UW men's hockey: Lack of shots hurting shot at home ice

2012-02-03T07:50:00Z 2012-02-03T08:47:46Z UW men's hockey: Lack of shots hurting shot at home iceANDY BAGGOT | Wisconsin State Journal | abaggot@madison.com | 608-252-6175 madison.com

What looks like a simple problem doesn't always have a simple answer.

Case in point: The University of Wisconsin men's hockey team is threatening to finish the season with fewer than 1,000 shots on goal, which would be a dubious first in recorded program history.

Since you can't score without shooting the puck — "You miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take," the legendary Wayne Gretzky once said — the remedy seems obvious.

Except there's more to it, apparently, than winding up and firing away.

UW coach Mike Eaves said a lack of maturity and accountability are root causes for why his club is averaging 25.2 shots per game entering a critical Western Collegiate Hockey Association series with St. Cloud State tonight and Saturday night at the Kohl Center.

With 655 shots in 26 games, the Badgers rank 52nd out of 58 NCAA Division I teams in shots per outing, an average that would represent the lowest ratio since 2002-03 when they mustered 1,037 shots overall and managed 25.9 per game.

Junior defenseman and assistant captain Justin Schultz leads UW with 81 shots. Since the school began tracking shot totals in 1990-91 only two blue-liners have led the team in that category: Sean Hill with 164 in 1990-91 and Brian Rafalski with 133 in 1994-95.

When Eaves watches video of the Badgers this season, he sees too many instances in which scoring chances are compromised or wasted because his players opt to pass instead of shoot. In doing so, they violate one of his basic tenets, an acronym his players have heard referenced countless times.

"That's where the phrase 'Take what is given' — TWIG — comes from," Eaves said.

If a shot is given, take it. If a passing lane is available instead, use it.

But that sense of recognition doesn't happen overnight, especially on a team that features 12 sophomores and seven freshmen whose job description includes shooting the puck. Even when that awareness does kick in, there are psychological hurdles to be cleared.

"We have a lot of guys (who've) been passers their whole life," UW junior winger and assistant captain Ryan Little said. "They've been set-up guys and they're not used to taking that responsibility and getting it done themselves."

Schultz came to UW as a pass-first guy. He remembers his freshman season when Blake Geoffrion hounded him about putting the puck on net, especially on the power play.

"I just learned to take what's given," said Schultz, who had 60 attempts as a rookie. "If the shot's there you take it."

But shooting the puck requires you to be accountable to the results. Passing is sometimes the psychological equivalent of taking the easy way out.

"If you don't score, do you want the responsibility of … being that guy who didn't score?" Eaves said. "If you make a pass it's OK because you tried to pass it — tried to set up your teammate — so you don't take as much responsibility."

The Badgers are coming off 4-2 and 5-3 losses at North Dakota in part because they generated just 39 shots on goal spanning the two outings. That was the second-fewest in a series this season — they had 35 vs. Minnesota in November — and it represented the fifth time they were outshot in both games of a series.

In all, UW (12-12-2, 7-11-2, 16 points in league play) has generated 25 shots or fewer 14 times this season and is 6-7-1 in those games.

This week Eaves said shooting the puck is "going to be a point of emphasis more so than ever before."

Schultz said that was the case in practice this week.

"He's been telling them to be selfish once in a while and get the puck to the net," Schultz said.

The ninth-place Badgers are five points out of the top six — which guarantees home ice for the first round of the WCHA playoffs — with eight games remaining. One of the teams they must climb past is eighth-place St. Cloud State, which has a one-point advantage.

There are at least two silver linings Eaves can trumpet.

One is that UW is averaging 3.12 goals per game — ranked 15th nationally — despite the lack of shots. The other is that if sophomore center and leading scorer Mark Zengerle can be enticed to shoot the puck, there's hope for his teammates.

Last season Zengerle, a fantastic passer, became so one-dimensional with the puck that opponents blatantly focused on his teammates because they knew Zengerle wouldn't shoot.

Now look — he's second on the team with 68 shots and already has surpassed last season, when he had 60.

"You're not being selfish," Eaves said of the message. "You're taking what's given, which is what a good hockey player will do."

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