Photo Credit: Larry Radloff Photography
Wisconsin is back in action this weekend, hosting Alaska Anchorage at the Kohl Center for a two-game series.
One night after extending its winning streak to seven and unbeaten streak to 11, Wisconsin finally stumbled, losing 2-1 last Saturday night to No. 8 Miami. The streak turned Wisconsin from an afterthought at 1-7-2 to a team with something to play for in the second half at 9-8-5.
The streak was impressive on a number of levels, but most notably in terms of goals given up. Over that stretch of 11 games, Wisconsin gave up just 14 goals, an incredible number regardless of the opponent.
One constant with great hockey teams is their ability to keep the puck out of the net. Scoring can come and go, but if you can't keep the opposition off the scoreboard, you're not going to win many games.
Wisconsin has obviously done a great job defensively of late, and a lot of that credit has to go to interim assistant coach Matt Walsh, who joined the team after the early-season departure of assistant Bill Butters. This week, UW head coach Mike Eaves talked about the effect Walsh has had on this team so far.
"Matt (Walsh) hasn't come in banging the drums, having all the answers," Eaves said at his weekly press conference Monday.
"He's come in with his personality and expertise and kind of just slipped in, been very much behind the scenes, created a little Esprit de corps with the defensemen, and as a result, I think the way he's come in with his knowledge and the way he's dispersed that knowledge and been part of the group has been very positive."
While Wisconsin's overall unbeaten streak may have come to an end at the hands of Miami last weekend, the Badgers have another streak they hope to extend this weekend. The Badgers' WCHA unbeaten streak remains intact, as they are unbeaten in their past eight conference games (5-0-3).
UW will get a chance to extend that streak this weekend against Alaska Anchorage at the Kohl Center in a pair of games Friday and Saturday. Although as Eaves pointed out this week, that task won't be easy after the Badgers swept the Seawolves just a few weeks ago in Alaska.
"I think we have to understand that Alaska (Anchorage) comes in here, they're going to be cheesed off we beat them in their own barn," Eaves noted. "They're looking for a little revenge."
Wisconsin's offense has been a story all season long, and it didn't do much in the way of answering questions last weekend. Although the unit faced one of the top defensive teams in the country, the Badgers were able to manage just two goals on the entire weekend.
In an attempt to stimulate the offense this week, Eaves has tweaked his forward lines by flip-flopping his top-two centers, Derek Lee and Mark Zengerle. While Lee's line that includes wingers Joseph LaBate and Michael Mersch had been producing at a decent clip, Zengerle's line with Nic Kerdiles and Tyler Barnes had really struggled to put goals on the board.
"I think they're pressing too hard," Eaves said in reference to Zengerle's unit. "Sometimes you just have to get away from each other."
The move isn't without risk, as the Lee line had been Wisconsin's most effective scoring threat during the unbeaten streak.
"I think we have to do something like that," Eaves noted Monday.
"(The LaBate-Lee-Mersch line) are playing so well together, if we don't like what we see we know we can go back and have that."
Wisconsin's power play -- which has also been anemic all season long -- will see a change, as well. According to Andy Baggot of the Wisconsin State Journal, the Badgers' new top unit will feature Lee on the point with Jake McCabe, while Zengerle, Mersch and Barnes fill in the other spots.
BADGERS DEFENSE & GOALTENDERS
We featured the play of the defensemen in the open, and for good reason. If it weren't for the defensive play of Wisconsin's back-end over the past few months, who knows where the Badgers would be at right now.
When asked to point out an upperclassmen that has stood out this season in terms of development, Eaves singled out senior captain John Ramage, who is certainly playing the best hockey of his four-year UW career.
"He's settled in and playing his game and not being worried about being the captain and being everything to everybody," Eaves noted.
"If you take a look at his stats and just the way he's playing and conducting himself, he jumps right to the front of the list."
Obviously a large part of Wisconsin's resurgence has to do with the play of UW's top two goaltenders in Joel Rumpel and Landon Peterson. Rumpel got both starts last weekend and played well. The Swift Current, Sask., native notched his third shutout of the season on Friday and saw just two sneak past him on Saturday.
Rumpel will likely be back in the net for Wisconsin on Friday night to open the series.
If Wisconsin's offense is in hibernation, then Anchorage's offense is in a coma. The Seawolves rank 57th out of 59 teams in total offense, averaging just 1.91 goals per game.
