Men’s Hockey: Quick Start a Must for Eaves and Company

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Those in and around the Wisconsin men’s hockey program have many reasons to be excited heading into the 2013-14 campaign.

The Badgers enter the year ranked No. 3 in the nation. They were selected to win the first ever Big Ten hockey title. Star forward Nic Kerdiles will be eligible for the entire season. UW returns a pair of solid goaltenders. Wisconsin lost just a handful of players from last season’s squad.  The list goes on and on.

For the many that follow the program year in and year out, this level of excitement at the onset of a season is nothing new.  Wisconsin has built itself into a power of sorts. While they won’t be national title contenders on a yearly basis - no team in the Midwest sans Minnesota can make that claim- the Badgers will almost always be in the mix for an NCAA Tournament appearance. 

However, in recent years, the preseason excitement has been met by plenty of sluggish starts. More often than not, being slow out of the blocks has cost the Cardinal and White dearly. The 2012-13 season was a rare exception. UW overcame a 1-7-2 start by finishing 21-6-5 down the stretch, ending the year with a 22-13-7 record, a WCHA Playoff Championship, and a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

This season will start just as last one did: with a two-game set against Northern Michigan. Instead of playing on the “neutral ice” of the Resch Center in Green Bay, the Wildcats must traverse into the heart of Badger Nation, the Kohl Center in Madison.

The Wildcats swept the Badgers in last year’s opening series. At the time, the pair of losses didn’t seem all that bad. After all, Northern Michigan forced its way into the national rankings the following week. However, the Wildcats quickly faded and were a non-factor in the CCHA race, capping off the year with a 15-19-4 record.

So, the ultimate question is: will this season be any different? While no one is a lock for the Frozen Four, the Badgers have a legitimate shot of punching their tickets to Phliadelphia, but, in order to rack up those frequent flier miles, a better start is a must. Yes, the Badgers were able to dig themselves out of an enormous hole last season, but no legitimate contender will be fighting a similar fight this year.

The Badgers must get the wheels turning early in 2013. There is no way around it. Last year’s borderline miracle run aside, it remains an interesting time for hockey in Madison. Season ticket sales and attendance are down across the board and, despite the incredible finish to last year, many in the state capital continue to be less than enamored with the head coach. Fair or not, in the eyes of many, Mike Eaves is likely one sub-par season away from being handed his walking papers.

 If this team is to build a solid foundation to provide the basis for a championship run, it must start on day one and not in the latter portion of November.

At his weekly press conference Wednesday, Eaves pointed to the short window between the start of practices and the beginning of the season as one of the possible reasons for the slow starts.

“It's kind of a mixed bag because of the fact we're just getting on the ice. We've been part-time for a couple of weeks. We've had a red-white scrimmage. Now we're going to have three days of practice, a walk-through and then we play,” Eaves said

“There's no direct answer to that, just because of the fact that you have very little time to prepare. Someday we hope, as a staff, that this gets changed.”

Though the lack of preseason practice time is a legitimate issue, the excuse doesn’t hold much water because everyone in the nation is in the same position, and Eaves knows that.

“No question, and the young men in the locker room all know that. They're very much aware of it. There were storms we had last year, and who's to say we're not going to have storms here now, Eaves said. “But we're certainly going to be on our toes ready to get out of the port on a good note and get off to a good start.”

Helping the cause is the fact that the Badgers boast 16 upperclassmen on this year’s roster, including nine seniors, a sharp increase for a club that had just two seniors a year ago.

“Having that always helps, there's no question,” Eaves said. “When you go into a season like this, any season, the older you are, those kids coming in have more reps. So you kind of hope that that will take over.”

Wisconsin returns its top-5 scorers from a season ago.

However, even with a high number of veterans, Eaves still believes that adjustments will need to be made along the way.

“There's still a lot of unknowns about chemistry. We moved Mark Zengerle up with Morgan Zulinick and Tyler Barnes and we have Nic Kerdiles in the middle. It looks pretty good in practice, but you're still not sure. You're still not sure of that fact.”

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