Freshmen guide UW into weekend series with Michigan State

Junior Peter Tischke tied the game against Penn State with under two minutes to go on Saturday, but the Badgers could only manage one point in the Big Ten standings after losing the shootout. PSU earned five of six points for the weekend.

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

It’s not easy being a freshman collegiate athlete. Even if you’ve figured out your classes and practice schedule and gotten adjusted to the level of competition, there’s still any number of little things that can trip you up and get you off your game.

Josh Ess and Tyler Inamoto learned that lesson the hard way on their first road trip of the year. The freshmen defensemen were about to get on the bus when they realized that the ‘business casual’ dress code for the trip meant suits and ties, not slacks and polos. They got in uniform by the time the bus rolled out, but not before a mad dash to the hotel room and the fastest outfit change of their lives.

“It was pretty comical,” Inamoto said. “I was used to business casual being just dress pants and a polo and then you get on the bus and they're all a lot more dressed up than that.”

The mix-up didn’t seem to affect Inamoto on the ice that night against Boston College, as he picked up an assist for the first point of his career, one of three freshmen to record a point in the game. It was a performance typical of this year’s Badgers, who have consistently iced six or more freshman each game and gotten production throughout the lineup.

Unlike the Wisconsin women’s team, which assigns each freshman a designated upperclassman as a mentor before the beginning of the season, the men’s team takes a more laissez-faire attitude, giving the older players flexibility on when to step in and provide a teammate with a tip or a helping hand. But that as-you-go attitude hasn’t diminished the importance of the team’s relationships.

“It has to be your culture where the upperclassmen embrace them, take them under their wing, they teach them about how the culture is here and the traditions and the work ethic,” assistant coach Mark Strobel said.

Seven Wisconsin freshman have recorded at least a point in the season’s first 10 games, twice as many as last year. Even without a star freshman like Luke Kunin or Trent Frederic, this year’s class has recorded 23 points in just 11 games.

The influx of freshmen throughout the lineup has had an effect on more than just the youngsters. With more players than has fit in the lineup, competition for the last few spots on the ice each weekend has become intense, raising the intensity of practice across the board.

“We have a lot of depth, we have competition at every position which helps out a lot,” said junior defenseman Peter Tischke. “Everyone's pushing each other to be better, everyone's pushing each other to make the lineup which is in turn pushing us all to be better players.”

If anyone’s been helped by the youth movement, it’s Tischke. Playing on the top defensive pairing with Ess, the two have put the clamps on opponent forwards and are tied for second on the team with a plus-6 goal differential.

As much as they’ve scored, the impact of the freshmen has been equally felt as much on the defensive end. Wisconsin has played three freshmen defensemen — Ess, Inamoto and Wyatt Kalynuk — in every game it’s played this season, the most among ranked teams.

Even skilled defensemen often struggle with consistency early in their careers, but 11 games in the Badgers’ young defenders have been as notable for their lack of mistakes as for any outstanding plays. Even when defensemen have had to exit the game early because of injury or ejection, injecting a dose of chaos into the pairings, the freshmen have held firm defensively.

“That’s the biggest thing, when the coach can throw you over the boards in key situations with young players and instill the confidence in them,” head coach Tony Granato said. “They don’t play like freshmen.”

Defensive consistency will be key for the Badgers as they enter the bulk of the conference season. Last year Wisconsin struggled with the openness and speed of Big Ten play, and their defensive breakdowns cost them several games that could’ve been the difference in NCAA tournament selection.

Wisconsin is allowing just 2.55 goals per game this year, down almost three-quarters of a goal from last season’s number. If the Badgers can keep that number down and avoid the slip-ups against inferior teams that plagued them last year, they’ll have a shot at a regular-season conference title in what looks to be a hotly contested race between Minnesota, Notre Dame and Wisconsin. This weekend’s series against Michigan State, which looks likely to be the Big Ten’s bottom feeder, will be a test of the team’s ability to secure four points when it needs to.

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