After a long winter’s break, No. 15 Wisconsin men’s hockey (10–9–2 overall, 4–5–1–0 Big Ten) drops the puck for the first time in 2018 on Friday, traveling to State College for a weekend tilt with No. 14 Penn State (11–7–2 overall, 4–4–2–1 Big Ten).
The Badgers, who entered the season with high hopes of building on last year’s unexpected run to the Big Ten Championship Game, have had a positive if uneven start to the 2017–18 season.
Climbing as high as fifth in the country, Wisconsin netted big road wins at Boston College and at Minnesota, but has also had some bad losses including howlers against St. Lawrence and Merrimack at home.
One of the big questions coming into the season was how Wisconsin would replace Luke Kunin’s scoring. Now splitting his time between the NHL’s Minnesota Wild and its AHL affiliate in Iowa (where he was just named to the AHL All-Star Game), Kunin led Wisconsin with 22 goals and 38 total points last season.
Through 21 games in 2017–18, Wisconsin’s offense has remained solid, with the Badgers scoring 3.33 goals per game, good enough for 15th in the country and pretty much on last season’s 3.39 goals per game pace. The Badgers have relied on balanced scoring, with eight players netting five or more goals, including two freshmen, Tarek Baker and Linus Weissbach.
Ten Badgers have double-digit points, with senior Ryan Wagner leading the way with 19. Sophomore Trent Frederic, who will miss the Penn State series as he finishes a stint with the U.S. National Junior Team in the World Junior Hockey Championship, is second on the team with 16 points. Baker, Weissbach, and fellow freshmen Wyatt Kalynuk and Sean Dhooghe are in the top 10 in the team in scoring.
The defense, while still middle-of-the-pack nationally, is much improved from last year’s iteration. Wisconsin is allowing 2.90 goals per game—not great, but much better than the 3.28 goals per game allowed in 2016–17.
With sophomore J.D. Greenway away from the team due to personal issues, three freshman defensemen—Kalynuk, Josh Ess, and Tyler Inamoto—have played in all of Wisconsin’s games, alongside seniors Jake Linhart and Tim Davison and junior Peter Tischke.
The defensive unit has looked stronger under a second year of tutelage from associate head coach Mark Osiecki, but a couple of six-goal outings by Notre Dame and St. Lawrence show that the defense remains a work in progress for the Badgers to reach elite status.
The power play is better, converting at 23.8 percent, up from 21.5 percent, but the kill is worse, with opponents scoring 17.5 percent of the time, also up from 2016–17’s 15.5 percent.
Goaltending has been a mixed bag for Wisconsin so far in 2017–18. Graduate transfer Kyle Hayton was expected to anchor a position that was problematic in 2016–17, but through 17 games, he has a 3.01 goals against average and .887 save percentage (the latter worse than any of Wisconsin’s goaltenders last season). Hayton has given up five goals three times already this season in losses to Northern Michigan, Minnesota, and Notre Dame.
Sophomore Jack Berry has looked sharp at times, posting a 2.17 GAA in six games with a .916 SV%, but he gave up four goals to lowly St. Lawrence in Wisconsin’s worst loss of the season.
With 14 games left in the regular season, Wisconsin still has work to do to make the NCAA tournament. With No. 2 Notre Dame, No. 8 Ohio State, No. 10 Minnesota, and the No. 14 Nittany Lions all still on the schedule, the Badgers have the chance to rack up quality wins against ranked opponents.
With only six home games left this season, Wisconsin will have to do much of its work on the road, though the Jan. 21 game against Notre Dame has been moved to the United Center in Chicago.
The Badgers will also have to make due without head coach Tony Granato, who heads to Pyeongchang in mid-February to coach Team USA in the Olympics. Granato, due to the fact that the NHL is skipping this year’s Olympics, helms a U.S. squad composed of no one you have ever heard of ever. Osiecki is expected to lead the team in Granato’s absence, as he did during Granato’s time away earlier in the season at the Deutschland Cup in Germany.
For a Badgers team predicted to finish third in the Big Ten, the uneven start to the season may be a bit of a disappointment to fans, but the flashes Wisconsin has shown against quality opponents like BC and Minnesota indicate that the postseason is not out of reach.