This season for Wisconsin men’s hockey began with many question marks. How fast would a new coaching staff help get a struggling hockey program back on track? How would such a young group be able to compete with hockey powerhouses like Boston College and the University of Minnesota? Could Matt Jurusik handle the load as the starting goalie with no other experienced netminders on the roster?
All of these questions seem like ancient history now that the Badgers hold a 15-8-1 record overall and are tied with Minnesota for first place in the Big Ten.
The Badgers are 6-4 against currently-ranked opponents and have won their last three matchups against teams on that list. They are also riding a five game winning streak, in which they’ve averaged over four goals per game and held their opponents to a respectable 2.4 goals per game.
The goalies are hot and the offense is clicking; the defense has stood its ground; special teams is producing on both ends and it could not come at a better time. The Badgers are home this weekend to face a Penn State team ranked tenth in the country. The Wisconsin men’s hockey program is not only putting itself in a position where it can challenge the ‘big dogs’ for a Big Ten title, but is setting a standard of excellence for the future.
Head coach Tony Granato came in with long term goals, but he says that the way to get there happens step by step.
“We haven’t talked about any long term goals,” Granato said on Monday. “Our way of doing this season has been week to week or day to day. We want to improve faster than the other teams improve. We talk about being quick learners, we talk about what’s in front of us and how are we gonna get better today.”
There has been great necessity for quick learning lately, as the Badgers have faced several injuries and other situations that have caused drastic line changes for both forwards and defensemen. Players coming in and out of the lineup can often create complexities for teams and coaches as they struggle to move things around and find good fits.
Early in the season, there was a concern with the way the top scoring lines were playing defensively. Granato was able to move players around and get them comfortable in different positions so that they’d be able to play a more sound 200-foot game, no matter who they are grouped with.
When asked about having to shake up the lines, Granato said, “The more I coach this team the more I like the flexibility of being able to play different players with different lines.”
This flexibility has also come in handy as of late with the defense. In each of the last two games, the Badgers have been a defender down. Peter Tischke and Jake Linhart have been huge for the Badgers in those situations, helping hold down the fort in the defensive zone, but a concern is if they will be able to do this long term.
“On the second night you always worry a little bit about them wearing down,” said Granato, “but obviously Jake had enough energy to jump in the play in the overtime period to get that goal.”
Scoring in overtime on the second night of a back-to-back against Michigan State was a huge feat for a defenseman carrying extra minutes two nights in a row.
Another strong point for the Badgers lately has been goaltending, and not just from one of the team’s netminders. Matt Jurusik and Jack Berry have been sharing the load, and complementing each other quite nicely. Early season struggles for Jurusik and sudden brilliance from Berry left a lot of people wondering what the future would hold for Badger goaltending, but as of late both have looked elite.
“Not a lot of elite teams have that kind of situation. They’ve both been outstanding. This rhythm has worked out well for them,” Granato told the media on Monday. “Both of them were big in all our wins in the last four weeks. They’ve been as solid as they’ve been all year.”
Granato described the current situation as a luxury. Neither goalie has allowed more than three regulation goals in each of the last eight games.
The Badgers have also been able to tilt home ice in their favor lately , winning three of their last four in the Kohl Center. The fans have been coming back to Madison to watch their now ranked Badgers play a high level of hockey.
“We talked about the Minnesota [series]. We were gonna have a full house, or close to it, and let’s show people what kind of team we have so they come back,” said Granato. “I think they’re gonna come back with what they saw.”
As this young team continues to progress each and every day, they become more fun to watch and more fun for fans to root for.
“That was one of the things as the weeks went along. Let’s keep getting more people in the building, le’ts get the energy back in here, let’s get the people of Madison behind us,” Granato said. “We’re to that point now and I think with what they’ve seen and how we’ve positioned ourselves, the fans have been happy… and we’ll try and get better every week.”
The Badgers have a huge challenge at hand this weekend as No. 10 Penn State rolls through town. They currently sit eight points behind the Badgers in the Big Ten standings and are looking for a boost after losing five straight.