Team of the Week: Wisconsin
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
Wisconsin extended its unbeaten streak to 10 games last weekend with a pair of overtime wins at Minnesota State. The victories lifted the Badgers into a sixth-place tie with Minnesota-Duluth in the WCHA, just three points short of first place in the tight conference standings. The Badgers host Miami this week in a non-conference matchup, and they enter that series as the CHN Team of the Week.
For many, the story for Wisconsin has been the return of Mark Zengerle from injury and the insertion of freshman Nic Kerdiles following his suspension earlier this year. The duo has certainly added a new dimension and even more depth to the Badger offense.
"We've gotten a couple players back in Nic Kerdiles and Mark Zengerle," Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said. "They're both players who bring energy on the ice. Obviously, they're also very talented. Whenever you can have more talent in your lineup, it's going to help you win games. But the biggest thing with them has been the energy that's spread throughout the lineup."
However, goaltending has sustained Wisconsin throughout the season. Landon Peterson and Joel Rumpel have proved to be one of the nation's best tandems. Even during the Badgers' 1-7-3 start, the pair performed well behind skaters struggling to score. To this point, Peterson has played nine games and posted a 1.93 goals-against average and .932 save percentage. Meanwhile, Rumpel boasts a 1.97 goals-against average and .927 save percentage.
On the current 10-game run, Wisconsin hasn't allowed more than three goals in any game. Moreover, it's held opponents to one goal or less six times. Peterson and Rumpel have thrived splitting time, competing with each other in practice and feeding off strong performances in games. Rumpel, the 6-foot-3 athletic specimen turned goaltender, complements the positionally and fundamentally sound Peterson well.
"Landon and Joel have played well all season," Eaves said. "We expected improvement (from a season ago), but it's difficult to see how much better a player will be until the season starts. They've been strong all season. When we weren't winning games, they were sometimes the only reason we were in some of those games.
"Joel is a bit bigger and more athletic, and he's worked hard to continue his improvement," Eaves said. "Landon is a bit smaller and more precise with his positioning. They've made each other better and kept each other working hard with their performance. They room together when they're on the road, and they keep each other sharp in practice."
For many teams, finding the right balance of defensive excellence and offensive production simultaneously proves difficult. Some nights, the goals are coming, but the goaltending isn't strong. Since Dec. 1, the Badgers have found both, and the play of their netminders hasn't waned with this new-found consistency.
According to Eaves, the mindset and work ethic maintained by both Rumpel and Peterson assured him they would continue to play well as the team sought its offensive spark.
"Any frustration they may have had was something the whole team felt," Eaves said. "We didn't ever worry about it because of the kinds of people they are. They don't stop working. Now, some pucks are going in for us, Landon and Joel are still making saves for us."
With 16 games remaining (12 in the WCHA), the Badgers have positioned themselves well to make a run for home ice in the first round of the conference tournament. It's not something Eaves, his staff and players are too concerned with at the moment. Still, maintaining their current level of play will likely have them there when the regular season ends.
This weekend's games with Miami in Madison are equally important for the Badgers to improve their status in the national picture. Entering the weekend, they sit 25th in the Pairwise. Two wins against Miami would improve their resume and give the team even more confidence heading into the final stretch of the season.
"Right now, we just want to be 1-0 on Friday," Eaves said. "But it is important that we keeping playing well heading down the stretch. There's parity in the league. Even though we're tied for sixth place right now, we're only three points out of first. That can change quickly in either direction."
Playing out of conference this weekend, Wisconsin will likely lose some ground between in the race for home ice in the WCHA. The opportunites to make it up come in the next four weeks with series in Madison against Alaska-Anchorage, Bemidji State and Minnesota, as well as a trip to Grand Forks for a pair with North Dakota. This being Wisconsin's final season in the WCHA, a potential MacNaughton Cup or Broadmoor Trophy would be a preferred ending for Eaves and him program.
"It's just another feather in a program's cap," Eaves said. "To be able say that won the last WCHA tournament in its current state would be a great honor. For the time being, though, our goal is just to win on Friday and then on Saturday."