Heading into the 2013-14 season, the Wisconsin men's hockey team has finally earned something it has not had in recent years: a wealth of experience. Returning 21 players from a team that overcame a 1-7-2 start, won its conference and made the NCAA tournament can have that effect.
This season, the Badgers are ranked third in the country, have been pegged as the favorites to win the newly formed Big Ten conference and are facing their biggest expectations in years.
"We talk about having a team maturity, and I think going through those things sets that up for us," head coach Mike Eaves said at UW's weekly press conference Monday. "As we move forward this year, because of our team maturity, we should be able to handle a bad call, an injury, a bad travel, bad ice. We have lived through a lot more and we know we can live through it if we make the right choices."
The Badgers will be able to show just how mature they have become when the season gets underway Friday in Madison. Wisconsin opens against Northern Michigan for the third straight time, but the Badgers have struggled to find early-season success against the Wildcats.
UW has gone just 1-3 in its previous two series against Northern Michigan, including last year's two-game sweep in nearby Green Bay.
This weekend offers Wisconsin a chance to do something it has not done since 2010: start out the season on the right foot.
"There were storms that we had last year, and who is to say we won't have storms here now, but we are certainly going to be on our toes ready to get out of the port on a good note and get out to a good start," Eaves said in what was his first, but certainly not his last, nautical quip of the season.
While the Badgers look strong on paper, one thing that remains to be seen about this squad is what kind of chemistry the players will create with each other.
Senior Mark Zengerle remains the first-line center, but is now joined by fellow senior Tyler Barnes and freshman Morgan Zulinick, who redshirted last season after sustaining a thigh injury that ended his year. Sophomore sensation Nic Kerdiles, who spent much of 2013 on Zengerle's wing, is now centering the team's second line.
Eaves notes that these moves have looked good in practice, but it remains to be seen if they will lead to the same sort of offensive production that we saw toward the end of last season.
One aspect of this team that certainly needs attention is the power play. Even though the numbers improved towardthe end of the year, the Badgers finished a paltry 18-for-138 with the man advantage, ranking 54th out of 59 teams in the country. Despite those struggles, Eaves sees improvement on the horizon.
"Having Nic [Kerdiles] right now from the get-go and having a unit that will be in place from day one, that might be something that helps us," Eaves noted. "The guys are excited. I think they are excited to see what they can do doing the course of games."
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