Wisconsin still fighting for Big Ten playoff positioning, but won’t ‘hit the panic button right now and just completely freak out’

Wyatt Kalynuk is serving as Wisconsin’s captain for the 2019-20 season (photo: Greg Anderson/Wisconsin Athletics).

The Big Ten standings seem to change every time one looks at them but, currently, Wisconsin finds itself in the cellar.

Junior defenseman Wyatt Kalynuk would rather focus on the fact that the Badgers are only 11 points off the lead with two games in hand compared the top four teams.

“Everything so tight in the Big Ten right now, you sweep a weekend, or a couple teams lose that you need to lose, and you can jump three or four spots,” Kalynuk said. “We’re not panicking here, the energy is good, and the morale is still good.

“It’s tight, I think last weekend if we would have swept, we could have jumped up like four spots. Anyone can beat anyone.”

The Badgers had the opportunity to pick up their first conference sweep of the season, picking up a road win at Notre Dame 6-4 on Friday, but they dropped Saturday’s game 5-2.

“Every weekend it’s been one thing that’s killed us,” Kalynuk said. “Last weekend, it was probably penalties. We played well enough to win the game Saturday. I think our first period might have been our best period of hockey in a long time, but second period we got into some penalty trouble and third period it was much of the same.”

Splits have been the story of the season so far for the Badgers, they have racked up seven when playing the same opponent twice in one weekend. All three Big Ten series Wisconsin has played in 2020 have ended in a split, including last weekend at Notre Dame.

“Right now, I think we’re just finding ways to beat ourselves,” Kalynuk said. “We’re playing good hockey, but we’re finding ways to beat ourselves.”

However, he stressed that the team needs to try and stay the course.

“Obviously, the season hasn’t gone the way we wanted it to, (and) there’s not just one thing that’s gone wrong, it’s been a bunch of different things that haven’t gone well for us,” Kalynuk said. “I don’t think we need to hit the panic button right now and just completely freak out.”

Kalynuk himself has had a productive season so far, scoring six goals and adding 14 assists. The Virden, Manitoba, native said he doesn’t like to focus on numbers, saying that it’s possible to put up points and not play well or vice versa.

“I think I’ve had a good year, in my three years here I’ve continued to develop,” he said, crediting video sessions with associate coach Mark Osiecki. “Defensively I’ve for sure come a long way. Also getting a lot bigger and stronger in the gym with Jim Snider as well.”

Kalynuk is the captain of this year’s Wisconsin squad. He said the youthfulness and inexperience at the college level of the group has made it an interesting experience.

“It’s been good, I think it’s been a learning experience for sure,” Kalynuk said. “I don’t know if we’re the youngest team or the second youngest team, I’m not really sure what we are, but there’s definitely been a lot of challenges.

“It might be a little bit more of a challenge here than a program with older guys. I think it’s been a learning experience and it’s been fun for me. I just try to take it all in and help guys out where I can.”

Of course, that group of youngsters includes Cole Caufield, Alex Turcotte and Dylan Holloway, among others. Kalynuk said he’s impressed with how they have adapted to the college game.

“For some, it’s been a positive thing and for others, it’s been a little bit on a grind and a little bit of a learning experience,” he said. “It’s a big step, especially for the guys that come right out of high school hockey.

“For me, I played three years of juniors in the USHL, so it wasn’t maybe a huge jump for me, but for guys that are 18 years old to step right in is hard, especially when we play against older teams, playing against guys that are three or four years older.”

The Badgers’ current position in the standings means that they’ll probably have to go on the road to get to the NCAA tournament. Wisconsin currently own a 3-8-1 record away from Kohl Center.

Kalynuk said that it’s important to remember that there are three points up for grab for each Big Ten game, so there’s time and opportunity to change their position. If they Badgers do face a must win on the road, he would welcome the challenge.

“I don’t think our mindset changes when we’re at home or when we’re on the road,” he said. “Me personally, I enjoy going on the road and being in the hostile environments like Michigan and Penn State, rinks like that. If anything, it kind of gives you more motivation to go out there and prove their fans wrong.”

Gophers look to keep momentum rolling at Wisconsin

According to goaltender Jack LaFontaine, Minnesota coach Bob Motzko had a simple message for his team as it assembled for the second half of the season.

“Coach had a very specific motto for us, and that was ‘one more, one less,’” LaFontaine said after Saturday’s home win over Ohio State. “One more goal for and one (less) goal against. The only way we’re going to do that is together as a team. I think our depth is so unbelievable, we have scoring on every single line (and) I’m comfortable with every (defenseman) out there. Everyone has bought in, I think, and people are playing their roles to a T.”

The Gophers have taken the message to heart, Minnesota is coming off sweeping Ohio State and are 5-1 since the holiday break.

“Like I said after the Mariucci Classic, it’s so much fun to work hard when you’re winning,” LaFontaine said. “When you come into the rink and you’ve got a couple victories under your belt, it’s so much fun.”

Like this weekend’s opponent, the Badgers, Minnesota is young team, but Motzko said he has seen growth and hopes it’s a sign of what’s to come.

“We’ve had it since Christmas – there’s excitement about our guys playing right now,” Motzko said on Saturday. “You start winning and scoring a few goals and you feel good about what you’re doing.”

Minnesota’s schedule to begin the second half has been a tad quirky, with an off weekend and an exhibition game sprinkled in, but with conference games the rest of the way LaFontaine hopes the team can continue its run.

“I’m excited to go the rest of the way, every weekend, just playing,” he said. “You start to hit a groove. You start to have better practices. As far as that, I think this is going to catapult us into a really good mental space.”

Ohio State looks to rebound at rival Michigan

Coming off getting swept on the road Ohio State will travel to play its games again this weekend, this time against rival Michigan.

Buckeyes coach Steve Rohlik said at OSU’s media availability this week that he’s looking for consistency in his team.

“I like our group, I like what we have in the locker room,” he said. “The one thing that we’ve battled at times has been our consistency. We’ve been good at times, really good at times, and then we’ve kind of plodded along sometimes.”

Rohlik also said that it’s important to not dwell on the sweep at the hands of the Gophers.

“We lost two games to a good hockey team, the learning experience is we don’t want to let that happen again,” he said. “How do you do that? You do that by coming back to work on Monday and get a good practice in.”

Getting swept at Minnesota was the second time the Buckeyes suffered a conference sweep this season, along with a sweep at Notre Dame in early November. Senior forward Ronnie Hein said it was important to not let those results happen again.

“I’ve been talking to a lot of guys in our locker room, especially the older guys, we know we’ve got to win this weekend,” Hein said, “We’ve only got eight regular-season games left before the Big Ten tournament. You can’t get swept in this league, it kind of hurts you with three points every win.”