The season-opening practice for the Wisconsin men's hockey team Saturday morning carried a feeling that has been absent since the days of Dany Heatley. The players did not take to the ice with a chip on their shoulder or a stigma of underachieving, but a No. 6 national ranking and a belief that they have risen to the elite of college hockey.
"We're excited. The fans are excited. There's a little buzz," goalie Bernd Bruckler said.
With two weeks left until their season opener against Mercyhurst, the Badgers have taken the first step on their potential Frozen Four-bound 2004-05 campaign. And although all three of last year's captains have moved on, the Badgers have retained the crux of the team that broke out last year with a 22-13-8 record.
Leading the charge will be goaltending stalwart Bruckler, recently named Western Collegiate Hockey Association Preseason Player of the Year. His prowess in net will be all the more vital this time around due to the loss of last year's defensive front.
"On an individual level, I have to go out there and prove myself again and show that it wasn't just one shot or one year I did good," Bruckler said.
Along with the graduation of perennial blue-liners Dan Boeser and Andy Wozniewski, Ryan Suter and Tom Sawatske widened the hole in the Badger defense by leaving school early to continue their playing careers elsewhere. On opening day of practice, however, the Badgers showed that they harbor no concerns about the state of their inexperienced back line.
"The freshman D that came in are very good players. We're confident in them and we know that they're confident in the rest of the team. It may take a couple of weeks or months if it has to, but they're going to be ready," forward Nick Licari said.
"As freshman we know that we have to step in right away and play well," rookie defender Kyle Klubertanz said. "These 20 days before the season starts will be good for us … We have smart D back there, we'll be good."
Egregiously absent from Saturday morning's drills was a senior presence. In fact, there are only two seniors listed on the Badger roster. Though this lack of upperclassmen would pose a problem for many teams (as it did Wisconsin two years ago), the Badgers are at a point where the corps of the team has played together long enough that this issue is negligible. Due largely in part to the baptism by fire the current junior class went through during its rookie season, it is hard to criticize the cohesiveness of this unit – something even the newest Badgers are noticing.
"They're good guys, everyone fits in well with each other," Klubertanz said. "We have good chemistry right now."
Though Wisconsin snuck up on college hockey's top tier last season, Saturday morning it was evident that it would be a different situation this time around. Preseason accolades and an impressive No. 6 ranking mean that no one will be taking the Badgers lightly.
"We'll hopefully be at the top of the league, but there are no guarantees," Licari said. "We have to go out and work hard every game and play to the best of our abilities, and whatever happens happens. We're confident but we're definitely not overconfident."
The Wisconsin hockey team knows that as hard as it was to get to the top, it will be even harder to stay there. The prospect of winning the WCHA, reaching the Frozen Four and living up to expectations is a daunting one that will be riddled with difficulty. On opening day, however, Licari best summed up the mood of the team.
"It'll be fun," he said.
Puck drops on new season
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