Preview: Super Sophomores

One year after being led by seven stellar seniors, No.12 Wisconsin has four sophomore that make the Badgers' second-year players the most productive in the nation.

MADISON – A little more than 24 hours before a critical Western Collegiate Hockey Association conference showdown, Head Coach Mike Eaves gathered his hockey team in the locker room Thursday afternoon and went to the video screen.

He didn't show clips about getting swept at No.16 Nebraska-Omaha last weekend, the first time in 18 consecutive road series they got swept, or doing a late preview of border-rival Minnesota, who the Badgers took three of four points against in early November.

Instead, Eaves showed a brief Internet clip of a passionate coach of a football team pumping up his team about being a champion.

"It was pretty cool," sophomore Derek Lee said. "I have some goosebumps."

Thanks to Lee and what is turning out to be a class of super sophomores, No.12 Wisconsin continues to play meaningful games late in the season, including this vital weekend against the Golden Gophers at the Kohl Center.

Led by defenseman Justin Schultz and center Craig Smith, Wisconsin (19-10-3, 11-9-2 WCHA) has the most productive sophomore class in the nation, as Schultz (15 goals, 26 assists, 41 points), who is top among the nation's defensemen, and Smith (16-21-37) are the top scorers for the Badger.

Throw in the contributions of Lee (3-11-14), defenseman John Ramage (1-9-10) and wing/center Keegan Meuer (1-0-1), Wisconsin has gotten 36-67-103 from a sophomore class not expected to be this productive this year. Consider it one of the positives from last year's run to the national championship game.

Getting a chance to skate and watch seven seniors led Wisconsin to the finals at Detroit's Ford Field, Schultz recalls the group's candor and the necessary amount of leadership it took to reach that point. He also recognized that when that group was replaced by 10 freshmen, he and his sophomore teammates needed to grow, as well.

"It's about being successful and we have to step up and show them how it's done," Schultz said. "The more games you play, the more confident you get. I know I was pretty nervous the first half of the season, so it's a process of coming into your own."

The ongoing process, according to Eaves, was highlighted late last season when Eaves and his staff considered moving Smith off the line of Hobey Baker Award winner Blake Geoffrion.

"Blake said, ‘Coach, leave him right there. I like playing with him, I can talk to him and we have a good report,' so we did that" Eaves said. "Now it's Craig's turn, and you see him talking to Mark Zengerle and in the locker room next to Gavin Hartzog. It's accelerated their growth and it's helped our growth, which has been an additional benefit."

Every year in the recruiting process, Eaves put each member of his team on UW's recruiting board and labels each one with their abilities – whether he's a skill forward, a power forward, skill defenseman or shutdown defenseman – and evaluate the team's needs and what UW has.

The system yields results, as Ramage (shutdown defenseman), Schultz (offensive defenseman), Lee (skilled forward) and Smith (combo forward) have fit the billing.

"We're a group that likes to go after loose pucks and be tenacious out there," Lee said.

Wisconsin is the middle of a hotly contested race for a place in the top six and home ice for the first round of the WCHA playoffs. With six regular-season games remaining they are six points behind the cluster ahead of them while Minnesota sits only three points behind.

Although Wisconsin is 17-1-0 against unranked opponents this season and boasts a nine-game home winning streak and 10-game home unbeaten streak (9-0-1), the Badgers can't afford to take anything for granted with three weeks left.

"Every game down the stretch here is huge for us, every point is huge for the playoffs down the road," Lee said. "It makes it a little more special that it's Minnesota in our home ring."

Minnesota (12-12-4, 9-10-3 WCHA) vs. No.12 Wisconsin (19-10-3, 11-9-2 WCHA)

Date/Time - Friday-Saturday, February 18-19 at 7/8 p.m. CT

Stadium – Kohl Center (15,325) - 200' x 97'

Television - Friday – Big Ten Network, Saturday – FSN North

Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Brian Posick, Mike Cerniglia)

Series – Minnesota leads 152-85-19 (62-50-12 in Madison)

Last Meeting - Wisconsin overcame 2-0 and 3-2 deficits to secure a 3-3 overtime tie and take three of four points at Minnesota during the Nov. 5-6 weekend.

Series Notes:

This will mark the 257th and 258th meetings between the two schools, according to UW records

The series is the most played in UW hockey history

UW assistant coach Bill Butters played three years for Minnesota in the early 1970s and served as the team's assistant coach for 10 years in the 1980s and '90s

Minnesota freshman forward Max Gardiner is the brother of UW junior defenseman Jake Gardiner

Five Badgers (Gardiner, Tyler Barnes, Jordy Murray, Jason Clark, Joe Faust) are Minnesota natives

UW's last home sweep over Minnesota was in 1999 –2000 season

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