Men’s hockey: Fighting inconsistencies, Badgers continue showing signs of promise within young core

first_imgAfter the Wisconsin men’s hockey team lost a tough shootout to No. 6 Michigan at home Saturday, stars of the series Luke Kunin and Grant Besse seemed at a loss for words.For a team that is 6-13-7 and 1-8-3 in the Big Ten, a tie in overtime against a top-tier team like the Wolverines would normally be viewed as a success, just not for this team — not anymore.“You know, it’s really disappointing to lose games like that,” Besse said. “It was great to get chances like we have been getting, but we have to start putting some of those away.”“We got the opportunities we wanted and the goal at the end to send it to overtime, which was our goal,” Kunin added. “We just didn’t get the bounces we needed.”A big reason for the disappointment falls on how many close games the Badgers have had to fight through this season, as they have settled for seven total ties and two losses in overtime alone. The Badgers have seemingly played exactly to the skill of almost every opponent on their schedule, turning excitement around the team on its head, and back again, in only a few weeks.A 3-1 win over No. 1 North Dakota, a 3-3 overtime win over now-No. 10 Denver and losses to Ferris State and struggling Ohio State are as random as they are confusing. Promising leaders like goaltender Matt Jurusik have gone from being an upper echelon-type player to getting pulled against an unranked rival at home for letting in eight goals.On the other end of the spectrum, unassuming freshman Ryan Wagner has gone from a deep spot on the bench to the highest shooting percentage (.189) on the team and second in total points (21).The lack of success and consistency is hard to analyze from a numbers stand point, but a general overview of the season’s results reveals how truly unfortunate these Badgers have been.Their seven total ties are now two more than any other team in the Big Ten and as much as half of the total combined ties in the conference. Michigan now marks the 13th game this season the Badgers have played that finished with a one-goal margin or less, an exhausting stat for a team with 80 percent underclassmen.“That kind of trend is draining,” head coach Mike Eaves said. “But I think it also speaks to the resilience of our team and the impressive nature in which they fight back. We just keep trying new things and remind them of what we do in practice.”With a NCAA tournament bid seeming more and more unlikely, the Badgers are looking inward to try and make something out of a year that is still pretty hard to absorb for a program so foreign to failure. Eaves has shifted his focus to forging a completely new lineup behind a cast of freshmen still adjusting to his formations.Eaves has utilized the formation for the last couple of years, but outside of a NCAA tournament first-round trip two years ago, he hasn’t seen much success from it. On the other side of that, Eaves is unlikely to change much with the building individual skill of his many younger prospects.“One thing we stressed against Michigan was our front line against theirs,” Eaves said. “I thought [freshman defenseman Cameron] Hughes and the guys showed outstanding toughness. The second night I thought we carried the play.”Additionally, suspensions and injuries have kept out key upperclassmen that have crippled the team in the win column, but have opened the door for new guys to step up.Eaves has not been very transparent in his plans for the team, but has been slowly but surely rotating the younger guys into the upper lines. All eight of the top scorers on Wisconsin this year are freshmen or sophomores, and Hughes is now on the front line and one of the leaders on the team.Despite the combined 10 wins over the last two seasons, the Badgers have ample opportunity to play spoiler in their eight remaining Big Ten games. Now three points behind Ohio State in the conference standings, their two-game away series in Columbus is crucial in finishing February strong.Other key matchups for Wisconsin include their final home series in early March with the No. 15 Nittany Lions of Penn State, right before they travel to Minneapolis for a rematch with newly ranked Minnesota.“The challenge is there for these guys and I think they’re meeting that challenge,” Eaves said. “They’re giving us a chance to win games.”last_img

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