield and Alex Turcotte, Big Ten coaches predicted Wisconsin would compete for a Big Ten title.
After a red-hot start, the Badgers jumped to a 5-1 record, even notching a sweep over two-time defending National Champion, Minnesota Duluth. Wisconsin looked primed for a Frozen Four appearance in Detroit. But as conference play has reared into high gear, the Badgers have hit a midseason lull, losing nine of their past 15 matchups — riding a three-game losing streak.
As conference play continues to heat up, Wisconsin needs to start fresh in 2020 to salvage their season. With a start that brought so much hope, Wisconsin must improve on a variety of areas if they wish to receive their first NCAA Tournament appearance since the 2013-14 season.
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While the Badgers have had a potent offensive attack that’s tied for second in the Big Ten in goals (56), the defense has struggled to hold their own, especially in Big Ten play. Wisconsin ranks last in the Big Ten in goals, giving up 3.44 goals per game. While high scoring affairs are entertaining for the common hockey fan, Wisconsin’s lack of defense is hurting their team’s success.
Wisconsin’s inability to contain opposing offenses is a combination of allowing a surplus of opportunities and struggling to come up with key saves. Wisconsin allows opponents close to 33 shots per game, the third-worst in the conference. Furthermore, sophomore goalkeeper Daniel Lebedeff has enjoyed a roller-coaster season.
Lebedeff has shown a mixture of bright spots and struggles, shutting out No. 14 Notre Dame on 22 shots in Wisconsin’s Nov. 15 3–0 win against the Irish, but also allowing six goals in a 6–1 bloodbath loss to Penn State. If the Badgers want to play deep into March, the defense and Lebedeff need to complement the offense consistently.
Much of Wisconsin’s early success can be credited to the electric offensive outbursts from the forward trio of Caufield, Turcotte and Roman Ahcan. In Wisconsin’s first ten games, the trio was virtually unstoppable, scoring 18 goals combined en route to a 5-5 record over that span.
Though Caufield has continued his steady play with four goals over his past eight games, both Turcotte and Ahcan have struggled to keep up.
Opposing defenses have managed to slow Turcotte down. Turcotte is currently in the midst of an eight-game scoreless slump after starting his freshman season off with a bang, netting six goals in Wisconsin’s first six games. Ahcan, the team’s fourth-leading goal scorer (five) also hasn’t scored in Wisconsin’s past seven games.
Overall, as conference play has heated up, Wisconsin’s offense as a team has regressed significantly. The Badgers are averaging just 2.20 goals per game during conference play, compared to an impressive 4.25 during non-conference play.
That trend continues when looking at Wisconsin’s efficiency during the power play. In non-conference play, Wisconsin was extremely efficient with the advantage, scoring one power-play goal per game. As conference play began, Wisconsin has regressed on the power play, scoring a measly 0.60 power-play goals per game.
With both individual and team struggles, it is paramount for Wisconsin’s offense to get back on track. To make the NCAA Tournament, returning to one of the most explosive offenses in the country is a major key for the Badgers.
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Finally, Wisconsin has become vulnerable to starting slow. In recent play, teams have caught Wisconsin off-guard early in the first period. Over Wisconsin’s past six games (1-4-1), the Badgers have been outscored 6–2 in the first period. In their Nov. 22 4–1 loss to arch-rival Minnesota, the Gophers blitzed Wisconsin early, scoring two goals in the first six minutes of the game.
While Wisconsin’s roster is filled with talent, it is difficult for any team to rebound from early deficits, no matter the skill of the team. An end to Wisconsin’s early game woes will help the team be more competitive in 2020.
The Big Ten conference is loaded with talent. With four of the seven teams ranked, there is no easy game in the Big Ten’s grueling conference schedule. At a time of a mid-season lull, the Wisconsin men’s hockey team (7-10-1, 2-7-1-1) has been beaten up by their conference’s challenging schedule. Though Wisconsin has suffered a frustrating middle of the season, there is still time to turn the season around. With a roster filled with NHL talent, Wisconsin must make adjustments offensively and defensively, and execute early in the game.
With two upcoming series against three ranked opponents (The Ohio State University, Michigan State and Notre Dame) Wisconsin has the opportunity to get their season back on track.