On Balance ... Wisconsin Has A Lot on Its Side
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Ford Field is a brand new kind of venue for the Frozen Four, but Detroit will be familiar territory for Wisconsin in many ways.
For one, Wisconsin has played a pair of outdoor games in the past five years, first at Lambeau Field in Green Bay in 2006, and this year at Camp Randall Stadium on campus against Michigan.
Also, Wisconsin is 2-0 in national championship games in Detroit, coming in both the first and last time the tournament was played there — 1977 and 1990.
Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves — whose son Patrick plays, in fact, for the Detroit Red Wings — was a captain on the 1977 championship team. But beyond that, Eaves has family in nearby Windsor, right across the river into Ontario, and played junior there before going to Wisconsin.
"It was 33 years ago that we were in Detroit playing for [the championship]," Eaves said. "Where does time go? It's fascinating, it's the interesting thing about sports, it brings people together. And being in Detroit — we won the championship in 1977 and 1990 — to see if some of those players can come back to Detroit, and wouldn't that be fun?"
Even though the Badgers have played those two games in football stadiums under Eaves, this one will be different because it's inside. That combination of factors, combined with his related experience in football stadiums, has Eaves a little concerned.
"We talked about how warm it would be, and making sure our players get the right fluids and potassium," Eaves said.
So far, the Badgers have found the right formula for success this season. Since the national championship season of 2006, the Badgers have seen players come and go, but this year, were able to hold onto a nucleus that has allowed them to make a run. It's a balanced roster in all phases of the game — meshing into the hard-nosed, systems-oriented style that Eaves loves.
It starts with captain Blake Geoffrion, who stayed for another season when he could've left. An NHL draft pick of his hometown Nashville Predators, with famous bloodlines, Geoffrion has staked his own territory this season, and both he and the Badgers are the better for it. Geoffrion was captain last year, but struggled early in that role until he gained some confidence for the stretch run. This year, he took the ball and ran with it right from the get go.
But Geoffrion has been particularly good down the stretch, winning the NCAA West Regional MOP award, and lifting his goal total to 27. That earned him a place in the Hobey Hat Trick. Teammate, junior defenseman Brendan Smith, was also a Top 10 finalist.
"We have to thank our teammates because without them, I'm sure neither one of us would be in contention for it," Geoffrion said. "We haven't talked about it all. We're more excited to be in the Frozen Four."
Smith was a blue chipper since his arrival in Madison, as part of a slew of first and second rounders on the Badger Backline — five in all. They are a contrast, however, with Smith leading the nation in scoring for defensemen, while Geoffrion is the leader, two-way guy, faceoff man, with a nose for the net — in other words, he's like an Eaves clone.
"[Smith] has instincts you don't teach," Eaves said. "He has a heavy shot from the off wing. He handles the puck well. He senses what to do on the power play. People see the stats, but as a coaching staff, his growth has been so vast without the puck. His ability to play 1-on-1 and play in front of the net has grown tremendously.
"[Blake] had a decision last year whether to stay in school or go the pro route, and he stayed and his growth this year has been tremendous. The confidence he's brought to his repertoire this year speaks for itself. We play him in all key situations. He's got to be one of the best faceoff guys in the country. He has become like a [basketball] post-man down low. We didn't have him for the Michigan Tech series, and one of the guys came to me that weekend and said, 'Coach, we really missed him on the power play down low.' That's when you find out how valuable a player is."
Eaves and Geoffrion share something in common, the influences of their family in hockey. Eaves' dad was his coach growing up, just like it was for Geoffrion. And of course Geoffrion's grandfather — Boom Boom Geoffrion — is a legendary Hall of Famer.
"My family taught me how to treat people right and being respectful to your elders," Geoffrion said. "I'm definitely aware of the family history — they've def. had a great influence on my life."
He's not alone, of course — other players grew tremendously as well, and that's why the Badgers are here. Derek Stepan won a gold medal with the U.S. World Junior team, and came back better than ever, leading the team with 40 assists.
"The biggest thing coming into this year was his strength factor," Eaves said of Stepan. "He grew over the summer and it made him stronger over the puck, battling, and his skating has picked up."
Senior forwards Ben Street, Andy Bohmback, John Mitchell and Aaron Bendickson chipped in with another 42 goals between them, and provide that invaluable layer of leadership like the 2006 team had.
Then you add in the blue chip backline, with another gold medallist John Ramage (another son of a former NHL'er), a freshman complimented by blue chippers like Smith, Justin Schultz, Cody Goloubef and Ryan McDonagh.
It's a lot for RIT to contend with, and it makes the Badgers a strong pick to emerge from the field.