Luke Kunin became used to setting standards at the University of Wisconsin. He’ll now be getting used to being the low man on the totem pole. On Thursday, Kunin announced that he will forgo his eligibility at the collegiate level to sign his rookie deal with the Minnesota Wild.
Kunin was a first-round draft pick of the Wild in the 2016 NHL Draft and will report to the Iowa Wild of the AHL for the remainder of the season.
It is no coincidence that having Kunin wearing the ‘C’ on his chest and UW’s rise back to competency in the Big Ten happened at the same time. However, his first season as the Badgers captain will be his last.
He said goodbye to the University of Wisconsin with a heart-felt letter released on Twitter on Thursday afternoon.
— Luke Kunin (@lukekunin9) March 23, 2017
This was a move that was easy to see coming. Not only did Kunin lead the Badgers in scoring the past two seasons, he was also the captain of the United State junior team that took home the World Championship earlier this year.
He proved himself on the ice against the best of college hockey, but also against the best the world had to offer at his age group. Outside of sticking around for his degree and a chance at a national title, there wasn’t much left for Kunin to prove at the collegiate level.
Everyone seemed to have been in agreement according to a Wisconsin State Journal report.
“We all thought it was the right decision,” Kunin said in that report. “I feel like I’m ready to make the jump. I’m just excited to get going here with my pro career. I’ve been thinking about it for a while. It’s tough to leave Wisconsin, but I’m looking forward to the future.”
Kunin signed a standard three-year, entry-level deal with the team Wild that starts next season. He’ll immediately report to the Wild’s AHL affiliate in Des Moines and earn $70,000 for his effort for the remainder of this season.
He’s in for a decent pay-day at the NHL level, where he will make the rookie maximum of $925,000 when he goes up to the parent club next season.
Kunin leaves behind a pretty good legacy at UW, one that includes 41 career goals (22 this season alone) and a second-team All-Big Ten pick this past season. He also is just the second player to ever wear the captain’s ‘C’ on his chest as a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin.
It was a good choice by Tony Granato and the team. Wisconsin made a 12-game jump in the win column over last season, nearly made the NCAA tournament as an at-large team and made it to the Big Ten tournament championship game.
After some down years, Kunin’s arrival and early departure are good signals that things are indeed looking up for the proud Wisconsin Badgers hockey program.
Badgers hockey downed 6-3 by No. 8 Denver
The second half of the Wisconsin Badgers hockey season got underway with old WCHA rival Denver coming to the Kohl Center. It was not a fun start, as four 3rd period goals lifted the visiting No. 8 ranked Pioneers to a 6-3 win.
Denver (11-4-2, 4-4-0 NCHC) scored three goals in less than 5:30 of the 3rd period to turn a tie game in to a 5-2 lead in its favor.
“I can’t be too critical tonight,” said head coach Tony Granato following the loss. “We haven’t played for four weeks and we played a top-five team.
“Give them credit, they made plays. They have some great players out there and have a lot of confidence in how they are playing. That’s a great team though. I can’t be too critical. We’ve played well all year. We’ve played hard all year.”
Wisconsin (8-8-3, 4-3-3-1 B1G) and Denver traded goals over the course of the first two periods, with Denver opening the scoring just 4:15 in to the game on a power play.
It would be the only scoring of the first period though.
Tyler Inamoto scored his first career goal at the 3:50 mark of the 2nd period to even things up at 1-1. It took over 10 more minutes for the next goal to come and it came to the Pioneers at the 15:31 mark of the same period for a 2-1 advantage.
Wisconsin would tie it back up at 2-2 thanks to a power play goal from Seamus Malone. It was just his third goal of the season for the Badgers and came with just over 40 seconds left in the 2nd period.
There was no momentum out of the intermission for Wisconsin though.
Denver lit the lamp for a 3-2 lead just 2:43 in to the 3rd period and little did the Badgers know the route was on from there.
The Pioneers next two goals came just 19 seconds apart within the 6th minute of the period for a 5-2 lead.
Will Johnson’s 6th goal of the season made it 5-3, but came at the 17:20 mark fo the final period and a bit too late to make a massive difference.
Denver added an empty-netter from Jake Durflinger at 19:21 to seal the deal at 6-3.
“Tonight there were just parts of the the game that they were just better than us at,” Granato said. “Let’s not look too much into it. Let’s see how we respond tomorrow. All year long Saturday nights have been a good response by us pretty much straight throughout the year and I expect that from us tomorrow.”
