One winter ago, Trevor Hudecek spent most nights in his perch between the pipes knowing a lot rode on him.
It was evident early on the Eau Claire Memorial boys hockey team needed its then-junior goaltender to make game-saving stops on a nightly basis in order to win.
And the Old Abes did more often than not, advancing to their eighth-straight state tournament. Hudecek had nearly 700 saves on the year, by far and away the most in his career as a starting goaltender, which extends to his freshman season in 2014-15.
In the early goings of the 2017-18 campaign, the Old Abes are still heavily dependent on their senior goaltender, who most certainly is on the shortlist for the best in Wisconsin.
But he’s spent plenty of time watching his teammates light the lamp on the other end to ease his work load so far.
Under first-year coach Chris Tok, Memorial has raced out to a 4-0 start thanks to a furious attack on opposing nets, outscoring its first four foes by a combined score of 25-7 while outshooting teams 141-98.
“As a goalie, it takes so much pressure off your back,” Hudecek, who has a .941 save percentage through the four contests, said. “This year it changes the whole entire aspect. Not only does it change your confidence, but it changes the whole team knowing that if we get one down, we can get that one back. As a goalie, it’s awesome.”
Make no mistake, these are no slouches the Old Abes have played. They knocked off preseason No. 2 Wausau West 4-2 and No. 4 Notre Dame 5-2 on back-to-back nights over Thanksgiving weekend. They pounded conference rival Rice Lake 9-2 last Thursday before trouncing always tough St. Paul Academy (Minn.) 7-2 on Saturday.
With speed guys like Ben Zacho and Brenden Olson back, there’s plenty of skill on the Old Abes. But Tok, who replaced 20-year coach Mike Schwengler late in the spring, has put together combinations where scrappier players are on the ice with the pure scorers. That’s been a big-time formula for success.
“Right now it’s worked out great,” senior Hutson Collins said. “Some coaches put all their top players on the top two lines and their other lines are a lot weaker. Coach Tok has figured out that if you put a couple of skill guys on a line and a grinder, it’s worked out really well so far.”
Collins said Tok hasn’t necessarily set a system in stone so far, which has allowed forwards to create plays maybe they haven’t been able to in past years.
There are two things that are certain, though. The Old Abes will try to dictate play between the blue lines and then use that skill-grit combo to score in any way possible.
“Once you move through the neutral zone with speed, you can slow down on the offensive zone,” said Tok, who played collegiate hockey at Wisconsin. “It’s much easier to make a play three-quarters speed under control than going 100 miles an hour. And the other thing is net front present. We’ve scored some nice line rush goals, we’ve scored some dirty goals around the front of the net.”
Slowing things down in the offensive zone allows for the skill guys to move around and find their spots while simultaneously allowing the blue-collar players to set up camp around the crease and clear defensemen or create second-chance opportunities.
Zacho has led the early charge with seven goals and five assists. Fellow speedster Joe Free has a goal and eight assists, while Olson and Grant Thielbar each have four goals on the young season.
Memorial has prided itself through the years of being one of the best defensive programs in the state. It has produced a pair of NHL defensemen in Buffalo’s Jake McCabe and Michael Kapla, who is currently in the New Jersey Devils system.
That is still there. And having Hudecek as a luxury is something not many teams have. He can still win a game on his own as he often did last year. It’s just that this year, it’s being coupled with stellar offense.
“For sure we’re still a defensive-minded team,” Collins said. “Most good teams have to be surrounded by a defense and a goalie, and we’re lucky enough to have that this year. It’s allowed our forwards to fly around and score goals.”
The offensive production early on has opened up the possibilities of an awfully exciting season for the Old Abes, now ranked No. 2 in the state behind defending state champion Hudson.
That’s a direct product of playing well in all three zones to begin the year.
“Coming into the year, we didn’t know what we were going to get,” Hudecek said. “But so far every kid is stepping in and doing what they need to do.”
At a program like Memorial, November and December results don’t measure to what’s at stake in late February and early March. There’s still a long way to go in a tough conference as the top-ranked Raiders aren’t going anywhere, and neither is city rival Eau Claire North.
It always starts with good goaltending. The Abes have that and have shown an electric offense early on to set Tok’s tenure off on the right foot.
“The biggest thing that we mentioned to them is that all they did was set a bar,” Tok said. “This is a bar we’re going to expect every single game, and that bar isn’t going to stay low. We expect it to raise every time we step out onto the ice.”
If the first four games are any indication, that thing has potential to be scraping the clouds by the time the first weekend in March rolls around.