The Wisconsin men’s hockey season came to a difficult end Saturday, as the team lost in the second overtime period of the Big Ten Championship game to the Penn State Nittany Lions. The Badgers were firmly on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament coming into the matchup, and did not receive an at-large bid during the selection show this Sunday. It marks the third straight season that the program will miss out on the tournament.
Although the overtime loss to Penn State will hurt for some time, it is difficult to view the 2016-2017 season as anything but a wild success for the entire Wisconsin hockey program. Heading into November, expectations for the Badgers were nearly nonexistent nationally. The program had notched just twelve combined wins during the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 seasons. Morale was low, and many had questions as to how the program could survive with the unprecedented lack of success during the last years of the Mike Eaves era.
These questions were answered on March 30th, 2016 as the program cleaned house, bringing in a nearly entirely new coaching staff, highlighted by the impressive hire of head coach Tony Granato. Athletic director Barry Alvarez prefaced Granato’s first press conference by stating famously that “This hire will knock your socks off.” Although the hire was unprecedented in both its prestige and aggression, many still wondered whether Granato, primarily a coach in the NHL, could rebuild a reeling college hockey program.
On March 20th, nearly one calendar year after the monumental coaching staff change, Granato has silenced any doubts in terms of his ability to bring back the Wisconsin hockey program. The Badgers finished the season with a record of 20-15-1, tallying eight more wins than the previous two seasons – combined.
Perhaps the largest difference between the end of the Eaves era and the beginning of Granato’s time as coach is the mentality of the locker room as a whole. Before the start of the 2016-2017 season there was a sense of excitement, but also uncertainty. Now, with the help of Luke Kunin, the Badgers finally seem to have an identity for the first time in three years.
Kunin himself may have said it best after the Penn State loss when asked about the state of Badger hockey.
“We took a great jump,” stated Kunin. “We put Wisconsin hockey back on the map where it should be.”