first_imgHalf of the members of the 2014-15 Wisconsin men’s hockey team have yet to play in a collegiate game, but that won’t exempt them from playing early and often this season.After losing a core group of nine seniors to graduation and two others to the NHL following the conclusion of last season, the Badgers have a daunting task ahead of them this season as they look to return to the NCAA tournament for the third-straight season.UW officially began practice this past Saturday and will head on the road to Alaska for its first two contests of the season, a very quick start for a team that features 11 true freshmen.“We’re going to find what kind of group we have,” assistant coach Gary Shuchuk said. “Our young guys are going to be thrown in the fire. They’re going to be in every situation – power play, penalty kill and regular shift. They’re the ones that have to come up and do it.”Of the 339 points scored during 37 games last season, fewer than 100 return — 99 to be exact — or just slightly below 30 percent. A year ago, now-senior forward Joseph LaBate finished with 22 total points, half of what team-leader Mark Zengerle scored, giving LaBate the sixth-most points on the team. He now finds himself as the leading returning scorer this season.With just nine total upperclassmen this season compared to the nine seniors from a year ago, LaBate recognizes that the underclassmen and large group of freshmen will play a much bigger role than in years past.“We need all 11 freshmen. We have two guys that haven’t played games yet that redshirted,” LaBate said of Corbin McGuire and Tim Davison, two of just five freshmen a year ago. “That’s half our team right there. We as an older group, the five seniors and juniors, we know that we need them on our team. We don’t have a complete team unless we have all those freshmen.”Wisconsin is especially young offensively after losing seven forwards from last year’s team, including the entire first line of Nic Kerdiles, Mark Zengerle and Tyler Barnes. No forward line remained intact, and Shuchuk said the lines could fluctuate for much of the beginning portion of the season.However, with the large exodus of upperclassmen forwards, both younger players and others like senior co-captain Brad Navin, have the opportunity to step into a bigger production role.“We have a lot of catalysts, a lot of guys that can score goals,” Shuchuk said, pointing to Grant Besse and Morgan Zulinick as two players who will be crucial scorers besides LaBate. “Last year, they were kind of on the back burner because of the guys we had. Well, now they’re in the forefront. It’s time for them to take the reigns and see what they can do.”But there is certainly nothing wrong with Wisconsin’s young players. As Shuchuk and LaBate both pointed out, the freshmen have instilled a very strong energy in their first few weeks, or the “freshmen giddies” as LaBate referred to the group’s demeanor so far.The freshmen contingent has also brought with them an eagerness to learn their new surroundings, as they embrace playing in a new system at the college level while trying to get up to speed as quickly as possible.“Our young guys have been asking a ton of questions. It’s almost overwhelming to us coaches,” Shuchuk said. “But it’s great because they want to learn. They want to get on the same page as us as fast as possible.”What Wisconsin lacks in experience on the forward lines, it makes up on the back end, starting with senior goaltender Joel Rumpel. After a leg injury and split time with fellow senior Landon Peterson to start last season, Rumpel ran away with the starting job between the pipes for UW and compiled a 21-6-1 record, his best for a single season in his three years.The team starts the season ranked 10th in the USCHO poll and a lot of that has to do with the steadiness of Rumpel, who has a career 2.16 goals-against-average.“I think just his mindset knowing he was going to be the number one goalie — he likes that. He wants to prove to a lot of people that he’s one of the best goalies in college hockey and I think that he should. He’s up there with those guys,” Shuchuk said.Besides Rumpel in net, Wisconsin returns three starting defensemen from a year ago, including the oldest of the bunch and the other captain for UW, Chase Drake. Drake, a fifth-year senior, was part of the second defensive pairing for much of last year and should be a big part of the defensive unit this year. The other returners include juniors Eddie Wittchow and Kevin Schulze, while redshirt freshman Davison and freshman Jack Dougherty could also play big roles.Regardless of the year in school for those players filling the key roles, the expectations for this year’s Badgers have not decreased even though half of them haven’t played a game at the college level.“We’re just trying to do our best to play championship hockey every time we go on the ice,” Wittchow said. “We have a goal set of a National Championship every year and hopefully at the end of the year, if we play championship hockey every game and by the end of the year hit on all cylinders, I think that’s a reasonable goal for us.”last_img

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