Wisconsin's Youth Movement Paying Early Dividends
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Wisconsin has been a good example of that catch-22 in college hockey, of bringing in so much high-end talent and losing it much more quickly than in decades past.
After getting to the national title game two years ago with a 28-win team, Wisconsin lost numerous players to the NHL. And then, after winning 21 games last season and falling short of the NCAAs, it lost another batch.
And even though the goaltenders were not part of that early-departure situation, for one reason or another, the Badgers went into this season for the first time since 1965 without any goalies with prior college experience. That's a daunting situation for a school that has churned out one great goalie after another over the last four decades.
As you would expect, things weren't going too well through the first four weekends, with Wisconsin sitting at 1-3. However, all three losses were in overtime.
And so, chanelling the naivete and energy of youth, the Badgers settled down and swept North Dakota in Madison this past weekend, setting things on a new course for this season. Coach Mike Eaves sees signs that things are coming together, even if there are many warts to remove still.
"There are moments. There need to be more moments, if we really want to continue to grow," Eaves said. "It's amazing in athletics how fickle it can be. How you can play very, very well and not find a way to win, and that we don't play as well as we would've projected we might've on Saturday, and yet we still find a way. And I think in looking at it and talking with the coaching staff, sometimes with a young team, they didn't seem to be fazed by the fact that we were getting outshot. We just kept playing and had the attitude like things are going to be all right. And that, again, may be attributed to the fact that being young and naive, they just kept playing and found a way to put the puck in the net and found a way to win the game.
"I would be surprised if they are too full of themselves when we find a way to win like we did Saturday but didn't play great," Eaves said. "I think we have to try to balance pushing forward and getting better in practice and being smart about retaining our energy throughout the course of the week. So we're changing things up this week in terms of our practice."
Landon Peterson and Joel Rumpel are the two freshmen sharing time in goal. Neither has dazzled yet, though Rumpel did have 38 saves (and four goals allowed) in Saturday's win.
But then there's all the other underclassmen who are starting to emerge. After all, there's no questioning Eaves' ability to still bring in high-end talent.
Sophomore defenseman Joe Faust has been overshadowed in the past by the bevy of backline talent that's strolled through Madison, but with a pair of goals now, he's begun to emerge — giving the Badgers another threat to join high-end guys like juniors Justin Schultz and John Ramage.
"Just experience, just settling down, not gripping the stick too tight," Eaves said of Faust. "Having played college games last year has helped him relax a little bit, and he can still relax more. When Joe is fully relaxed, you can tell, because he has a take-what's-given type of mindset in that he doesn't make up his mind before the puck. He's able to look up ice and take what's given, much like a quarterback will do when he has the ball in his hands. When Joe is getting, he's gripping that stick too tight, he gets focused on one thing and doesn't take what's given. So he's learning to relax more, and as a result, he's being more productive."
Joseph LaBate is a freshman who has jumped in and is 2-4—6 in six games.
"I think that he really wants to be good, and that's where his assertiveness lies," Eaves said. "I think, physically, he's still kind of feeling his way around in terms of how to go into corners and maintain his balance and be able to control and battle and win battles in the corner. But his mindset is that of being assertive, is pushing forward and getting better. I think, physically, he's still learning to do that."
Matt Paape still hasn't gotten in the goal column, but does have three assists in five games.
"When we offered Matt a scholarship, he was still in high school," Eaves said. "And Matt is one of those hockey players that he has things you don't teach. The puck finds him. He's kind of got, like a football player, you say he has a nose for the football. He has a nose for the puck. He tries things offensively. And the points that he has right now, he's got three points in five games of just, have been a result of him being around the puck. ... He hasn't made great plays, but the puck hits his stick. It bounces to a guy. He's been in a scoring, position to score, and that's just going to get better. I think he's learning, much like everybody else who's a freshman."
Another freshman, Brendan Woods, had a sweet goal Friday, undressing a North Dakota defenseman and then beating the goaltender for a goal. Unfortunately, defenseman Jake McCabe hurt his hand Saturday and is out 6-to-8 weeks.
"I think it's who these young men are, to a degree, but I also think it's just being young and just keep playing, being naive," Eaves said. "Because of their youth, they're excited to get on the ice every time. But, also, because of the work they did this summer, and what Jim (Snider) has seen from in the weight room, they do work hard. They stay with it."