UW hockey: Signs of life in ruined season

Amid the rubble of a ruined season there are encouraging signs of life where the University of Wisconsin men's hockey team is concerned. Two prominent underclassmen -- sophomore defenseman Justin Schultz and sophomore center and assistant captain...

Amid the rubble of a ruined season there are encouraging signs of life where the University of Wisconsin men's hockey team is concerned.

Two prominent underclassmen -- sophomore defenseman Justin Schultz and sophomore center and assistant captain Craig Smith -- have indicated they plan to return for 2011-12 instead of turning pro.

Schultz, the reigning Western Collegiate Hockey Association Defensive Player of the Year who led the Badgers in scoring, said he's "100 percent" certain he will come back to Madison for his junior season instead of signing with Anaheim.

Smith, who led UW in goals with 19, wasn't as emphatic, but said unfinished business -- namely winning a national championship in his hometown -- has him strongly eyeing a return instead of signing with Nashville.

A year after advancing to the NCAA title game and losing to Boston College, the Badgers will not have a chance to retrace those steps because they fell to Colorado College in the opening round of the WCHA playoffs.


In a rare season-ending marathon against the Tigers -- five games in two cities over 10 days -- UW had third-period leads in the last two games but were unable to finish with the upper hand.

The teams split a regular-season-ending series March 4-5 in Madison, then played a best-of-three series in Colorado Springs, Colo., that ultimately went to CC courtesy of a 2-1 win Sunday night.

So while seven WCHA teams remain in the running for berths in the NCAA tournament, the Badgers are finished despite a 21-16-4 record.

Playing for a national championship is an annual objective for UW, but that hardly seemed realistic a year after it lost seven seniors, saw four underclassmen turn pro and had two veteran assistant coaches opt for greener pastures. Tucked into that unprecedented exodus were four 50-point scorers, two first-team All-Americans and a Hobey Baker Award winner.

Getting to 20 wins was a primary objective for this club because it's one of the main ingredients for NCAA tournament worthiness. But the Badgers struggled against upper-division teams in the league -- a combined 1-8-1 against the top four of North Dakota, Denver, Nebraska-Omaha and Minnesota Duluth -- and that proved costly.

"We played good against teams that maybe people think you should have beaten, but against teams in our league that we needed to beat to get some key victories, we didn't get them," UW coach Mike Eaves said.

With 11 freshmen in tow -- seven of whom were in the lineup when the season ended -- the Badgers squeezed a lot of production out of a handful of front-end players.

Their top line of Smith, junior left winger Jordy Murray and freshman right winger Mark Zengerle accounted for 42 goals. Their top defensive pairing of Schultz and junior assistant captain Jake Gardiner produced 28 goals. All told, UW had 129 goals on the season.


The Badgers got 23 goals from their freshmen -- led by left winger Michael Mersch with eight -- and probably expected more than that given Zengerle (five), right winger Tyler Barnes (five) and center Jefferson Dahl (one) came in as 20-somethings with two years of junior experience.

But down the stretch, Barnes, Dahl, redshirt freshman right winger Keegan Meuer and rookie defensemen Joe Faust and Frankie Simonelli made very noticeable strides.

"We had some great growth from a lot of people," Eaves said.

"I think we got a lot done," said center and captain Sean Dolan, one of six departing seniors for UW. "I don't think you ever get what you want done until you win a national title. But I'm proud of everyone that's on this team and how hard we worked all year."

All signs point to Gardiner signing an NHL contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, perhaps as early as this week, but if Schultz and Smith stick to their current plans, that would be huge for the Badgers going into next season.

UW hasn't had a leading scorer return since 2005-06 when center Joe Pavelski did it, so having Schultz (18-29-47) come back would not only bolster the offense, but also the defense.

Meanwhile, Smith and Murray (18 goals) would give the Badgers a lot to work with up front and on the power play.

Those resources should help offset a total makeover in goal. With seniors Brett Bennett and Scott Gudmandson moving on, Eaves said incoming freshman Joel Rumpel will be the No. 1 goaltender with unproven, but vastly improved walk-on Mitch Thompson as the backup.


Eaves will wisely wait until he knows for sure that Schultz and Smith are back in the fold -- NHL teams can be very persuasive and persistent -- but he'll soon start mapping out where to go from here.

"We have to take a look at what our next step is," he said.

-- Copyright (c) 2011, The Wisconsin State Journal/Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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