Listed as the third line in the Wisconsin hockey lineup, it’s not hard to figure out why junior center Jefferson Dahl, junior winger Sean Little and senior winger Ryan Little get lost in the confusion.
After all, the two lines before them are a tough act to follow.
The top two lines boast some of most dynamic point-scoring talent on the team for UW — including junior center Mark Zengerle, who has scored eight points in his last four games, freshman winger Nic Kerdiles, who is riding a seven-game point-scoring streak, and junior winger Michael Mersch, who leads the team with 23 goals this season.
Still, while they may not be the flashiest players on the ice for Wisconsin, Dahl and the Little brothers are the vital glue-guys who have helped anchor the Badgers’ revival from a disappointing 1-7-2 start to the season.
When the top line of Zengerle, Kerdiles and junior winger Tyler Barnes struggled to provide goals for much of the early part of the 2012-13 campaign, it was Dahl’s line that remained consistent, always keeping the team in the game with its never-say-die mentality and gritty defense.
“[We try] to outwork the other team,” Dahl said. “When we get it down low in the corners, especially the Littles — they’re tough to beat out of the corner — just protecting it down low and trying to play more minutes in their zone than ours.”
Not known for its goal-scoring prowess — Dahl and Ryan Little each have five goals, which ranks them tied for seventh on the team in scoring, while Sean Little has two goals — UW’s third line has relied on determination and hard work to help the team win this year.
And their teammates and fans have taken notice.
“You always kind of notice the energetic pests and hard-working guys,” Zengerle said. “Maybe they don’t get enough credit as far as having the skill set to score, but I think people definitely do notice the hard work that they put in.”
No game is a better example of this than the Badgers’ 3-1 win over Minnesota-Duluth in the opening round of the WCHA Playoffs at the Kohl Center Friday.
From the moment Dahl and Co. stepped on the ice for their first shift, they out-hustled their opponents, forcing the Bulldogs deep into their own defensive zone for much of the shift, while creating a number of good scoring chances for Wisconsin as well.
“They really work well together, and they really play our system to an absolute T,” senior defenseman John Ramage said. “When you’re out there as a defenseman, you know they are going to be in the right spot every time and that makes it a lot [easier].”
Also on duty for the Badgers during UW’s penalty kill — Dahl and the Little brothers didn’t give up a single goal in five power-play attempts for UMD over the weekend.
After the game, the solid performance was even noted by head coach Mike Eaves.
“I truly hope they get rewarded at some point for their efforts,” Eaves said. “When the other team has to play in their own zone like that, it’s not fun. It wears you out.”
And rewarded they were.
Saturday, within the first three minutes of the game, Dahl received the puck in the slot from Sean Little with his back to the goal and spun around while launching the puck into the back of the net.
The goal was the first one for the line since March 2 — Dahl’s first goal since Jan. 26 — and while the burden of scoring will never be put on solely on the third line, Dahl believes it could be a sign that they are peaking in confidence at just the right time this season.
“It was definitely nice to get on the board there and help the team any way we can,” Dahl said. “Friday night, we thought we were doing good things and we just couldn’t find the net, but it was nice to get one on Saturday.”
Thanks to their unrelenting effort, which is just beginning to pay dividends for Wisconsin, Dahl’s line personifies the team’s postseason motto of “keep on rolling.” And that’s exactly what the group has done, as the third line’s consistency in the depth chart helped kick start UW’s ascension back to the top over the last month of games.
Now with the top three lines firing on all cylinders over the last few weeks, each line’s success has provided motivation for the others to push harder — creating a sort of friendly competition between lines as they fight to keep their dream of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament alive.
“It kind of just motivates you a little bit. You see the other guys bringing it, especially in big games,” Zengerle said. “To see other people going, it gets the bench up a little bit, and it kind of forces you to get going too.”