There’s uncertainty in many areas with this season’s University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team, especially with a large freshman class, but Tony Granato this week spun that on its ear.
Why couldn’t an air of unpredictability be exciting for the Badgers?
If the results of Friday’s season opener are any indication, the coach might have been on to something.
Jack Berry made 29 saves for his fourth collegiate shutout, and two freshmen scored their first goals in their debuts, a 3-0 victory over No. 12 Boston College at the Kohl Center.
Granato has spent the weeks since the start of practice commending the freshmen for their grit and heart and exuberance, and the newcomers demonstrated it to an announced crowd of 7,911 right off the bat.
K’Andre Miller and Madison native Mick Messner scored second-period goals to get the Badgers started, and an all-freshman fourth line of Roman Ahcan, Dominick Mersch and Brock Caufield made meaningful contributions.
“I would assume the 7,900 that didn’t know (the freshmen) liked what they saw,” Granato said. “Because they left it on the ice. They play hard. They block shots. They compete.
“I’ve been bragging them up for the six weeks of practice, and to have them back it up tonight on what they’ve done in practice and go out and have an effort like that is exciting.”
Perhaps the biggest uncertainty for UW (1-0) entering the season, however, was in goal, where Berry and freshman Daniel Lebedeff are going to share time early to see whether either can emerge as a bona fide starter.
Berry did his part on Friday, shutting down the Eagles (0-1) when they picked up the pace in the second half of the first period and again in the third.
His most critical save came with the Badgers languishing on the power play in the second period. A turnover in UW’s offensive zone sprung BC’s Michael Kim alone on the goalie, who tracked him and kept his left pad down to deny the shot.
That came with UW holding onto a 1-0 lead thanks to Miller’s goal three minutes earlier. Granato wondered whether the outcome would have been different had Berry not made the save, but the junior goalie emerged with a dream start to the season.
“There weren’t too many (shots) that I didn’t see,” said Berry, who became the first Badgers goalie to shut out an opponent in the season opener since Brian Elliott against Northern Michigan in 2006. “Our D corps kept boxing guys out and forwards came back. I thought they played great.”
UW dressed seven freshmen among its 19 skaters, while Boston College had just two newcomers on the ice. The Eagles had the advantage in experience by a combined 455 games throughout the lineup, but the fresh-faced Badgers players were the ones helping to make the difference.
Miller, a first-round draft pick of the NHL’s New York Rangers, was the beneficiary of quick puck movement by seniors Will Johnson and Peter Tischke ahead of him on his tie-breaking goal less than seven minutes into the second period.
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“I think we did a good job of that all night, just moving and using our speed to our advantage,” Miller said. “Really, just being all over them in their offensive, defensive zone. They didn’t have much space out there, and I thought that was the big difference in that game.”
A pair of rookies teamed up to double the lead later in the second period.
Jack Gorniak flashed up the right side on an odd-man rush but waited and passed to Messner, who was streaking down the middle. Messner’s initial shot was blocked, but he collected the rebound and beat Eagles goalie Joseph Woll (22 saves) from low in the left circle.
Messner called it a “dream come true” to score his first goal in the Kohl Center.
Boston College didn’t take advantage when it had the better of the play in stretches.
“(We were) a little slow on the passes,” BC coach Jerry York said. “We shot when we should have passed. We had some jump, I thought, during the game, but not consistently during the game.”
For its part, UW failed to capitalize on odd-man rushes in the third period as BC committed bodies forward. But Tarek Baker scored into an empty net in the final minute as the Badgers improved to 3-0 in home openers under Granato.
The Badgers forced the pace all night, using their speed and pressure on the puck to force the Eagles into mistakes.
“If you’re playing an in-your-face style of hockey and you’ve got skaters and you’ve got four lines that are able to do it, it doesn’t matter who you play. It’s hard (for them) to get things going offensively,” Granato said. “And when they did tonight, Berry made the big saves.”
Boston College 0 0 0 — 0
Wisconsin 0 2 1 — 3
First period: Penalties: Grando, B, 5:14; Johnson, W, 5:18; Messner, W, 15:10.
Second period: W — Miller 1 (Tischke, Johnson), 6:17; Messner 1 (Gorniak), 15:57. Penalties: Grando, B, 7:53; Inamoto, W, 11:32; Hutsko, B, 12:41.
Third period: W — Baker 1 (S. Dhooghe), 19:28 (en). Penalty: Wahlstrom, B, 7:05.
Saves: B (Woll 5-8-9) 22; W (Berry 7-8-14) 29. Power plays: B 0-for-3; W 0-for-4. Att. — 7,911.