With no runaway leader this season, Big Ten men’s hockey title up for grabs in second half

January 19, 2019

This time last year, the race for the Big Ten Conference championship was already done, for all intents and purposes. Notre Dame was perfect halfway through its 24-game league slate, and no one was able to come close to matching the pace.

As the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team gets back into conference play with a series against the 12th-ranked Fighting Irish (8 p.m. Friday at the Kohl Center on ESPNU, 6:30 p.m. Sunday at Chicago’s United Center on BTN), the 2018-19 regular-season title is up for grabs.

And, yes, the Badgers consider themselves a player in the contest. Despite a sub-.500 record overall (8-9-3), UW is near the top of the Big Ten in one measure that takes into account varying numbers of conference games played.

Ordering teams by the fewest number of points lost, Ohio State is in first place with 13 — the difference between the number of points it has won (23) and the maximum it could have gained (12 games each worth three points, so 36).

The Badgers are second in that measure with 14 points lost, with Minnesota right behind at 15.

It’s no predictor of future success, but it says that, in Big Ten play, UW has done no more damage to itself than just about anybody else.

The Badgers have more Big Ten games remaining on their schedule (14) than anyone, including two series against the Fighting Irish. UW enters its first series against Notre Dame with a six-game unbeaten streak in league play, although that was before a three-week break, two non-conference losses to Denver and an exhibition loss to the U.S. Under-18 Team.

In other words, the memories are a little hazy.

“The momentum we had before on how we were playing, if we can get back to that level, I like our chances,” UW coach Tony Granato said. “There are going to be games like we saw which are going to go down to the third period where we’re going to have to find a way to be the best team the last 10 minutes of the game. That’s been the consistent thing out of what we’ve seen out of our league: close games, right down to the wire.”

While they have been idle from Big Ten play since Dec. 8, the Badgers have fallen from a tie for first place in points accumulated to fifth. And while they can expect the rest of the league to continue beating up on each other in the second half, they need to rack up a lot of victories to have a chance at a high finish.

“This is the last stretch for our senior players,” Granato said. “I know they’ve got a ton of pride in how their careers have gone and they want to finish in the right way. The schedule is going to be competitive but I like where we’re at. Friday night’s going to be showtime, and hopefully we’ll start the second half the way we finished the first half.”

Here’s the order of Big Ten teams by fewest points lost, with their remaining league opponents:

1. Ohio State, 23 points (13 points lost), 12 games remaining

Home series: Notre Dame, Minnesota, Michigan State

Road series: Penn State, UW, Michigan

2. Wisconsin, 16 points (14 points lost), 14 games remaining

Home series: Notre Dame (one game at neutral site), Ohio State, Michigan

Road series: Minnesota, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Penn State

3. Minnesota, 21 points (15 points lost), 12 games remaining

Home series: UW, Michigan, Notre Dame

Road series: Michigan State, Penn State, Ohio State

4. Notre Dame, 15 points (18 points lost), 13 games remaining

Home series: Michigan State, Michigan (single game), UW, Penn State

Road series: UW (one game at neutral site), Ohio State, Minnesota

5. Penn State, 17 points (19 points lost), 12 games remaining

Home series: Ohio State, Minnesota, UW

Road series: Michigan (one game at neutral site), Michigan State, Notre Dame

6. Michigan, 18 points (21 points lost), 11 games remaining

Home series: Penn State (one game at neutral site), Michigan State (one game at neutral site), Ohio State

Road series: Minnesota, Notre Dame (single game), UW

7. Michigan State, 13 points (23 points lost), 12 games remaining

Home series: Minnesota, UW, Penn State

Road series: Notre Dame, Michigan (one game at neutral site), Ohio State

Caught on video

Linus Weissbach talks about what’s ahead against Notre Dame and about a shift in the lines:

Three more things

• Weissbach practiced this week on a line with Seamus Malone and Will Johnson, a combination that the Badgers had on the ice in the third period of last Saturday’s exhibition game. Granato said he’ll probably give both Weissbach and Jack Gorniak time on that line, with the other joining Tarek Baker and Sean Dhooghe. Part of the coach’s reasoning, he said, was to get Weissbach more offensive opportunities because Granato often uses Baker’s line in defensive situations.

• Look for defenseman Ty Emberson to get a few opportunities with the second power-play group, spelling Wyatt Kalynuk. Granato is fine with using Kalynuk on both units, but after a few times up and down the ice he wants to see Kalynuk get a breather.

• Granato doesn’t think that injuries to Notre Dame’s top three goal-scorers — Cal Burke and Cam Morrison are out for this weekend and Joe Wegwerth is out for the season — will change what the Badgers see from the Fighting Irish. “Their formula for success has always been the same no matter who has been in their lineup and who’s been part of their team,” he said. “So we’re going to have to be really disciplined in the neutral zone as far as creating speed and supporting the puck. We’re going to have to be really stingy at both net fronts and understand that that’s where they want to make the difference in the game. We’ll have to go toe to toe with them in those areas to have success.”

Put it in quotes

Captain Peter Tischke, on the Badgers feeling like they can compete with anyone:

“We feel like we’re right there. We have the skill, we have the work ethic. It’s just a matter of consistency for us, so we’ve got to work on that.”

Lining up

Here’s the projected Badgers lineup for Friday:

Linus Weissbach - Seamus Malone - Will Johnson

Jack Gorniak - Tarek Baker - Sean Dhooghe

Roman Ahcan - Dominick Mersch - Brock Caufield

Matthew Freytag - Mick Messner - Jason Dhooghe

Extra forward: Max Zimmer

Wyatt Kalynuk - Tyler Inamoto

Josh Ess - Peter Tischke

K’Andre Miller - Ty Emberson

Starting goalie: Daniel Lebedeff

Keep reading

The Badgers are last in the country in faceoff winning percentage, and they need their wingers to get more involved in helping win a few more each game.

Here’s the preview of the series against Notre Dame.

The Badgers didn’t get what they wanted out of last week’s exhibition game, and they’re trying to move past what was termed an embarrassing loss.

Ty Emberson “just does everything right,” Granato told Nick Erickson for a story in the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram.

Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson told USCHO’s Drew Claussen that there probably were some maturity issues at play in losing a game to Minnesota in the final seconds last Saturday.

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