CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — On the road to challenging for a spot in the NCAA tournament last season, an intriguing development surfaced with the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team.
It developed on the road, where the Badgers’ body of work was crafted.
UW was 9-4 in true road games in 2016-17, a mark that ranked sixth of 60 teams nationally.
The Badgers scored more goals per game and allowed fewer in road contests than they did at the Kohl Center. They generated more shots on goal when playing in another team’s building than they did in their own.
Doing better at home than the 8-9-1 record of last season has to be a priority for the 10th-ranked Badgers, but they’ll gladly take a repeat of the away-game narrative.
That endeavor begins tonight with a non-conference game at No. 13 Boston College and continues 35 miles north at Merrimack on Saturday.
In expressing a desire to improve the Badgers’ preparations at home this season, coach Tony Granato conceded his team’s play was better on the road.
“We were focused. We were disciplined. We stuck to our game plan longer,” he said. “We were a more complete team, looking at man to man on our roster.”
What’s different on the road? First off, consider the surroundings.
When the Badgers play at the Kohl Center, they have the normal realities of college life — classes, home tasks, sometimes noisy neighbors. On the road, they’re in a hotel, with their itineraries neatly planned. Yes, they have study sessions, generally the night before a game, but once that’s done, it’s all hockey.
“You have no outside distractions, really,” junior defenseman Peter Tischke said. “No girlfriends, no college parties or anything really going on. So it’s a nice way to focus.”
On the ice, statistics showed the Badgers to be a more productive team in away games last season.
On the road, not including five neutral-site games, the Badgers scored an average of 3.85 goals per game. At the Kohl Center, it was 3.22. They were plus-7 in goal margin in away games, minus-4 in home contests.
The disparity in shots on goal between road and home was 2.6 per game.
“The feeling of when we’re traveling is as soon as you get on that plane, you’re focused on one thing and one thing only, and that’s winning,” said junior forward Will Johnson, one of eight returning UW players who had better points-per-game production on the road last seasonthan at home.
Only two teams in the country had a bigger negative gap last season between their home record and their road ledger than UW. Ohio State was 7-7-2 at home but 13-2-3 away. Michigan State was a disastrous 2-13-1 at Munn Ice Arena and 5-8-2 in true road matches.
Among 23 teams that posted a losing home record, only UW and Omaha had a winning road mark.
The development also went against recent UW history. Since producing four straight winning road records from 1997 to 2001, the Badgers have been over .500 in away games just five times in the past 16 seasons.
The losing home record bothered the Badgers and Granato, who urged a more mature approach to preparations in Madison.
“On the road, you’re together as a team,” he said. “You go on the bus to the rink in the morning, you do your meeting, you eat your meal and you’re together all the time. At home, you have to do your own thing to get yourself right. And we probably needed more structure into our game days at home.”
If the Badgers are going to get their road campaign off to a good start this season, they’ll have to stop a Massachusetts skid. They have lost five straight in the state, three of them to Boston College and two to Boston University.
When this year’s juniors started at UW in 2015, their first road trip was a 6-0 loss to the Eagles and a 4-1 setback to the Terriers.
Tischke said he remembers the nerves being “really high” for a rookie in that setting. Six of the Badgers’ seven freshmen have played in each of the three home games that started this season, and they’ll be the ones feeling the heat tonight.
“We’ll just make sure that they feel comfortable and just keep preaching confidence, like, ‘You can do this. You’re here for a reason,’ ” Tischke said.
After beginning Big Ten Conference play with a pair of intense games against Ohio State last week, UW doesn’t have room to take a breather as the non-league slate resumes.
Granato gave players a day off from practice on Tuesday because they’re in the middle of a class period heavy with tests. It’s right back to work this weekend, with the comforts of the road waiting.
“You’ve got to keep that same level of play throughout every game because like we learned last year there’s no small games,” junior center Seamus Malone said. “Down the road when we’re trying to make the tournament, any game counts.”