Skating in front of 1,093 fans in Eau Claire Saturday, the Wisconsin men's hockey team took the ice for their first official practice of the season. They did not disappoint, showing off their new power play and scrimmaging for 40 minutes in front of the mostly red-clad crowd at Hobbs Ice Center.
The event doubled as a fundraiser for the UW-Eau Claire men's hockey team, who are coming off winning the DIII national championship last season.
"This was great," Wisconsin senior forward and Eau Claire native Jefferson Dahl said. "We knew people from Eau Claire were going to come out and support the Blugolds and us, and it couldn't have gone better. With the crowd, the atmosphere, and how we were playing, couldn't beat this day."
To no one's surprise, the cheers were loudest for hometown heroes Dahl and Jake McCabe, who both grew up playing in the Eau Claire youth hockey system. Dahl is Eau Claire Memorial high school's all-time career leading scorer. McCabe, a junior defenseman for the Badgers, played just one season for the Old Abes before leaving for the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor.
Both McCabe and Dahl were featured on Team Red for the scrimmage, and even teamed up for a goal, pleasing the home fans. The pair looked as if they had a second goal later on, but it was waived off due to the net being off, much to the dismay of McCabe
"We should have had two, they disallowed our second one," McCabe said laughing after the scrimmage. "We were laughing when we came in after that first goal. Guys were giving us a little crap, ‘Oh, Eau Claire connection, blah blah blah' ... but it was fun."
The crowd was great, and the product on the ice even better. Even the media turnout was impressive. Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves joked before taking questions they should come to Eau Claire more often to get more coverage.
At the end of the day, the Badgers accomplished what they set out to do, and the event was a success according to Eaves.
"This exceeded expectations and was really fun for our kids."
For hockey nerds like myself, figuring out line combinations and defensive pairs is one of the most exciting behind the scenes pieces of news. The Badgers showed off their five lines and four defensive parings Saturday, and of course, I jotted them down:
Morgan Zulinick - Mark Zengerle - Tyler Barnes
Joseph LaBate - Nic Kerdiles - Michael Mersch
Brad Navin - Jefferson Dahl - Sean Little
Grant Besse - Keegan Meuer - Jedd Soleway
Aidan Cavallini - Matt Paape - Corbin McGuire
Jake McCabe - Frankie Simonelli
Joe Faust - Kevin Schulze
Eddie Wittchow - Chase Drake
Tim Davison - Gavin Hartzog
Not too many changes from what we had heard earlier in the preseason. Kerdiles is moving from the wing to center this season, and I thought he looked solid enough there Saturday. The real test will come in real game action when he's forced into a larger role on the defensive side of the puck.
The most impressive line on Saturday? The "fourth" line of Besse, Meuer and Soleway. And that's not a knock on everyone else, I just thought they popped more than any other line. Somewhat surprising, considering that group features two freshmen.
There were a lot of complaints about Besse starting the season on the fourth line considering his credentials in high school hockey. What people don't understand, is that we're not playing high school hockey anymore. That said, Besse was a factor Saturday -- very noticeable. Besse's best attribute, his shot, was on full display when he snapped a shot off the crossbar. I'm not even sure the goaltender reacted to the shot it was past him so quick.
Soleway was a factor as well. I knew he was big and strong, but he's a lot more fluid than I had expected. He's really going to wreak havoc in front of the net for the Badgers during his time in Madison. He's strong like a bull, and showed surprising ability with the puck on his stick. Besse fed him with a nice pass that he one-timed home for the second goal of the game.
Defensively, McCabe and Simonelli are going to be a great pairing once again. I'd argue they could be the best pairing in the entire country. If they had to, they could play a ton of minutes. But, Wisconsin has three legitimate defensive pairs this season.
As I posted before the game Saturday, I really wanted to see how the sixth defensmean spot would shake out. While Davison and Hartzog weren't bad -- in fact, I thought they were solid -- Drake looked outstanding. I think Drake has the significant edge towards that final spot in the lineup, but there is going to be some serious pushing from the other two to get into the lineup.
Faust and Schulze were ok, not great, but not bad by any means. The other guy I really liked was Wittchow. I feel like he's really taken a step forward in his game from last season. He has the size and natural abilities, but I thought his confidence was lacking at times last season. It looks like he really believes in himself, and could be in for a huge season as a sophomore.
