Badgers get top spot in first Big Ten hockey poll, Gophers come second
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ST. PAUL, Minn. - Ten months ago, things were messy in Madison. But on Thursday the Badgers were all smiles.
Since last November, then Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves was dealing with key injuries, an unexpected NCAA suspension and the abrupt in-season departure of an assistant coach on a team off to a 1-6-3 start, there's been an incredible turnaround for the Badgers hockey program.
After rallying to win the WCHA Final Five title in St. Paul last March and getting into the NCAA tourney, the Badgers return nine seniors and seven juniors. That wealth of experience in large part earned them top spot in the Big Ten's first preseason hockey coaches poll. The Gophers were picked second, ahead of Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State, in that order.
"Take a look at our lineup and we're an upperclassman team. When I'm looking at other teams, that's the first thing I look for is returners," said Eaves on Thursday, as the six Big Ten hockey coaches and a few key players gathered at Xcel Energy Center for the conference's first hockey media day. "No surprises there, and I don't think it changes anything for us in terms of our expectations and the way we conduct our business."
By contrast, if the Gophers are going to claim at least a share of their league's title for the third year in a row (after winning the WCHA outright in 2012 and sharing the league title with St. Cloud State last season) they know that relying on youth, especially in front of returning goalie Adam Wilcox, will be a big factor.
"We're going to have to replace three veterans in Nate Schmidt, Mark Alt and Seth Helgeson. Those were three of our big guys, and three of our six regulars," Gophers coach Don Lucia said, noting that Justin Holl will move back to the blue line after playing forward last season. "We're a little thin with only seven (defenseman) right now but as long as we don't get injuries we think all seven are good players who will compete with each other for playing time."
Among the players listed as "ones to watch" by the league's coaches, Gophers junior forward Kyle Rau was the only unanimous selection.
Michigan, picked for third, missed the NCAA tournament last season for the first time since 1990, but long-time coach Red Berenson likes the mix his team has, and thinks a late-season rally a year ago set the table for a quick return to prominence for the Wolverines.
"We didn't make the tournament for the first time in a long time, and we didn't deserve to, although in the second half of the season we got to be good," said Berenson, who had not been back to the downtown St. Paul rink since the 2011 Frozen Four title game, when his team lost to Minnesota Duluth in overtime. Like Minnesota, the Wolverines will rely on young defenders. "We've got four incoming freshmen defensemen that will have to eat up a lot of ice time and hopefully grow fast."
After opening last season with a pair of lopsided losses to the Gophers in Minneapolis, things never really got much better for Tom Anastos and Michigan State, which finished last in their conference. The move to the Big Ten brings hope of a revival for the Spartans, who think they can benefit from all of the hard minutes logged by young players last year.
"This isn't like pro hockey where you can make trades. You have to live through a lot of those transitions," Anastos said. "The good news was our team got better throughout the season and fought through some times where confidence was a factor. I thought we were playing our best hockey at the end of the season, and when it did end, no one wanted it to end."
Steve Rohlik, in his first season as Ohio State's head coach, said trip to St. Paul was like homecoming for the one-time Hill-Murray star who coached high school hockey and at Minnesota Duluth before landing the Buckeyes job over the summer. They've had lower-profile college hockey for 50 years in Columbus, where they struggle for attention amid all the noise of Buckeyes football and basketball, as well as the NHL team in town. Rohlik said that all of the eyes on Urban Meyer every Saturday can be an advantage for his staff when they travel extensively to recruit for what they hope is an up-and-coming program.
"With the brand of Ohio State, we can go anywhere and people recognize who we are," Rohlik said, noting that the amount of hockey talent in Ohio is improving, but they still spend significant time recruiting in more hockey-rich areas like Minnesota and Michigan. "That's to our advantage and we're going to go uncover every stone we can."
The newcomers, and the catalyst for the seismic shift seen all across college hockey starting this season, are the Nittany Lions from Penn State. When they announced the addition of varsity hockey in State College three years ago, giving the Big Ten six schools with the sport, it led to the conference sponsoring hockey, as well as the eventual formation of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference and the dissolution of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
Lions coach Guy Gadowsky, who came to Happy Valley after turning Princeton into an every-year contender for the NCAA tourney, said that they've gone hockey crazy in central Pennsylvania. Earlier in the week, school officials had to shut down the line for student hockey tickets because too many undergrads were missing class while camping out to get seats. What those fans will see once they get inside Penn State's sparkling new arena is a mystery, even to the coach.
"No idea," Gadowsky said when asked what to expect from the Lions on the ice. "It's a new conference and we're new, so it's very difficult to say 'this is what you're going to get' because we don't know. But we're excited about it."
The inaugural Big Ten tournament will be held March 20-22 in St. Paul, with all six teams making the field. It will rotate to Joe Louis Arena in Detroit every other year. The Big Ten will use a NHL-style three-player shootout to break ties at the end of a five-minute sudden death overtime.
The Gophers open the season Oct. 11 at home versus Mercyhurst. Big Ten play starts for them on Nov. 29 when Wisconsin visits Mariucci Arena.