College Hockey Roundup: Wisconsin’s Woes, Concern for Big Ten, Denver Derailed

Who doesn’t love the holidays? Sure there is delicious food, cold weather, gifts, family and all of those wonderful things, but college hockey really starts kicking into high gear. The games get better, the players get stronger and the standings start to tighten up.

This year has already been crazy with many teams performing well below expectations, while others are surprisingly overachieving. That’s fairly common common on a year-to-year basis in college hockey, but for whatever reason, this year feels just a little different.

Coming up after the jump, a look at the stunning struggles of the Wisconsin Badgers, as well as some of their future Big Ten conference mates, and a look back at Denver’s nightmarish weekend at home.

Come On, Wisconsin

That’s probably the phrase many a Badger fan has uttered over this dreadful start to the 2012-13 season. The breaking point may have come last weekend when Wisconsin got swept at home by Minnesota State.

The Badgers now sit at 1-7-2. There are a series of excuses you could make on Wisconsin’s behalf, but as one of the nation’s historically elite programs, one win in 10 games is unacceptable.

The season got off on the wrong foot when top recruit Nic Kerdiles was ruled ineligible for the first 10 games of the season. It got worse when Mark Zengerle, one of the top returning scorers in the country, went down with a broken hand. It got stranger when assistant coach Bill Butters left the program, apparently to return to the ministry.

While the temporary losses of Kerdiles and Zengerle are certainly difficult, a program of Wisconsin’s stature should be able to get along without them.

Really, on paper, Wisconsin doesn’t look like a 1-7 team. They have good size throughout the lineup, some solid skaters and a mix of skill and grit. So why has this team struggled?

After all this is a team only three years removed from appearing in the national championship game.

Fingers are already getting pointed at head coach Mike Eaves, whose seat will continue heating up if this doesn’t get turned around. The team has been on a steady decline over the last two years, which coincides with the departure of Mark Osiecki, who became the head coach at Ohio State, and Kevin Patrick, who was the head coach for the Muskegon Lumberjacks in the USHL before being fired last season (he’s now an assistant at Vermont).

While the decline has been surprising, this season’s start has been shocking. Bucky’s 5th Quarter blogger Andy Johnson called last weekend’s sweep at the hands of Minnesota State suggests it could be rock bottom, but could it get worse? Possibly.

The Badgers head to Denver for a weekend series with the 9-3-0 Pioneers, who are coming off getting swept at home last weekend as well.

As Johnson noted on Twitter, the Badgers have scored more than two goals in a game only once this year, a 5-4 OT loss to Colorado College. That’s stunning.

Somehow, the Badgers have one of the nation’s leading goal-scorers however as junior forward Michael Mersch has eight tallies this season. All by himself, Mersch has accounted for 44 percent of Wisconsin’s goals scored.

Kerdiles comes back from his suspension this weekend, which may give the Badgers a bit of jolt. They’ll have to hope so. If this team continues to struggle offensively, things might only get worse as they get into the meat of the WCHA schedule, where there is nary a gimme on that slate.

If things don’t change soon, it’s going to be a long, dreary season in Madison.

Big Trouble for the Big Ten?

The Big Ten doesn’t officially open play until next season, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t watching how the future Big Ten teams are doing. The way they’ve been playing this year doesn’t exactly breed a lot of excitement for Year 1.

Well, you know about Wisconsin now, but it’s also been a tough year for Big Ten heavyweights Michigan and Michigan State. The Wolverines have struggled to a 5-7-1 record, while the Spartans are 4-6-2.

Minnesota has been carrying the mail this year as a top-three team nationally with a 9-2-2 record. Meanwhile, Ohio State has put up a 5-4-3 record and first-year program Penn State has collected a 6-5-0 mark.

With realignment nearing, these programs are going to be scrutinized. After all, it was Penn State and consequently the Big Ten adding hockey that sparked a series of events that left the college hockey world forever altered.

If realignment took hold tomorrow, the Big Ten would have a hard time convincing anyone it’s among the top three conferences in the country, especially with the ECAC looking a lot tougher.

There’s still a lot of season left, but you have to wonder if Big Ten officials are a little nervous about the inaugural season.

Minnesota will likely come into next season as the marquee team in terms of talent, but there are likely to be a few early departures that could take some air out of the tires, if only a little. The Gophers should still have a top team going forward.

