Wisconsin defenders on the offensive

first_imgADAM SCHORR/Herald photoAt first glance, this year’s stat sheet for the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey may look a bit confusing.Leading the team in scoring with 12 points is junior Jamie McBain, a defenseman. Right behind him in second and third are blueliners, sophomores Brendan Smith and Ryan McDonagh with nine and eight points, respectively.So where has the production from the forwards been?“Sometimes it makes you a little bit frustrated, like, ‘Come on, forwards,’” Smith joked. “But it’s not even like that because the forwards are actually the ones that are feeding us.”Upon closer inspection of the defensive corps UW head coach Mike Eaves has been blessed with, the numbers begin to make more sense.Among the six Badgers who typically see time on defense, five were drafted in the NHL’s first or second round. McDonagh was drafted the highest of the group, taken 12th overall in the 2007 draft by the Montreal Canadians. Smith was taken just 15 picks later in that same draft by Detroit.Jake Gardiner, a freshman from Minnetonka, Minn., was a first rounder in the 2008 draft, going 17th to the Anaheim Ducks. McBain (Carolina Hurricanes) and Goloubef (Columbus Blue Jackets) were both taken in the second round of their respective drafts.With so much professional potential in one locker room, one might think there would be a lot of boasting among the young defensemen, but Smith said that’s not the case.“Sometimes we joke around about it,” he said. “But everybody’s pretty modest about it, and they don’t really talk about it too much.”With the level of talent Wisconsin has at its disposal defensively, Eaves knew it was just a matter of time before they produced.“Our most talented guys — in terms of natural ability — are there,” Eaves said of his defense.It took a few games for the unit to click, as the Badgers allowed 23 goals in their first four games. Over the past two weekends, however, UW has earned its first three wins of the season — allowing just four combined goals in those three victories, including a shutout Saturday against Michigan Tech.“Coming into the season, we knew we were a very offensively talented group,” McBain said. “As of late, I think we’re just keeping it simple. We’re throwing pucks at the net.”Part of what has contributed to the recent success of the defensemen — and the Badgers along with them — has been their ability to convert on the power play. Saturday against the Huskies, Wisconsin scored five of its six goals with the man advantage. McDonagh notched one of those tallies, and Smith assisted on three of the five power play goals.“The power play was doing really well. … I think that was the main thing,” Smith said. “We’ve got [Blake] Geoffrion in front of that net. He screens the goalie and it’s so hard for a goaltender to see the puck. He got a stick on a few of them.”Geoffrion scored twice in Saturday’s 6-0 victory, but was assisted both times by the duo of Smith and McBain, who recognized the forward’s ability to make plays happen.“Blake’s doing a great job in front,” McBain said. “The one-time was working for us Saturday.”It was McBain and Smith that anchored UW’s top line of defense, and the chemistry between the two was evident: four of Wisconsin’s nine goals on the weekend were a direct result of the duo. Aside from assisting on Geoffrion’s two goals, it was Smith’s pass that set up McBain’s third-period goal Saturday, and they both picked up an assist on John Mitchell’s goal Friday night.“As of late, it’s just kind of a confidence in each other,” McBain said. “We’re learning how to read off one another; we’re learning where each other is at, kind of getting a feel for each other’s game. It’s working out for us. I know when the puck’s in his hands, he’s going to do something special with it. He’s going to be looking for me, too.”Of the freshmen defensemen, none has made a bigger impact early on than Gardiner, who already has six points on the season. Gardiner hasn’t always played on the defensive side of the puck, however. The 2008 Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year switched from forward to defense as a senior in high school — a move he feels has helped him find his way near the top of the scoring leaders.“I’m pretty much an offensive defenseman,” Gardiner said. “I’m trying to take it down a notch and play more solid defense and be more calm once I get more comfortable.”Gardiner’s natural ability with the puck has even impressed the assistant captain McBain.“He’s just got the ability to skate,” McBain said. “He’s so fast and he’s so agile both ways. You don’t see that a lot of times on defense. When he gets that puck, it’s fun to watch him.”The Badgers finished last season with forwards making up the top four scorers — Kyle Turris, Ben Street, Blake Geoffrion and Michael Davies. Yet, here they are 10 games into the 2008-09 season with Geoffrion as the only forward in the top five.But while they’re having success now, the blueliners know the scoring could easily shift.“I think it’s all going to even out,” Smith said. “The forwards are going to jump up there, for sure. I think we’re going to have one, maybe two, in the top five scoring for defense because we’re so talented.”last_img

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