ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Hobey Baker Award has eluded Wisconsin since it was introduced in 1981, a shocking statistic for a school that has won six national championships.
But for the first time in program history, the Badgers have two names among the 10 finalists. In the first round of the NCAA tournament, senior center and tri-captain Blake Geoffrion and junior defenseman Brendan Smith showed why their names are among the best in college hockey.
On a day when most of other eight Hobey Baker Award candidates failed to make headlines, Geoffrion assisted on the first goal and scored the game winner at 19 minutes, 16 seconds in the second, while Smith did all the behind-the-scenes work to help top-seed Wisconsin outlast fourth-seed Vermont 3-2 before an announced crowd of 7,281 in the NCAA West Regional semifinals Friday night at the Xcel Energy Center.
“Their play, their game and their results speak for themselves,” Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said. “In a big game, they played the way they are capable of. If you are going to win these types of games, your best players have to be your best players. They were that tonight for us.”
Smith was openly endorsed by Wisconsin (26-10-4) early in the Hobey Baker selection process, hardly a slap in the face of any teammate, seeing as Smith leads the nation’s defensemen with 15 goals, 45 points and a 1.18 points-per-game average.
But Geoffrion is no chump either. Leading the WCHA with 26 goals, Geoffrion’s work against Vermont (17-15-7) kept the Badgers on course. He attempted a team-high seven shots, won 18 of 31 faceoffs and scored his 14th goal on the power play, tied for tops in the country.
Smith assisted on both second period power play goals, but his yeoman work hardly went unnoticed. Smith made key outlet plays, was strong on the forecheck, and posed problems for Vermont in the neutral zone.
“He was pretty effective for them,” Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon said of Smith. “They are both great players and both deserve to be Hobey Baker finalists.”
The biggest concern for Eaves entering the weekend was how his team would start, one of the few inconsistencies for a team that is the only squad in the country that has not lost back-to-back games all season.
Geoffrion helped the fast start, assisting on freshman Justin Schultz’s goal to get Wisconsin on the board first at 5:51, but his work was vital in the second period after the Badgers allowed the reins to slip out of their grasp.
Battling back from a one-goal deficit, Geoffrion received a behind-the-back pass from Schultz and ripped a wrist shot past Vermont goalie Rob Madore at the left post, registering the Badgers’ third power-play goal in their first three chances.
“He can release the puck pretty quick and you think you have him covered in that slot area on the power play and he can find a way to get shots off,” Sneddon said. “He’s got a big body, great skill, good speed, plays aggressive.”
Added Eaves: “The power play was huge tonight. It created a lot of scoring chances and goals.”
After shoveling the puck to sophomore Derek Stepan, who in turn found Michael Davies for UW’s second goal at 4:02 in the second to tie the game at two, Smith’s heads-up play to keep the puck in the Wisconsin zone on the Geoffrion’s goal was the finishing bow on a second period that saw the Badgers outshoot Vermont 16-3, part of a 42-30 advantage for the game.
Smith also made sure the rest of the tournament field knows the status of Wisconsin’s physicality, as the junior defenseman knocked Dan Lawson on his keester with a big hit late in the third with the Catamounts trying to mount a rally.
“The base of our pyramid is to play hard,” Eaves said. “It was a good, hard hit.”
The victory means Wisconsin will get a chance to erase its 2-0 defeat to St. Cloud State on this very ice one week ago, as the second seed needed double overtime to upend Northern Michigan in the matinee. The Badgers, who are 2-3-0 against the Huskies this season, waited and watched patiently in their locker room, staying content with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and protein shakes and fighting the nerves.
“It’s a situation I quite honestly have never coached through before,” Eaves said.
Thanks to its Hobey twosome, Wisconsin will get a chance to take one step closer to Detroit’s Ford Field, and one step closer to finally etching a Badger name on college hockey’s top individual honor.