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Michigan hockey series preview: Wisconsin

Big Ten play is here and the Wolverines start off with a rebuilding Badger squad.

COLLEGE HOCKEY: NOV 24 Wisconsin at Michigan
Nick Blankenburg and the Michigan hockey team gets Big Ten play started against Wisconsin this Thursday.
Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What this year’s Michigan Wolverines’ hockey team is, last year’s Wisconsin team wasn’t that far from it, relatively speaking.

Tony Granato’s Badgers not only ended a streak of three straight losing seasons, but won the Big Ten regular-season title and qualified for their first NCAA Tournament since 2014, where they lost to Bemidji State in the first round. Wisconsin — despite going just 1-3 against the Wolverines — finished the year with a 20-10-1 record behind one of the nation’s top offenses.

But the 2021-22 Badgers are a very different bunch. Gone is last season’s Hobey Baker Award winner Cole Caufield, who already looks like a star with the Montreal Canadiens. Gone, too, are point-per-game scorers Linus Weissbach, Dylan Holloway and Ty Pelton-Byce and defenseman Ty Emberson, all playing professionally.

Wisconsin was chock-full of talent a season ago, and with so much production to replace, it’s gotten off to a rocky start this fall. The Badgers are 2-4 and have been outscored 20-10 on the season. But those four losses have come at the hands of No. 1 St. Cloud State and No. 18 Michigan Tech, so a subpar record six games in won’t be fully reflective of what kind of team Wisconsin will be this year.

The Badgers have 10 NHL draft picks on their roster. Their cupboards aren’t bare by any stretch. And they’d probably love nothing more than to prove as much as they begin Big Ten play against No. 2 Michigan at Yost Ice Arena (Thursday 7 p.m. on BTN, Friday 7:30 p.m. on BTN+).

Still, the first six games of the post-Cole Caufield era in Madison paint a picture of a team still trying to find its rhythm.

Wisconsin’s lineup doesn’t appear settled at this point. Fifth-year senior Tarek Baker has been the lone mainstay on the first line. Baker scored 41 points over his first two seasons, but he hasn’t topped 12 in a season since. And while there’s very little evidence that winning face-offs actually correlates with winning games, Baker’s career percentage from the dot is 40.6%, or really low for a first-line center.

Liam Malmquist, a freshman, has played the last four games on Baker’s left wing. He’s still looking for his first career points. Mathieu De St. Phalle, Sam Stange, Roman Ahcan, Brock Caufield and Max Johnson have all spent time on the first line as well. Between them, they have just five points on the season.

That being said, Ahcan, Wisconsin’s leading returning scorer, had 22 points last year. Caufield and Owen Lindmark scored 17, Jack Gorniak had 13, and Johnson, a transfer, produced 122 points in four years at Bowling Green. Lindmark, Gorniak and Stange are all draft picks. These are the Badgers’ most experienced players, the ones they need to carry the offensive load this year. It just hasn’t happened yet. Wisconsin’s leading scorer is Dominick Mersch, with just two goals and an assist through six contests.

COLLEGE HOCKEY: NOV 24 Wisconsin at Michigan
Roman Ahcan is Wisconsin’s leading returning scorer and one of its most experienced players.
Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There’s maybe a bit more talent on the defensive side of things, where the Badgers have three draft picks in fifth-year senior Josh Ess, freshman Daniel Laatsch and freshman Corson Ceulemans. Ceulemans went 25th overall to the Columbus Blue Jackets this year and has been described as a big, strong blue-liner with an excellent shot and playmaking potential.

However, Wisconsin will be shorthanded Thursday and Friday, as fifth-year senior Tyler Inamoto is dealing with a lower-body injury. Inamoto, a Florida Panthers draft pick, is a prototypical stay-at-home defenseman who loves to get in the way of shots — he’s blocked 260 of them in his career — and his absence is a major blow.

Cameron Rowe was a standout in goal as a freshman, putting up a .933 save percentage and a 2.05 goals-allowed average while the Badgers went 9-2-1 in games he started. But Rowe’s felt a bit of a sophomore slump so far, as he’s allowed 12 goals on 62 shots. Jared Moe, a 2018 Winnipeg Jets draft pick who backed up Jack LaFontaine last season at Minnesota, has been much stronger, with a .922 save percentage and an average of 2.27 goals allowed.

The Badgers’ special teams units were both elite last season and have fallen off big-time in 2021-22. Wisconsin topped the nation by scoring on 31.6 percent of its power plays last year while killing off 85.9 percent of opponents (8th nationally). This season, the Badgers are just 1-for-20 with the man advantage and have surrendered eight goals on 19 penalty kills. Both figures rank in the bottom four in the country.

The numbers don’t paint the rosiest picture for Wisconsin, but this isn’t a team Michigan can overlook. The Badgers have actually outshot their opponents 193-165 on the season. Their shots just aren’t finding the net for the time being, but that’s something that will normalize to a degree.

PDO, the sum of a team’s shooting percentage and save percentage, is a statistic that can be used to predict improvement towards or regression to the mean. The assumption is that the sum will approach a baseline of 100. A team with a suspiciously high PDO (in the NHL, that upper limit is generally taken to be 102) is likely to be in line for some regression, while a PDO of 98 or lower suggests that a team is better than it appears.

College hockey has a far greater disparity of talent than the NHL, so it makes sense that a normal PDO range might be much larger and therefore less predictive. But Wisconsin’s PDO this season is 93.1, which is very low by any standard.

This is to say that while the Badgers probably won’t contend with Michigan and Minnesota for a Big Ten title, they’re capable of giving either of them a scare on any given night. Thursday and Friday will tell us more about the Wolverines and how they bounce back from a weekend in which they showed weakness for the first time all season. But if Wisconsin steals one in Ann Arbor, it shouldn’t be a sign that the sky is falling.