MADISON, Wis. — A lot of variables have gone into Wisconsin’s longest unbeaten streak in over two years.
Wisconsin hockey head coach Mike Eaves has instituted his ‘bend but don’t break’ philosophy to his youthful team, making sure a small mistake does not get the better of his No. 11 Badgers.
Wisconsin has also certainly been fortunate. Although playing with as much confidence as their title run two years ago, Wisconsin’s players admit that they have not played their best hockey.
The same cannot be said, however, for junior goaltender Shane Connelly, who is undoubtedly playing the best stretch of hockey in his college career.
“I am at the top of my game right now,” Connelly said. “I know it’s time to bear down going into the second half and it starts with goaltending. I am seeing the puck tremendously and I am making saves when I really don’t see the puck. That’s good positioning and feeling confident.”
Connelly was the solid backbone in the net tonight for Wisconsin (12-10-5, 8-8-3 WCHA), stopping 29 shots and coming up big when he had to between the pipes, propelling Wisconsin to a 3-1 victory Friday night over Minnesota Duluth.
Over the past six games, the Badgers have found themselves down two goals twice in the first period. Although Connelly could have easily been rattled in the past, the new, confident Wisconsin goaltender knows, with the help of his defense, that he can’t afford to get down on himself.
“We don’t give up many shots in the first period — usually under five or six — and I have improved as a player,” Connelly said. “It’s tough to get down early, especially if you are not giving up many shots. I’m confident because I have been through these situations before.”
Before the unbeaten streak began, the Badgers were sitting in a tie for eighth place in the WCHA standings, a spot unaccustomed in a recent history of Wisconsin hockey, and two points out of last place.
In just three short weeks, the Badgers have earned 10 points in five games and sit alone in fourth place, only five points behind third place Denver.
“We have to treat every game like the biggest game of the season because it is,” Connelly said. “We need wins, we need points, we want home ice and we want to get into the NCAA tournament and get home ice again. We got to take care of points here and go on the road and do the same thing. Every point and win matters.”
And much like two previous games on this unbeaten tear, the Badgers earned their points coming from behind.
Out shooting Duluth 14-6 in the opening frame, the Badgers could not find a way — either at full strength or the power play — to get the puck past UMD goalie Alex Stalock. But when Duluth (10-9-6, 6-8-5 WCHA), got its first chance of the night, the Bulldogs wasted little time cashing in.
Nine seconds into their first power play of the night, UMD’s Jordan Fulton had the puck behind the Wisconsin net, forcing Connelly to cover the left post. Unfortunately, the right side of the net was unguarded along with defenseman Travis Gawryletz, who buried the puck into the goal for the game’s opening tally and his first of the season.
The goal was a welcomed surprise to Duluth, who entered the weekend 8-for-80 for the season on the man advantage — dead last in the conference.
Once the Badgers saw how to create and bury an opportunity, scoring chances became as easy as clockwork.
After a pass from Blake Geoffrion to Patrick Johnson was gobbled up by the bodies in front of the net, chaos and confusion ensued in front of the net. With the puck basically resting by its lonesome between the circles, sophomore Jamie McBain took the opportunity to fire it past Stalock on his high glove side to tie the score.
“I knew that if there was a scrum in front, I knew he was going to get down and spread all over the place when he does not know where the puck is,” McBain said. “I put it upstairs and fortunately, it went in.”
Just over three minutes later and the roles reserved with the Badgers on the power play, Wisconsin struck again. Off a shot by Kyle Turris, the puck scooted away from Stalock and was there for taking for Geoffrion, who flipped the puck over Stalock’s out stretched skate to give the Badgers the only lead they would need.
But just to make sure, junior Ben Street scored his team-leading 12th goal of the year in the final minute with an empty net in front of him.
In addition to falling in the standing and the PairWise, Duluth is bracing to be out with junior defenseman Jason Garrison indefinitely. Taking a vicious check into the boards, Garrison, arguably Duluth’s best defenseman, lay motionless for several minutes and had to be helped off the ice.
According to head coach Scott Sandelin, it appears that Garrison broke his right ankle.
“Our guys did not know the seriousness of it until after the game,” Sandelin said. “It sucks. It’s (expletive). I thought it should have been a charging or boarding, but whatever. We have to move forward.”
Without Stalock in net for Minnesota-Duluth tonight, however, the score might not have been as close as it was. The sophomore denied numerous amounts of Wisconsin scoring chances, including denying Wisconsin forward Michael Davies on a wide-open net, sticking his right pad out just in the nick of time to deflect the puck.
“He was a four stars and been that way for a long time,” Sandelin said. “He gives us a chance and played solid all night. He’s been seeing the puck very well (and) is a very athletic goaltender.”
But on a night where Stalock earned a four-star rating from his coach, he was out shined by the five-star performance of Connelly, who has not only energized himself, but the entire Wisconsin team, as well.
“Seeing the puck, feeling comfortable and feeling confident,” Eaves said. “He seems to be settling in earlier in games and with that quietly confidence that he’s demonstrated, our team feeds off of that.”