Top-ranked UWSP men’s hockey set to contend for National Championship
Portage County Gazette
By John Kemmeter
After returning all but four seniors from last season’s team that reached the NCAA Division III National Semifinals, the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP) men’s hockey team entered this season looking to make another run.
The Pointers brought back 14 of their Top 15 scorers back from last season, when they advanced to the Frozen Four for the fourth time in five years.
UWSP is off to a 5-0-1 start so far this season and is the top-ranked team in the nation in the D3hockey.com Poll, as it heads into a pair of road games this weekend at 11th-ranked Marian (4-0) at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16, and at third-ranked and defending National Champion St. Norbert (3-2) at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17.
“We had a young team last year, and in the first half of the season we were learning the systems and adjusting to the pace,” said second-year UWSP men’s hockey head coach Tyler Krueger. “And then in the second half, after they got games under their belt and got more confidence and felt more comfortable, we went off and rolling from there.
“This year we graduated four kids, brought in eight, there wasn’t a whole lot of turnover, so we started from a little bit higher level,” he said. “And we’re further along this year than we were in past years because of that.”
A Stevens Point native and former SPASH and UWSP standout, Krueger guided the Pointers to the Frozen Four last season as the interim head coach, where the team lost 3-0 to Salve Regina (R.I.) in the National Semifinals to finish 21-6-3.
Krueger was named the Pointers’ permanent head coach following the season, while UWSP entered this fall without four seniors from a year ago, including First team All-WIAC selections in goalie Max Milosek and forward Willem Nong-Lambert.
“We knew that on paper, we were going to be deeper than we were last year,” said Krueger. “Up front we lost Willem, who was our captain and played in a lot of key roles for us, and you’re replacing him by committee with some other guys.
“It’s time for those freshmen and sophomores last year, who now are juniors and sophomores, to take that next step,” he said. “And so far I’ve been pleasantly pleased with all of those guys.”
Offensively, the Pointers are led by the return of WIAC Player of the Year and First Team All-American senior forward Tanner Karty, along with Honorable Mention All-WIAC sophomore forward Colin Raver, and junior forwards Luke McElhenie and Logan Fredericks.
“Tanner had a career year last year, he finished third in the nation in points, and he’s got a different role this year,” said Krueger. “He’s the captain of our team and he’s got more responsibility, instead of just worrying about himself, he’s got 28 other players to worry about and make sure they’re doing the right thing and holding them accountable.
“And then moving up and down the lineup, if you look at our points, there’s not a big gap,” he said.
Also back at forward from last season’s team are sophomore Zach Zech, sophomore Carter Roo, junior Brennen Miller, junior Kelly O’Brien, junior Austin Kelly, junior Baxter Kanter, senior B.J. Duffin, sophomore Brandon McReynolds and sophomore Ryan Mackellar, while UWSP added senior transfer T.J. Roo from NCAA Division 1 Bemidji State and a pair of freshmen in Jordan Fader and Wilson Northey.
“Last year our biggest thing was, we didn’t have that secondary scoring,” said Krueger. “We had that top line of Willem and Karty, and then Colin, Logan and Luke were putting up points, but after that there was a significant drop off between that and the second wave of players.
“We needed that secondary scoring from our second and third lines, and so far we’ve gotten that this year,” he said. “And that depth is what we’re going to use to our advantage throughout the year, to roll over teams by the third period.”
At defenseman, UWSP returned First Team All-WIAC senior Stephan Beauvais and Honorable Mention All-WIAC selections in junior Drew McLean and sophomore Steven Quagliata, along with seniors Ryan Bittner and Ethan Strong, and sophomores Tristan Conrad and Wesley Ashley.
The Pointers also added a pair of NCAA Division 1 transfers in junior Danny Kiraly from Alaska-Fairbanks and junior Chris Allemon from Ferris State, as well as freshman Austin Anselmo.
“We’re very deep back there and we’re very good; there’s five probably All-American defensemen back there,” said Krueger. “Stephan is our captain, I just can’t say enough about him, he’s a gamer, he hates to lose, and he’s a kid that everybody wants on their team. Ryan has taken his game to a whole other level, he’s that steady defenseman, and with him and Beauvais, you know you’re going to get 20 to 22 minutes of solid, mistake-free hockey every single night from them.
