Wisconsin wasn't expected to have a potent defensive corps, not after three talented juniors bolted for the pros from a group that ranked second in the nation with a 3.09 points-per-game mark, scoring 37 goals and 133 points through 43 games.
Schultz (19 points) and Gardiner (18 points) are the top two scoring defensemen in the nation in total points and are one of just four defenseman averaging more than a point-per game (Schultz ranks second with a 1.19, Gardiner's 1.12 ranks fourth).
"Coach Eaves always tells us to jump in the play, and that's what we've been doing," Gardiner said. "We've gotten a bunch of points on the power play, which definitely helps, and if the forward aren't getting the bounces, the defense has to set in and help out, which is what we did last weekend."
Wisconsin's defensemen accounted for seven of the team's eight goals and 12 of the team's 24 total points in last weekend's College Hockey Showcase. Had the junior Gardiner not admitted last Friday that his first goal not nicked captain Sean Dolan, Gardiner and Schultz would have recorded back-to-back hat tricks, an impressive feet seeing as a Wisconsin defenseman hadn't registered a hat trick since 1992.
Seeing as both players were 2008 NHL Draft picks by Anaheim (Gardiner first round, Schultz second), chemistry hasn't been a problem.
"We're just trying to step in their role and fill the spots," Schultz said. "We have a talented group here that can set things up."
Going into a WCHA series at Alaska-Anchorage Friday and Saturday night, Wisconsin (7-6-3, 3-5-2 WCHA) is the nation's top scoring blue line, averaging 3.19 points per game and 51 total points. UW's 15 goals from rear guards are tied for the nation's top spot with Massachusetts, while the 51 points are 10 more than the next closest defensive corps (Niagara).
That average has surpassed last year's number because of Schultz, who leads all defensemen in the country with nine goals and is tied for second in the nation with five power-play goals.
"The power play has been working and the pucks have been going in for me," Schultz said. "We have a good unit that has been setting me up."
There are plenty of challenges on the excursion to Anchorage. Not only did the Badgers have to bus four hours to Minneapolis before taking a nine-hour flight to the Last Frontier, adjust to a change in environment and have to make adjustments for three time zones and fluky daylight hours.
"We'll wake up at 4:30 in the morning and I think I have to get up and go," Eaves said laughing, "but it's 4:30 in the morning."
The biggest challenge, arguably, could be the Seawolves (4-8-2, 3-6-1 WCHA). Although the Badgers boast an eight-game winning streak in the series and are 11-0-1 in the last 12 games, Anchorage has three players with 10 points a piece and 11 of UAA's 14 games have been decided by one goal or ended in a tie.
"I think his teams play hard, he understands that, and they play well together," Eaves said of UAA Coach Dave Shyiak. "They give them a chance to be successful. They're going apply pressure, be physical and skate. They've got a big team that can skate."
The Badgers have played 10 of their first 16 games against ranked opponents, including seven straight games in November against ranked teams (1-4-2), but are in the midst of a nine-game stretch against unranked opponents. Just six of UW's remaining 22 regular-season games are against teams currently ranked, and with Wisconsin a perfect 6-0-0 against unranked opponents this season, the players realize it's time to make a move.
"Those eight games were one of the toughest parts of the season," Gardiner said. "We need to get some points here. This is a big part from here until January, because we need to get a roll going."
Alaska Anchorage (4-8-2, 3-6-1) No.15 Wisconsin (7-6-3, 3-5-2 WCHA)
Date/Time - Friday-Saturday, December 3-4 at 10 p.m. CT
Stadium –Sullivan Arena (6,251) - 200' x 100'
Television - None
Live Webcast - http://seawolves.gci.net/ Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Brian Posick, Mike Cerniglia)
Series – Wisconsin leads 46-13-9 (UW leads 18-6-6 in Madison)
Last Meeting – Wisconsin advanced to the WCHA Final Five after completing a sweep in the first round of the 2010 WCHA playoffs at the Kohl Center. The Badges won March 13 in a 7-2 victory after posting a 4-1 win the night before.
UW is 3-0-1 in the last four games played in Anchorage
UW is 25-4-3 against the Seawolves under Head Coach Mike Eaves, including 8-1-3 in Anchorage
UW senior defenseman Craig Johnson played his junior hockey with Fairbanks of the NAHL