Through the first few weeks of this season, there have been encouraging moments for the Wisconsin men's hockey team, but they had yet to show up in the win column. That changed this weekend as the Badgers (2-3-3) got their first two victories of the season in a sweep of Div. I newcomer Arizona State.
The level of opposition has to be taken into consideration (and if anything, this weekend shows how far the Sun Devils have to go in their transition), but to have the results of its hard work finally pay off is a nice boost for this young Wisconsin team to build on.
"You get a level of confidence in practice—you go out, you work hard, you feel good about the way you work, you do things the way you want them—but that confidence gets solidified when you finally do it in a game," head coach Mike Eaves said. "So, our confidence level will rise because of this."
The two games did not have much in common. The Badgers' offense exploded on Friday night, out-shooting the Sun Devils by a 56-19 margin and tying a season high with five goals, including two from sophomore forward Ryan Wagner. It was Wisconsin's first game with 50-plus shots since the 2013-14 season and is quite the turn around after being out-shot, 71-38, by Boston College and Boston University just two weeks ago.
"We did an awful lot of good things," Eaves said. "There are a lot of things to build on. These are lessons that become valuable as you move down the season."
Scoring was harder to come by in the finale, requiring freshman goaltender Matt Jurusik to play hero. He embraced that role, stopping 25 of 26 shots in the 2-1 win and was at his best when it mattered most—turning away 16 shots in the third period as Arizona State applied relentless pressure.
"For him, that's a real confidence booster," Eaves said of Jurusik's performance. "We had to lean on him. As a result, he preserved the win for us."
UW's special teams shined in the series, combining for a 122 percent effective rate (anything over 100 is good). They now boast a top-15 power play at 24.1 percent and have killed off 84.4 percent of opponent's chances on the season. Both are vast improvements over last year, when their combined special teams was a dismal 86 percent.
"The man-advantage has been pretty good for us all season," Eaves said. "We're creating chances, we're entering the zone well, we're recovering pucks, and...it's good to have that thing going."
"On the other side of the coin, the penalty killers have been doing a good job, so our special teams have been a bright thing for us along the way here."
Up next: Friday, Nov. 6 and Saturday, Nov. 7 at No. 1 North Dakota (6-0-2)
Wisconsin's new-found confidence will be put to the test right away on the road against the top ranked team in the country.
This is the Badgers' first trip to Grand Forks in two years as they renew a rivalry with UND that was washed away with the advent of the Big Ten hockey conference. Wisconsin and North Dakota met last year at the Kohl Center—a two-game sweep for the soon-to-be Fighting Hawks, Roughriders or NoDaks.
The Badgers are winless (0-6-1) in their last seven meetings with North Dakoa, including a loss in the first round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, and haven't won at Ralph Engelstad Arena since the 2009-10 season.
It will be a tough test for Wisconsin's young group, many of whom are making their first trip to Grand Forks.
"I don't think you can tell them, or show them in video, and capture the environment that they're going into," Eaves said. "I like going there, and we like going there as a coaching staff, because we're going to find out a lot about our young team."
North Dakota is unbeaten this season and is coming off a sweep of Colorado College.
"We're going to have to play a very clean game," Eaves said. "There is an air of excitement about having this challenge."
"These games, no matter what happens, are going to make us better at the end of the year, because of who we are playing."