No. 1 With a Bullet
Wisconsin Riding High After Showcase Sweep
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Wisconsin is coming off a weekend in which it won two huge road games at the College Hockey Showcase, but there's no rest for the newly-anointed No. 1 team in the nation.
The Badgers now head to the friendly confines of Mariucci Arena, a place they haven't won in the Mike Eaves era (0-6). Overall, they've lost 10 straight three.
"I didn't even know until someone told me," said Eaves, taking the usual "it's just another game" coach approach. "We're just going to play Friday night."
Minnesota, of course, has one of the most purely talented rosters ever assembled in college hockey. But, having played CC, Michigan and North Dakota this season, it's not like the Badgers aren't pretty used to it.
"We thought North Dakota was as talented a team as we've seen," Eaves said.
Of course, there's no denying the Badgers are rolling, unbeaten in the last 12 and off to the best WCHA start in the program's history, and with that brings higher pressures.
"We're kind of riding a wave right now," said Eaves. "Want to ride wave for as long as we can. ... The older guys on the team have done a nice job at keeping everyone else focused."
One of those older guys in captain Adam Burish, coming off a weekend where he had both game winners.
"He's a young man who's grown into being a really good player, but also a fine leader," Eaves said. "He leads by example in his work ethic, but also has the wherewithal with his personality to pull a guy under his wing. He's pretty comfortable with standing up and saying things.
"It's a credit to his mom and dad. They raised a young man that's been in that environment his whole life."
Another leader, both in scoring and in "the room" has been junior Robbie Earl, a player with tremendous potential, that has always been in need of harnessing. But recently, Earl was sat a game by Eaves for being late to a team meeting, which sent up red flags. But Eaves said it's not a lingering matter.
"We as a staff are very proud of Robbie. Unfortunately, that incident happened," Eaves said. "But, this year, he's stepped up his work ethic, he's stepped up wanting to be a leader. He wanted to room with a freshman (Ben Street). He's one of the guys on the bench and in the locker room more comfortable with stepping up himself.
"At practice, his work ethic is higher. His growth has been tremendous.
"It was a little bit of lack of details. And (consequently) a little bit of tough love. As a parent, you have to follow through sometimes. You think we wanted him to sit? No. But you have to be detailed."
Eaves has the reputation of being a tough taskmaster, but it's not a label he denies.
"When you're a good parent, you have to do tough things," he said. "When you're a good coach, you have to discipline. You have to hold people accountable. It's going to happen at the next level of hockey. We're just teaching them life through the game of hockey. If I hadn't done what I did to Robbie, I'd be doing him a disservice. He handled it like a man."
Contributions are coming from all over. And while Wisconsin is finally a "veteran" team, they are getting it from freshmen like Street, and highly-touted Jack Skille. Skille's scoring numbers aren't extravagant — yet — but they don't have to be.
"He has contributed — with goals, skating, size," said Eaves. "He's learning every day too. He's a big, strong guy that can skate."
An overriding theme for Wisconsin has been balance. They have gifted players up front, who play two ways. They have defensemen who can handle the puck, and pay great attention to their zone. And goalkeeper Brian Elliott has continued the tradition in Madison.
The Badgers were stifled a bit by Michigan State last Friday, with the trapping it does, something that Minnesota also complained about on Saturday. But unlike the Gophers, who could only get a frustrating tie, Wisconsin was able to overcome it. And that's the difference right now.
Wisconsin is attentive to detail, but is not as defensive-minded.
"We go after people. We want to use our energy. That's the way kids want to play," Eaves said. "There's a way of playing with the puck so it gives you good posture, offense to defense."