MADISON—Josh Engel was understandably nervous before the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey game last Saturday night.
For most of this season, Engel has been the odd man out on the Badgers’ blue line. That has been particularly true in the second semester. Engel played in only one game during the month of January and never cracked the lineup last month.
Engel’s opportunity arose last weekend, after fellow sophomore defenseman Joe Piskula, who had not missed a game all season, suffered a right leg injury in Friday night’s win over St. Cloud State.
So before Saturday’s game there was Engel, ready to leap into the lineup and fill in for Piskula as senior Tom Gilbert’s defensive partner.
“It was exciting,” Engel said. “I hadn’t played for—it was over a month—so getting back in there is really exciting for me.”
It was also a bit nerve-wracking.
“I thought I might make a huge mistake and cost (us) the game or something,” Engel said. “You know, stuff like that. Just being real nervous thinking about that kind of stuff.”
His fears proved rather unwarranted. Engel played his position very well, especially considering he had not played since Jan. 21.
“I was pretty happy,” Engel said. “Surprised a little bit.”
“I really was (surprised),” head coach Mike Eaves said. “He hadn’t played in such a long time. But he’s the type of player that he has some ability. When he skates he has a nice pivot, he has a nice stick.
“He keeps it a lot simpler. Like if you compared him and Joe. Joe because of his skating can get himself out into danger areas. But Josh keeps it simpler and maybe doesn’t get into as much trouble as perhaps a guy like Joe Piskula can.”
Piskula, along with wing Robbie Earl, is one of UW’s fastest skaters, and he has been one of the team’s most improved players this season, leading the team with a +24 rating. Engel, though, can bring plenty to the ice as well.
“It’s definitely tough, no matter what kind of player you are, to just jump in, when you haven’t played in a while,” Gilbert said. “And last weekend he did his job and he did it well. There’s nothing more that we could expect out of him. Especially me as his partner. He played great for me. He was always there. Good talk. It was a really good weekend for him.”
“I played a good game, I think,” Engel said. “Obviously I was a little rusty in the first period, just getting the jitters out. But I’d say that playing with Gilbert calmed me down quite a bit after the first period.”
Engel has fallen victim to the number of high-quality blue-liners on the Badgers’ roster this season. Heading into the campaign he knew that it would be tough to earn playing time on a roster that included Gilbert, Piskula, Jeff Likens, Kyle Klubertanz, Davis Drewiske and Matt Olinger.
“We have a lot of depth so I knew it was going to be a challenge to jump in there,” he said. “… So, I just tried to stay positive. I tried just working really hard to try to make a spot.”
It has not been easy, though, to sit and watch his teammates compete. Engel has played in just 9 of 35 games this season.
“It’s rough,” he said. “I try to hang in there the best I can. We have a lot of good guys on our team. We have a lot of depth. The defensemen that we have that are playing are really good defensemen. So I try to hang in there and practice really hard the throughout year, try to get my shot.”
Engel missed the first half of last season due to a broken wrist, and Eaves said the effects of that injury limited him in offseason workouts last summer, putting him behind many of his teammates on the development curve.
“I think he was wondering what the heck was going on,” Eaves said, in reference to Engel’s playing time. “And we had a real good talk…
“Physically he’s never gotten in the race to compete. From a strength standpoint and from a conditioning standpoint. When we were doing conditioning drills, there was weeks where Josh was dropping back. He was getting further and further behind. It does a team disservice to put in a young lad who is saying, ‘Well, I’m ready to go coach.’ Well, yes and no. You are mentally ready to go but as we watch you practice you are showing us that you are not ready to go.
“And so you had that discussion, he goes back to work. And he waited for his opportunity. His opportunity came and he did very well. I was really happy for him and I know Coach (Mark Osiecki) was too.”
Having success last Saturday will not keep Engel from feeling some nerves this weekend, as the Badgers enter postseason play with a first-round WCHA playoff matchup with Michigan Tech.
“It’s playoffs,” Engel said. “It’s do or die time. So it’s going to be really hard not being extremely nervous before the game, but I think I’ll be OK.”