“We have a couple of transfers, Danny and Chris still have that little adjustment period, and it’s just matter of getting them on board as quick as possible so they can excel, and they’ve both taken good strides so far,” he said. “Drew hasn’t even come close to reaching the potential that he has, it’s starting to show in the first few games here, but he has the potential to be an All-American. Steven had an unbelievable freshman campaign last year, he took his game to another level as a sophomore, and Ethan is a senior who’s Mr. Reliable. So we’re very deep back there, and it’s a nice problem to have.”
The Pointers had to replace Second Team All-American Milosek at goalie after he started the last three seasons, as sophomore Connor Ryckman has taken over after he went 4-0 in four starts last season, with freshmen Eli Billing and Ryan Wagner also in the mix.
“Everybody’s biggest concern or question mark was losing our goalie and ‘what’s going to happen?’” said Krueger. “And it’s been a non-factor so far.
“Max Milosek played one game his freshman year, not because he wasn’t capable, but we had Brandon Jaeger, who was an All-American and four-year starter, and the next year as a sophomore, Max won a National Championship for us,” he said. “Connor had the ability last year, and he used last year in the right way and grew and learned from it, so he’s ready to go and take the reins this year. And Eli and Ryan are both very capable goalies who have a great work ethic to fit in well with the culture of the team and they’re competing every single day to push Connor.”
UWSP opened this season with a 4-2 win over Aurora (Ill.) at K.B. Willett Oct. 26 and tied Trine 2-2 Oct. 27, before a pair of road wins against Hamline (5-2) and Bethel (9-2) in St. Paul, Minn., the following weekend.
The Pointers were back home last weekend, where they built a 3-1 lead in the third period on the way to a 3-2 win over Saint Mary’s (Minn.) Friday, Nov. 9, while Karty scored a goal at the 8:33 mark of the third period to break a 1-1 tie in a 2-1 victory over then-15th-ranked St. Thomas (Minn.) Saturday, Nov. 10.
“We had a very good first couple of weekends, and this past weekend was good for us,” said Krueger. “Against St. Mary’s we played OK, we did enough to win, but then I think the St. Thomas game was probably the best full, complete game that we’ve played.
“We earned the right to win by doing things the right way, so it’s a very good platform for us to go off of,” he said. “Especially with the weekend we have coming up.”
UWSP will face a pair of road tests this weekend against Marian and St. Norbert, and then will be home to host its Holiday Tournament Friday and Saturday, Nov. 23 and 24.
There, St. Thomas will take on 15th-ranked Utica (N.Y.) at 3:30 p.m. Friday, with the Pointers to face Nichols (R.I.) at 7:30 p.m. Friday, while the losing teams will meet in the Consolation Game at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, and the winners will square off in the Championship Game at 7:30 p.m.
That will lead into the WIAC season opener for the Pointers at home against UW-River Falls Nov. 30, after UWSP was picked to win the WIAC Title this season by conference coaches and sports information directors over sixth-ranked UW-Eau Claire, UW-Stout, UW-Superior and River Falls.
“Eau Claire brought a lot back and they are playing very well right now, and they’re going to be a thorn in our side down the stretch,” said Krueger. “Our conference as a whole probably had a down year last year, which hurt our strength of schedule in the national rankings, and with our situation of not having an automatic bid (to the NCAA Tournament), we need our strength of schedule to be in the Top 10 in the country.
“Part of that is our conference winning those nonconference games, last year the conference as a whole struggled, and this year we’re doing much better,” he said. “As a whole, the conference reloaded and got better, so those games in the second half of the year are going to be that much bigger and that much more of a test for us.”
Without an automatic NCAA Tournament berth for the WIAC regular season or tournament champion, Krueger said every game during the season is important, and that the Pointers have to take it game by game and can’t look too far ahead.
“Our ultimate goal never changes, we’re chasing a National Championship,” said Krueger. “But we can’t afford to take any nights off, and especially with the success we’ve had and now being ranked No. 1, we have a target on our back. And we’re going to embrace the challenge and take it on, we know that we’re going to get everybody’s best, and it’s going to force us to play at our best.
“We play with a bit of urgency, and you can’t win a National Championship in November, but in our situation, you sure can lose one,” he said. “These games are of equal magnitude and importance, and it’s a matter of, yes we have that big picture in mind, but we’ve got to take care of what’s in front of us today.”