Team of the Week: Wisconsin
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
The last two seasons, Wisconsin's NCAA chances have been hurt by a sub-par non-league record. The Badgers were 2-3-1 last season, not to mention the 0-6-1 start overall.
So, though it went unspoken to the team directly, coach Mike Eaves was well aware the importance of last weekend's games in Madison against New Hampshire.
"Very much," Eaves said. "It definitely bit us in the fanny last year."
With 4-1 and 6-1 wins, the Badgers didn't just play well, they dominated.
"We played pretty well for six periods. A lot of things we want to see, we did well," Eaves said. "We got momentum and consistency."
Though this season's start wasn't as dramatically miserable as last year's, a 1-2-1 opening, all in WCHA games, did not exactly make Eaves happy. There were players who got off to slow starts last year, who were in danger of doing so again. There are two "new" goaltenders battling it out. There was still a lot to be figured out.
"We played some good hockey, but Saturdays have been a bump in the road," Eaves said. "Against CC, we definitely did not play well, but managed to come back Saturday and got a point. The next weekend (against Minnesota State), there were two five-minute majors, which I've never seen before."
Eaves is referring to Saturday's game, when the Badgers tied it in the third, 2-2, only to get consecutive five-minute majors called for checking from behind. Craig Smith's was a game DQ, and was called at 7:00, and was killed off. Ryan McDonagh's was called at 11:30, and Zach Harrison scored less than a minute later for the Mavericks' game winner.
So this week, it was back to emphasizing playing six strong periods, and how to do that. And it worked.
The goaltending was strong, the talented and still maturing defensive corps was solid, and the forwards got the kind of spread-it-around offensive distribution that the Badgers need if they will go far this year.
Of the 10 goals, five were scored by players getting their first of the season — John Ramage, Ben Grotting, Sean Dolan, John Mitchell and Michael Davies. Ramage scored again on Saturday. The others were two-goal games from Derek Stepan (Friday) and Jordy Murray (Saturday); in both cases it was those players' second and third goals of the season.
"That's one of our strengths, and it needs to be," Eaves said. "It makes us hard to play against."
Ben Street is another fitting back in, finding his "rhythm" as Eaves says. A fifth-year senior who missed most of last season.
Even with Jaime McBain moving on, the Badgers have a blue-chip backline, with numerous high NHL Draft picks. Four of the top seven scorers on the team right now are defensemen. This includes Ramage, he of the illustrious bloodlines, with father Rob a long-time NHLer.
"The image of John, we thought he was steady, could block shots, be hard to play against. We knew he had a hard shot," Eaves said of the freshman, who essentially replaces McBain in the talent pool. "But he's impressed us with other things too. His first pass is hard. He knows how to play in space. He's simply played to his strengths."
With this talent, comes the responsibility of their own zone, however, something the unit is still developing. Someone has to take care of the back end.
"We're definitely working on better habits," Eaves said. "They're talented, their skating ability — but we need to shut people down quicker — take away time and space. Their strength is pushing the puck. We can teach the other stuff. We still want them to use their gifts. I tell them, take it away, and then you can do what you want with it. That's my sales pitch."
Meanwhile, at goaltender, the heir apparent was junior Scott Gudmandson, who played four games last season behind Shane Connelly. But instead of bringing in a freshman to back him up, Eaves brought in Brett Bennett, who played 31 games for Boston University in 2007-08, but had a relatively poor year and was sent pack, leaving a bad taste in his mouth. After one year in the USHL again, Bennett, who was originally highly-touted going to BU out of the national program, is rejuvenated, and has split the six games with Gudmandson, with great results.
"The internal competition has pushed them both. I see a really healthy relationship. They know they push each other," Eaves said.
"We'd been able to watch Brett Bennett in the USHL last season. Gudmundson was with us. It's been interesting how he met the challenge of bringing someone in his own age. He didn't shy away at all. He's a better goalie for the work he did in the summer.
"We wanted to find out what kind of young man (Bennett) was. His coach was very complimentary. He was in a tough situation and he grew up from it. He's competitive between the pipes. He's got good training."
The goalies are doing well despite the program's loss of legendary goalie coach Bill Howard. He was replaced by Jeff Sanger, a Madison native who played at Colorado College.
"Life goes on ... it's not about us, it's about the program," Eaves said. "We're fortunate to have Jeff Sanger ... It's so important. I never played goalie, so I can't relate to someone playing that position."
This is crucial stretch for the Badgers, because the next four games, all league games, are also at home. That means, after 10 games, eight will have been at the Kohl Center, which means there will be lots of road games later. So the time to pile up wins is now.
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