Team of the Week: Wisconsin
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
Midway through the second period of Friday night's game against Minnesota, Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves was pleased with his team. Coming off a hard-fought 2-1 win against the Gophers on Thursday, Eaves wanted a better effort from his Badgers, and he'd received it to that point.
In an instant, it all could've gone wrong. Junior defenseman Jake McCabe, a linchpin in the Badger lineup, charged in the neutral zone and leveled Minnesota forward Kyle Rau. The hit, a shade higher than officials would've liked, earned McCabe a 5-minute major and game misconduct. The Badgers led, 1-0, at that point, but McCabe's absence from that point made an already tenuous one-goal lead even more so.
The Gophers scored three minutes into the major penalty, but Wisconsin survived the disadvantage and the remainder of the second period. Nic Kerdiles scored at 4:33 of the period to put UW on top. The lead held up, and Wisconsin completed its sweep of the hated Gophers with a second consecutive 2-1 win in front of a record crowd (15,359) at the Kohl Center. Earning six points against Minnesota made Wisconsin the College Hockey News Team of the Week.
"On Friday, we lost our No. 19 (McCabe), and he's a pretty good player for us," Eaves said. "I was most pleased to see guys like Eddie Wittchow, Chase Drake and Kevin Schulze perform in that situation for us. They've been more consistent for us. That's one of the greatest compliments you can give a player when they move to the next level that they're consistent."
Known for developing high-end blue liners, it's not a surprise that Eaves has seen the group emerge into a steady group. Having dominant forces like McCabe and experienced hands like seniors Joe Faust and Franke Simonelli bodes well for UW. However, the development of the entire unit makes the Badgers a team that can compete for championships.
Their development was most evident during McCabe's major penalty and in the following period. Every shift in tie or one-goal games can turn the eventual outcome. Eaves was thrilled to see his defensemen thrive in such tight circumstances. Even with the win on Thursday, he knew his team needed to be better to complete the sweep. The loss of McCabe only made things more difficult.
"I thought we were better on Friday," he said. "We did a lot of the little things we need to do better, whether it was winning races or puck battles. Then we did enough to find a goal in that third period after (Minnesota) tied it."
Pressing for a goal after Wisconsin took the lead, the Gophers peppered UW goaltender Joel Rumpel. The junior's name doesn't typically land on lists of the nation's best netminders. His performance last weekend should change that, though. Rumpel stopped 59 of 61 shots in the games. On the year, his .933 save percentage is sixth nationally.
"If he isn't considered one of the best, he should be," Eaves said of Rumpel. "He's certainly our backbone in goal. Looking at his winning percentage and his save percentage, he's right up there. He's been consistent for us, and we're going to need him to be that way heading into these next few games."
Wisconsin entered the weekend with the Gophers on a three-game winless streak. A loss to Ohio State was followed by another loss and a tie at Michigan. The effort was as timely as it was impressive. With three of its final four regular-season series on the road, the Badgers needed home wins to stay in the race for a regular-season title and favorable seed in the Big Ten Tournament.
UW travels to Columbus this weekend for a pair with Ohio State before hosting Michigan State to end February. These late-season series are just as important for the Badgers' NCAA Tournament resume as they are for Big Ten positioning. The Badgers are currently a strong possibility for an at-large bid and some more wins before the league tournament will make them a certain member of that 16-team field. Eaves believes his team is prepared for the road tests.
"It's a good time of the year to be on the road because it prepares you for the atmosphere heading into the playoffs and the NCAA Tournament," he said. "We need to develop that road warrior-type mentality, and we still haven't been to Ohio State, Michigan State or Penn State. We haven't been to some of those places in a long time."