Jesper Peltonen appeared on the line chart four times in the first half of the season, but the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey freshman defenseman has only two games played on his statistical resume.
In other words, for the Oct. 26 game against Michigan Tech and the Nov. 17 game at Ohio State, Peltonen was in uniform but never got off the bench. An unusual circumstance, to be sure, but not much beyond what he was expecting for his introduction to college hockey.
“I knew that coming in here I would get a chance to play but I wouldn’t play that much,” Peltonen said. “I’ve been trying to prepare for that moment when I play.”
There’s a much greater chance that the moment has arrived. With K’Andre Miller playing for the United States at the World Junior Championship, the Badgers probably will need another defenseman in the lineup for games Friday and Saturday against No. 8 Denver at the Kohl Center.
Peltonen can’t fully replace Miller, the team’s leading scorer who had a major presence in the final games of 2018 on both ends of the rink. But unless Miller gets back to the Badgers because of an early U.S. departure from the tournament, Peltonen is in line to get his first assignment among the top six defensemen.
“I’ve been preparing for the whole year now,” said Peltonen, a 20-year-old from Helsinki who played last season with the Omaha Lancers in the United States Hockey League. “You never know with injuries or anything. I’ve always been ready, just constantly trying to be ready to play and having that kind of mentality to be the best you can every practice, every lift.”
In practice this week, Peltonen has skated alongside freshman Ty Emberson, who had Miller as a defensive partner for most of the first half of the season. So Peltonen stands to get a good deal of playing time against a Pioneers team that ranks 11th nationally in scoring.
“He can play,” Badgers coach Tony Granato said. “His practice habits have been really good. He’ll get in and be a regular player. He’s not just going to sit on the bench. He’s going to play. So I’m excited for that opportunity.”
Peltonen, whose twin brother Aleksi has committed to the Badgers and is a forward for Omaha, comes from one of Finland hockey’s prominent families. His father, Ville, and grandfather, Esa, each played in four Olympics.
His sister, Emmi, is a figure skater who represented Finland at the 2018 Olympics.
Jesper Peltonen was a regular in the lineup at Omaha and at Northwood School in New York before that. Watching games is an unfamiliar experience but one that he said he has grown from.
“It’s learning and learning and getting stronger and getting more confident in playing college hockey,” Peltonen said. “All of that comes from practice.”
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Return shows path
In retrospect, the first series back from the midseason break in the previous two seasons provided a glimpse into the Badgers’ upcoming fortunes.
In 2016, UW handed last-place Michigan State a pair of 5-1 defeats at the Kohl Center, the first two of seven Badgers victories in the first eight games of the calendar year. They were 12-8 after the break but narrowly missed out on an NCAA tournament spot with a 20-15-1 record.
Last season, the Badgers were on the losing end of a 5-1 decision at Penn State in their first game back before rallying for a tie the next night. That set the table for a 4-10-2 slump to close the campaign at 14-19-4.
Which way will UW go in 2019? Games Friday and Saturday against Denver, sixth in the PairWise Rankings, will give an indication.
“There’s no grace period of, OK, we’ve got to slowly get back into it,” Granato said. “We’ve got to get back into it and be at full speed. That’s something that takes a lot of mental toughness, a lot of discipline, learning from experiences.”
The Badgers resumed practice Saturday, and Granato said there was little rust to remove after a three-week break for final exams and the holidays. Going into the layoff unbeaten in their past six games and with wins in their final three helped forge a positive mentality.
“When you have that feeling, then you’re chomping at the bit to hurry to get back,” Granato said. “And hopefully the energy that we had when we left, we can carry it over into the second half of the season.”
Mixed results for Miller
After recording an assist and being plus-3 in the Americans’ 8-2 victory over Kazakhstan last Friday at the World Juniors, Miller was minus-2 in a 5-4 overtime loss to Sweden on Saturday.
He didn't play in a 4-1 victory over Finland on Monday because of an illness. The U.S. plays the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals at 7 p.m. Wednesday.