With so many freshmen and still early in the marathon season, Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves has used his executive authority to continue his tinkering with his four offensive lines.
Eaves consistently juggled every line, including breaking up the newly-found chemistry on UW’s second line.
“It was a tactic design to create some energy,” Eaves said.
When he mixed and matched that group, the offense sputtered. When he kept senior captain Sean Dolan, senior winger Patrick Johnson and sophomore winger Ryan Little together, the trio provided the offense for No.18 Wisconsin to get its second home sweep in as many tries.
The Badgers’ second line provided the well-timed back-breakers Saturday, scoring a pair of vital goals to put the finishing touches on a 4-1 victory over Michigan Tech in front of 12,690 at the Kohl Center.
“We play who we play with, and you just have to go out there and play your hardest,” said Johnson, who was responsible for three of his line’s five assists. “We work well together and love our line.”
The tinkering came from the restlessness after another sluggish first period for the home team. One night after being down 2-0, Wisconsin (5-2-1, 2-1-1 WCHA) was outshot 10-6 in a scoreless first period, prompting Eaves to shift around freshman Michael Merch (two goals Friday) and flip-flop freshman Tyler Barnes with Little.
When Eaves flop-flipped, Wisconsin jetted out to a 3-1 lead. Having just erased Tech junior winger Alex MacLeod’s power-play goal with Justin Schultz’ goal from the right circle at 14:06 in the second, the Badgers saw sophomore Craig Smith beat goalie Kevin Genoe (23 saves) from the left circle at 18:30.
The goal proved to be the game-winner but after a two-goal lead went by the wayside the night before, the second line saw that insurance was needed posthaste. An aggressive puck battle by Dolan behind the net allowed Johnson to scoot a perfect pass to Little, who buried the one timer to double the score with 37 seconds left in the period.
“At that point in the game with that much time left, we needed to keep a third guy high in case the puck came out of the zone,” Little said. “They did a nice job down low grinding it out. I was fortunate to put it away. I just kind of sat there and got a nice pass.”
With Tech (3-2-2, 1-2-1 WCHA) having the nation’s No.2 power play, a man-advantage opportunity looked to be the perfect medicine for the Huskies to get back in the fray. That changed when Dolan picked up the loose puck, crossed over captain Deron Cousens and quickly switched backhand to forehand to beat Genoe at the doorstep.
The play was impressive, considering Dolan has only been out of the penalty box for 12 seconds.
“It was something I had watched (current N.Y. Ranger) Derek Stepan do for two years and I kind of took a page out of his book,” Dolan said. “Knowing what it feels like what he’s been doing is pretty cool.”
It proved to be an impossible recovery for the Huskies, who like Wisconsin, are trying to find continuity with seven freshmen on their roster.
“I thought we had a good first 36 minutes and we played really well, (but) they scored three goals in a pretty short time,” said Tech coach Jamie Russell. “With a young team, you’ve got to learn to control momentum, particularly when you are playing on the road.”
Wisconsin went one-for-six killing penalties (8-for-9 on the weekend) and senior Brett Bennett registered 28 saves to move his record to 3-0-0 on the season. Consider the weekend a treat then for the Badgers, who will face another tough road test next at Minnesota.
“Knowing that we can play a strong weekend and just believing we can come out with four points,” Dolan said. “Having that belief is a good feeling and having this under our belt is a good stepping stone for next week.”