The Power Play
As I had advocated for before the season, Kerdiles is up on the top group this season. Also as I had hoped, McCabe is transitioning into a larger role. McCabe is running the point on the top of the umbrella, with Kerdiles to his right and Zengerle on his left split out wide. Mersch and Barnes are also on the top unit, and they will create havoc in front of the net and dig loose pucks out of the corner.
What I was impressed with in the limited time we had to watch them work on special teams, was the movement. While the players are penciled into roles in the offensive zone, don't be surprised to see them shift often. I thought they were too stagnant last season, too much standing around. When that happens, the penalty kill can close passing lanes too easily. When players are moving -- and moving the puck, the penalty kill breaks down and you create scoring opportunities.
The second group featured Schulze on the top of the umbrella, with Frankie Simonelli split out wide to his left. Somewhat of a surprise -- at least to me -- was Jedd Soleway parked out front. I'm not surprised given his strength, but I didn't expect the coaches to put him in that role right away. Kudos to the staff for giving him an opportunity.
LaBate will also be a key to this power play unit. He was featured not only spit out to Schulze's right on the umbrella, but down low at times as well. He going to be moved around to find open opportunities. Zulinick and Besse also saw time on this unit, rotating with each other. Zulinick has incredible puck skills, while Besse has one of the best releases on his shot I've ever seen for a kid coming out of high school.
Very impressed with the whole event. For those of you who don't already know, I grew up playing hockey in Eau Claire, so this event was special for me. Seeing the reception for McCabe, Dahl and the Badgers was very cool to see. Those guys are a few years younger than me, so it's been cool to see them transition up through the ranks into the stars they are today at Wisconsin.
Adding in the fact Mike Eaves got his coaching start at UW-Eau Claire was just a cherry on top of the whole thing. My late granfather, Bob, worked for UW-Eau Claire when I was growing up, and I even used to own a Blugolds "Mike Eaves Hockey School" t-shirt as a kid.
The facility has gone through a dramatic facelift since I used to play there growing up. They've added a third sheet of ice, and added new locker room facilities for the collegiate programs. It was actually funny hearing Eaves talk about building the original locker rooms for the Blugolds back when he was in Eau Claire. The facility staff at Hobbs has also added new boards and glass, and the place looks phenomenal. Stick tap to them for running a first-rate municipal facility.
I've already touched on many of the players, but I thought as a whole the team looked great. Obviously they were playing against themselves, but there was a jump in their step on Saturday. It's not a secret they have big-time expectations this season given the upperclassmen laden roster, and they aren't shying away from those expectations.
This, "Philly or bust" motto seems to be a trend for the team this season. I first noticed it on a tweet from assistant coach Gary Shuchuk.
First official practice today which means it's the start to the road to Philly. One week until our home opener vs UNM. #phillyorbust— Gary Shuchuk (@gshuchuk) October 5, 2013
Eaves didn't shy away from Frozen Four talk either when addressing the crowd in Eau Claire either, saying,"We start the season in Eau Claire, we hope to end it in Philadelphia."
I think it's clear that the players and staff realize what is capable, but they also aren't dumb enough to think they can sleep walk through the season, especially after the slow start they went through last season.
Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves
On what you can take out of one scrimmage:
"There were a couple things we asked the boys to emphasize based on what we've done in our part time practices, so we held them accountable to that. But, it's not a lot, because when you only have two lines on one bench it's hard to think and play at the same time.
"We did some good things today. The fact we had a little practice at the beginning, got to do some power play, penalty killing, was helpful. And then we put ourselves in game situations, and based on what we did in part time practices, there was an indication that we've done some things. So, it was very beneficial. The biggest thing was, we played at a high tempo today because we had a great atmosphere here. Kids were excited to be here, place was packed. It was a fun atmosphere for our guys -- we got a lot out of this day."
On how everything went Saturday compared to expectations:
"Probably better than expected, because I don't think we knew quite what to expect. But, this exceeded expectations and was really fun for our kids."
On depth being a strength for the Badgers this season:
"No question. And that's a nice thing to have, because in practice there is competition every day. We force each other to get better by playing against each other. They know if they're not going to do the job, someone is knocking on the door for your position."
On what he thought of the first year players Saturday:
"I thought at times the pace was a little much for them. They took too much time to think what they wanted to do, and a lot of times it resulted in a turnover. But, that's the natural progress for them."
