As tremendous as Wisconsin has been playing lately, and for has pleased as head coach Tony Granato is to see his alma mater succeed this much finally now in his fourth year at the helm, the Badgers are desperately trying to keep it all in perspective.
“We’re just happy to play, happy we’re going well, and we want to look forward to the next challenge,” Granato said.
But hey, c’mon. Wisconsin spent last weekend storming through rival territory like Sherman marching through Atlanta. Wisconsin went to Mariuccia Arena, home of its most heated rival, Minnesota, a team that happened to be No. 1 in the Power 16 going in, and beat them to a combined 12-2 score.
“Of course you wanna beat your number one competitors every time you play them, but I think we’ve gone about our business the right way. Every week we put our best step forward,” Granato said. “But this is no different than any other win. We’ve got a heck of a conference and a challenge next week versus Michigan. So we’ll enjoy it for sure, guys should enjoy it, that’s what you play hockey for. But you also want to respect the fact that it’s a game, a weekend, we did what we had to do as far as playing hard and smart, and we got the better of them. But they aren’t going anywhere. We caught them for whatever reason, got them off their game.”
The weekend was just a culmination of that mentality. In fact, the Badgers have now won seven of eight, and in those seven wins are outscoring opponents, 35-6.
It may seem like Cole Caufield has scored all 35 of those goals, but in fact, he only has 10 in that span. He does have a goal in seven straight games, and a point in 12 straight. With 17-16—35 he leads the nation in goals and points.
But the beauty lately has been seeing everyone get involved. Linemates Linus Weissbach and Ty Pelton-Byce have another 15 goals between them. Dylan Holloway and Brock Caufield each have seven, and Roman Ahcan, Jack Gorniak and freshman San Stange have five. Ahcan in particular broke out last weekend; after getting 14 goals last year he was stuck on two, until one went in off his helmet Friday. That seemed to open the floodgates, and he added two more Saturday.
“They gotta leave someone open and he’s going to be the beneficiary of that,” Granato said of Ahcan. “And if you hang around the net long enough eventually one’s going to go for you. … He’s had multiple grade-A chances in the last few weeks that haven’t gone in. So that’s great for us.”
Wisconsin had been playing well the second half of the season, but whether it was a true contender or not, remained in question. Everyone knew the Minnesota weekend was the chance for Wisconsin to make a big move. A split would have been plenty to prove that. Instead, the Badgers came out flying and never stopped.
“Respect for our opponent has been really good,” Granato said. “Our starts of games have been really good because of the work put in to be ready. We were down 5-on-3 right out of the gate (Friday). You’re gonna either say, ‘Oh my gosh it’s a tough situation,’ panic, or relax and say ‘it’s hockey,’ find a way to get the kill and if we don’t, find a way to get back on track. So the demeanor of our team has been really good, and if things don’t go perfect, that’s OK.”
The wins propelled Wisconsin into first place in the Big Ten, the latest it’s been alone in first this late in the season since the last national championship year of 2006. The Badgers are also No. 4 in CHN’s latest Power 16.
The key is consistency. In previous years since Granato has taken over, Wisconsin would look great at times, but then have stretches of bad play and ultimately wound up a mediocre team. This year, even despite losing some blue-chip talent again over the summer — like K’Andre Miller and Alex Turcotte — the Badgers have been better.
If you want a main explanation, look no further than the goaltending. In recent years, the Badgers have gotten sub-.900 save percentage seasons. This year, senior transfer Robbie Beydoun has been solid at .915, while freshman Cameron Rowe has been fantastic at .948.
“It starts in the net, if you’re looking just personnel wise,” Granato said. “The confidence that those two have given us all year has been what I think has been the biggest influence on our team. Defensively we’ve played really good hockey to give our goaltenders a chance to be great. Also the leadership through this year — every sport and every athlete has had difficult challenges — and our group has been outstanding with the different things thrown at us.”
Granato said he’s been impressed by the ability of his team to keep its energy up through all that’s happened.
“Part of (being a college athlete) is the fans, the student section — that’s been taken away from us,” Granato said. “But the enthusiasm of the players to be part of a collegiate team and be excited about playing and part of a university has been fun to watch. Because I think they’ve been appreciative of the opportunity they’ve been given this year, and they’re trying to make the most of it.”
So now, it’s on to Michigan, assuming the Wolverines are ready to come off the school’s state-mandated health shutdown. Michigan was as hot as any team in the country before that happened a couple weeks ago.
“They’re as talented as anyone,” Granato said. “They remind me a little of our team last year. So it’s important for us and any team, if you have success and failures on a weekend, to move forward and get ready for your next challenge.”
And they’ll keep an even, workman-like keel. They’ll need it to overcome our Team of the Week jinx, which has claimed our last four selections, which have gone a combined 0-6 in the week following — sorry, everyone.
“We’ve been so competitive, shot-blocking, not being fazed,” Granato said. “The penalties taken this year, look at the difference (from last year), we’ve been a team under control.
“There’s lots of things to be excited about, and the most exciting part to me is I don’t think we’re finished.”