uw hockey

Badgers men's hockey: Reasons behind winning streak run deep

2013-01-11T05:15:00Z Badgers men's hockey: Reasons behind winning streak run deepANDY BAGGOT | Wisconsin State Journal | abaggot@madison.com | 608-252-6175 madison.com

MANKATO, Minn. — The question has a simple answer, but it also has a deeper version that you might find more entertaining.

Why has the University of Wisconsin men's hockey team put together an eight-game unbeaten streak, which represents the second-longest in the nation and the longest by the Badgers since 2005-06?

The easy answer is that two vital contributors surfaced after separate bouts with adversity. Freshman left winger Nic Kerdiles, one of the elite recruits in the country, sat out the first 10 games of the season due to an NCAA suspension, while junior center Mark Zengerle, the top returning scorer in the nation, missed six games with a broken finger that required surgery.

"Our game-makers are back in the game," UW coach Mike Eaves said.

"That's definitely a major factor," junior right winger Tyler Barnes said of his linemates. "Those are two great players."

Just like that the Badgers became deeper, more balanced and more dangerous, averaging more than a goal a game better in the unbeaten streak (2.9) than in their first 10 games (1.7).

"Adding the depth of those two forward up front has been huge for us," UW senior center Derek Lee said.

But the unbeaten streak UW takes into a Western Collegiate Hockey Association series with Minnesota State-Mankato Friday night and Saturday night at the Verizon Wireless Center doesn't have a one-dimensional cause.

The run also coincides with the formation of a line that includes Lee, sophomore left winger Joseph LaBate and junior right winger Michael Mersch. The unit has produced a combined 22 points (10 goals, 12 assists) and is a startling plus-27 since it debuted Nov. 30 at Denver.

"They have a nice chemistry," Eaves said.

Mersch leads UW in goals (12) and points (17), with Lee the pace-setter in assists (12). LaBate struggled through the first 10 games, collecting one assist and a minus-4 rating, but has three goals during his current five-game point streak.

"He's skating better, he's in open areas, he's flying and he's making nice plays," Lee said. "We're definitely happy to have him on our line and playing well."

The unbeaten streak also parallels a much better showing from the penalty killers. Opponents are 3-for-23 (13 percent) on the power play in the past eight outings after going 9-for-40 (22.5) during the first 10 games.

"We've put a lot more emphasis on it," said UW senior left winger Ryan Little, one of the prime performers on the unit coordinated by assistant coach Gary Shuchuk. "We're watching a lot more film on it, just taking pride in it in practices and stuff knowing they're going to call upon us and we're going to have to get our job done."

Woven into the unbeaten run is a trend that began at the outset of the WCHA season in October. The Badgers are 4-1-3 on the road, picking up 11 of their 13 points in league play. For reference, that's two more road points than all of last season.

"Just keeping it simple," Lee said. "We stick to the systems and don't really stray away from that."

UW has prevailed on the road despite its power play being on the fritz. That unit comes into the series 1-for-24 (4.2) on the road, including a current 0-for-22 stretch. During that time, the Badgers have scored more goals shorthanded (two) than on the power play.

"Good things are going to come out of the near future with our power play," Eaves declared.

The series between these clubs at the Kohl Center in November wound up being a massive tipping point.

The fifth-place Mavericks (14-6-2 overall, 8-6 with 16 points in the WCHA) came in having lost five of six only to claim a pair of 4-2 wins. They've now won 11 of 12.

The seventh-place Badgers (6-7-5, 4-5-5, 13 points) haven't lost since that weekend — only Quinnipiac (12-0-1) has a longer current unbeaten streak in the nation — in a run that began with some soul searching.

"That definitely was a spot where we got together as a team and looked at where we were and where we wanted to get to and what we needed to do to get there," Barnes said. "I'd say that was one of the lower points of the season."

Now UW is on such a roll that Eaves wishes the series was televised so people could see how far his club has come.

"It will be fun to watch," he said.

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