Forget Rebuilding Wisconsin in Position For Another Run
by Justin Magill/CHN Writer
When the month of November ended, there was not much the Wisconsin Badgers were thankful for.
A team that was runner up for the national championship a year ago went 2-4-2 and were just a game above the .500 mark. The Badgers knew it was a rebuilding year of sorts, with so much talent having departed. But even that was a struggle.
“It was a tough month for us and we played a lot of good teams,” Badgers coach Mike Eaves said. “We have a lot of young guys on our team and I think they were still getting used to our systems.”
Since, Wisconsin is 10-2-0 and have been climbing the Pairwise. They are doing it by taking care of all the teams they "should" supposedly beat.
“A lot of people doubted us at the beginning,” Wisconsin blueliner Jake Gardiner said. “Lately, we have taken care of the teams that we need to and have been playing our best hockey and it couldn’t come at a better time.”
“Not the best start, but not terrible by any means,” sophomore Craig Smith added. “As a team we have learned from it and moved on to play really well and get back in contention.”
Since Eaves’ arrival in Madison, he has made his teams into defensive machines that has started from the net out.
It appears that is the case again with Scott Gudmandson in the crease. He has posted a 13-6-1 record with a .935 save percentage (3rd nationally) and 1.76 goals against average (2nd). He also leads the country with four shutouts, tied with North Dakota's Aaron Dell.
“It all has started with our goaltending,” Eaves said. “Scotty has taken most of the load of late, but our goalies have played great for us during this streak we are on. Only good things happen when you have goalies playing well.”
On its near flawless run, only one time has Wisconsin allowed more than two goals and that was a 6-5 overtime win against Canisus on Jan. 8.
More impressively, the Badgers have consistently been on the right side of close games, something that did not happen earlier in the season, which included five overtime games, three being losses.
“We lost a few close games and I think our players learned a lot from them,” Eaves said. “It will definitely help down the stretch now that we have figured out how to win these close games, because every weekend is playoff hockey and you can just tell by looking at the scores.”
Defensively, the Badgers have players that know how to hold the blue line and contribute nicely on offense.
Tied as the nation’s best in just allowing 2.04 goals a game, the Badgers can be sneaky enough to bury some shots in the back of the net.
“We are right up there with some of the teams in the conference in goals scored,” Gardiner said. “Coach Eaves expects our defense to jump in the play, yet be responsible and smart enough not to put your teammates in a tough position.”
So far, so good.
Defenseman Justin Schultz leads the team in scoring and is second on the team in goals scored. His partner, Gardiner, has accounted for 29 points, third on the team.
This is not unusual for the Badgers. Last season, Brendan Smith was tied for second on the team with 52 points (two back of Hobey winner Blake Geoffrion) before taking his exploits to the NHL. In 2008-09, defenseman Jamie McBain led the team with 37 points, before also departing with one year of eligibility left.
“Those two have just blossomed this season,” Eaves said of Schultz and Gardiner. “They are two of our better guys back there, but we like to have them together. They are an important part of our offense, too, and have been there all year for us.”
In their opponents' zone, the Badgers' defense has thrived in the point department, more notably on the power play. Clipping at 25.7 percent, second best in the country, many of the Badger blueliners have taken advantage of the extra man.
Of Schultz’s 14 goals this season, eight have come on the power play. Gardiner has tallied five of his six goals being up a man as well and Wisconsin can’t forget about Jordy Murray, who is second in the nation with nine power-play goals.
“Our team has a lot of talented players that know how to bury the puck,” Gardiner said. “I think we finally have our system down and each guy has been doing their role. The ones who are playmakers have been seeing the ice well and we have been finding the net.”
For Eaves, there has been better play by Wisconsin on even strength play.
“We have had our power play going and that has been helping us out, but lately we have seen an increase in our five-on-five goals,” he said. “Those are so important late in the season, because there is going to be a lot of even play and you have to be able to score when both teams are even strength.”
With the end of the regular season coming to a close, there is a familiar presence in the air in Madison.
The Badgers are becoming the tough-to-beat team that has stuck with them since Eaves came on board.
Goals are hard to come by, close wins often favor the Badgers and they are in the perfect shape to outwork any team they face.
“He wants you to work hard and you want to work hard for him,” Smith said. “Coach is one of the most excited guys at the rink and it rubs off on you. He is a hard worker and he knows when to push us. There is no doubt that we are one of the best conditioned teams in the game and that is because of him.”
It may have been the reason why Wisconsin won its sixth national championship in Milwaukee in 2005 and went to the finals last season in Detroit.
Finishing checks, blocking shots, helping out on defense and making the most of scoring chances have put the Badgers in position once again to be a tough draw for anyone down the stretch.
“It’s just playing simple,” Smith said. “All of our success or losses are because of us. Just play simple, don’t try to do too much and good things can happen.”