The Wisconsin men’s hockey team starts it season this weekend as the defending national champion, and tied as the nation’s No. 1 team.
The Badgers take that ranking — which they share with last year’s national runner-up Boston College — into the Resch Center in Ashwaubenon, Wis., to face Northern Michigan this weekend.
Despite UW’s high preseason expectations, the players are taking nothing for granted as they understand seven teams received first-place votes, and no games have been played yet.
The top ranking comes despite losing five valuable seniors from last season, as well as the team’s top two scorers: junior forward Robbie Earl and sophomore forward Joe Pavelski, who both left early for the professional ranks. In all, the Badgers lost their top five point-scorers from a year ago.
While it may be too early to talk about repeating as national champs, the team will come to the ice this season with a load of talent on its roster.
The most notable talent to return to the roster is senior goaltender Brian Elliot. The first-team All-American set single season Badger records last season in goals-against average (1.55), save percentage (93.8% percent) and shutouts (8), and was a Hobey Baker award finalist.
Though it is likely that Elliot will have a solid season, it will be a major challenge for him to reproduce the numbers he put up last season.
Plenty of talent returns on defense after the team graduated only one blue-liner, second team All-American Tom Gilbert. Returning to the roster will be senior co-captain Jeff Likens and Gilbert’s linemate from last season, Joe Piskula.
The blue line will also be guarded by second-round NHL draft selections, freshmen Nigel Williams and Jamie McBain.
The challenge for head coach Mike Eaves will be deciding who from his talent pool of defensemen to play night after night, and how to pair them up.
The biggest name to return on offense will be sophomore forward Jack Skille, who is entering his second and quite possibly final season as a Badger.
Skille was selected seventh overall in the 2005 NHL entry draft by the Chicago Blackhawks. He scored 21 points last season with 13 goals, including the game-winner in the third overtime of the Midwest Regional final against Cornell, which sent the Badgers to the Frozen Four.
In addition to Skille, the Badgers bring a solid senior class of forwards, including captain Andrew Joudrey. Joudrey is joined by seniors Ross Carlson, Jake Dowell and Andy Brandt.
With the national title under their belts the bull’s-eye has been placed on the Badger’s backs.
Now the team faces the challenge of becoming the third consecutive WCHA conference team to win back-to-back national championships, after the previous two were taken by Denver, and the two before that by Minnesota.
While the Badgers are not yet focused on repeating as national champs, but are merely focused on beating Northern Michigan this weekend, the rest of the nation will be waiting to see what the defending champs can do this season.
The 36th annual Grand Fork’s herald WCHA preseason coaches poll ranked UW in a tie for No. 1 with rival Minnesota. North Dakota was ranked No. 3, Denver No. 4, and St. Cloud State No. 5.
UW senior goaltender Brian Elliott was named the WCHA preseason player of the year. Elliott was a Hobey Baker Award finalist a year ago.