A season that started with so much promise for Wisconsin has hit a bit of a snag in the past two weeks as the club has now dropped three straight games following a sweep by Penn State Thursday/Friday.
Cole Caufield’s two-goals-per-game pace that he maintained through his first three college games has predictably also dipped, as the 5-7 freshman has notched two goal in the five contests since his unprecedented start. The positive in that regard is that the chances were still coming up until his last game when Caufield failed to register a shot on goal – Wisconsin ran into a hot goalie in Peyton Jones, who surrendered just three goals on 63 shots.
Caufield could have had two or three goals in Wisconsin’s 6-1 loss on Thursday if not for the work of Jones. Caufield scored the Badgers only goal that night, but he had several glorious chances, and played a solid game offensively. Caufield flashed his elite stickhandling skills on two shifts in particular in this game where he deftly dangled past opposing defenders. Caufield showed off his hands last season on occasion, but playing with Jack Hughes, it was often the first-overall pick from last year’s draft that drove puck possession.
All three of the forwards on Caufield’s line are adept at gaining the offensive zone with the puck, but it is clear that Wisconson coach Tony Granato has confidence in Caufield being a possession driver, and it is yet another offensive tool in his brimming toolbox.
Hands, release, quickness, shot, vision and… more than anything else…elite hockey sense.
Granato has already compared his freshman phenom to Brett Hull in terms of his awareness in the offensive zone. Caufield knows how to get open and is always prepared to unleash his lethal one-timer. He is also not afraid to shoot from anywhere inside the blueline, at any time. The puck comes to him on the wall and he has a clear shooting lane? He shoots without even looking.
Go to the net when you play with Caufield because there are plenty of rebounds when it doesn’t end up a goal. As a Freshman, Caufield is leading the NCAA in goal scoring with eight in his first eight college games, so more often than not, it ends up in the net.
Mind you – on Saturday night versus a tight-checking veteran Penn State squad, Caufield was held without a shot, and it is nights like that when you also wonder if Caufield might have a bit of Brett Hull in him away from the puck. and that is not necessarily a compliment when it is not in the offensive zone. Caufield can be rather unnoticeable when he doesn’t have the puck in the defnsive zone. Watching him on video, there can be long stretches of play when he isnt on the screen and one wonders if he is even on the ice. It works to his advantage if Wisconsin gets the puck and he gets sprung for a bereakaway, but that is not usually the end result.
Caufield knows what to do in is own zone because his anticipatory skills and hockey IQ are top-notch, but he is always thinking offence, and that can result in him being out of the play and failing to cover his man. The other of his game that needs improvement is his intensity on the backcheck. A prime example was the game-winning goal for Penn State on Friday night when Caufield found himself as the last Badger back on the right side of the ice.
His effort to get to the puck carrier was, at best, mediocre, and it allowed Sam Sternschein the shooting lane necessary to get his shot past the Wisconsin netminder. Kudos to Caufield for being aware of the situation and hanging back, but the lack of hustle in getting to Sternschein is something he will have to rectify.
A solid freshman lesson for Caufield versus one of the top college teams in Penn State – it is not always going to be easy…and it will only get harder at the NHL level. Work harder, and good things will happen for both him and the team. Better to be learning those lessons now than during the Frozen Four tournament.
Jack Gorniak does not see a lot of ice time playing on Wisconsin’s fourth line, perhaps 6-8 minutes per contest. He works hard and is one of the team’s faster skaters, but the hands and creativity are not his prime assets, and for him to be successful, it is all about driving to the net and capitalizing on his infrequent scoring chances.
Gorniak drew a penalty on a breakaway on Thrusday night, and on Friday, he took a feed from Ryder Donavon in the right slot and beat the Penn State goalie with a well-placed shot. If he keeps working hard in his limited opportunities, he is eventually going to work his way up to the third line, perhaps before the end of this season. Gorniak’s upside? He looks like a future AHL checker at this point if he ever signs a pro contract.
Jayden Struble made his much-anticipated NCAA debut a couple of weeks ago for Northeastern after suffering a groin injury in the offseason, and while he has yet to produce any points through five games, he has made a positive impression with his physical skills. One play in particular stood out last Friday when he made an end-to-end rush that included a slick inside deke that afforded him a clear breakaway that was ultimately thwarted by a great save from the U-Mass goalie.
Struble will be brought along slowly considering that he is mere months removed from playing high school hockey on a team with several veteran defenders. Struble missed the third period of Northeastern’s last game due to a hand injury. No word on how much time he will miss.
Struble’s teammate Jordan Harris has had a terrific start to his season, picking up seven points in his first eight contests while playing a solid game in his own end. Harris utilizes his great mobility and hockey sense to keep opponents at bay. His mobility stands out on Northeastern’s blueline, and while he is officially listed as a second-pairing defenceman, he is clearly the top defender on the team both offensively and defensively despite being just a sophomore.
Harris has done nothing but help his chances of representing the US at the WJC with his play so far this college season.
Brett Stapley started the season suspended by Denver University for an off-ice incident, and it took him a few games to work his way out of the coach’s doghouse, but he is heating up on the nation’s top-ranked team. Stapley had a goal and three assists last weekend versus Niagara, and the goal and one of his helpers highlighted his terrific lateral agility and puck skills.
Stapleys goal was of the highlight-reel variety. He got the puck close to the net with his back somewhat turned to a defender – faked going to the outside, made a sharp turn towards the net and fired the puck top corner before the goalie could react. On one of his assists, he approached the net on the left side, drew the defenceman out of his passing lane with a deke to the outside and then laid a perfect backhand pass across the crease for a tap-in goal by Kohen Olifcheski.
Stapley dropped out of Recrutes’ top 20 prospect rankings last month – expect that to change when November’s rankings are released