Team of the Week: Wisconsin
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
The first two parts of Wisconsin's season so far have been as startling a discrepancy as you can have.
After going winless in the first seven games of the year — and down 2-0 after two periods of the eighth game — the Badgers have rallied to go 7-1-1 in the last eight games.
This culminated in a pair of wins in the College Hockey Showcase, capped by Saturday's 3-0 triumph over Michigan, and gave Wisconsin the CHN Team of the Week honors.
The problems were many early on, stemming from a variety of factors. For one, goaltender Shane Connelly was getting adjusted to a new goaltender coach, as the Badgers moved away from legendary Bill Howard to one of his former students, Mike Valley. Connelly's shaky start matched that of the rest of his team. Two, the Badgers focused on special teams early on, more so than usual, because of the expected officiating initiatives that would lead to more penalties being called.
"We were giving up a lot of shots," said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves. "Damned if we did, damned if we didn't. The special teams have been good for us. But now we've had more repetitions and quality repetitions in those areas where we can become better.
"We've been doing a much better job playing without the puck. Just doing really well playing in units of five. It's been solid goaltending and units of five playing together well, and giving each other lots of support."
Against Michigan State and Michigan last weekend, the Badgers allowed 12 and 19 shots, respectively.
Even a well-respected and successful coaching staff like the one Eaves leads, can often be unsure of the exact makeup of his team that returns. Every year is different, and what you emphasize and what you don't isn't always on target for what this particular team needs.
"Every time you come into a new year, you're trying to figure out what your team's identity is, you have to figure out the strengths of those you have. So I think we're starting to understand that and we're starting to execute that."
"We thought we had a lot of skill, with a lot of high draft picks," said junior captain Blake Geoffrion. "We thought we'd come in here and dangle, not play hard, not hit. ... We've turned that around. We have skill, but we've mixed that with playing hard hockey."
No player better exemplified the turnaround Geoffrion. With senior captain Ben Street lost to knee surgery early in the season, the leadership duties fell upon Geoffrion, and he wasn't sure what to do with it. Consequently, he had just one goal during that seven-game winless streak.
"It's a new thing for me," Geoffrion said. "With Streeter going down, he knows how things work. I was getting used to what I need to do as a captain, as a player on this team to contribute. When to say something, when to step in. It's definitely a learning experience."
The turning point was in the locker room after that second period against North Dakota. Geoffrion spoke up, then stepped up and scored two goals in the third to spark the Badgers to a come-from-behind win. They never looked back. Geoffrion had two-goal games each of the following two weekends, and the Badgers were rolling.
"We said, 'You know guys, don't worry about the record, just have fun and play the game that you love,'" Geoffrion said. "We were the ones that would get ourselves out of this hole."
Said Eaves, "It's a really interesting phenomenon what happens when a young man is elected captain. They all handle it in their own ways. But they have a common denominator, they want to help the team and they go out of their strength areas and try to do too much. That happened to Blake.
"With him relaxing and being productive, no question that kind of rubbed off on his teammates as well."
You look at the stat sheet, and one thing that sticks out is the minus-13 plus-minus rating of defenseman Jamie McBain, a preseason All-CHN pick two years in a row. He also happens to be the team's leading scorer.
But Eaves says that's more of a team thing, and the fact that his points have so often come on the power play.
"He's playing really well now," Eaves said. "At the beginning of the year, he'll admit this, he was in a little bit of a funk getting going, being an upperclassman, it took him a while to get going. But he's a competitor and he's gotten out of it."
As for Connelly, it's been a bumpy ride at times in his three seasons. He came to Wisconsin with a completely different style than the one Howard taught, meaning he had to break it all down and start over. He had reached a decent level last season, then Howard was replaced by Valley, who had his own ideas.
"Mike (Valley) is a little different than Bill, even though he played for Bill," Eaves said. "He tends to lean towards the natural strengths. Shane is athletic and quick, so he's changed a little from what Bill taught. Shane had to adapt and get used to that, and I think he feels real comfortable with what he's doing right now.
"If you're going to hire somebody to do the job, you have to let them do the job, and Bill's been very successful. You've got to have some kind of system so that when things break down, you can go back to square one. Whether it's Bill's system or Mike's system. The first part of the year, Shane was moving away from the foundation that he had and going to a new foundation. And he's found a comfortable middle ground.
"As our team has shored up things in front of him, his confidence level has grown, and his teammate's confidence in him has grown. It's been a real fun thing to watch. Confidence is 50 percent of a goaltender's equipment. ... His teammates are clearing space in front of him so he can see the puck. We're clearing rebounds better. It all ties in together of doing a better job without the puck."