It’s hard to miss Ryan Wagner on the ice, especially in a productive past few weeks.
If the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey forward isn’t scoring goals or setting them up, he’s agitating the other team. If he isn’t trying to get established in front of the net despite a size disadvantage, he’s using his body and his voice to stick up for a teammate.
“He’s just a little pest,” teammate and roommate Peter Tischke said, surely in the most appreciative way possible. “He gets in your face. He’s not afraid of anyone.”
There’s not much hidden with Wagner when he’s on the rink, so it could be surprising to learn he’s not naturally that way when he doesn’t have the skates on.
“I think most people think I’m pretty outgoing, but I’m a pretty shy kid, I’m a pretty quiet kid until I get comfortable,” Wagner said.
There’s nowhere he’s been more comfortable lately than in the offensive zone for the 17th-ranked Badgers, who host No. 12 Minnesota tonight and Saturday.
Wagner, UW’s points leader, has tied a career best with a five-game point streak and has scored four goals in his past three games.
He’s done it by being aggressive with the puck and sometimes even more so when he doesn’t have possession.
The two sides of Wagner, UW associate head coach Mark Strobel said, show there are some who can flip a switch to become the kind of player who’s a pain to play against and go back to being reserved when the game’s over.
“Boy, you had to look out every time you’re out there against a player like that,” Strobel said. “And he has it.”
Badgers coach Tony Granato, now in South Korea to lead the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team, has held Wagner in high regard since he took over at UW last season.
That impression has only been magnified as the senior has taken on more of a leadership role.
“He’s set the standard for what we’re looking for in players when we recruit, when we bring them in and we teach freshmen what we’re looking for,” Granato said.
From recording only five points in 35 games as a freshman to leading the team with 29 through 31 contests this season, Wagner has made some dramatic steps of growth.
He also leads UW in shots on goal (92) and shot attempts (185, nearly six per game).
Wagner wears No. 13 because his mother, Pattie, was the 13th of 16 children in her family, but seven is his number this season: He has a team-best seven power-play goals, has scored seven times when the Badgers have been trailing and has netted seven goals at home.
The last one is pertinent now because Wagner is preparing for what could be — but he hopes isn’t — the last games he’ll play at the Kohl Center.
He’ll be one of eight seniors honored before Saturday’s regular-season home finale. Most of that group came to UW in the wake of the program’s 26th NCAA tournament appearance but faced trying times early in their careers.
UW won just four times in 2014-15 and eight times in 2015-16, leading to a coaching change from Mike Eaves to Granato.
“It was a tough two first years,” Wagner said. “But I think the seniors that were a part of it grew a lot in those two years, and we learned a lot. These past two years, Tony and the coaches have come in and really shaped me as a player and person, and I think I’ve grown a lot in both aspects.”
If he had a chance to go back and give advice to his freshman self, he said it would be about confidence and mental toughness, two things that are now hallmarks of Wagner’s game.
The third-place Badgers could earn another home weekend in the first round of the Big Ten Conference playoffs March 2-4 by finishing second, third or fourth in the standings.
UW, Michigan, Penn State and Minnesota are separated by five points in the race for two of those spots. Ohio State, against which the Badgers close the regular season on Feb. 23-24, is six points clear in second place and has two games in hand.
The senior festivities will be important to Wagner, whose teammates noted how close he is to his Illinois-based family and how connected he is to his fellow UW players.
“But, in my eyes, we need these two wins for the team and that’s where my mind is right now,” he said.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, he admitted, there’s a desire to end his collegiate career with one NCAA appearance.
UW has been shut out of the field in the past three seasons, and this group of seniors could be the program’s first in more than three decades to go through a four-year career without making the national tournament. Fifth-year senior defenseman Tim Davison was on the 2013-14 team that was UW’s most recent to appear in the NCAA bracket but he didn’t play that season.
Since they joined a conference and made the NCAA tournament for the first time in 1970, the Badgers have missed the field four straight years only once, during Granato’s playing career from 1983-84 to 1986-87.
Righting that shortcoming? “It’s definitely at the top of my list,” Wagner said.
A community and nonprofit leadership major, Wagner said he’s on track to graduate after a summer internship but is hoping to keep playing after college. Granato opined that a pro team is going to someday be happy it gave the 5-foot-8 forward a chance.
“He’s done so much for our program,” Granato said. “I’m glad to see he’s getting rewarded with points and goals and people are respecting him. He’s been a warrior for us.”