After salvaging a point on the road this past weekend on the road in St. Cloud, Minn., the ever-growing Wisconsin men’s hockey team (3-4-1 WCHA, 4-5-1 overall) returns home to work out the kinks and prepare for a showdown with No. 1 Minnesota (6-0, 9-1) this weekend at the Kohl Center.
The Gophers were bumped up to the top-spot in the nation this week in both major collegiate hockey polls, adding more fuel to what was already destined to be an intense matchup between two bitter rivals.
“Guys get naturally emotionally jazzed up to play these types of games,” head coach Mike Eaves said. “I think our challenge as a coaching staff is to make sure they don’t get over excited and emotionally jazzed so they can’t play with poise and confidence.”
As for Minnesota’s new No. 1 ranking, Eaves said he isn’t fazed.
“There seems to be a different No. 1 each week, so I don’t think it holds much, at least for us as a coaching staff,” he said.
Eaves said he and his coaching staff are more focused on their team and what they can control rather than on the team they are about to play. The Badgers’ chief concern is the penalty kill, which has so far been a season-long work in progress, but Eaves said that he is seeing signs of progress.
“We had our first night [this past weekend] where we didn’t give up a goal [on the penalty kill], so that’s a good, healthy sign,” Eaves said. “We’ll continue to work on that and continue to grow. We like the direction we’re going. We’re doing some good things.”
The Wisconsin PK units will have to be better against a Gophers’ power play that has been deadly this season, converting at a 28.3 percent clip, which ranks first in the WCHA.
The Badgers have had to deal with their fair share of injuries in the early going—losing freshman defenseman Jake McCabe and junior forward Derek Lee for extended periods of time—but Eaves says that he has liked what he has seen from the players who have stepped in for them.
“You have to give [sophomore forward] Keegan Meuer pretty good grades for jumping up into the role he’s been thrust into, and he’s doing a nice job,” Eaves said of Meuer, who has filled Lee’s center spot on the second line. “I think you have to look at [sophomore defenseman] Chase Drake, playing in his first collegiate game after a year of sitting out, and he did a pretty decent job.”
“We looked at it as an opportunity for young men, and they’ve trained hard, and this is an opportunity, and they’ve taken advantage pretty well of it,” Eaves added.
Through all the changes Wisconsin has been forced to undergo early on this season, its rock through it all has been junior defenseman Justin Schultz. The blueliner leads the team in points with 14 and seems to be playing his best hockey of the year right now. Eaves has coached plenty of future NHL defensive stars in Madison (Ryan Suter, Ryan McDonagh and Jamie McBain to name a few), and he says there is no question Schultz’s name belongs right up there with those players.
“He belongs in that class,” Eaves said. “Whenever you have a player that makes people better around him, they’re special players, and that’s what Justin can do as a hockey player. He’ll have his chance one day to see if he can play at that level.”