Reloading, not rebuilding

Blugold men’s hockey team adds eleven freshman, undefeated in opening weekend

CHAMPIONSHIP OR BUST: The Blugold men’s hockey team filled its roster with freshmen but have a group of upperclassmen ready to lead them. - Submitted

Photo by Elizabeth Jackson

CHAMPIONSHIP OR BUST: The Blugold men’s hockey team filled its roster with freshmen but have a group of upperclassmen ready to lead them. – Submitted

Story by Austin Mai, Staff Writer

In last season’s conference tournament, the UW-Eau Claire men’s hockey team scored three points against UW-Superior, and goalie Jay Deo saved all 42 shots to win the WIAC championship. But amid the weekend’s celebration, the team learned it would not receive a bid to compete in the national championship tournament.

Instead, rival UW-Stevens Point received a national title shot with a 22-6-2 overall record despite losing to Eau Claire in the semifinals of the WIAC tournament.

Entering this season, the Blugolds look to showcase a team capable of returning to the conference championship game as well as contend for the national title. Head coach Matt Loen said after winning the national championship in the 2012-13 season, it’s the team’s goal every year.

“We like to take it step by step; we don’t like to leap to the end of the season,” Loen said. “Our goal is to win a national championship, but it’s a difficult thing to do, obviously, when you have a great season like last season, and we don’t even get into the tournament. We are discouraged, but it is what it is.”

Eau Claire finished 19-8-1 overall last season and Loen said a team priority is to get the 11 freshmen on board with the program as quickly as possible.

“They’re used to playing 50-something junior hockey games, and that’s it,” Loen said. “Now they have school and student life and college life and now playing hockey as well. I think we have a good core back from last year to help with that.”

Nine seniors are gone from last year’s time and some leadership and experience of contending for a national championship left with them.

However, defenseman Jack Callahan said his former teammate’s hard work has not been forgotten and the progress made in the last few years has set the tone for this team.

“Since I have been here, we have yet to end the season on a loss,” the senior captain said. “We have a culture instilled here that anything less than championships isn’t acceptable. Winning is fun, and that is the only goal we have, and to have a little fun along the way.”

Callahan and senior forward Ross Andersen are this season’s captains after the departure of Robbie Anderegg, David Donnellan and Joe Krause.

Reigning national champion and No. 1 St. Norbert College’s head coach Tim Coghlin said his team won’t face UW System teams as often in the next few years following the split from the NCHA. The four-time national champion said he looks forward to facing Eau Claire this month.

“Eau Claire hadn’t been a top-four team until 2013,” Coghlin said. “They won the league that year and beat us three times. They had the most successful season in program history, which speaks volumes to what Matt (Loen) and his staff have done and how they’re doing it.”

Eau Claire’s first game this season was against St. Olaf College (Minn.), and both defenses stood out in the first period as neither team was able to score.

Sophomore forward Adam Knochenmus scored the game’s first goal in the second period before sophomore forward Brandon Wahlin gave the Blugolds the 2-0 lead with just 18 seconds left in the same period.

In the third, junior forward Ethan Nauman scored to increase the lead to 3-0, which left junior goalie Tyler Green and the defense to protect the net until the game was won. Green played all 60 minutes and saved all 32 shots of the evening.

Loen said considering this was the team’s first game and St. Olaf had already played two, he felt they did well.

“Tyler Green played really well, and we have two really good goalies here so that’s a plus for our team,” Loen said. “In the second period, St. Olaf took it to us and they got 16 shots on net. After we escaped that, I felt pretty confident about getting the win.”

Callahan said this game was the first step to get the freshmen comfortable on the team.

“I am sure there were a lot of nerves in some guys leading up to the game,” Callahan said. “It was great for them to get their feet wet and come out with a win.”

After defeating St. Olaf, Eau Claire improved to No. 10 and traveled to St. John’s University (Minn.). Andersen found the back of the net for the first goal of the game in the first period as Eau Claire took the 1-0 lead.

Callahan, who assisted Andersen on the goal, said it was a matter of getting the puck up the ice to take advantage of the scoring opportunity.

“Ross Andersen tends to be an absolute wizard when he has the puck on his stick,” Callahan said. “I try to get it to him as fast as possible and let him do the rest.”

No goals were scored until the second period when the Johnnies scored two goals within three minutes to take the lead 2-1. Wahlin then scored his second goal of the season to even the score at 2-2 before the third period.

The Blugolds lost the lead as the Johnnies took a 3-2 lead in the third period. With a player off of the ice because of a penalty, Andersen responded with his second goal of the night to force a 3-3 tie and an extra session.

In overtime neither team scored, and the match ended in a tie.

Loen said the Blugolds faced a good skating team but had to adjust to a big in-game difference.

“St. John’s play on an Olympic-sized rink, which is a lot bigger than what we play on, that was a huge difference for our guys to adapt to,” Loen said. “I was disappointed in the result however we were down and we came back to tie.”

Now 1-0-1, No. 9 Eau Claire will play five games in eight days with the first two at home this weekend. The team is set to play Hamline University (Minn.) at 7 p.m. Friday and at the same time Saturday at Hobbs Ice Center against Bethel University (Minn.).