Roman Ahcan, Dominick Mersch and Brock Caufield combined for a rarity with the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team when they started the season on the same line.
It was only the third time in the past 19 years that the Badgers have employed an all-freshman forward trio in the opener. It hasn’t been possible in some seasons because there weren’t enough newcomers, and in others rookies were matched with veterans early.
But with freshmen aplenty on this Badgers team, there was no hesitation about sending out a fourth line of newcomers against a ranked opponent.
And what Ahcan, Mersch and Caufield did against then-No. 12 Boston College in a pair of UW victories last weekend showed that they can hold their own in the roles they’ve been put into.
“When you come here, you’re expected to work and you’re expected to hop right in,” Ahcan said. “With our first games under our belts, I feel like that’s exactly what we did.”
Caufield scored his first collegiate goal in last Saturday’s 7-5 victory, and the trio produced just about as many even-strength shot attempts as either of the top two lines.
That was beyond the stated goal for the fourth line, a group of players who showed in practice that they were willing to create a buzz for the team.
“For us, I think it was just creating energy,” Mersch said. “Just going out there and working hard. And when we had momentum, keeping that momentum and turning it over to the next line up.”
UW’s rookie trio takes that mindset into its first road trip of the season. The 15th-ranked Badgers (2-0) play at Clarkson (0-2) tonight and St. Lawrence (0-2) on Saturday, looking to build on last weekend’s strong start.
The only other times since 2000 that the Badgers had three freshmen forwards together on a line at the outset of a season were in 2002 (Nick Licari, Adam Burish and Ryan MacMurchy) and 2014 (Matt Ustaski, Ryan Wagner and Adam Rockwood).
Badgers coach Tony Granato has noted the energy brought so far by all five Badgers freshman forwards, including center Mick Messner and wing Jack Gorniak, both of whom are on the third line.
After the first weekend, he also celebrated the excitement from the rest of the team after Caufield’s goal on Saturday gave the Badgers a two-goal lead in the third period.
“When you play hard and you use the assets that you have — and that’s work, using the points, crashing the net — good things will happen,” Granato said. “Those guys can all score. But when you jump up from juniors to playing college hockey, how long that takes to turn into production, you never really know.
“To get off to a good start on how you play the game and to be able to contribute as well on the score sheet, I think, is a real boost for them.”
There’s usually nothing spectacular about playing on the fourth line unless you consider simple, hard-working plays to be the kind of work for you. So far, playing and practice time have indicated that Ahcan, Mersch and Caufield are buying into that line of thinking.
“We’re just hard workers. We don’t take anything for granted,” Caufield said. “We come to the rink every day and work hard. … We just don’t give up on the backcheck, keep tracking pucks, hunting all day. That leaves a lot of chances for our line.”
All three are 19 and spent at least last season in the United States Hockey League. Ahcan played one season with Cedar Rapids after his high school career in Burnsville, Minnesota.
Mersch and Caufield had more extensive junior stops. Mersch, from Park Ridge, Illinois, played 181 regular-season and playoff games with Lincoln over the past three years. Mosinee’s Caufield made 119 appearances with Green Bay in the past two seasons.
Over that time, they developed some scoring touch — all three had more than 15 goals last season — but also the grit that helps them in their current role.
“I feel like we’re all kind of the same type of player: hard-nosed, power forwards and we can get the puck to the net,” Ahcan said. “Good things happen when you get the puck to the net.”
That proved true last weekend in an experience that was what Mersch, Caufield and Ahcan hope is the start of big things.
“It played out amazing,” Mersch said. “It was a great weekend. We’ve been waiting to get here as a freshman class and play that weekend all summer. So to get it done the way that we did, it was pretty special.”