When you start the season 1-7-2, every game is important. With that noted, tonight's game vs Miami carried added significance given the Redhawk's position in the Pairwise. Of course, the Pairwise is the formula the NCAA uses to select the 16 teams that will participate in the season ending NCAA tournament.
Miami came into the weekend ranked 10th in the PWR, while Wisconsin was 26th. Positive outcomes for Wisconsin this weekend could have a significant effect on their hopes when it comes to the end of the season. That fact wasn't lost on Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves.
"You don't want to underline the importance to your team before the game because they have enough to think about," Eaves said. "But from a big picture thing, we as coaches absolutely looked at tonight as a critical game for many reasons. We're playing a ranked opponent in our barn, it keeps our momentum and our confidence going. It helps us elevate ourselves in the big national picture; the RPI. So it was a precious game in that commodity."
Wisconsin did everything they needed to do Friday night to keep their name in the national picture. Solid goaltending, stingy defense, and timely offense were keys for Wisconsin in a huge 1-0 victory over eighth ranked Miami Friday night.
Eaves may not have talked to the team about the importance of this weekend, but the significance was readily apparent in the locker room between the guys on the team according to senior Derek Lee.
"You could feel in that locker room that the guys all knew who was coming in," Lee said. "Every year, they're a real good hockey team. So, we knew they were going to come out hard and we're on this little bit of a roll right now and we needed to match what they brought to the table."
"So, we definitely could sense it and it's good that we came out the way we did."
Wisconsin's only goal came off the stick of Joseph LaBate on a fantastic coast-to-coast line rush. LaBate picked the puck up on his own goal-line, carried the puck end-to-end before firing a shot that seemed to handcuff Miami goaltender Jay Williams.
It may not have been LaBate's prettiest shot, but it found it's way to the back of the net. The sophomore winger had a tough start to the season, and was even benched for a game at one point. Over the past month however, LaBate has found another gear for the Badgers.
"Joseph (LaBate) has started to develop into more of an impact player," Eaves said after the game. "He's assertive in his play, he's stronger on his skates and his stick and he's shooting the puck more."
The chemistry on LaBate's line that features Derek Lee centering LaBate and Michael Mersch has been noticeable over the past two months. Lee noted after the game that they're playing some of their best hockey of the season.
"I think we're all on the same page, moving the puck and moving our feet," Lee said. "When Joseph moves his feet he's tough to guard and Mersch has the big body and protects it so well. I think we all help each other out in different ways and I think that's the mix that makes it successful."
If LaBate was the first star of the game, 1b would have to be Wisconsin goaltender Joel Rumpel. The sophomore was on top of his game once again, stopping all 26 shots he saw en route to his third shutout of the season.
Eaves broke his regular rotation of having Landon Peterson start Friday nights, and noted that it was due to Rumpel's play last weekend against Minnesota State.
"I thought he got out and handled the puck well," Eaves said. "He was sharp, he was precise in his movements, which lent itself to saying he's playing well and he's on top right now."
Regardless of whoever is between the pipes, this team has confidence according to Lee.
"Whoever Coach Eaves goes with, the guys feel confident no matter who is in there," Lee said. "You watched it tonight. You saw Joel Rumpel, arguably the first star of the game tonight, make a couple big saves at some big times and he deserves a lot of credit."
When things got testy late in the contest, Rumpel received a little help from his friends. With just over three minutes to play and Wisconsin clinging to a one goal lead, UW forward Tyler Barnes made a diving body save on a Miami shot that seemed destined for the back of the Wisconsin net.
Rumpel noted after the game that he's getting a lot of help from his teammates, and it shows in his overall numbers.
"When your defense is playing as well as ours has, it makes our job a little easier and makes us look better sometimes."
Wisconsin will have to be as sharp as they were Friday when they come back to the Kohl Center on Saturday. Great teams like Miami don't take well to losing, so you can assume they'll come back even harder in game two.
Puck drop on Saturday is set for 7 PM, and the game can be seen live on Fox Sports Wisconsin +, and also tape delayed on the Wisconsin Channel.
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