On Eau Claire natives Jake McCabe and Jefferson Dahl:
"Lot of smiles on their faces. (Dahl) scored in the regular game, and then had a nice shootout goal, and Jake scored. They were very much looking forward to this weekend."
On being back in Eau Claire, where he first started coaching:
"Boy, this place has changed a lot. It has been an amazing transformation. I haven't been at a lot of D3 places, but I would have to say this would rank way up there. It was good to see the progress of this program here, culminating with winning the D3 national championship. They have a great house here, they can just keep this thing rolling and be very special."
On what he remembers about his year coaching in Eau Claire:
"That was my first year coaching. At the time, we built the old locker room with a couple thousand dollars and about seven volunteers. We painted, we cut the wood, we installed the carpet ourselves -- it was a great project. At this level, you find out if you want to do things. Fell in love with coaching, and it started right here."
Could he see the Badgers doing this again?:
"I didn't say this to the assistant coaches, but in my own head, I had that thought. We need to investigate if we want to do this -- here, or someplace else. It was a lot of fun."
On managing expectations:
"We embrace (the expectations). There are certain things we as a staff want to have a heads up on, in terms of, there are some pitfalls when you have an older team, and you want to make sure you don't fall into those. We think we have a real good leadership core, and they have a good pulse on what needs to be done. That was indicated this summer and the work they did under strength and conditioning coach Jim Snider. So, we have an awareness of some of the pitfalls, and we'll try to stay away from them, and move forward with our ultimate goals."
On the possibility of rolling four lines this season:
"I would hope so. With the group we have, that's a distinct possibility. It's a byproduct of being an upperclassmen team and not losing as many kids over the course of the last couple of years as we have in years past."
Senior forward Jefferson Dahl
On what it was like coming back to Eau Claire:
"This was great. We knew people from Eau Claire were going to come out and support the Blugolds and us, and it couldn't have gone better. With the crowd, the atmosphere and how we were playing, couldn't beat this day."
On if he thought they accomplished things in the scrimmage:
"We definitely accomplished things on our forecheck, defensive zone, and just getting in the game mentality. We've been practicing a lot lately doing drills and stuff, but to get everything connecting at once was great for us. Got a little tiring at the end, but I thought we held our own and played well throughout it."
On scoring in the scrimmage:
"It was nice to get one here. And also, just to start the season off with everyone playing well."
On embracing the expectations:
"It's something to look at to start the season, but we just take it one day at a time and look to keep getting better. I thought today was a step in the right direction. We just continue to build and get ready for opening weekend next weekend."
On the crowd of 1,093:
"That was great. You're not used to that in practice. Guys were talking about it in the locker room, really excited about that. It was fun to play in a smaller venue - crowd is right on top of you. It was really fun."
On starting off on a better foot this season:
"It's definitely important. We didn't start out the way we wanted to last year, and we had to work our way back all season to get where we wanted to. That's been our emphasis starting off the year, we want to start out with a bang and get on top right away."
Junior defenseman Jake McCabe
On his overall thoughts Saturday:
"It was a lot of fun, we had a great turnout today and it was awesome to see. Looking at the rink - new boards, new glass and new paint job - it was like a whole new rink. It was nice of the Blugolds to give us their locker room, just a great experience."
On the 1,093 showing up for the scrimmage:
"It was a good crowd, I was glad we could give them a good show."
On combining with Jefferson Dahl on a goal in front of the hometown fans:
"We should have had two, they disallowed our second one. We were laughing when we came in after that goal. Guys were giving us a little crap, ‘Oh, Eau Claire connection, blah blah blah' ... but it was fun."
Did they accomplish what they hoped coming to Eau Claire:
"I think that first period (of practice) we had the power play, penalty kill and a couple of skill drills, we got our feet underneath us. I think we like what we see on the power play so far early on -- we move the puck well and we have a lot of options out there, so that's good to see. We'll get into more special teams this week, but, guys are competing out there."
On the expectations this season:
"I don't think you look at it too much, but we do see those things, and we know we have that talent. We have the team to go to Philadelphia (host of the 2014 Frozen Four), and that's our goal. That's what we said in the locker room before the scrimmage, the road to Philadelphia starts here in Eau Claire. All those polls, and all those things, are just an indicator of what we can do. We have to take it game by game, and it starts next weekend against Northern Michigan."
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