Nearly two years ago to the day, head coach Tony Granato made his home coaching debut against a top-10 Boston College team and left with a statement win.
The same script played out again Friday night as an unranked Badger squad (0-0-0 Big Ten, 1-0-0 overall) welcomed the No. 10 Eagles (0-0-0 Hockey East, 0-1-0 overall) to the Kohl Center and captured a 3-0 upset.
Whether it was a fluke, the impact of seven new freshmen in the lineup or a renewed focus after a down year, Wisconsin looked like a fundamentally different team than the group that struggled to a 14-19-4 finish last season.
That team was frequently let down by its goaltending — to the tune of an .890 save percentage. Friday night, the Badgers were supported time and again by junior netminder Jack Berry, who made 29 saves in the shutout.
Nearly half of his saves came in the third period as Boston College poured on the pressure to fight back from a two-goal deficit, and although Berry gave up a few rebounds, he consistently stayed square to the puck and navigated a significant amount of traffic around the net.
“I saw every shot,” Berry said. “You couldn’t ask for a better — I wouldn’t say easy — game, but I felt great out there.”
Wisconsin also spent much of last season struggling to get consistent contributions from its fourth line, where a rotating mix of players old and young attempted to fill gaps.
Granato took a different approach to the fourth line against the Eagles, stocking it with a trio of high-energy freshmen: Roman Ahcan, Dominick Mersch and Brock Caufield.
That strategy paid off as the three youngsters brought hustle and a defensive presence that belied their inexperience throughout the game.
The trust that the coaching staff already has in their young fourth-liners was apparent when Mersch and Caufield took the ice together during a second period penalty kill. A pair of fourth-line forwards combining on a special teams unit is unusual enough in its own right; that it was a two freshmen playing in their first career games spoke volumes about their readiness.
“To put them out there together was an easy decision early because we knew they knew each other and what they needed to do to be successful,” Granato said.
One thing didn’t change for Wisconsin: the role of the freshmen.
Defenseman K’Andre Miller got the start alongside senior captain Peter Tischke, and he backed up that status with the game’s opening goal six minutes and 17 seconds into the second period.
Senior forward Will Johnson and Tischke got the puck moving, which gave Miller a lane to step up from the left slot and rip a wrist shot past Eagles goaltender Joseph Woll for his first collegiate goal.
It was freshman-to-freshman a little under 10 minutes later on a rush when winger Jack Gorniak made a heads-up pass to center Mick Messner, who was stopped on the initial try but corralled the rebound and slotted it past Woll for a two-goal lead.
“I knew [Gorniak] would see me anyways, but I was still yelling as loud as I could,” Messner said. “It feels great, it’s a dream come true to score your first college goal.”
Sophomore Tarek Baker sealed the final scoreline with an empty-net goal in the final minute after Wisconsin survived significant pressure from the Eagles in the closing minutes.
There’s only so much you can learn a team about one game, and some of the Badgers’ bad habits — turnovers, allowing odd-man rushes, poor gap filling — were still on display. But on the roster and on the ice, Wisconsin looked different on Friday night.
“I would assume the 7,900 people in the building that didn’t know [the freshmen] liked what they saw,” Granato said. “I’ve been bragging them up for the six weeks of practice, and to have it back them up tonight on what they’ve done in practice and have them go out and have an effort like that is exciting.”