Coming off the worst seasons in program history — just 12 wins over two years and back-to-back missed NCAA tournaments — the expectations weren’t very high for Wisconsin’s men’s hockey team in 2016-’17. Even with some excitement surrounding the new coaching staff lead by head coach Tony Granato, the Badgers were still predicted to finish fifth out of six teams in the Big Ten media preseason poll.
That allowed the Badgers to attack the season with a singular focus: climbing up the rankings and re-establishing the program as one of college hockey’s elite.
“The expectations from everybody outside of our program were low. Our expectations were to prove them all wrong,” Granato said. “Let's just go play. And let's try to build some respect nationally and we did that.”
The Badgers did that and more, winning 20 games and nearly capturing a Big Ten tournament title and NCAA tournament berth. But along with that newfound success on the ice came something else this team was equally unfamiliar with: expectations.
Wisconsin (4-3-1-0 Big Ten, 10-7-2-0 overall) entered this season ranked 12th in the country and eventually rose as high as fifth in the USCHO.com poll. At times it seemed like the pressure was too much for a team that had grown accustomed to playing as the underdog and looking to steal a game in a series rather than playing for a sweep.
“I think early on we were nervous about it,” Granato said. “Now you're supposed to win every night. You're supposed to make plays every night. You're supposed to dominate certain teams. That's pressure.”
The Badgers have failed to live up to expectations as the favored team, dropping home games to unranked Northern Michigan, St. Lawrence and Mercyhurst. But after dropping to 14th in the rankings, the Badgers seem to have re-embraced last year’s identity as they head into the heart of the Big Ten schedule. Last weekend the Badgers played one of their best series of the season in a weekend split with Minnesota — the first time the Badgers had played as underdogs in almost a month.
“I think we're starting to grow as a team and actually enjoy this process,” Granato said. “I like where we're at.”
Notre Dame (8-0-0, 14-3-1) will provide a strong test of the Badgers’ resurgent momentum this weekend. The Irish are playing as well as any team in the country as they enter Madison with an 11-game win streak, by far the longest in the nation.
Unlike most Big Ten teams, Notre Dame’s calling card is its defense, which ranks third in the country with 2.00 goals allowed per game. The Irish had questions about their play between the pipes when the season began, but sophomore goaltender Cale Morris has locked down the starting spot, and currently leads the Big Ten with a .955 save percentage.
Granato and the rest of the coaching staff have emphasized the importance of getting players in front of the net to set screens and collect rebounds all season, an area which will be especially important against a Fighting Irish team that rarely allows breakaways or odd-man rushes.
“We've been talking about it all week, especially with Notre Dame coming in and with their goaltender playing how he's been playing all year,” senior forward Ryan Wagner said. “Net front presence and dirty areas and hits take part, so I'm excited for it.”
Notre Dame is perfect through eight Big Ten games, and though a win for the Badgers this weekend may do little to get them back in the hunt for the conference crown, it would mark an important step for a Wisconsin team attempting to regain the energy and confidence that marked last year’s breakout campaign.