If you’ve felt like Wisconsin’s men’s hockey team had been chasing the action all game in recent years, you wouldn’t be far off.
From the 2015-16’ season to last year the Badgers consistently ranked as one of the worst teams in Division 1 in the faceoff circle, bottoming out in 2018-’19 when they won just 42 percent of their draws. At one point last fall, Wisconsin centermen lost ten consecutive game-opening faceoffs.
After winning half or more of their draws in 11 of 12 seasons from 2003 to 2014, the Badgers sustained struggles at the dots left them frequently chasing the action and needing to out-work their opponents just to stay even on puck possession.
No. 15 Wisconsin (0-2-0 Big Ten, 5-5-0 overall) has bounced back in a big way since last season’s nadir, and they enter this weekend’s matchup with No. 4 Notre Dame (3-0-1 Big Ten, 7-0-1 overall) with an even 295 wins and losses.
“We've made an emphasis on it as a staff,” associate head coach Mark Strobel said. “When you only win 37 or 40 percent of your draws, that's immediate possession and we knew we had to get better at it.”
A big part of the Badgers’ improvement has come from changing who takes the draws. Wisconsin’s two leading faceoff-takers last season were senior Seamus Malone and freshman Dominick Mersch, who won just 42 and 38 percent of their chances respectively. Malone has since graduated, and Mersch has seen a reduction from nearly 11 faceoffs per game last year to just two total this season.
In their place are a trio of newcomers — freshman center Alex Turcotte, freshman winger Owen Lindmark and transfer junior center Ty Pelton-Byce — who have won a combined 49 percent of their draws.
Changing the personnel has helped, but the Badgers’ holdovers have also attacked the challenge the coaching staff gave them head-on. What started last year with Strobel or head coach Tony Granato occasionally pulling a player or two aside after practice to take some drops has blossomed into a full-on weekly competition between the forwards after each week’s Thursday practice.
“We've been working on it a lot,” Lindmark said. “The older guys are picking the younger guys’ brains and vice versa so I think there's just been a lot more coordination and learning how other people win their draws.”
Winning draws is especially important for this year’s team. There’s no question the Badgers have the offensive talents to score plenty of highlight-reel goals, but they won’t have the opportunity to utilize those skills if they can’t possess the puck.
That’s especially true on special teams, where the shift-opening draw can mean the difference between controlling and chasing the action for the next two minutes.
“It's a game within a game, kind of like putting in golf,” Strobel said. “Especially on special teams, you win the draw and you can attack and try to score immediately. Same with the penalty kill, you can clear it 200 feet right off the bat. It's been huge for us.”
If Wisconsin is going to compete with top teams like Notre Dame this season it will need to control possession and keep the puck on the sticks of its talented offensive weapons, away from its own goal as much as possible. That starts with, and at, the opening faceoff.
Puck drop on Friday and Saturday at the Kohl Center is 7 p.m..