The Wisconsin men’s hockey team left the Twin Cities searching for answers two months ago.
The Big Ten’s preseason favorite had just dropped a two-game series to the Gophers, and had a losing record through 10 games. Consistency was nowhere to be found.
Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves emphasized his team’s preseason’s status was based on nothing more than an upperclassmen-laden roster, which at the time appeared correct.
The Badgers started the season ranked No. 3 in the USCHO poll and climbed to No. 2 for a week before a rapid descent. By the time the Badgers limped out of Mariucci Arena, they had fallen to No. 17.
Now it’s a much different story.
Wisconsin returned to the Kohl Center and won 10 of its next 12 games and is 10-3-1 since being swept by the Gophers. The Gophers will test the Badgers’ home success and growth in a rare Thursday-Friday series in Madison this week.
“We’ve grown to be more consistent in our play,” Eaves said. “We had kind of a funny schedule at the beginning. … It was tough to get on a roll. Every team has their own identity they have to identify. We went through the process and since then we’ve figured some of that out.”
That journey hit another speed bump last weekend at Michigan. The Badgers’ first road game since visiting the Gophers resulted in a loss. They regrouped the following night for a tie, but lost a shootout.
Wisconsin (14-8-2 overall, 5-4-1 Big Ten) is one point out of second place in the conference standings behind the Wolverines and finds itself in need of at least a split this weekend. The Badgers could be without standouts Nic Kerdiles and Tyler Barnes, but Eaves knows the slow start won’t allow for any slip-ups late in the season.
“If we want to have some chances for reaching our goals, this is a big weekend for us,” Eaves said. “We really can’t afford to lose ground to the Gophs or anybody.”
Gophers coach Don Lucia knows this weekend will be one of the toughest for his team. He’s kept an eye on the Badgers’ improvement and noticed they haven’t given up four goals since Thanksgiving weekend against the Gophers.
The Badgers are still the same team, Gophers co-captain Nate Condon said, meaning the focus is always on defense.
“Maybe they’re playing well right now, playing a little different, but it’s always a defensive battle with Wisconsin trying to get pucks to the net,” Condon said.
The Gophers sit atop the conference standings at the midway point. Here’s a look back at some first-half highlights from the inaugural Big Ten season and what’s to come:
The first season of Big Ten competition has played out as expected. The Gophers are on top and Penn State is at the bottom.
Michigan and Wisconsin are fighting for the second spot in the standings, and Michigan State and Ohio State are producing occasional upsets.
The Badgers’ slow start and the Nittany Lions’ inability to win might be the biggest surprises. Penn State has won just four games in it second year of Division I hockey, and is winless in eight Big Ten games.
Don’t be surprised if Ohio State makes a push late in the season. The Buckeyes have the offensive power to make a run in the Big Ten tournament and further.
“One thing is for sure, if you don’t have your hat strapped on pretty tight and are not ready to play at a high level, you’re going to get your fanny handed to you,” Eaves said. “It doesn’t matter where you are in the standings. These games have been ultracompetitive.”
Enjoying the new
New cities, new arenas, and the beginning of new rivalries continue to impress the six-team conference.
The Gophers still have plenty of new to experience with three more road series on the schedule. Their visit to brand new Pegula Ice Arena at Penn State didn’t disappoint. Four games with Michigan State produced a rivalry-like atmosphere.
“For me, it feels a lot newer,” Condon said. “We got to go to Penn State and we get to go to Ohio State. It’s been a different feeling. You don’t have the in-state rivalries we’re used to. The Big Ten, it’s been new, it’s been different, it’s been fun.”
There’s a clear favorite. The Gophers’ 8-0-2 conference record has produced 26 points — three points per every win, one per tie. They have a nine-point lead over second-place Michigan and 10-point lead over Wisconsin.
The Gophers pay attention to their unbeaten streak of 14 games, which includes sweeps against Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State. Condon said the conference standings are posted in the locker room and noted every day.
The No. 1-ranked Gophers have yet to play No. 10 Michigan and will face a tough stretch in the second half of the schedule. Six of their final 10 games will be played on the road at Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan.
“In reality, right now we’re four points ahead of Michigan, that’s all, which is one tie and one win,” Lucia said, referring to the points the Wolverines would need to move into first if they sweep their two games in hand. “We still have four games with Michigan and we know how difficult it is to win two at Wisconsin.”