As I mentioned when we featured Anchorage a few weeks ago, their top group up front is centered by freshman Blake Tatchell, who leads the Seawolves in scoring with 13 points in 22 games. Anchorage's leading goal scorer, Scott Allen, flanks Tatchell on the left wing along with Alex Gellert on his right.
UAA's second line also can bring some goal-scoring punch at times. That line is centered by Matt Bailey, who led UAA in scoring last season and was the only returning player to register double-digit goals last season for Anchorage. Winger Jordan Kwas is second on the club in goals with six.
SEAWOLVES DEFENSE & GOALTENDERS
Defensively, Alaska Anchorage hasn't been much better this season, as the Seawolves rank 52nd nationally in goals against per game.
Goaltender Rob Gunderson played well in game two when these two clubs faced off earlier this month. The junior stopped 21 of 22 shots, but didn't get any help from his offense in the 1-0 loss on Jan. 5th.
Over the course of the season, neither Gunderson nor fellow goaltender Chris Kamal has been able to put up consistent performances for UAA. If there was ever a time for the Badgers' offense to break out, it would be this weekend against the Seawolves.
In terms of blue-liners, there aren't many names that stand out for this version of Dave Shiak's club. Senior Scott Warner is arguably the most consistent on the back end, while freshman Blake Leask has chipped in 7 points offensively, including a pair of assists last weekend vs Minnesota State.
THREE KEYS TO SUCCESS VS ALASKA ANCHORAGE
- Don't take these guys for granted. While Wisconsin is the better team, this is still the WCHA and Anchorage has put a scare into a lot of good teams. UAA knocked off St. Cloud earlier this season and was leading Minnesota late in the third period at Mariucci just two weeks ago.
- Find success on the PP. Wisconsin's power play has been dreadful, but Anchorage is just as bad killing penalties. UAA is second-to-last in the country at killing penalties. UW must take advantage.
- Get creative offensively. I'm sick of watching Wisconsin forwards either dump the puck in the corner or skate the puck in the corner. Do something with a line rush for a change. Make a drop pass, cut to the middle, do something.
BY THE NUMBERS
||9-8-5 (6-5-5 WCHA)||3-14-5 (1-13-4 WCHA)
||2.23 (t 48)||1.91 (57)
||2.05 (6)||3.32 (52)
||9.1% (57)||9.5% (55)
||82.3% (33)||74.4% (58)
||6' 0.15" / 187.92 lbs.||6' 0.19" / 190.46 lbs.|
||21 years, 4 months
||22 years, 7 months|
Both games this weekend can be seen live on FS Wisconsin + (check local listings). Friday's game will also be shown nationally on Fox College Sports Atlantic (live), while Saturday's game will be shown nationally on Fox College Sports Pacific (Delayed at 9:30).
Both games will also be shown on tape delay on the Wisconsin Channel at 10 PM.
As always, the games can be found on the radio on the Badger Sports Network and WIBA 1310.
Wisconsin checks in this week at No. 20 in the USCHO.com poll, but is unranked in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll.
Forward Morgan Zulinick (thigh) and defenseman Eddie Wittchow (shoulder) are out for the Badgers.
The Badgers swept the Seawolves in Anchorage the first weekend of January.
Wisconsin has a 13-game unbeaten streak going against the Seawolves in Madison.
"Alaska's going to come in here with a big burr because we stomped them in their barn. I know Dave Shyiak. He's going to have those kids all charged up."--Mike Eaves
Joseph LaBate-Mark Zengerle-Michael Mersch
Nic Kerdiles-Derek Lee-Tyler Barnes
Ryan Little-Jefferson Dahl-Sean Little
Brad Navin-Brendan Woods-Keegan Meuer
Kevin Schlze-John Ramage
Chase Drake-Joe Faust
Jake McCabe-Frankie Simonelli
Joel Rumpel/Landon Peterson
Well, this is kind of the definition of a "trap game" as the Badgers hosted a huge series against a nationally ranked opponent in Miami last weekend and head to North Dakota next weekend. That said, I think Eaves will have Wisconsin focused on the task at hand, as it realizes the importance of every game at this stage in the season.
The Badgers are obviously the more talented club on paper, and if they play the way they have been defensively, they should be able to sweep Anchorage this weekend.
Friday: Wisconsin 4, Anchorage 1
Saturday: Wisconsin 3, Anchorage 2
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