Offense wins games, but defense sweeps archrivals and top-ranked opponents. That’s how the saying goes. Well, at least for the Wisconsin men’s hockey team.
En route to its first home series sweep of a No. 1 opponent in 10 years, the Badgers’ defense stepped up big in the Thursday-Friday series, firing on all cylinders to send the Gophers back across the border without a win.
While Wisconsin’s top line took over the score board Friday night with sophomore left winger Nic Kerdiles and freshman right winger Grant Besse combining for a goal and assist each in UW’s 2-1 victory, it was the UW’s defensive performance that stole the show.
Wisconsin (16-8-2, 7-4-1 Big Ten) worked to keep up with the fast-paced Minnesota (19-4-5, 8-2-2 Big Ten) offense while down to just five defensemen in the last 31 minutes of play.
A spine-crunching, open-ice hit by junior defenseman Jake McCabe in the ninth minute of the second period sent him to the locker room for the remainder of the game after being handed a five-minute major for contact to the head and a game misconduct.
“Between the second and third, we talked about this with our team before, is that every game is a riddle and there’s no textbook answers, and the riddle tonight was how to win this game in the third period with [Jake McCabe] out of your lineup,” head coach Mike Eaves said. “We had good growth and found a way to win a game. Those are very positive things.”
Working without what Eaves has described as his “defensive workhorse” in McCabe, Wisconsin held its ground after giving up a tying goal off the stick of Gopher junior winger Seth Ambroz on the resulting five-minute uninterrupted power play in the second period. UMN went on to outshoot UW 14-9 in the final period of play, but an all-around dominant effort by UW in the back held strong.
One skater that caught the eye of both his coaches and teammates was defenseman Kevin Schulze. The sophomore was awarded the game puck in the locker room following Friday night’s win for what Eaves said was Schulze’s best performance of the season.
“I think everyone stepped up back there. We had guys playing big minutes that they’re not used to and they did a hell of a job back there. One guy that really stepped up tonight was Kevin Schulze,” senior defenseman and captain Frankie Simonelli said. “He’s not the biggest guy out there, but I don’t think he lost one battle all night and that’s just awesome.”
Game one of the series Thursday night was a much less impressive showing for the Badgers, who were outshot 32-19 on the night and struggled to match the tempo of their rivals despite coming away with a 2-1 victory. It was the defensive squad — who recorded 10 of UW’s 19 shots — that spared the team a third-straight loss to the Gophers.
“We definitely didn’t play our best hockey out there but when you can find ways to win like that, it definitely helps out. Sometimes going through the season, you’re not going to have your best game every night but if you can come out of the game with a win that’s definitely a good thing,” Eaves said.
Simonelli netted a power-play goal with more than five minutes remaining in the first period. McCabe then notched the game-winning goal with under eight minutes to play, one he said he owed junior goaltender Joel Rumpel after losing a puck behind the net allowing freshman Taylor Cammarata to put one away for UMN.
“After the first, I sit next to Rumpel in the locker room and I said I owed him one. That’s definitely my fault completely … Me and Frank especially, we want to be plus every night. We’re relied upon to be consistent defenders and to let Joel down like that, it’s never a good thing as much as he bails us out every game,” McCabe said. “I guess to get him one back actually felt good.”
Rock solid throughout the series, Rumpel recoded 59 saves on the weekend and allowed just two goals in the series, a season-low for the Gophers.
“It’s kind of a weird feeling for goaltending. You just get in a groove and the puck just seems bigger, reading plays before they happen,” Rumpel said. “Just being on the ice more, battling hard in practice towards the end of the season helps a lot.”
Sitting in second place in the Big Ten, just four points behind the Gophers, the Badgers will look to carry over the growth they found on the weekend into the upcoming series to close out Big Ten play, with just four conference series remaining in regular season play.
“It was awesome to be a part of and a memory everyone on this team will remember forever,” Simonelli said. “No. 1 team comes in town, we get the sweep. It helps us in the standings, we get six points. It means a lot to us and that’s big for our team and in the locker room it means a lot.”