Everything didn’t go perfectly for Wisconsin last season, but it’s hard to ignore how close it got to an unexpected breakthrough under coach Mike Eaves.
The Badgers had trouble finding consistent offensive production and had subpar special teams. But the reason they were just an overtime goal away from the Frozen Four is the same reason they can be expected to make a similar run this time around.
Goaltender Bernd Brückler was a wall for Wisconsin, setting school records for goals against average (2.09) and save percentage (.924) while earning first-team all-American and first-team all-WCHA status. Yes, of all those who have gone through “Goaltender U,” Brückler can claim to have had the best single season.
With a freshman-heavy defense, he’ll have to be as good, if not better, this season. The Badgers lost freshman Ryan Suter to the NHL less than a month before the start of practice, and with sophomore Tom Sawatske’s decision to leave to pursue a transfer, Wisconsin will field a defensive lineup each night with at least three freshmen.
“I think he’ll be tested more now because of the fact that you lose a guy like Suter and there’ll be a few more mistakes,” Eaves said of Brückler. “And the guy that has to cover up those mistakes is the goaltender.”
Brückler’s rise was impressive last season considering he had merely a pedestrian sophomore season. While splitting time two years ago, he had a 2.83 GAA and a .905 save percentage. Brückler, who has always come off as a mature individual, grew into that role on the ice as well last season.
“He had a huge challenge in that, in his sophomore year, we were trying to find a goaltender to step up and be the go-to guy,” Eaves said. “At times, Bernd showed he could play, but his maturity level wasn’t such, he wasn’t ready to go back-to-back games. Well, last year as a junior, he showed that.
“This year, his challenge will be to play consistent and to eliminate what we would call soft goals, a goal that he would like back. As he moves forward, he needs to do that to show the people at the next level that [he’s] a big-timer. He has to eliminate those kind of goals.”
The defense will be a work in progress early in the season, with junior Tom Gilbert and sophomores Jeff Likens and Matt Olinger the only returners. The Badgers have brought in five freshman blueliners — two of them committed since the end of last season — to enter the battle to round out the defensive corps.
The freshmen, including third-round NHL draft pick Kyle Klubertanz, will see plenty of minutes, but Eaves still will count on the ones with experience in the key situations.
“If we’re in a close game, those guys [veterans] could be playing lots,” he said.
The Badgers were in a lot of close games last season for a couple of reasons. Their special teams struggled, ranking only eighth in the league in power play and seventh in penalty kill.
More importantly, their offense was mediocre. It ranked in the middle of the WCHA and the nation, and Wisconsin scored two or fewer goals in 22 of 43 games, including a one-goal output in four of the final six games.
Eaves is emphasizing consistency in that area, too. He cited sophomore Robbie Earl as an example. As a freshman, the winger had a number of big games — highlighted by a hat trick and overtime goal to knock off No. 1 North Dakota — but also had his share of games with no production.
The Badgers coaches want him to make the same impact on every game.
“Another year later, and [with] a push by his coaches and his teammates to help him understand that, one would think that he’ll grow into that more and be that consistent guy,” Eaves said. “He’s one of the players in the league that can bring people to the edge of their seats, as a Zach Parise could, or when [Keith] Ballard was on the ice you knew something could happen. If he’s playing to that high level, he’s definitely one of the key players in the league.”
Earl, an all-WCHA rookie team selection, was just one of a number of freshmen who got up to speed quickly last season. Wisconsin will count on similar production from centers Andrew Joudrey and Jake Dowell and winger Ross Carlson, who was solid after joining the team at the semester break.
But it’s impossible to ignore the effect junior winger Ryan MacMurchy has on the team. In the 12 games in which he scored a goal last season, the Badgers were 10-0-2; when he didn’t score, they were 12-13-6.
“You’re hoping that he’s productive because when he’s productive we’d get three goals,” Eaves said. “If we got to three goals last year, we were thinking we had a chance to win. When he did score, we did win. Hopefully we’re pushing three-and-a-half, four goals this year and he’s a big leader in that.”
The Badgers pushed Maine to overtime in the East Regional final last season before succumbing. That was left in the returning players’ minds all summer.
“I think there’s two tastes in our mouth — the fact that we were one goal away from going to the final four and there was a taste of disappointment,” Eaves said. “It was both sides of the coin. … We were so close. What would we do different? How much harder would we work? What details would we try to make sure we had different results? That’s been the theme of the team throughout the summer.”