Men's hockey: penalty killing will be key

Gophers' proficient power play will challenge Wisconsin

The University of Wisconsin men's hockey team has done a terrific job killing off penalties so far this season. That skill will be challenged this weekend, when the Badgers travel to face Minnesota, which boasts a 23.5 percent success rate with the man-advantage, the seventh-best mark in the nation.

Wisconsin is sixth in the nation in penalty killing, thwarting 88 percent of opponents' opportunities.

As good as the Badgers have been shorthanded, keeping power-play goals out of goaltender Brian Elliott's net starts with staying out of the penalty box. So far this season, UW has been solid in that regard. The Badgers are the second-least penalized team in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, averaging 17.3 penalty minutes per game.

"I think a lot of it is our coach preaches us to play hard but to play smart as well, and to find the ideal combination," winger Nick Licari said. "I think we do a pretty good job of that."

"In practice, you get a penalty, you're doing push-ups," captain Adam Burish said. "It's something we emphasize."

Still, the Badgers feel they could do a better job of staying out of the box.

"We do take some stupid penalties and, yeah, we know we are one of the least penalized teams in our league but, believe or not, it could be less," Licari said. "There are penalties after the whistle that we do take."

Avoiding penalties, the players said, means moving your feet and not settling for the easy way out when trying to slow an opponent's progress.

"That's one of the things, before every single game, before every period, before every shift we talk about we always have to move our feet," defenseman Jeff Likens said.

Considering the success of Minnesota's power play this season, Burish said the team has to, "make that extra effort to make a couple extra strides instead of hooking them because they are a dangerous power play."

During the College Hockey Showcase last week, Minnesota buried then-No. 1 Michigan in an avalanche of power-play goals, scoring on 5 of 11 opportunities. The Gophers power play has converted on 19.3 percent of its league chances (11 of 57).

"Ideally you don't want to put any team on the power play because you have one less guy on the ice, but their power play is potent and if they get too many chances it'll hurt us…," Licari said. "It's something that we have to watch, but at the same time we can't let up. We want to play hard and if we have to take a penalty, we take a penalty, and have to deal with it."

Burish echoed that sentiment.

"It's just like any series. We're not going to put too much emphasis into worrying about not taking penalties, not playing hard," he said. "But it's something you've just got to keep in mind, they have a dangerous power play. And more so prepare your penalty kill more than think about not taking a penalty."

Minnesota forward Ryan Potulny leads the nation in power-play goals (8) and forward Phil Kessel is tied for third in the conference in power-play goals (5).

"They've got some talented kids at forward that can really move the puck and do some special things," Burish said. "When you have that and you put those guys in any kind of a system it's going to be successful just because of the players they have."

The Badgers are buoyed by the fact that they held Michigan to a 1-for-6 with the man-advantage. At 26.7 percent, the Wolverines boast the nation's most effective power play, but they only solved UW during a 5-on-3 advantage.

"We did pretty well with them," Licari said. "We're looking for the same success (against Minnesota)."

Do not expect the Badgers to make any radical revisions to the their penalty-killing units to match up with Minnesota. Wisconsin has endeavored to maintain an aggressive forecheck when shorthanded, in an effort to put pressure on the opposing defensemen.

"We're going to ice the puck and we're going to go at them," Burish said. "Let's put some pressure on them because our defensemen keep telling us it's so hard to play when you are getting pressure on the power play."

"We alter it week-by-week slightly…," Licari said. "Generally it comes down to four guys on the ice and Elliott. He's probably the most important penalty killer out there."

"We try to block shots and stuff but the penalty kill is only as good as the goalie is."

Elliott has been exceptional. He leads the conference with a 1.28 league-only goals-against average and a .947 save percentage.

"The penalty kill, we take pride in that," Elliott said. "So we work on it pretty much every day," Elliott said. "We take a look at things on video and see where we can improve and we pre-scout really well."

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