The Wisconsin men's hockey team's scoring punch has ebbed and flowed this season, but it has mostly ebbed of late.
The Badgers exploded for nine goals in two games in a sweep of then-No. 1 North Dakota three weeks ago, but aside from that weekend, goals have come at a premium. Wisconsin has put the puck in the net just 16 times in eight other games beginning with a 2-2 tie with Notre Dame Jan. 17.
Scoring, however, has not been a problem for freshman wing Ross Carlson, who joined the team in January after spending the last semester rehabbing an injury.
As Wisconsin prepares for a series at Alaska-Anchorage Friday and Saturday, Carlson has contributed five goals and nine assists in 14 games, making him the only Badger averaging a point per game this year.
"He is not flashy," sophomore center Adam Burish said. "People that maybe might not know hockey as well might say he's not a great skater, but he gets the job done. He gets his stick on more pucks than anybody I've ever seen. Around the net he is awesome."
The vitality of Carlson's scoring touch was never more evident then last weekend, when he netted the Badgers' only goal in 1-1 tie Friday night against St. Cloud State, then tallied the game-winner in a 3-0 victory Saturday that propelled UW into sole possession of third place in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
"He makes big goals at big times and I can't say enough for him to step in like that and contribute the way he has," Burish said.
Carlson was expected to add something offensively as soon as he put on a Wisconsin jersey. The Duluth, Minn., native, who turned 22 last Saturday, was a highly touted prep hockey player and a prolific scorer in three seasons in the United States Hockey League, last season garnering 20 goals and 30 assists in 52 games with the Waterloo Black Hawks.
But while Wisconsin was busy surprising all of college hockey through October, November and December, establishing itself as a bona fide contender in the ultra-competitive WCHA and beyond, Carlson was back in Waterloo, Iowa, nursing a knee injury suffered last summer back to health and taking classes at a junior college.
He hit the ice in Madison just before a series at Minnesota State and immediately made his presence felt—his goal and two assists in two games led to a WCHA Rookie of the Week honor.
But Carlson's presence off the ice has been just as important.
"He brings a real relaxed, laid back attitude that I think the team needed at this point in the season," junior forward Pete Talafous said.
Carlson's affable, outgoing nature has been a key to a remarkable immersion into the Badgers' lineup. Wisconsin may have surprised people this season, but this is an undoubtedly talented bunch that was playing very well when Carlson arrived. Despite tight competition for spots on the four forward lines, Carlson merged with the existing players with ease and developed an immediate rapport within the team.
"(He is) somebody that kind of let's you know, ‘this is life, let's enjoy it,'" Talafous said. "For me personally, I like to have that in the locker room. I think we've got a lot of intense guys and we've got guys that are just kind of there to relax the guys and that's the type of player he is."
"Well, I joke around with the guys," Carlson said. "They're so easygoing it's awesome. They welcome me with open arms and that's pretty much how I fit in."
On the ice, Carlson's skills have been a perfect match for Wisconsin's needs, especially his knack for the puck around the net. His 14 points have all come in 12 conference games, tying him for third on the team for points in league play, trailing only freshman wing Robbie Earl and senior wing Rene Bourque, who each have 18 points, in 24 and 23 conference games, respectively.
Carlson attributes his success to his linemates: fellow freshmen Jake Dowell, an adept two-way center, and Earl, perhaps the most talented player on the Badgers' roster.
That line was responsible for 7 of 13 Wisconsin goals the past four games and Carlson had a role in six of the scores. In addition to two goals last weekend, he had four assists versus North Dakota, including one on each of Robbie Earl's three goals in a 4-3 overtime win Feb. 6. Dowell missed last weekend's series with a sprained ankle (he is expected to play against Anchorage) and in his absence sophomore John Eichelberger stepped in and picked up an assist on Carlson's goal Saturday.
"It is not really me to be honest with you, it is more my linemates that have helped me out," Carlson said. "They find me and I'm open. And Robbie Earl, I can't say enough about him. He is so fast up that wing, I try to hit him every time, he just cruises. When Dowell is out there he's winning faceoffs. That helps out immaculately. Then Eichelberger steps right in, he does a fantastic job."