Michigan’s struggles this year come despite a team loaded with NHL Draft talent and they’ll likely lose a good portion of their top players next season to graduation or early departures for pro. The Wolverines are likely to turn this thing around this year, but goaltending concerns will remain.

Michigan State is somewhat of a feast or famine team and probably won’t look a lot different next season, so it’s difficult to know how good they’ll be.

Wisconsin’s tailspin is worrisome from the standpoint that it’s hard to tell when it will end. They’ve had some good teams the last two years but can’t seem to get into the top tier.

Ohio State is starting to become a strong program, but it’s still likely a few years away from making a jump into elite territory. Mark Osiecki is beginning to change the culture around that program, so there’s reason for optimism, but it will still take some time.

Meanwhile, Penn State is similar to an expansion team in pro sports. It’s tough to build a team from scratch and it could take a while to be a competitive team among college hockey’s heavy-hitters.

The Big Ten will be a good conference, but if this year is any indication, it could take the on-ice product a little longer than expected to catch up to the Big Ten brand. I don’t think the Big Ten administrators added hockey to be anything but the best conference in college hockey. They may not get to that point for a few years.

Unquestionably, the Big Ten will bring exposure to college hockey with its TV network and national brand recognition. That’s a very good thing for the national game as a whole, but these teams will have to rise to the opportunity they have in front of them.

Denver Derailed

The Denver Pioneers came into last weekend riding high. At 9-1-0, it was DU and Boston College alone at the top. Then the Pioneers stepped onto the Magness Arena ice and lost back-to-back games.

The first came against Yale. After a late goal by Nick Shore, the Pioneers tied the Bulldogs to force overtime. Kenny Agostino scored in the extra frame to give Yale the 2-1 win. It was just the second time in 11 games that the Pioneers failed to score four or more goals.

The next night against UNH, all seemed well again. Denver scored three straight goals within the first 10 minutes of the first period, chasing Casey DeSmith, the nation’s top goalie. Then came the Wildcats.

A pair of goals from Grayson Downing in the second period cut the deficit to a goal before Ty Loney made it 4-2. Then came the third period.

Downing completed his hat trick 1:19 into the final frame before three straight goals from Kevin Goumas consequently tied, took the lead and iced the game for UNH. The No. 3 Wildcats, who gave up a four-goal lead the night before in a tie with Colorado College, came away with a stunning 6-3 victory against No. 2 Denver.

Denver came out of the weekend 9-3-0 and are sure to drop in the rankings. How far, it’s hard to say. Few teams have been able to score like Denver this season and it’s up to the Pioneers to show this was either just a bad weekend as opposed to a serious gash in the armor.

Denver welcomes Wisconsin this weekend in what will prove to be a hugely important WCHA series for both clubs.

DU’s loss only solidifies Boston College as the nation’s true No. 1 team. The Eagles improved to 10-1-0 thanks to a drubbing of Dartmouth. BC has a big home-and-home series against rival Boston University this weekend.

UNH is likely to take a step forward with its 1-0-1 weekend, even if it wasn’t pretty. The Wildcats are now at 9-1-2 and continue to impress as one of the real surprises of the season. Minnesota also has a case to be No. 2 with a 9-2-2 record after earning a road sweep at Vermont last weekend while stretching its unbeaten streak to six.

National Scoring Lead

Here’s a quick look at the national scoring lead…

Brett Gensler — Bentley: 8-13–21
Kyle Flanagan — St. Lawrence: 9-12–21
Kevin Goumas — UNH: 6-14–20
Johnny Gaudreau — BC: 9-10–19
Greg Carey — St. Lawrence: 9-10–19

Full list here.

Parting Shot

Last season, Jason Zucker was tearing up college hockey as a sophomore with the Denver Pioneers. This year, he’s tearing up the American Hockey League as a member of the Houston Aeros. Zucker got historic Sunday as he tied the record for fastest overtime goal in AHL history, scoring just five seconds into the extra period.

That was Zucker’s team-leading ninth goal of the year. He now has 15 points in his first season as a full-time pro. If the lockout ever ends, he may find himself on the Minnesota Wild roster proving sometimes college hockey can be a quick route to the NHL.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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