Wisconsin Championship Game Preview
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
DETROIT When Mike Eaves came back to Wisconsin as head coach in 2001, he took time to mold the program the way he wanted, to weed out some leftovers that had become comfortable. To do that, he cracked the whip, cutting players, coming down hard on others, and never easing off the throttle.
By the time the program's fifth national championship came, in 2006, Eaves had eased up somewhat. He had the players he wanted, and they rewarded his faith in them.
Today, Eaves has much of the same approach, the same coaching philosophies, but he can be more relaxed in his demeanor, because he trusts the players he brings in, and trusts the upperclassmen to lead the way for the newcomers. Eaves is more comfortable now allowing a players' natural abilities, and more fun-loving natures, shine because he knows the discipline is there also.
“It’s interesting when we first came to Wisconsin we were dubbed as a defensive club," Eaves said. "The philosophy has always remained the same. If you’re going to be a contending team, you want that second attack from your defensemen. As our time with Wisconsin has evolved, we’ve been able to, through the efforts of Coach (Mark) Osiecki and Coach (Kevin) Patrick, we can go out there and find talented young men that have come in and they have a base level of talent that a coach can’t teach.
"When you blend them in, the offense that we have this year is a direct result of having people with natural skills playing to the thought process that we want to get up in the rush, we want to have balance on our attack. Because of their talent and the way we play, the philosophy, you can see the numbers have come out the way they have.”
Boston College coach Jerry York has, of course, been at this much longer. So the difference between the 2006 BC team that Wisconsin defeated in the national title game, and this one, is not as great.
“I think Jerry’s philosophy hasn’t changed very much," Eaves said. "They like to have small, quick, competitive forwards and they sprinkle in some size there and their goaltending has been solid. They get after you. Like all good teams they try to take away time and space and jump on turnovers and be good on the special teams.”
Despite having the program's components where he wanted it, Wisconsin had to struggle at times in the last few years just to get back to this point. That's because the program became a victim of its own success, in a sense. Returning to national prominence meant an influx in blue chip prospects. It also meant an annual exodus of that talent to the pro, and the teams have been very young.
But finally, this year, Wisconsin has been able to keep enough players to the point where the well-rounded, senior leaders, have been able to blend in with the more blue-chip youngsters.
“I like the teams that we had but the only problem we had was that we were perpetually young," Eaves said. "Now we have grown and we are an upperclassmen team since that championship team. There’s no college coach that would tell you different that that is a big, big factor. So we have a good group of young men, upperclassmen team talent, maturity, good goaltending and when those things come together, they give you a chance to compete for a national championship. There’s not a magic formula. There really isn’t. We have been able to work this thought process we’ve had as a coaching staff and its brought us back here.”
There will be no magic formual to beating Boston College, either, when the teams meet for the national championship Saturday at 7 p.m. (ET) at Ford Field (TV: ESPN).
“I think being excellent with the puck, getting the puck deep, nobody likes to play defensive when they’re in their defensive zone," Eaves said. "I think that’s going to be key for us to not have turnovers. We always talk about fellas playing well, goaltenders and special teams and turnovers. I think if you’re grading yourself ‘A’ in those areas, you have a pretty good chance.”
Wisconsin has settled on Scott Gudmandson for the postseason, after he rotated with Brett Bennett during the season. Unlike fellow junior John Muse, however, Gudmandson doesn't have a national title like BC's starter has.
“If Scotty’s our weakest link, then that link has gotten stronger," Eaves said. "The way he’s handled himself up here and the way he handles himself on the ice. Scotty’s biggest growth is his ability to handle things between his ears, the six inches between his ears. His growth, mentally and emotionally, he used to have a hard time letting go of goals he gave up and that is no longer a concern. He’s playing confidently right now, his teammates believe in him. He’s improved his ability to handle the puck. He’s playing the best he’s ever had here at the University of Wisconsin.”
No matter how well the teams are playing, or how well they are coached and prepared, Saturday's game is likely to be unpredictable. It's what can make sports heartbreaking and exhilarating.
"There is an X factor that is out of your control," Eaves said. "I can talk to you about four or five different stories. I’ll take our last championship. The puck hits the post and kicks out (as time expired). That was an X factor. We played a very good game and did a lot of good things, but in the end, it could have gotten in.
"If it’s meant to be our time, we will do whatever we can to help it tilt that way, but in the end there is an X factor. Your kids look at you and how you handle when a referee makes a call, hey we’re going to kill it off. We’re going to make good clears, have good sticks, block shots. Not to get rattled with the referee. There’s things you can’t control. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a referee change his mind. So, that’s what we try to do and that’s what I’ve learned. We’re going to try to do the things that we can, control the things that we can. But in the long run, there is an X factor there and it’s best to be patient and let it play out.”