Early-season adversity has only made Pointers stronger

Wisconsin-Stevens Point is thriving again after overcoming early-season adversity. Goalie Eli Billing is among the players who has helped fuel the turnaround. (Photo Credit: Kylie Bridenhagen, UW-Stevens Point Athletics)

Reigning national champions typically don’t fly under the radar. They are out front and in the spotlight every step of the way during the grind of a long season.

Yet, here was Wisconsin-Stevens Point in early December, in the grip of a tough stretch that saw the Pointers win just once in six games.

But life is different now for UW-Stevens Point. A team once left for dead and with little hope of contending has come to life at seemingly the right time.

The Pointers have won four consecutive games, three against nationally ranked opponents, and are positioned to revive their hopes for an NCAA bid. Still, buried deep in the Pairwise standings — they are 27th in the latest poll — there is still a lot of work to do.

“Our team is flying under the radar, which is a different situation than we have been in in the past,” Pointers head coach Tyler Krueger said. “But I think we can be a team down the stretch that a lot of teams don’t want to play. We are a dangerous team right now, and with the situation we are in, we want to use it to our advantage.”

UW-Stevens Point didn’t lose a game a season ago during a 29-0-2 campaign that ended with its sixth title in program history.

The Pointers struggled early this season and were 5-6-1 through their first 12 games.

From the outside looking in, things didn’t look good for one of the top programs in college hockey. 

“I get the perspective that we were struggling, but there were a lot of internal things that happened that were a disadvantage to us and created some adversity for us,” Krueger said. “At the end of the day, they were just excuses, but we were kind of relying on them as a crutch instead of looking for solutions or coming together as a group to fight through adversity.”

That all changed going into a critical two-game series against fellow national power UW-Eau Claire. The Blugolds were the No. 1 team in the nation at the time and the Pointers found a way to sweep them, winning 4-2 and 3-0. 

This past weekend, UW-Stevens Point stunned then fifth-ranked Augsburg by a 3-1 score after opening the weekend with a 5-2 win over Hamline.

It’s safe to say the script has been flipped.

“We’ve flipped things around internally, and the last four games we are getting back to playing as one unit and for one goal,” Krueger said. “Everyone is playing for the name on the front of the jersey, and that has created a team-first culture, which is what Stevens Point is about. We’re controlling what we can control.”

As for what’s changed on the ice, you’d be surprised by the answer.

“Nothing. Our issues weren’t x’s and o’s related,” Krueger said. “It was all internal. We’ve started letting the game come to us again instead of trying to force it. The guys believe in the system and the mindset is that we don’t have to build Rome in a day. They trust the system and trust our game over the course of 60 minutes.”

As Krueger points out in an interview, the talent has always been there to be one of the best teams in the country. 

Five players have tallied 10 or more points, including Luke McElhenie, who has tallied 21 and  leads the Pointers in goals (11) and assists (10).

Between the pipes, Eli Billing has seen most of the playing time, winning all nine games and allowing 40 goals.

Responding in big games isn’t new either. The Pointers actually enjoy them and that’s played a huge role in their recent success.

“Those are the games our team is built for,” Krueger said. “They love the situations where they are tested and where their backs are against the wall a bit. That’s where they show their true colors. We have the potential to beat any team on any given night and that gives us belief moving forward.”

A five-game stretch that begins next Wednesday on the road against the Blugolds could very well determine the fate of the Pointers this season. They will play nationally ranked foes UW-Eau Claire and UW-Superior as well as two games against UW-River Falls.

“Our next five are huge and we have to embrace the challenges,” Krueger said. “We have to take care of business. We’ll just let the chips fall where they may. We are focused on the micro-picture of the day to day and on what we can control.”

And there is a lot to play for. There was a time when this team had little hope of doing anything positive this season. But they’ve since dusted themselves off and continued to fight.

“Adversity is something every team goes through,” Krueger said. “Mediocre teams are destroyed by it, good teams survive it and great teams get better because of it. We’ve gotten closer as a group because of everything we’ve gone through. We had to go through what we did to get to where we are now.”

And that’s a pretty good place.

“The sky’s the limit for this team,” Krueger said. “We have the ability to make a run. We just need to take care of business one day at a time, enjoy the moment and take advantage of the opportunities in front of us.”

Around the West Region

Augsburg and St. Thomas are tied for first in the MIAC with 15 points apiece. The Auggies sport a 5-1 mark in conference play and the Tommies are 5-3. Keep an eye on the final weekend of the regular season when these two teams will square off in a series that could very well decide the regular-season championship.

Jack Stang of Saint Mary’s and Kyle Wagner of Saint John’s  are two of the MIAC’s best playmakers, tallying a league-best 12 assists apiece. The two are also tied for second in points in the conference with 15. Both will be on the same ice in a little over a month when the Cardinals and Johnnies battle in the final weekend of the regular season.

Lake Forest is one of the hottest teams in the country. Now ranked in the top 10, the Foresters have won their last eight games and are 9-1 overall in their last 10. Four teams during the streak have been held to just one goal. Having Boyd DiClemente in goal has helped the cause. He has made 365 saves.

Adrian and St. Norbert square off this weekend in a crucial two-game NCHA series at St. Norbert. The game will feature four of the top five players in points in the conference as well as two of the top goal scorers in the NCHA. Peter Bates of St. Norbert leads the league in points (21) and teammate Kurt Black is tied for first in goals (12). Dino Balsamo is tied for third in goals (11) and fellow Bulldog Andrew Bellant is third in the conference in points.

UW-Superior leads the WIAC in goals with 64 this season and is second in goals allowed, giving up only 27. 

UW-River Falls is tops in the WIAC in power-play goals with 21. Ryan Cusin leads the attack with six goals on the power play this season. Cusin is second in the conference in total goals with 10.

In the Poll: UW-Eau Claire is the lone team in the region ranked in the top five. The Blugolds check in at third this week and received one first-place vote. Lake Forest is seventh nationally and Augsburg sits in ninth. UW-Superior is ranked 11th and Adrian is tied for 14th in the country.