The Badgers and Pioneers will meet again tomorrow night, with puck drop scheduled for 7pm CT on Fox Sports Wisconsin Plus.
UW hockey tied atop Big Ten standings heading in to winter break
After a hot start to open the season, the Wisconsin Badgers hockey team seemed like it was cooling way down as conference play got under way. But, things have turned around a bit over the last three series for the Badgers.
Following a weekend sweep of Big Ten bottom dwellers, Michigan State, the Badgers (8-7-3, 4-3-3-1 B1G) now sit tied with the Ohio State Buckeyes atop the Big Ten standings with 16 points each.
UW ended its first two series of Big Ten conference play with a 1-3-0-0 overall record — splitting a home series with rival Minnesota and being swept by Ohio State.
To say the team wasn’t looking like a contender in the conference was not too far a stretch at all.
“We weren’t happy with the outcomes of the North Dakota and Ohio State weekends,” head coach Tony Granato said following the series sweep of MSU this weekend. “Not necessarily that we lost, but we just didn’t play well. We didn’t play the way we thought we were capable of playing. So we had this stretch coming up, going to Michigan and coming home to Penn State, two ranked teams, and then coming back to a scrappy team here today. We thought that if we’re going to make a push this season and get anything out of it, we’ve got to get going right now.”
The tides have turned since that loss on Nov. 17 to the Buckeyes, as Wisconsin hasn’t lost a regulation game since. UW earned points in a strange way over the course of the next three games — earning ties with Michigan twice and Penn State in that series opener. UW only got extra points in a shootout win over Michigan and lost in a 3-on-3 OT period in that series opener as well as a shootout in the Penn State series opener.
Wisconsin put on a clinic this weekend against the Spartans, winning 8-5 and 5-3 to sweep a series for the first time since the season-opening matchup with Boston College.
It all adds up to a team who hasn’t lost in six straight contests and is on a three-game win streak as they head in to the winter break.
“Playing six games in a row in our conference, playing the way we did and not losing in regulation says a lot about our goaltending, about the play of our defense and about the contributions of all four lines,” said Granato. “That’s been the most fun thing to see, is how each of the lines has found ways to contribute in lots of different ways.”
Can that momentum carry over in to the second half of the season? UW will get former WCHA rival Denver on Jan. 4 to start the second half before a return to Big Ten play.
That means there will be little time to ease back in to things and overcoming challenges seem to be UW’s specialty this year. But, considering how the last few seasons trended when things got tough, this team appears set to be different.
Can it add up to a contender for its first Big Ten regular season title? That will be answered by UW’s ability to turn ties against top teams in to wins.
Badgers can’t hold on in Border Battle loss to Gophers
The No. 20 Wisconsin Badgers looked to be in prime position to upend bitter rival Minnesota after getting off to a 2-0 lead. But, a three-goal barrage in the second period did the hosts in in a 3-2 loss to open Big Ten hockey play.
Wisconsin opened the scoring thanks to a pair of freshman, as Roman Ahcan found a wide open Brock Caufield and he buried a one-time in to the open net.
It was Caufield’s second goal of the season and the Badgers were on the front foot at the 9:37 mark of the first period.
So far this season, sophomore forward Wyatt Kalynuk has been on fire in the scoring department. He led the team in points (9) coming in to the series against Minnesota, and after a goal just four minutes in to the second period he tied at the top of the goal-scoring chart with five on the year.
With the Badgers up 2-0 early on in the period it appeared they would boss the game.
Instead, it woke the visiting Gophers up.
Minnesota put three goals in to the net in a span of 74 seconds in the middle of the second period.
The first goal came at the 9:20 mark of the second period, as Ben Brinkman put home the opener. Wisconsin’s Ty Emberson was called for cross-checking on the goal, a call that was very controversial and difficult to understand.
Minnesota appeared to get in the way of Wisconsin netminder Daniel Lebedeff, but was ruled to have been checked in to him.
“It was a penalty for cross checking,” said Granato after the game. “Their player ran into our goalie and didn’t have enough time to get off of our goalie according to the referee. That was the explanation.”
It took just 21 seconds in to the ensuing power play for the Gophers to tie the game up. Rem Pitlick lit the lamp for the 2-2 scoreline at 9:41 of the second period.
However, the horror wasn’t over for the hosts. Minnesota would go from 2 down to 3 up as Ryan Norman would slot home the game-winner at the 10:34 mark of the period.
