The Wisconsin men’s hockey team (12-12-2) is still trying to produce consistent results each night.
After losing consecutive games at North Dakota this past weekend, UW head coach Mike Eaves and the Badgers are hoping to capitalize on the final four series of the season, two of which will be on the road.
“We’re not that far to home ice,” Eaves said in his Monday press conference. Yet the Badgers will likely need to steal a few road games in order to secure home ice. With 16 points in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association conference standings, UW sits in ninth place, five points behind sixth-place Nebraska-Omaha (21).
UW must overcome its inexperience on the road, where it is 1-8-1 on the season. The relative youth of the team suggests this group has extensive room for improvement, providing a hopeful outlook for the rest of the season.
Subsequently, Eaves garnered many positives from this past weekend’s games at North Dakota.
“We did a lot of good things,” Eaves said. “We competed hard enough in that building to win, and that’s one of our concerns with such a young team. Could we handle that environment and play physical and go toe to toe? And I think we did that.”
With such a young team, Eaves is looking for leadership from a variety of characters.
Although Junior Justin Schultz has been unable to find the net consistently as of late, he has still been a force on the ice.
“He played like a man this weekend, he controlled the game physically and with his play without the puck,” Eaves said. “He is doing so many more good things away from the puck that he’s still an influence in the game.”
Schultz’s physicality indicates his role as an enforcer on the team, as his strength serves to stabilize the Badgers from physical teams. Yet from a leadership standpoint, the team can extrapolate a lot out of his selflessness – perhaps to a fault.
The team has struggled with seizing opportunities when they arise, and Eaves stressed that they must “take what’s given. If the shot is open, take it.”
Eaves noted that against North Dakota, the Badgers “didn’t do enough in the offensive zone to create any sustained offensive pressure and create enough shots on the net. That was to some degree our demise,” he said.
Capitalizing on these opportunities will allow the Badgers to put together more consistent play, according to Eaves, and perhaps in turn will make the team more cohesive as they attempt to figure out how to be a bit more selfish with the puck.
Eaves emphasized that the players need to find their roles and capitalize on their opportunities.
“Part of that is the psyche. If you don’t score, do you want that responsibility of not being that guy who didn’t score?,” he said. “If you make a pass it’s okay because you tried to pass it, tried to set up your teammate. So you don’t take as much responsibility.
“Guys don’t want to be labeled selfish,” Eaves said. But he also emphasized he wants the team to “take the responsibility and shoot. You’re not being selfish; you’re taking what’s given.”
Taking opportunistic shots and creating pressure on opposing defenses will also take pressure off another emerging leader on the team – freshman goaltender Joel Rumpel.
Since Jan. 7, Rumpel has only allowed 1.86 goals per game, and Eaves indicated that Rumpel has been developing nicely, along with other players.
“It’s still a group of young people that are young in their development, and we will continue the process of coaching them and helping them get better,” Eaves said.
In the game against North Dakota, Rumpel epitomized the Badgers’ resiliency and desire for improvement this season.
“He walked off the ice, he said, ‘Coach, I just lost it in the background.’ But what was particularly important was how he responded to that,” Eaves said. “He played very well after that; he kept us in the game in the second period with that breakaway save.”
Rumpel signifies the youth of the Badgers, but he also illustrates their capabilities. According to Eaves, if they can rebound from poor play and learn from it, they can then start to consistently take advantage of opportunities, such as the breakaway save.
In Rumpel’s case, Eaves saw it as a microcosm of what the team should strive to accomplish, which is ultimately learning from its mistakes.
“That was a little look into his mindset. He let it go, he bounced right back and played very well,” Eaves said. “I thought he handled the environment very well. It was a nice step forward for Joel.
“We gave ourselves a chance to win, [and] we came up short, but how can we take what we saw and transform that into something of value”?