In most college hockey seasons, we’d be hard pressed to find a coach who admits to putting any stock in the national weekly polls.
What matters, they say, is what happens on the ice, and determination of the 16-team field is more or less routine in contemporary hockey anyway. The opinions of poll voters are irrelevant when everyone’s rating percentage index is on display.
As we know, though, this season isn’t like any other that we’ve seen. Nearly every league is limiting its play to conference matches only. The number of games played can vary widely from team to team in a given league because of COVID protocols. The WCHA is missing the two teams from Alaska, and all but four ECAC teams opted out of playing for the season.
This week, the Badgers dropped to No. 13 in the USCHO Division I Men’s Poll following a split against Penn State after holding steady at No. 12 for the first three weeks in January. On Nov. 16, Wisconsin entered the poll at No. 14 and the Badgers have bounced around the area between 14th and 12th ever since, a spot that would be considered bubble territory in any season, COVID or no.
Like all coaches, Granato knows that his team’s fate is in its own collective hands, but that doesn’t mean he’s not paying attention to how poll voters view the field.
“It’s going to be important this year – there’s no PairWise, we’re not playing nonconference games – to be able to see where we are nationally that way,” said Granato. “All of these games in the last few weeks are going to be really important for how it sets up for the tournament selection committee.”
How it sets up for the tournament selection committee has yet to be revealed, but Granato likes where the Badgers are week to week, regardless of where they are in the polls.
“I know I like our team,” said Granato. ”I know we deserve what we’ve done so far. We’ve set ourselves up to be in the position of the privilege of being able to play in the tournament, but the only thing we can do is control what’s in front of us as far as continuing to play well.”
After their 4-1 road win over Penn State Jan. 21, the Badgers were down 4-1 going into the third period the following night but scored two goals in a two-minute span in the second half of the third to draw closer and added another in the final minute of the game. They lost 5-4, but Granato said they “left it all on the ice” and gave themselves a chance to win.
“Yeah, we came up short,” said Granato, “but how we did it and the opportunities we created and how we played the last 40 minutes has kind of been what our team’s done all year.”
It’s that resolve plus the depth of his team that gives Granato confidence with a dozen games remaining in the regular season. Cameron Rowe had the win for the Badgers last weekend and started the following night and “had a little bit of a slow start,” said Granato, “so Robbie Beydoun came in and played really well, so our goaltending’s been real strong all year.”
Rowe, a freshman, is 4-1-0 this season (1.69 GAA. .949 SV%) while senior Robbie Beydoun has a record of 5-6-0 (3.21 GAA, .907 SV%).
“Our goaltending situation has put us in a really good position where we have two guys not just playing well but they’ve been horses for us,” said Granato. “We’ve got confidence in them.
“Our defensive group’s been really solid all year. Offensively, I think we’ve got four lines that are really, really solid. All lines have contributed in one say, shape or form. I like the balance of our team. I like the whole morale and spirit of the group.”
With the exception of two defensemen, every Wisconsin skater who’s played 10 or more games has at least one goal this season led by the exception Cole Caufield (10-11—21).
With 12 games played, Wisconsin is midway through its B1G season and sits in third place with 22 points, a point behind second-place Michigan and five behind league-leading Minnesota. The Badgers are scheduled to play both teams on the road in February.
“I think with what we’ve done with some of the hurdles we’ve faced – and I know everybody’s facing different challenges this year – but what we faced before Christmas, losing a lot of our key players for multiple games [for the IIHF World Junior tournament], to be able to get through that and to be in a good position, we feel really good about our team,” Granato said. “I think that’s the most important thing and not so much where everyone else thinks we’re at.”
As for the national tournament, Granato said, “We’ll just have to worry about that when the time comes. The most important thing we’ve done as a group is that we’ve focused on each challenge that’s in front of us.”
An unexpected pause
The University of Michigan athletic department is paused until Sunday, Feb. 7, following a recommendation issued by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued Jan. 23. That is also the date when it was revealed that six cases of the aggressive B117 variant of COVID-19 virus had been verified in Michigan, with five of the six cases linked to Michigan athletics. On Jan. 25, a total of twelve more cases were confirmed in Washtenaw County, where the University of Michigan, and in Wayne County, home of Detroit.
In the week prior to Jan. 23, 22 student-athletes had tested positive for COVID-19, and Michigan plans to review those cases to determine the strain of the virus. No coaches or other athletic personnel have tested positive, and there are no reports of Michigan hockey players testing positive.
In a teleconference this week, Pearson said, “I guess my initial reaction was a little bit of a shock, a little bit of a surprise, a little bit of disappointment, a little bit of anger. Our players have done a great job.”
The Michigan athletic department’s compliance with the state’s recommendations halts all activities in the athletic department, including practices. That postpones Michigan’s home series with Penn State Feb. 3-4 and the pause ends two days before a single home game against Michigan State scheduled Feb. 9.
The Wolverines aren’t the first Big Ten hockey team affected by the coronavirus. Twice earlier this season, the Badgers had to put activities on hold because of positive COVID-19 test among hockey players. The first time delayed the start of Wisconsin’s season and the second came Dec. 7, which postponed a road series against Michigan State, a set that the Badgers are scheduled to pick up at the end of the regular season.
Tony Granato said that the developments at Michigan are “a good wake-up call” to remind everyone that “we’re not out of the woods yet.” Granato said that it’s easy to get a false sense of security because of athletic teams’ relative isolation on various campuses. “It’s been quiet on campus without the students being here and we’ve kind of been by ourselves. You almost feel like you’re in your own bubble. Granato added that this has “kind of knocked Michigan’s season out of whack.”
After starting Big Ten play 3-5-0 before Jan. 1, the Wolverines are 5-1-0 in their last six games.
An unexpected setback
Sometimes, a good road trip might be just what you need. That’s Jeff Jackson’s thinking as Notre Dame looks at consecutive away series against Penn State and Ohio State.
“Maybe going on the road for four straight games is a good thing right now,” said Jackson. “I think that we’re more dialed in for whatever reason on the road. I can’t explain it.”
Jackson made the remarks after the Fighting Irish were swept at home by Michigan last weekend. Those losses followed two road wins against Minnesota when the Golden Gophers were the top team in the country.
After Notre Dame’s second loss to Michigan, Jackson sounded equal parts frustrated and philosophical.
“For us, it’s really a matter of where they want to end up,” said Jackson. “It’s got to be on our leadership. It’s got to be on our upperclassmen to say enough is enough in these situations.”
Jackson also thinks that the Wolverines will challenge the Gophers as the season winds down.
“They may be the best team in the conference,” Jackson said. “I think it’s yet to be said. They’re certainly as skilled and talented as Minnesota. They’re just younger.”
Notre Dame is 3-8-1 at home and 4-0-0 on the road with eight of the team’s 12 remaining games away from home.
A couple of surprising scores
In two games, Minnesota put up 20 goals on Arizona State last weekend, beating the Sun Devils 10-0 and 10-2, but Bob Motzko wants us all to understand something about the team the Gophers beat.
“I’ve got to say, that’s not indicative of where Arizona State’s program is right now,” said Motzko. “They were a tournament team the last couple of years. They’re awful beat up right now with injuries and COVID, and their break comes at a good time. They can go home and heal up now. On the competitive side, we caught them at the right time because they’re wounded.”
Eight skaters gave multi-point performances in each of the games and Gophers Brannon McManus and Sammy Walker each had a hat trick in Friday’s contest. McManus’s hat trick was the first natural hat trick scored by Minnesota since Sam Warning recorded one in 2014.