Mike, one of the unofficial RPI listings this week has your team at No. 4. Granted that's off of numbers, does that seem like a fair ranking of your team right now?
"Well our goal was to get our team ranked. That was the opportunities that we had before us over the last five weeks. Ultimately, rankings don't mean that much. It's a small accomplishment. It's a sign post, if you will, of where we've come. So we're pleased to see that, but we recognize what really matters is what happens at the end of the year and we know that we can play better, so we'll move forward to our next opportunity."
Mike, somebody looking at what you did a year ago and what you've done right now, on a casual basis, would conclude that there's some smoke and mirrors involved. To what degree would you address somebody's thought process toward that?
"Could you explain to me a little bit, what you mean by smoke and mirrors?"
Well, a year ago you had one of the worst records in program history. Now you have a 10-game unbeaten streak, you've got four 18-year-olds in your line-up and it's still a pretty young group. That's a pretty dramatic transformation.
"Well I don't know if smoke in mirrors would be the right term, but it's a dramatic turnabout. And if you're asking why what has happened, I think last year has a little bit to do with what's going on right now. We talked about this last year that our seniors that are now our captains…the three of them came to us and said we're going to assure that the year passed that we had will not happen again. They kind of took charge this past spring and summer, and a lot of guys stayed in town and they started to create a team through their training regiments. And that's part. The second part of the fact that we have a big class of freshmen that come in and with the abilities they have as hockey players and people help blend this group together. We've got stellar goaltending up to this point that has covered up a lot of our young mistakes. And in reality this winning streak that we're on and not being beaten in 10 games right now has a personality of its own. I can look down at Troy (Ward) and we can smile at each other and say, ‘wow'. We didn't play as well against Michigan State on Friday night, and yet we won and that's a good sign. When you go through the length of a season, if you are a good team you need to win games that you probably shouldn't. That was a game that we didn't play as well and yet our freshman goalie played great and we found a way to win. So it's taken on a personality of its own and it's kind of like what some people call a virtuous circle. You work hard, you get confidence, you want to go back and work hard again. So we have this virtuous circle going and it's perpetuating something very positive."
Aside from the obvious outcomes on the ice through this 10-game stretch, what has pleased you most about what your team is doing either physically or mentally in their development during the stretch?
"Well they're learning how to win. That was one of the comments that both coaches in Michigan made this weekend is that a young team finding ways to win is a very healthy sign. Again, it comes to the fact that we know that we're not where we need to be right now in terms of playing the way that we want at the end of the year when the playoffs comes around. We recognize that, but we're finding ways to win. So our task as coaches is to keep going back to practices and working on those areas that we can get better in so by the end of the year we are a solid unit and we are playing championship-caliber hockey."
What's impressed you most about this streak? I'm looking at the schedule and who you played and I think right there that says a lot.
"I'll go back to the previous answer. We're just finding ways to win, finding ways to hang around, whether it's our goaltender making a big save or having a big penalty kill at the right time. The last two games, what has been a big, positive fact is that our power play has been a contributing factor at key moments and in games where we didn't have a lot going on the power play. They stayed with what they wanted to do and they were able to get it done. And again, go back to the comments, we're finding ways to win."
How would you grade the situational intelligence of your team right now? Just in terms of when they've got to chip the puck out they know what to do, when they want to play it safe they know how to play it safe. That seems to be one area of major upgrade with this team.
"One of my favorite statements is the comment that ‘the rarest form of intelligence is common sense.' You talked about situational intelligence. It's ability to do the simple thing at the right time. There's that old kiss theory, some people say ‘keep it simple, stupid.' It's actually ‘keep it simple, smart.' As we grow and as we go along, I think a part of the reason that you do video and part of the reason you get feedback to your players is that you hope they see. If they're visual people they will learn by seeing it on video. So I hope we're growing. That would be my big point in answering your question, we're growing in that area."
You mentioned that your team still has some obvious room for improvement as the season goes along here. Is there something out there, a measuring stick that you would point to that will be that moment that defines for you that this has made it, is that team that it can be whether it be playing a North Dakota or some other team that's at the top of the standings or in the nation right now or have you already hit that moment for you?
"No I don't think we have hit that moment. I look at this weekend coming up as our next opportunity. We're going into a very tough environment in Denver, and I think Denver is ranked in the top five across the country. They walked into Minnesota and beat Minnesota on their own rink 4-3. We watched that game and it was one of the most exciting games that we've seen as a staff. So in terms of answering your question, ‘when will we know we're there?,' it will happen in the second half of the season. If I was to pinpoint a series I would say it would be the North Dakota series here in the second half of the year. They're a quality team. They work their buns off and they're talented and they're tough and if we can go toe-to-toe with them and get points then that would be a huge measuring stick for us as a team."
Coach, how important do you think it is for Wisconsin hockey to get national recognition once again, back in the polls, people noticing this great win streak? How important is that to you as a program?
"It can do nothing but positive things. This morning the phone was ringing off the wall from alumni calling and people from across the country calling saying this is great to see again. Hopefully this is the way it will stay for a long time. So it's nothing but positive. It will help on a recruiting basis. People will stand up and you talk to any coach, when people are looking at your program and you're doing good things, they're going to take a good, hard look at you as well in the recruiting trail."
Considering the recent success, are you coaching differently than a year ago or is it just more people buying into your system?
"It's a combination, I'll be real honest. I hope that our staff has enough intelligence to learn from the past and grow and get used to the college game because it's different from where we came from. So I say it's a combination of us learning from last year as the players did and coming together and having good, talented people and making it all come together."
You mentioned why this was especially important this weekend in playing Denver and playing a quality team. Is it special for you on a personal level getting to go against George (Gwozdecky) or coaching against one of his teams or is that looking too much into it?
"Well that's always fun. George (Gwozdecky) has done a heck of a job at the college level and he has a good team. He recruits well and there's a little personal relationship that makes it more personal, but on a good note. We're going to go head-to-head with two good teams that are playing well at this time and I think people in college hockey will be watching that series closely."