It was all the scoring that they needed, as Mat Robson stopped 30 of 32 shots faced in the win.
Wisconsin also couldn’t take advantage of mistakes made by the Gophers all night long. The Badgers had four power play opportunities, but only mustered one shot on goal over those four opportunities.
UW will look to get a series split as they host the Gophers in the finale at 7pm CT. The game can be seen on Fox Sports Wisconsin and BTN2Go.
Badgers open up B1G Hockey play with Border Battle
A young No. 20 Wisconsin Badgers men’s hockey program will get a big test as it opens Big Ten hockey play. That’s because the Badgers will welcome the No. 16 Minnesota Gophers to town for a two-game series in the intense Border Battle rivalry.
It’s certainly a marquee way to open up conference play and a series that see’s these two teams trying to gain a foothold on their seasons.
This series will have a different feeling as long-time Gophers head coach Don Lucia is not behind the bench for the visitors anymore. His replacement, Bob Motzko, isn’t an unfamiliar name though as he is a former Gopher assistant and long-time head coach at Minnesota-Duluth.
Can he step up and lead a young Gophers team to a big road upset in his first time as the leader on the bench or will the Badgers experience advantage finally give them a home sweep in this series under Tony Granato?
Let’s break down how this series sets up.
Wisconsin Badgers (No. 20)
Record: 4-4-0 (0-0-0-0 B1G)
Head Coach: Tony Granato, 3rd season (38-38-5)
Notable: Wisconsin’s coaching staff has embraced the youth movement in a big way as of late. Last Saturday at North Dakota, the Badgers skated all nine of their freshmen for the first time this season. That included the collegiate debut of rookie defenseman Jesper Peltonen. The nine freshmen were the most for UW in a game since March 14, 2015, when the Badgers had nine rookies in the lineup in a game against Ohio State.
Points: Wyatt Kalynuk, 9 (4 goals, 5 assists)
Goals: Sean Dhooghe (5)
Assists: 4 tied w/ 6
GAA: Daniel Lebedeff (2.02)
Save Pct.: Daniel Lebedeff (.922)
Minnesota Gophers (No. 16)
Record: 1-3-1 (0-0-0-0 B1G)
Head Coach: Bob Motzko — 1st year at Minnesota, 13th overall (277-195-50)
Notable: The Gophers have a bad record and are still ranked? When the games with Wisconsin are games 6 and 7 against ranked opponents on the season you begin to see why the Gophers remained ranked.
Points: Clayton Phillips, 5 (0 goals, 5 assists)
Goals: 4 tied w/ 2
Assists: Phillips (5)
GAA: Eric Schierhorn (2.64)
Save Pct.: Mat Robson (.916)
Key to the Matchup: Wisconsin’s defense
Early on this season it has been a work in progress for the Badgers defense. But, it feels like things are coming together after last weekend’s performance against North Dakota. That’s especially the case in the finale, where the Badgers lost 3-2 in overtime after giving up 5 goals to ND on Friday night.
UW had a season high 25 blocks in the loss. Those 25 blocks were also the most in 16 contests for the Badgers dating back to last January.
It also appears that freshman goaltender Daniel Lebedef is coming in to his own quickly. He started Saturday’s game and saved 32 of 35 shots on the night. That came after experienced starter Jack Berry gave up 4 goals in taking the loss in the previous game. Lebedef came in relief and stopped 7 of 8 shots in just over 27 minutes of ice time.
Combine a defense willing to go all-out and a young goaltender that is pretty hot and you have something to work with. No longer do you need the offense to constantly be leaned on, and that’s very helpful to a group that has been under extreme stress early on in the season.
Friday: Minnesota 4-3
Saturday: Wisconsin 4-3
Both teams have played quality competition leading up to the start of their Big Ten seasons, so at least we have a fair comparison to work off of. That said, I don’t trust Wisconsin at home against Minnesota very much.
Yes, it’s a new era for the Gopher hockey program, but Motzko is more than familiar with the rivalry and with the Badgers program overall having posted up as the head coach at Minnesota-Duluth for more than a decade.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see a Badgers sweep here, but something tells me the defensive inconsistency due to youth may be at play early on in the first matchup and it’ll cost the Badgers overall on Friday night.
Minnesota’s defense is allowing an average of 3.0 goals per game, while the Badgers come in giving up 3.2 goals per game on their end. That portends a ton of lamps being lit in this series.
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