After an extremely disappointing weekend against Michigan Tech, the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team (0-2, 0-0 Big Ten) return to the Kohl Center ice to take on the Army Black Knights (0-2, 0-1 AHA).
It was a rough weekend on all fronts for Wisconsin. They struggled to score, they struggled to make saves. Above all else, they really struggled to defend against a not-so-great Michigan Tech offense. It was a disappointing effort for the boys in cardinal and white, but it is a long season, and there is no use in overreacting after one tough weekend.
Know your foe
Army is led by one of the best players in the nation, Colin Bilek. The senior from Brighton, Michigan finished third in the nation last year with 18 goals. He also put up 25 points in just 18 games played. Bilek was named a Second Team All-American and Third Team All-USCHO. Bilek is a superstar, and a rare one to come through the Army hockey program. Army had just one player make it to the NHL in their long history, but Bilek has all the talent to join those exclusive ranks.
Outside of Bilek, Army got most of its offense from Daniel Haider, Eric Butte and Mitch Machlitt over the last season. Haider and Butte are two seniors who have really been scuffling early in the season for the Black Knights. They have a combined one point between the two of them. The sophomore, Machlitt, scored in the last game for Army and has accumulated 10 shots over the Cadets’ first three games.
On the blue line, Army has one of the best offensive defensemen in the United Sates in junior Anthony Firriolo. The New Jersey native finished fourth on the team last year in goals. Last weekend, Firriolo scored in both games for Army and put up an assist as well. He is a true talent with a fantastic shot, but he has a reputation of being a bit of a defensive liability.
In goal, Army rotates through two Midwest natives. Their presumed Thursday starter is Minnetonka, Minnesota’s Justin Evenson. Evenson started two games for Army last year and went 1-1 in those games. Evenson picked up a shutout in his first collegiate start, but a clunker in relief and a not-so-great start left his season stats not as good as they probably should be. This season, Evenson has been really bad. In two games he has surrendered 11 goals, including a seven-goal dud in the season opener against a sub-par Providence College offense. Evenson’s save percentage of just over 0.9 will hopefully help the Badgers get their offense rolling in a big way.
Army’s Friday starter in goal will most likely be Hayward, Wisconsin’s Gavin Abric. Abric did not see any in-game action last year, but he got his first college start last Saturday in Army’s shootout win over Rochester Institute of Technology. Abric was solid, giving up just two goals over 65 minutes and securing the win in a shootout. At six-foot-three, Abric plays much bigger than his wiry frame. The sophomore will likely rotate with Justin Evenson for the majority of the year, but I believe he will be the main goalkeeper for Army’s most important games.
Behind the bench for Army is the legendary Brian Riley. Riley is now in his 18th season at the helm for Army. He followed in the footsteps of his father, the great Hall-of-Famer, Jack Riley. The Riley family has been one of the most influential families in the history of college hockey, and their legacy continues to live on in the form of Brian.
While having a legend for a father certainly did not hurt, Riley has proven himself as one of the top coaches in college hockey. He is a three-time Atlantic Hockey Association coach of the year and one of the best at making more with less. Army will never be able to recruit the same talent as schools like Wisconsin or their AHA counterparts, but Riley has always been able to get the most out of what he has.
What to watch for
Shakeups: The line combinations for this weekend will be almost completely different from how they were in last Friday’s opener, according to Todd Milewski.
The most obvious and interesting change is Liam Malmquist jumping all the way from fourth-line center to first-line winger. While Malmquist did not get on the scoresheet last weekend, he was one of the only Badgers that was not terrible.
But, with the promotion of Malmquist, comes the demotion of Brock Caufield. I mentioned in last week’s preview how excited I was for a year where Brock Caufield will play big-time minutes. In all honesty though, last weekend was extremely underwhelming for him. He led the Badgers with 14 shots, but it seemed like most of them were forced or from bad scoring angles. He did have quite a few good chances, especially in game one, but was time and time again unable to capitalize. I still think Caufield will have a great season, but last weekend was far from his best.
Goalies: The goalkeeping last weekend was suboptimal to say the least. The combination of Jared Moe and Cameron Rowe has the potential to be one of the nation’s best. But after the combined 10 goals given up in less than two full games, it looks like this might be an oversight. Rowe got the start in the opener and was not good. Rowe gave up five goals on just 17 shots, and while the defense gave him no help, there were certainly a few that Rowe wanted back. Moe came in relief and was actually pretty solid. He shut down Michigan Tech for the remainder of the game and provided a nice boost for Wisconsin going into Saturday night. But, Saturday, Moe was chased quickly into the second period after allowing four bad goals.
Rowe will start Thursday against Army with Moe most likely taking the net Saturday. This is a big weekend for the two against an even better offense than they faced last week. They are both full of talent, and now is the time to show some of it.
Defense: The defense was brutal last weekend, especially Friday. The failure came from all levels, but it was most apparent at the top. I will avoid putting the blame on one guy because ultimately, no one was good.
The only change to the pairs this week will seemingly be the flip-flopping of Joshua Ess and Jesper Peltonen. I think the lack of change is a good move by the Badgers’ head coach Anthony Granato. It is so early, and most of his defenders are so young, that making significant line changes could hurt more than help. Keep these lines relatively similar for the next few weeks to let guys develop chemistry, and if it still doesn’t work, then change it.
Making predictions for this weekend feels difficult. On one hand, Wisconsin was so bad last weekend, that rebounding against a solid, well-coached team feels nearly impossible. But, Army hasn’t been great to start the year either. Both teams have struggled to score and stop the opponent from scoring in the early season contests, but something has to give.
In the end, the Badgers are the better team. Somehow, someway, they will finally score a few goals this weekend, and hopefully, they’ll keep Army from doing the same. Bilek will get his, but it is important for Wisconsin to minimize everyone else. If they let players like Firriolo and Machlitt get going in addition to Bilek, it could be another very long weekend for the Badgers.
Thursday: 5-1 Wisconsin
Friday: 4-3 Army