Now being one of the "big boys," UW will need best defensive performance in first road trip

Wisconsin travels east this weekend to play No. 13 Boston College Friday and Merrimack Saturday. 

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

When the Wisconsin men’s hockey team took the ice for its home season opener just over a year ago, it did so with numerous questions surrounding the program, including relying on a new head coach to rebuild a once-storied program that had fallen on hard times. That night’s 3-1 win over then-No. 6 Boston College didn’t single-handedly undo the damage from the two worst years in program history, but it delivered a message: The Badgers were on their way back.

Now, with Wisconsin set to travel east for another series against the Eagles, the team is in a place both familiar and unfamiliar. The Badgers are ranked No. 10 in the country and predicted to make the NCAA tournament — nothing new for a program with six national championships — but entirely unprecedented for the players on this team, none of whom have ever played in a tournament game.

“Last year when we played BC and we played teams that were ranked ahead of us, we used that as a measuring stick and something that we used as an inspiration to say 'okay, let's see where we are against the big boys,'” head coach Tony Granato said. “I think we're one of the big boys now.”

That status comes with many challenges, including increased scrutiny, more rigorous scouting from opponents, physical play and the knowledge that you’ll be getting the other team’s best shot on a nightly basis, which Granato touched on after the team’s season-opening win over Michigan Tech.

“One of [the Michigan Tech] coaches told me last night that they prepared for this game like it was a Stanley Cup game. I think we're going to get a lot of that.”

In response, the coaching staff and the team’s veterans have delivered a message of unity and confidence that belies the inexperience of one of the country’s youngest teams. Despite having freshmen on three of four lines and all three defense pairings, the Badgers have shown a strong team defense that wasn’t apparent in many of their losses last season.

“You have trust in everyone on the ice, regardless of age or whatever,” senior forward and alternate captain Ryan Wagner said. “We're Wisconsin; we want to go into every weekend thinking and knowing that we can win.”

Wisconsin’s performance in their first road tests of the season this year, against No. 13 BC on Friday and Merrimack on Saturday, will give an early indication of its ability to live up to the expectations of a top-10 team. A year ago the Badgers followed up their breakout win over the Eagles with a sloppy defensive performance in an 8-5 loss, and although Merrimack lacks the explosive scorers of last year’s Eagles, Wisconsin will still need a pair of conscientious defensive performances to come away with two crucial wins.

The puck will drop Friday night at 6 p.m. in Boston, followed by another 6 p.m. matchup in North Andover, Mass. on Saturday.

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