For the first time in 595 days, the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team will play a game on the ice of the Kohl Center.
The Badgers will roll out as an almost completely different team from the 2019-20 squad when they take the ice against the Michigan Tech Huskies Friday and Saturday. More than half of this year’s team has never played in front of the Crease Creatures and the rest of the best fans in college hockey.
This is a big year for Wisconsin. After losing superstars Cole Caufield, Dylan Holloway, Linus Weissbach, Ty Pelton-Byce, Ty Emberson and others, this year will seemingly serve as a bit of a bridge from last year’s success to the future of Wisconsin hockey.
But, before we dive into Wisconsin, let’s meet the Huskies of Michigan Tech University.
Know your foe
Michigan Tech is led by fifth-year head coach Joe Shawhan. In his time in Houghton, Shawhan has built up a career record of 74-64-13.
On the ice, the Huskies are led by senior co-captains Trenton Bliss and Alec Broetzman. Bliss is from Appleton, Wisconsin and played in the USHL for the Green Bay Gamblers. The Wisconsin native won Michigan Tech’s team MVP award last year after leading the team in points. Broetzman will wear a “C” for the second straight year. Last year he led the Huskies in goals with 13, and finished second with 21 points.
In addition to Bliss and Broetzman, senior Colin Swoyer will serve as an associate captain. Swoyer was named to the All-WCHA Second Team last season and was named preseason All CCHA this year.
In net for the Huskies is Blake Pietila, who was named a finalist for the Mike Richter Award last year. This award is given to the best goalie in college hockey, and clearly, Pietila is among the best in the nation.
The junior was second in the country last year with a save percentage of .934 and was ranked top-five with his goals against average of 1.81. Pietila is one of the more talented goalies that Wisconsin will face this season, and he will serve as an interesting test for a new Wisconsin offense on the opening weekend of the season.
What to watch for
Special teams — Wisconsin’s power play in particular is a big concern of mine. They have looked jumbled and out of sync at times and dominant at others.
This week in practice was really interesting as they tried to figure out a consistent group after last weekend’s poor showing against Minnesota-Duluth.
Head coach Tony Granato consistently threw out a top group of Sam Stange, Mathieu De St. Phalle, Brock Caufield, Roman Ahcan and Corson Ceulemans. This group has a ton of skill, but from a viewer’s perspective, they still seemed a bit out of sync. It might take some time, but eventually this group should get rolling.
On the other end of things, the penalty kill has looked pretty solid both in practice and the scrimmage with Duluth.
The top group seems to be Owen Lindmark, Jesper Peltonen, Tyler Inamoto and Zach Urdahl. This is a big, physical group that will only get stronger when guys like Carson Bantle and Mike Vorlicky return from injury.
Special teams was a massive strength of last year’s club. While it seems like the power play in particular will take a step back, there are still some high expectations for the top units.
Goalie play — In his media availability this week, Granato made it clear that sophomore Cam Rowe will start in goal Friday, but Saturday’s starter is still up in the air.
He talked at length about his plans to hopefully rotate Rowe with Minnesota transfer, Jared Moe, but explained that the net is up for the taking if one really stands out.
In his interviews, Rowe talked about the competition and how he expects the rotation to be similar to how it was last year with him and Robbie Beydoun.
Cam Rowe certainly deserves the opening night start. He was outstanding last year, especially in the second half. He finished with a 9-2-1 record, a save percentage of .933, a goals against average of 2.0 and two shutouts.
The goalie watch will start Saturday and I am really interested to see who Granato will send out there.
I personally think that it will almost certainly be Jared Moe unless Cam Rowe pitches a shutout. I think Granato wants to see what he has from both goalies early in the season and will rotate them as much as possible in the non-conference play.
Regardless of who gets the net, Wisconsin will have an experienced and proven Big Ten goalie, which isn’t something that most teams can say. This is certainly a good problem to have for the Badgers.
Brock Caufield — The senior forward will play in his 100th career game as a Badger Friday night with a lot of pressure on his shoulders.
The older brother of former Badger and last year’s Hobey Baker Award winner Cole Caufield has yet to have significant playing time while at Wisconsin. But this year, Caufield has earned first line minutes, as well as a spot on the top power play unit.
There is no denying his talent, but without significant playing time, it is hard to know what Wisconsin will get out of him. In my opinion, Caufield, along with the rest of his linemates, will not be asked to lead the offense. Instead, their role will be more defensive-oriented with the purpose of setting a tone for the younger guys playing behind them.
While the goals will come for this top unit, I see them playing more of a leadership role than a scoring role.
Freshman — In any season opener, the new guys are always a story. But this year that is amplified for Wisconsin as they have at least eight freshmen that may play significant minutes.
The standout from this group is first-round pick defenseman Ceulemans. Ceulemans will most likely be on the top pairing alongside senior Inamoto as well as the top power play unit. He is a bonafide superstar and a future NHLer.
In addition to Ceulemans, Wisconsin has highly touted recruits like defenseman Daniel Laatsch, forward Urdahl and defenseman Jake Martin. This group of freshmen is extremely talented and one of the more exciting groups in Granato’s six years at Wisconsin.
They will get some big minutes this weekend, and it should be interesting to see how they fare against a well-coached high-talent team like Michigan Tech.
Predictions — Both teams heavily rely on their elite goalkeeping, and Wisconsin’s lack of significant offensive experience, this series has all the makings of a low-scoring, defensive battle.
I think the second line of Stange, Lindmark and De St. Phalle will have a big weekend. Stange and De St. Phalle had moments of dominance last season and Lindmark really popped in practice this week. I will not be surprised if they power the Wisconsin offense.
In terms of the game, despite Wisconsin’s lack of experience, Michigan Tech still does not match up with the Badgers on paper. With Wisconsin returning to the Kohl Center for the first time in two years, I would expect an unusually raucous crowd to lead Wisconsin to two big wins this weekend.