Today is Wisconsin's first official day of practice, and the Badgers are making the 2 1/2 hour trip West on I-94 to Eau Claire. Skating at Hobbs Ice Center at 1 p.m., the Badgers will start with 30 minutes of practice, then follow with two officiated 20-minute periods. An autograph session with the team will follow.
Tickets will be available at the door for $20. The red/white scrimmage will be a fundraiser for the UW-Eau Claire men's hockey team. The Blugolds are the defending NCAA D-3 national champions.
There's more than a few Eau Claire connections with the Badgers. Both junior Jake McCabe and senior Jefferson Dahl grew up in Eau Claire, eventually staring at Eau Claire Memorial. Dahl is still the all-time leading scorer in Old Abes history. Eau Claire is also where Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves got his coaching start, when he led the Blugolds during the 1986-87 season. Badgers' equipment manager Nate LaPoint also played hockey in Eau Claire, skating for Eau Claire North in high school.
Five things I'm looking for today
5. How the sixth defenseman spot is going to shake out
Wisconsin's top five appears to be set on the back end with some combination of Jake McCabe, Joe Faust, Eddie Wittchow, Kevin Schulze and Frankie Simonelli. But, there's going to be a battle for the final spot between freshman Tim Davison, redshirt junior Chase Drake and senior Gavin Hartzog.
Drake has the most experience, but Davison brings some nice offensive flair from the back end. Hartzog has made the full-time transition from forward to defense, but has yet to see any game time at the position.
4. Power play
Not certain if there will be any power play/penalty kill situations today or not, but I'm assuming there will be. The Badgers struggled mightily in the first half of last season, but turned things around down the stretch. Overall, their numbers were still pretty terrible on the man advantage when things were all said and done.
I'll be curious today to see if not only personnel is going to change on the power play, but strategy as well. Eaves has typically ran the same type of power play during his tenure at Wisconsin, but may be looking to shake things up a bit heading into 2013-14.
3. Impact of freshman forwards
And specifically, Grant Besse. Given the hype train following Besse's high school career, it wasn't totally surprising to see Wisconsin fans freak out when they heard he was starting the season on the fourth line.
Making the transition from high school hockey to the WCHA...err...the Big Ten is no easy task for anyone. So, it's not surprising Eaves is easing Besse into the lineup. If Besse wants to play on a scoring line, he's going to have to earn his minutes. That means not only making an impact offensively, but showing he can handle playing a 200 foot game at this level.
Today in Eau Claire is a good opportunity for Besse to make a statement that he's worthy of playing more minutes in a bigger role.
2. The sharpness of the goaltenders
We'll probably see all three Wisconsin goalies today -- Joel Rumpel, Landon Peterson and Adam Miller. The first two are the ones the Badgers will rely on when games count for real, but today is a good way for them to get in the correct mindset for the season.
While both Rumpel and Peterson are supreme net-minders, both have let in bad goals the past few seasons. It seems at times they have brain cramps, and it's cost Wisconsin at a few crucial moments. Part of that is being a young, but, it's all about focus. That should be a major point of emphasis for both players heading into their junior seasons.
1. The reaction to McCabe and Dahl
I have to admit, it's pretty cool they are putting this event on in Eau Claire today. With two local kids on the Badgers, it's a natural fit to host this event at Hobbs. Given the way the town has been producing talent over the past decade, it doesn't hurt for future recruiting purposes to show up in the area either.
I'm not sure how many people are going to show up this afternoon, but it should be a nice crowd. While everyone is coming to see the Badgers, there's no doubt the stars of the show are Dahl and McCabe. Should be fun to see how they are received returning to the arena they grew up in.
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