Badgers Bring the Balance
by Joe Meloni/CHN Reporter
DETROIT Wisconsin's fans loved everything they saw from their beloved Badgers on Thursday evening. They defeated upstart RIT — the darling of this year's edition of the NCAA Tournament — 8-1 in one of the most lopsided games either side played this season, and they will get a chance to win their seventh national championship.
Questions about RIT's skill level aside, the Badgers used their national semifinal appearance as a chance to make it clear that they are the favorite entering Saturday's national championship game — no matter the result of the second semifinal game.
The Badgers drew praise throughout the season for their depth and balance. In Thursday's win, that's precisely what they chose to display. Six goals. Six different goal scorers. Ten different players recorded a point. And that was before the start of the third period when Wisconsin seemed satisfied with a five-goal win before their victory lap of a third period began. When the game ended, seven different Badgers scored goals and 13 recorded at least one point in the win. (Though Wisconsin defenseman Brendan Smith had five assists, tying a Frozen Four record.)
"It starts with our goaltending and our defensive corps. I think we have one of the top defensive groups in the country," senior winger John Mitchell said. "Their ability to shut teams down in the defensive zone and get us pucks and the depth that all four of our lines have make us as strong as we are. Blake Geoffrion is obviously our standout player, but we don't have too many superstar players. Just through all four lines, everyone is solid and plays like top end guys."
Wisconsin entered the evening with confidence. Twenty-seven wins will do that to team, but the balance and depth that became the Badgers' hallmark throughout the season factored more into their poise than anything else. Scoring eight goals in a national semifinal only made the Badgers more sure of their game.
Some coaches of teams less resilient than this Badger squad may fret over such an easy victory days before a chance at the ultimate prize. Unlike most teams that regularly welcome the nation's premier players, UW coach Mike Eaves hasn't recently lost great players to professional contracts or those leagues up North. So there isn't much of chance that the Badgers will let Thursday's win affect Saturday's game any more than it has to.
"We're going to enjoy for a couple of hours and start preparing for Saturday," Eaves said. "It's just one game, and it doesn't mean anything beyond going to Saturday. That's the game that we're concentrating on now.
"It's good to have an 8-1 victory. We didn't have to go into overtime. We get to keep our legs, and then focus on a national championship."
In fact, Eaves' players, like leading goal scorer Blake Geoffrion, who could be playing for the Nashville Predators if he opted to leave following last season, decided months before they have to that they want nothing more than to finish their careers in Madison. Thirteen of the Badgers in uniform Thursday night were upperclassmen. While the offense came from all four classes, a senior started the barage.
"We just wanted to start the game strong, me and linemate [Jordy Murray] to follow the first two shifts ahead of us," Mitchell said. "Just try to keep going all four lines going. Keep that depth of our team going because that's our strong point."
Mitchell watched as the puck found its way back to junior defenseman Cody Goloufbef and glided toward the low slot. The move was natural. He didn't see the play and then make a decision to go to the net. He just seemed to end up there when the puck drifted back to the blue line. The way a player that's been in that situation a few times before always seems to do.
When Goloubef's shot deflected into the low slot — where Mitchell planted himself — he slipped it past RIT goaltender Jared DeMichiel without much effort. The basics become easier when players understand their job. Mitchell, at six-foot-five, 224 pounds, knows that he belongs in front of the net. Even a goaltender like DeMichiel can't do much when he can't see anything but the back of an opponent's head.
It's a basic strategy — teams talk everyday about getting pucks to the net and getting bodies to the net — but players don't always do those things — especially freshmen and sophomores. Wisconsin has plenty of young players contributing to this race to the season's final and most important 60 minutes; they don't play like kids anymore, though. Of course, they've played dozens of games at this point, but the poise demonstrated by players like sophomore Derek Stepan — two goals on Thursday — and Justin Schultz, who's scored twice in three games in the tournament, is uncommon at such an early stage in their development.
Mike Eaves has turned a few underclassmen into stars before. This group, though, they've had a few other pretty good teachers.