Then Wednesday rolled around and the Badgers' absorbed a potentially calamitous blow: junior goaltender Brian Elliott—he of the 1.40 goals-against average and .944 save percentage—was injured in practice.
Thursday, Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said that Elliott will miss 3-4 weeks. Eaves declined comment on the nature of Elliott's injury, citing privacy regulations, but Elliott is believed to have injured his left knee or ankle. The news came down on the same day that a CSTV.com poll unanimously voted Elliott the No. 1 contender for the Hobey Baker Award.
With arguably the best player in college hockey out of the lineup, in skates true freshman goaltender Shane Connelly, who has not played a single second of a regular-season game this season.
For starters, Connelly and the Badgers (18-2-2 overall, 13-1-2 WCHA) face off against two-time defending NCAA Champion Denver (12-10-2, 9-5-2) Friday and Saturday nights at 7 p.m. The No. 19 Pioneers are tied for second place with Wisconsin's opponent next weekend: No. 4 Minnesota. Both series at the Kohl Center are sold out.
"This is obviously one of the biggest days of my life coming up," Connelly said. "I'm just excited and ready to go."
Certainly, the play of the defensemen and forwards has helped lead to Elliott's sparkling numbers, but there is no escaping the fact that Elliott has been extraordinary in net—and that Connelly is exceptionally green.
"I think (Connelly's) ready to jump into the deep end right now," UW coach Mike Eaves said. "He's continued to get better. It's been tough to find him times to get in because of the fact that Brian has played so well. But things always happen for a reason and perhaps the purpose for right now is Shane's going to jump into the deep end and show what he can do."
Connelly's teammates are confident in his ability.
"We know he's going to do a really good job," senior captain Adam Burish said. "You can't say, ‘Oh boy we're done now, Connelly's in there.' He's going to do a great job for us. All the guys believe that."
The entire team rallied around Connelly when he won the team's Thursday ritual—a shootout competition. Defenseman Tom Gilbert and forward Jack Skille reached the finals, and Connelly stoned each of them three consecutive times to win the event. The Badgers immediately swarmed Connelly as if they had just won the McNaughton Cup.
"It was nice to kind of get more confidence, end (practice) on a good note," Connelly said.
A reporter pointed out that a cynic might think the Disney-esque moment had been a staged confidence prop.
"No, they want to win," Connelly said. "This is the most competitive group of guys I've ever been around. That jersey has a lot of pride in it and they were fighting until the very end."
Connelly has played in one game this season—the Badgers' 6-5 exhibition win over Team USA U-18. He struggled in that game; three of his five goals allowed skirted between his legs.
"I think the exhibition game wasn't a fair test of him," goaltending coach Bill Howard said. "He's a lot better goalie than he played there. I think since that game he's realized a few things, worked harder at a few things, got better at a few things.
"What we're asking him right now to do is just be patient in the net—he's got great quickness—don't beat yourself, stop the first shot. And I think he can do that."
Badger fans may be left scratching their heads and paging through their programs this weekend. Who is Shane Connelly? Generously listed at 5-foot-9, 177 pounds, Connelly was a highly rated prospect when he came to UW this fall, after two standout seasons with the Chicago Steel of the Tier I United States Hockey League. The adjustment from junior hockey to the NCAA, though, has taken time.
"It's been slower than I anticipated," Connelly said. "Coming in here out of juniors I thought it was going to be a jump, but not this hard."
"I think that's pretty natural after four months of constant repetition it's starting to become more natural for him, easier to do and it looks like he's got more confidence in what he's doing," Howard said.
Connelly was anxious before the exhibition game. He feels more settled this time around and he insisted that his pregame preparation will not change prior to his debut—even if more than 15,000 fans are waiting to greet him.
"There were more butterflies then," Connelly said, referring to the exhibition game. "Now, it is more of an excitement. Like, ‘Denver.' It doesn't get really much bigger than this."