Men's hockey: Defense made for winning

In 14 games, Badgers have allowed only 20 goals

The numbers are astounding.

In 14 games, the University of Wisconsin men's hockey team has allowed just 20 goals. In 10 Western Collegiate Hockey Association games, the Badgers have yielded a miserly 13 goals. Junior Brian Elliott, the only goaltender UW has used this season, has a remarkable .942 save percentage, has not given up more than two goals in a game, and has allowed only nine even-strength goals all season.

Wisconsin's stingy play has set the tone for a remarkable 11-1-2 start to the season, its current 12-game unbeaten streak (10-0-2) and a rise to the No. 1 ranking in the nation for the first time in more than five years.

This weekend the Badgers take their undefeated conference mark (8-0-2) to Minneapolis to do battle with No. 4 Minnesota (7-3-4 overall, 6-2-2 WCHA), which is riding a six-game unbeaten streak (4-0-2), the second-longest in the nation.

Not surprisingly, the series at Mariucci has been billed as an offense versus defense showdown. The Gophers lead the WCHA with 3.90 goals per league game, while Wisconsin leads the nation defensively (1.43 goals allowed).

Yet to say the Badgers are a defense-oriented team clouds the issue. UW is third in the conference in goals scored per game (3.4), and has tallied fewer than three goals in a game only four times.

"I don't know if we're necessarily defense-first, but a lot of people perceive us that way and maybe rightfully so," winger Nick Licari said. "…The key to success is scoring goals too, just as much as playing defense. You can't win a 0-0 game. But the way we do play it is beneficial on the defensive side."

The Badgers play an aggressive but disciplined style, conscious of their positioning on the ice, whether forechecking in the offensive zone or blocking shots in the defensive zone.

"It's playing solid hockey," winger Adam Burish said. "We work just as hard offensively as we do defensively.

"Obviously on every team there's a little bit of a premium put on solid defense. But I don't think there has been that stigma at Wisconsin that we're a defense-first team."

The Badgers' incredibly low goals-against average is due in large part to the team's tendency to control the play, wherever the puck is on the ice.

"The good defense leads to good offense and good offense leads to not even having to play defense," defenseman Jeff Likens said. "If you're in on the forecheck, and you're in the offensive zone… you don't have to play defense that much."

When the Badgers do have to play in their defensive zone, they have leaned on Elliott, who has been outstanding in his first year as a starter.

Has Elliott, who is second in the nation in goals-against average (1.41) and save percentage, exceeded his teammates' expectations?

"Absolutely not," Likens said. "I mean he's done a great job but everybody knew before the start of the year here that he was going to be unbelievable, and pretty much maybe carry the team on his back. He's a great goalie and he's done unbelievable things. But we expected that out of him."

Said Burish: "He was ticking guys off in the summer because we couldn't score on him.

"So we knew he was going to be good. Did we know he'd be this good and playing as well as he has? Probably not… He's been the backbone."

Wisconsin's disciplined approach has helped Elliott's cause. The team is allowing just 24.8 shots on goal per game, and has been blocking shots at about a 30 percent clip.

"It all depends on the team in front of you," Elliott said. "They've been blocking shots like probably the best in the country. They take pride in that and that obviously helps me out."

The Badgers cannot block every shot. But no team in the nation has had a more consistent last-line-of-defense than Elliott.

"A lot of it is the guys playing in front of him," Licari said. "We do have a very good system. But he comes up with some big saves in key times. He's very clutch.

"You can't say enough about him. The piece of the puzzle that he is on this team, it's something special, and hopefully he can keep it going and we can keep it going in front of him."

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