MADISON, Wis. — Mike Eaves was already bracing himself for this season, knowing seven senior forwards would be graduating following Wisconsin’s national runner-up finish, but still comfortable that he could rely on four senior defensemen to buy his club some time.
When three of those seniors signed pro contracts in the off-season, forcing the number of rookies Eaves had to bring in to 10, the ninth-year head coach knew his depth would be tested.
“We lost some good guys,” Eaves said, “but we still have some good guys back there.”
Eaves wasn’t kidding. With 10,769 fans hoping to get their first look at the Wisconsin youth movement, it was the veteran defensemen that stole the show. No. 15 Wisconsin got two goals from sophomore Justin Schultz and a power-play tally from assistant captain Jake Gardiner, more than enough offense to blank Alabama-Huntsville, 7-0.
“We just stuck to our game plan,” said senior captain Sean Dolan, who scored in the second. “We wanted to come out the first 20 minutes and really put it to them, and that’s what we did.”
The Badgers’ calling card on their run to the Frozen Four last season was their offense, a group that averaged 3.98 goals per game and featured Hobey Baker winner Blake Geoffrion, who was only the squad’s third-leading point man.
That performance overshadowed a UW defensive corps ranked second in the nation with 3.09 points-per-game. With five of the six returning defensemen having at least one year of seasoning under their belts, the objective is leading by example, instead of putting the burden of scoring on any one man.
“We’ve got a couple young guys back there and a couple guys that didn’t play a lot, but we’ve got (three guys) that all played last year,” said Schultz, whose 22 points a year ago makes him UW’s leading returning blue-line scorer. “We just have to lead by example and show them how it’s done.”
Rest assured that the special teams are still there for the Badgers. After going 4-for-11 last weekend, the Badgers’ power play, quarterbacked by Schultz, went 4-for-7, including taking advantage of Blake’s younger brother Sebastian making an aggressive error.
With the Chargers holding steady midway through the first, Geoffrion delivered a right elbow to the chin of UW freshman defenseman Frankie Simonelli, resulting in a five-minute major and a game misconduct for contact to the head, a play first-year UAH Coach Chris Luongo said was the correct call.
It resulted in the flood gates being opened as well. Wisconsin scored twice on the five-minute power play to take a 2-0 lead, as Schultz delivered a rocket above the left faceoff circle at 11:25 and Gardiner buried a perfect touch pass from freshman Mark Zengerle at 13:27.
“I know one thing he’s improved on is his ability to come across the ice on the power play and get his shot through,” said Eaves of Schultz, who added another power-play tally at 8:42 of the second. “His release and strength of shot are much improved, and he has his reservoir of confidence now that’s a huge jump for him.”
With the Badgers seemingly having the conventional way of scoring down, Wisconsin’s second period outburst was set up by the redirection, something Blake Geoffrion was a master at last season for UW. In a 26-second span in the second period, the Badgers made their former captain proud.
Freshman Tyler Barnes scored his first collegiate goal by redirecting a John Ramage shot off his shoulder. Dolan followed that with his first of the season, deflecting senior Patrick Johnson’s shot with his right skate.
“(Redirecting shots) is more of a willingness,” Dolan said. “You’ve got to want to get in front of that puck and that’s something Blake took a lot of pride in. This year, it doesn’t matter who you are. You just have to buy into that and get it done.”
Senior left winger Podge Turnbull and freshman right winger Gavin Hartzog came through with goals for the Badgers in the third period while senior goaltender Scott Gudmandson turned away 27 shots for his first shutout of the season. Wisconsin outshot Alabama-Huntsville 47-17.
After killing off all six penalties against Holy Cross last week, the Badgers’ penalty kill continued its scoreless streak, holding the Chargers to only three shots on the man advantage, including none during 85 seconds of 5-on-3.
“It was one of the turning points of the game,” Eaves said of the 5-on-3 with a 5-0 score. “Those are moments that we need to handle and it’s nice to see that this young team did that.”
Playing its first season as the NCAA’s lone Division I independent school after the CHA disbanded, it will certainly be a process for Alabama-Huntsville. The Chargers play a total of 22 contests outside of Alabama this season and, similar to Wisconsin, have to break in 11 freshman skaters.
To make things extra challenging, UAH senior captain Ryan Burkholder saw his 41 consecutive game streak end and will be out a couple weeks with an upper-body injury.
“I don’t know if we have a choice,” responded Luongo when asked about having his team thrown in the deep end. “Our captain is hurt. That’s the nature of it right now. We had a much better second night than first night last week. If we do again, we’ll figure out why the heck we’re getting the better game that second day.”
The big moment now for Wisconsin comes Sunday afternoon. Thirteen times last season, the Badgers won the opening game in the weekend series, but too often they came out flat the next night, going 6-6-1 in sweep opportunities.
With an extra day off to accommodate for the Wisconsin football team to host No. 1 Ohio State, it’s up to Dolan and the seniors to cultivate that same edge they played with in game one.
“We know we have to come back tomorrow and have a good practice and have the same mentality coming in for Sunday,” Dolan said. “(UAH) is not going to lay down for us and let us get all over them.”