In his first two seasons with the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team, left wing Linus Weissbach was a fairly consistent point producer, never going more than four games without contributing at least an assist.
With first-round NHL draft picks Alex Turcotte and Cole Caufield joining the Badgers this season at center and right wing, respectively, Weissbach seemed a likely pick to complete a line with the freshmen.
At least that’s how Weissbach saw it when coach Tony Granato asked him during last season’s exit interviews who he thought he’d be playing with in his junior campaign.
The Badgers play the Golden Knights at the Kohl Center in non-conference games at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
But Granato said he wanted to pair Turcotte and Caufield with someone who can be as committed to the defensive part of the game as he is to trying to score and set up goals.
Weissbach made his response to Granato clear: I can do that.
Weissbach backed up his words with a game last Friday that Granato called “a clinic on how to play without the puck.” He started with a solid defensive play and, seconds later, a 2-on-1 pass that led to the opening goal. He backchecked to pry the puck loose from an opponent who was ready to start an odd-man rush.
“If he’s going to play in the NHL and he’s going to have success this year and he’s going to be a guy that’s going to remain in that position, that’s how he’s going to have to play,” Granato said. “That was his best performance by a lot, on Friday night. I loved it.”
Weissbach completed a three-zone display in the first period last Friday by scoring his first goal of the season in the Badgers’ victory over Minnesota Duluth.
As No. 6 UW prepared this week to host No. 13 Clarkson in non-conference games Friday and Saturday, Weissbach conceded that his play when he’s not carrying the puck has been the biggest part of his toolkit that he has needed to elevate.
“I’ve been trying to do that over these past three years,” he said. “This year, I feel like it’s been paying off.”
The Buffalo Sabres’ draft pick said quick thinking — and the right thinking — has made a difference.
Daniel Lebedeff made 57 saves over a pair of victories against then-No. 3 Minnesota Duluth last Friday and Saturday.
“Things happen fast out there, but the decisions you make with the puck and without the puck, those split-second decisions are the biggest thing that have changed my game so far,” he said.
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Weissbach has a goal and seven assists for a team-high-tying eight points, his most productive four-game stretch with the Badgers. The convenient answer for how he has started well is gained by pointing to Turcotte, Caufield and UW’s dangerous power play.
The deeper explanation is in Weissbach’s work to get the puck away from the other team, which gives the Badgers more possession time and more chances to score.
On his first shift last Friday, Weissbach poked the puck free from Minnesota Duluth’s Nick Swaney in the Badgers’ defensive zone, then went to work in breaking the play out of his own end of the ice.
Seconds later, Turcotte worked the puck free along the boards for Weissbach to lead an odd-man rush that Caufield converted.
“All the things out there happen so fast, and his brain’s just able to adapt quicker than most people,” Caufield said. “I think that’s why it’s so easy to play with him.”
In the middle of the period, UW center Dylan Holloway missed with a pass from behind the net in the offensive zone, and the puck went directly to Duluth’s Noah Cates for a breakout starting from the right circle.
Weissbach, who trailed Cates by a few strides at the time of the turnover, caught up to him at the blue line, lifted the Bulldogs forward’s stick and poked the puck back to UW defenseman Tyler Inamoto.
On a second-period shift in the Badgers' 6-2 victory over Minnesota Duluth on Friday, Holloway essentially went down a checklist of why scouts see him as a first-round pick in next year's NHL draft.
“As soon as the puck changed possession, he was on it for us,” Granato said. “Last year, he showed a little bit of it. That game, he showed all of it.”
On his 5-on-3 power-play goal, Weissbach established position in front of the net but backed away from defenders to create room when Turcotte looked for a passing opportunity from the right side. Turcotte found a narrow lane and banked the puck in off Weissbach’s stick in the crease.
The Badgers are tied for the national lead with seven power-play goals and are third in conversion rate (38.9%). The crisp passing between Weissbach, Caufield, Turcotte and defensemen K’Andre Miller and Wyatt Kalynuk has opened up shooting opportunities.
In UW’s season-opening loss to Boston College, Weissbach delivered two primary assists to Caufield. On the second, Weissbach crossed up defenders with a diagonal pass immediately after getting the puck from Kalynuk.
Those are the split-second decisions with the puck where he has excelled. The quick thinking without the puck is developing.
“When you have two guys out there who can make plays and get open to score goals, it obviously helps,” Weissbach said of Caufield and Turcotte, who have combined for nine goals through four games. “The things we do away from the puck, we’re going to get a lot of scoring chances in games. If we can play hard defensively and get pucks back quick, I think that’s going to help us set up plays faster.”