Badgers men’s hockey notes: Wisconsin aims to avoid letdown against Mercyhurst
Some extra notes before the No. 9 University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team opens a non-conference series against Mercyhurst on Saturday at the Kohl Center (7 p.m., no TV, BTN Plus pay stream, 1070 AM):
1. Challenge: Avoid letdown
If you look at the final four weeks of the Badgers’ pre-semester-break schedule, one series doesn’t match the others. (Hint: It’s the one currently staring UW in the face.)
UW played No. 17 Michigan last weekend and has series at No. 6 Minnesota on Dec. 1-2 and at home against No. 4 Notre Dame on Dec. 8-9.
Badgers coach Tony Granato has said leading up to the series against Mercyhurst that part of the challenge for his team will be treating the games as if they were against rivals or for Big Ten Conference points.
“The one thing that we have been talking about as a team all year is to be an elite team and to be a team respected nationally week after week as far as the rankings go, you have to be a consistent team,” he said. “So it doesn’t matter whether we play Mercyhurst, whether we play North Dakota, whether we play Minnesota. We have to play the same way.
“So it’s going to be a challenge for our guys because, in their minds, there is somewhat of a letdown between the series when you’re playing Michigan and then Minnesota is the following week and you’ve got Mercyhurst squeezed in between. But they’re a good team. Just like St. Lawrence came in here. Just like when we played Northern Michigan and you play Michigan Tech. They’re going to want to come in here and make a statement and knock a top team off.”
Two items should have the Badgers’ attention this week in not looking past the Lakers (4-4-2):
• Mercyhurst already has stunned a Big Ten team this season, beating then-No. 17 Penn State 7-4 on Nov. 3.
• And UW already has a bad loss on its resume, that being the 6-3 defeat to St. Lawrence that still stands as the Saints’ only victory this season.
“It’s a game that in the PairWise, we learned from last year, means a ton,” Granato said.
2. Catching up with Peter Tischke
Badgers defenseman Peter Tischke talks Thanksgiving, Mercyhurst’s power play, blocking shots and more in this interview:
3. Late lineup call
Forward Matthew Freytag is a game-day decision for the Badgers because of the upper-body injury that kept him out for last weekend’s Michigan series.
That leaves some question on the overall lineup Saturday, but it’s expected to look similar to last weekend’s groupings.
The fourth line was responsible for two goals in last Friday’s 7-3 victory over the Wolverines, but Max Zimmer was replaced by Matt Ustaski for the following night.
“We’re looking for someone to be consistent,” Granato said about the battle for that lineup spot. “Once we find that, they’ll stay in. We need to get a lineup that we know night after night after night what we’re going to get.”
An ability to play more than just at even strength is one of the desired characteristics for a Badgers team that’s trying to limit the penalty-killing time of its power-play players.
“If you can kill penalties, if you can be reliable 5-on-5, you’re going to be in the lineup,” Granato said. “So that’s what we’re looking for. We know the talent that ‘Zim’ brings to our lineup. And we know the stuff that Matty did last year, but he hasn’t found a rhythm yet game after game. Hopefully, that’ll come.”
Zimmer has two goals in nine games, while Ustaski has two assists in 11 games.
4. Winning record at stake
You could identify many factors that kept UW out of the NCAA tournament last season, but a losing record in home non-conference games stands out.
The Badgers were 3-4-1 at the Kohl Center in 2016-17, with losses to Boston College, Northern Michigan, Merrimack and Omaha. Flip a few of those results and UW would have been in a position for an at-large bid.
With only this weekend’s series against Mercyhurst left on the non-conference slate, UW is 2-2-1 at home outside the Big Ten.
The Badgers also can finish the overall non-conference part of the schedule with a winning record. They’re 5-3-1 entering the series against the Lakers after going 7-6-1 in non-league play last season.
5. The next two
The race for the top of the Big Ten standings is taking shape this weekend in a series involving the Badgers’ next two opponents.
Notre Dame defeated Minnesota 1-0 on Friday in South Bend, Ind., to improve to 5-0 in league play and run its overall winning streak to eight games.
The Golden Gophers have won all four Big Ten regular-season titles and were favored for a fifth. There’s a long way to go, but they’re now four points behind the Fighting Irish, with Notre Dame having two games in hand.
The Badgers actually have the second-best league points percentage (.556), with 10 of a possible 18 points gained.
Minnesota and Notre Dame wrap up their series at 6 p.m. Saturday.
Our Saturday story was on the captaincy of Cameron Hughes, which looks a lot like before he had the “C” on his sweater.
Also check out our Mercyhurst series preview.