Coming into the 2019-20 season, Wisconsin men’s hockey garnered a lot of attention as a team that could potentially rise to the top of the Big Ten after six straight seasons of missing the NCAA Tournament. Tony Granato’s Badgers, however, failed to deliver on those expectations after falling to 14-20 and missing the tournament for the seventh season in a row.
But after a delayed start due to COVID-19 athletic restrictions, Wisconsin is back and hoping to redeem themselves.
Coming into the season, the Badgers were slotted at fifth place in the Big Ten Preseason Poll, ahead of only Michigan State and defending Big Ten Champions Penn State. Ranked ahead of them are Notre Dame and Ohio State tied for third place, with Michigan and Minnesota slated as the runner-up and conference leader, respectively.
A few Badgers also received all Big Ten preseason honors — forward Cole Caufield was named to first team all-conference, while forward Dylan Holloway and defensemen Ty Emberson were awarded honorable mentions.
Caufield will play a key role in Wisconsin's road to success. After being named 2020 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, he opted out of entering the NHL early to instead stay for his sophomore season. The speedy forward’s flashy and uncanny ability to score goals in transition, as well as his ability to handle the puck, will be something to watch out for on the ice. He produced 36 points (19 goals and 17 assists) in just 36 games last season.
Wisconsin does have a majority of last season’s key players returning. Newly-voted team captain Ty Emberson and alternate captain Tyler Inamato, along with senior Josh Ess and sophomore Mike Vorlicky, are back to perform on defense. Holloway, Caufield and Roman Achan — the recipient of last season’s Spike Carlson/Chris Chelios MVP honor and the Jim Santulli 7th-Man Award — will be leading the scoring effort for the Badgers.
The Badgers also have a relatively large incoming class with six freshmen and one graduate transfer. Forwards Sam Stange and Mathieu De St. Phalle, defensemen Anthony Kehrer and Luke LaMaster, and goalies Ben Garrity and Cameron Rowe are all set to get their first collegiate minutes this season. Robert Beydoun, a graduate transfer goalie from Michigan Tech, will also experience his first puck drop as a Badger. The new goaltending group is expected to contribute early as Wisconsin does not have a returning goalie.
Last week Wisconsin announced its first 12 scheduled games of the season, starting with a tough back-to-back matchup with No.20 Notre Dame in South Bend. The Fighting Irish, who compete in the Big Ten for hockey, are expected to field a strong team this season — they return defensemen Spencer Stastney and Matt Hellickson, both of whom received Big Ten preseason honors.
Games three and four won’t be any easier for the Badgers, as they will then host Michigan in an empty LaBahn Arena. The Wolverines bring 2020 Big Ten Goaltender of the Year Strauss Mann to the table, as well as standout forward Johnny Beecher and defensemen Cameron York and Owen Power. All four of these players received Big Ten preseason honors.
Wisconsin will then host defending Big Ten champions Penn State. The key to winning this series will be containing standout forward Alex Limoges who played an important role in the Nittany Lions’ championship run last season.
Following Thanksgiving, Wisconsin will host Arizona State, who is joining the Big Ten conference for this unprecedented COVID-19 season. Former Badger Sean Dhooghe will face off against his old team alongside standout forward James Sanchez, who finished last season tied 10th nationally in the NCAA for most points scored.
The Badgers then get back on the road and travel to Ohio State, a difficult task even without fans to cheer against them. The Buckeyes are home to 2019 Big Ten Goaltender of the Year and 2020 Big Ten preseason second team member Tommy Nappier. Forwards Quinn Preston and Gustaf Westlund will also be threats for Wisconsin.
The last scheduled series for Wisconsin is against Michigan State in East Lansing. While the Spartans are projected to be one of the weaker teams in the Big Ten this season, defenseman Dennis Cesana is one of the best in the country — he was named to the Big Ten’s preseason first team.
While the Big Ten has yet to announce the dates of the remaining 14 regular-season games, the conference tournament is set to take place from March 18-20, 2021. The 2021 NCAA Tournament is also still scheduled to take place, with regional tournaments beginning March 26, 2021.
Pressure will be on head coach Tony Granato this season, as his time with the Badgers could come to an end if his team doesn’t produce some winning numbers. Since his arrival to Madison in 2016, Wisconsin has gone 62-72-12 (.466) and has yet to make the NCAA tournament.