Wisconsin's Backline Helped Steady the Season
by Matthew Christians/CHN Reporter
Plagued with injuries, suspensions and staff departures, it seemed as though Wisconsin had everything working against them early in the season.
After starting the year with two wins in its first 14 games, Wisconsin turned things around going on a seven-game tear to end the first and start the second.
“The expectations we had coming into the season were pretty decent. We thought we could do some good things," Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said. “But then we came out of the port, and we hit all of those storms. We were just trying to keep the boat afloat, so to speak.
“This is where we wanted to be at the beginning of the season, but the way that we did it is quite an accomplishment for these young men.”
The destination Eaves mention is St. Paul, Minn., for the WCHA Final Five. The Badgers advanced to Xcel Energy Center after sweeping a quarterfinal series with Minnesota-Duluth last weekend in Madison. UW takes on Minnesota State on Thursday afternoon at 2 p.m. for a chance to play in the WCHA semifinal on Friday.
One of the main reasons for the Badgers' success is their incredible display of defensive talent.
Averaging only a little more two goals against per game, the Badgers have relied on strong defending and excellent goaltending to advance to the Final Five.
Wisconsin goaltender Joel Rumpel has performed spectacular this season. As the year's progressed, he's only improved. He has won his last seven of eight starts and boasts a 1.87 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage.
Rumpel has had a good amount of help from his defensemen, too. Team captain John Ramage and assistant captain Frankie Simonelli have led the defensive corps. As important Rumpel is for stomping shots, the Badgers' typically talented blue line excels at keeping opponents from generating consistent scoring chances.
With most credit going to the defensemen and goalies for such spectacular play, the Badgers' forwards take pride in supporting their club's defensive efforts. Goal scoring hasn't come easy for the group. Their contribution hasn't been absent, however. Working on the back check, supporting the puck and providing outlets for the UW defensemen all factors into the team's sparkling defensive record.
“The goaltender is always the first to say, ‘well the defensemen in front of me are doing a good job.' And the defenseman say, ‘well it’s the forwards coming back and helping out.” Eaves said “It’s a unit that really provides that defensive blanket that has been good for us.”
Defensive excellence has not only helped the Badgers transform their season and clinch a spot in the Final Five, but it's allowed the club to play beyond that. It will take some more strong outings in St. Paul, but an NCAA tournament berth is a possibility.
“We believed what we could do. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but everyone (has been) doing their part and look where we are now," junior Jefferson Dahl said. "We just have to keep fighting and keep pushing forward.”
The second-half success has translated into a greater confidence for Eaves' team. The commitment they showed during the difficult first half has convinced the coach their focus won't wane, especially ahead of Thursday's game with Minnesota State.
"I think the mindset was pretty much laid in cement going through that first 10 games in terms of how we are mentally, and so the kids know they're playing well," Eaves said. "They have a confidence level that is good to see. And again it's about what we can do Thursday afternoon against Mankato."
Ultimately, Wisconsin's season will be defined by its performance on Thursday and beyond. The wins that piled up in the second half erased the frustration of a difficult start. Regardless, the Badgers know what they are and how they have to win games. Even during the season's lowest points, they never doubted that part for a second.