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Wisconsin men’s hockey kicks off the second half

The Badgers seek to build on first-half successes.

And we’re back!

Wisconsin men’s hockey enters the second half of the season riding a six-game unbeaten streak, which includes a win over Penn State and a sweep of Michigan State right before the break.

While the young Badgers still have much room to grow, the 2018 portion of their campaign was surprisingly successful. Let’s check in on the program.

How are the Badgers doing?

Actually pretty well. Picked to finish sixth of seven teams in the Big Ten preseason poll, Wisconsin enters the 2019 portion of the season 8-7-3 overall and 4-3-3 in the Big Ten, tied for first in the conference with Ohio State.

And the conference isn’t even bad! Notre Dame (6/6), Ohio State (7/5), and Penn State (9/10) are all ranked in the USHO.com and USA Today polls. The Badgers are 21st in Pairwise, though there’s still a ton of hockey to be played (here’s an SB Nation primer explaining the importance of Pairwise).

Wisconsin has grabbed some excellent wins so far, including the aforementioned win over Penn State, a victory against Minnesota, and a sweep of then-No. 12 Boston College (though the Eagles may not be as good as their preseason rankings indicated). Even some losses that looked a bit dodgy at the time (including a 6-2 loss to Michigan Tech and former Badgers goaltender Matt Jurusik in October) don’t look quite as bad at the turn.

How are the new Badgers?

They’re pretty darned good.

Freshman defenseman K’Andre Miller, a 2018 first-round draft choice of the New York Rangers, has been as good as advertised, leading the team with 17 points through 18 games. Miller has been called up to to the U.S. National Junior Team for the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship and will be out of action for the Badgers until mid-January.

Goaltender Daniel Lebedeff has wrested the No. 1 netminding spot (or at least the 1A) from junior Jack Berry, with a .904 saves percentage and 2.74 goals against. Fellow first-years Roman Ahcan, Brock Caufield, and Dominick Mersch have been starting and several others, including Ty Emberson are getting run.

And the familiar faces?

The sophomore class has been doing very well. Defenseman Wyatt Kalynuk is third on the team with 15 points. Linus Weissbach has missed 10 games, but still has 11 points. Forwards Tarek Baker and Sean Dhooghe have played very well, the latter leading the team with nine goals.

Seniors Will Johnson (six goals, four assists) and Seamus Malone (five goals, 11 assists) are still good.

Is Wisconsin a hockey school again?

Much to my chagrin, not yet.

Through 10 home games, Wisconsin is second in the NCAA in average attendance, bringing in 9,222 fans per game. Playing in the second-largest arena in D-I hockey, however, means that Wisconsin’s average capacity is only 60 percent.

This is all down a bit from 2017-18, when the Badgers finished second in attendance with 10,436 fans per game and 67.9 percent capacity.

As a benchmark, in the 2005-06 (Wisconsin’s last championship season), the Badgers led D-I with 13,511 fans per game, filling the Kohl Center at an 88 percent clip.

Hockey, like gagh, is best served live. If you have not done so yet (and have the means), do yourself a favor—go to a game.

What should we expect for the rest of the season?

Schedule-wise, things are about get intense. No. 8 Denver is in town this weekend. Wisconsin gets No. 6 Notre Dame at home on Jan. 18 and then again at the United Center in Chicago on Jan. 20. A rough January closes with a road trip to Minnesota.

With a freshman and sophomore-heavy squad, demonstrated growth by the young players may be the most reasonable outcome for the rest of 2018-19, with a Big Ten tournament win and low NCAA tournament seed unlikely but achievable stretch goals.

Wisconsin has a very good recruiting class for next season. If some of the young Badgers begin to make the leap, Wisconsin may reach critical mass for talent in 2019-20.