MADISON, Wis. — Just because the marquee said ‘exhibition’ before Saturday night’s Wisconsin game didn’t mean the Badgers had to buy into the moniker about their match-up against the U.S. Under-18 Team.
Taking nights off isn’t what has elevated the Badgers to a No. 4 national ranking and smack dab in the mix for the Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular season championship.
The Badgers dressed 14 upperclassmen, no player under the age of 19 and showed little sluggishness in their 7-1 victory in front of 12,153 fans.
“It’s a tough game to play, and I thought in the first period the U.S. Team was all excited,” said UW coach Mike Eaves, who coached the U-18 team from 2000 to 2002. “They are young, talented, motivated and came out with energy. As the game went along in the second period, you could see the competitive nature come out in our guys.”
After scoring a goal and an assist for the U.S. Under-18 Team when it last visited Madison in 2005, senior tri-captain Blake Geoffrion knew that the youthful group was going to come in with nothing to lose, a message he relayed to his teammates earlier Saturday.
After delivering the message, Geoffrion delivered the offense, feeding sophomore Jordy Murray for the opening goal, a bang-bang play at 10:50 in the first and registering two power-play goals in the second, deflecting a Justin Schultz shot into the net for a power-play goal at 3:46 and whistling a power-play shot past U.S. goalie Jack Campbell from the slot at 16:16
“Any D-I team they play is like their Stanley Cup,” Geoffrion said. “You want to beat these teams. They don’t have a lot of pressure (because) they are supposed to lose. They come in loosey-goosey (and) playing hard. We had to be ready to play and keep our game going, keep rolling the way we have been.”
A 3-0 lead was only the beginning for the Badgers, who got four goals from three different sources in the final period. Senior Michael Davies added a pair of goals while seniors Ben Street and John Mitchell each scored.
“They broke our spirit just a little bit with that first goal, and we weren’t quite as good after that,” said U.S. coach Kurt Kleinendorst. “It seems like front that point on, we couldn’t get it going. It’s like we didn’t believe anymore.”
Wisconsin junior goalie Brett Bennett, another U-18 team alum, stopped 14 of the 15 shots he faced, a low shot total thanks to solid defensive efforts from top to bottom.
Junior Ryan McDonagh broke up a three-on-one in the first by blocking a shot with his chest and senior Andy Bohmbach’s heads-up play with his stick deflected a decent scoring chance by forward Austin Czarnik.
Only forward Bryan Rust, a Notre Dame recruit, snuck a shot past Bennett when he knocked in a loose rebound at 7:57 in the third.
“I thought in that first period especially when we didn’t have our competitive edge quite to the level we needed, he made some big saves,” Eaves said of Bennett, who missed the last four games with a shoulder injury. “He was one young man that was ready to play tonight.”
The National Team Developmental Program skated with only 10 forwards with top scorer Matthew Nieto (28 points) and Jon Merrill (22 points) both scratches, but Wisconsin fans were able to keep their eyes on forward Michael Mersch and defenseman Frankie Simonelli, two UW recruits that are slated to join the Badgers in the fall.
“They are good players, but they are young players,” Kleinendorst said of the future Badgers. “There are things they have to get better at but I know for a coaching standpoint, you want to start with character and they’ve got character. They’re willing to do whatever you want them to do.”
Eaves gave Wisconsin forward Derek Stepan and defensemen Jake Gardiner and John Ramage the night off, as the trio helped lead Team USA to a 6-5 overtime win over Canada in the gold medal game of the World Junior Championship in Saskatchewan Tuesday.
The three Badgers, along with UW assistant coach Mark Osiecki, who was an assistant coach for Team USA, and U-18 forward Jason Zucker and goalie Jack Campbell, were honored in a pre-game ceremony and video montage.
“It means a lot knowing that everybody is behind us and that people recognize what they did,” said Zucker, who will be heading to Denver in the fall. “It really is a big thing and it’s hard to do. It’s great to put on that sweater and play for your country every day.”
The night off was important for the trio, but the solid performance was vital for Wisconsin, who is heading into arguably its three most important weeks of the conference season.
Sitting five points behind first-place Denver, three behind second-place Minnesota Duluth and one behind Colorado College, Wisconsin, with two games in hand, will face the Tigers in Colorado Springs, host the Pioneers in Madison and travel to Duluth to face the Bulldogs, a three-week stretch that will determine whether the Badgers declare themselves as a front runner for the MacNaughton Cup.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Geoffrion said. “Three weekends in a row (with the) WCHA, I am looking forward to the challenge.”