After a surprisingly strong first half of the season, Wisconsin has stumbled at the turn, getting swept at home by then-No. 8 Denver and dropping a listless exhibition game against the U.S. Under-18 team 6-2 on Saturday.
An up-and-down season is to be expected from a team as young as the Badgers. Wisconsin has just six seniors and only two juniors who have seen the ice this year.
Despite the lack of upperclassmen, the freshman class, headlined by New York Rangers 2018 first-round draft pick K’Andre Miller, and the sophomore class including the trio of Sean Dhooghe, Tarek Baker, and Linus Weissbach, have performed very well this year.
Through 20 games, the Badgers are 15th in the country in offense, averaging 3.15 goals per game. Underclassmen account for over 70 percent of Wisconsin’s scoring and five of the team’s top six point-scorers are freshmen or sophomores.
Miller isn’t the only Badgers defenseman to show growth under head coach Tony Granato and associate head coach Mark Osiecki.
Wisconsin was tied for the worst statistical defense in the nation in 2017-18, allowing 3.35 goals per game. So far in 2018-19, that’s improved to 3.05 goals per game, even though five of Wisconsin’s top six blueliners are underclassmen. Sophomore defenseman Wyatt Kalynuk is second on the team with seven goals.
Sophomore forward Dhooghe leads Wisconsin with nine goals. He and fellow sophomores Baker and Weissbach have been very productive, accounting for a combined 40 points—nearly a quarter of the team’s total through 20 games.
Dhooghe has been a force on the power play, netting six goals on the unit, tops on the team and twice as many the next-closest scorer, senior Seamus Malone. Wisconsin’s penalty kill remains a work in progress, though—the Badgers are second-to-last in the country, killing off at only a 77.01 percent rate.
With a prolific class signed for next year, Wisconsin is poised for a strong 2019-20 season, even if Miller moves on to the pros.
The remainder of 2018-19 is a gauntlet, however, with eight of the remaining 14 games scheduled against ranked teams, as well as a road series against always-tough Minnesota coming up.
Challenging Big Ten hockey may not do much for the win-loss record, but lumps taken this season may pay dividends in years to come as the young Badgers continue to grow.