Men's hockey: Mountain grows steeper

With Denver in town and top goaltender injured, Badgers rally around backup goalie and each other

Wisconsin's proverbial climb has changed from a mountain to a molehill and back to a mountain in a matter of one week.

Head coach Mike Eaves has employed a "mountain-climb" philosophy with both his team and the media in recent weeks. He says the entire season is a mountain and at the top is the goal—the national championship. Each game presents another day of climbing.

Like the imagery or not, it seems to be working for the Badgers, who hit their first "storm" this weekend when UW junior goalie Brian Elliott, perhaps the best player in the country, went down with a left leg injury which is expected to sideline him for 3-4 weeks.

"We talked about this is a team game. There's offense, there's defense and there's specialty teams," Eaves said. "We need for our people to continue what they do and have young Shane come in and do his part."

Stepping right into the fire will be freshman Shane Connelly, who has yet to play in regular season action at the Division I level.

"If we were closer to the top and we hit a storm like this, then that could be devastating because of the fact you're so close," Eaves said. "But we hit this storm here right now. We'll deal with it, we'll handle it, we'll move forward. And I think in the long run we'll be better for it because storms make you batten down the hatches, make you take stock of what you have and what you do well. And I think that will happen for us."

While the loss of Elliott—who boasted a 1.40 goals against average and a .944 save percentage while attaining an 18-2-2 record this year—seems devastating, the top-ranked Badgers are refusing to look at the situation as a catastrophe.

"People are thinking the mood's going to be down just because Elliott's injured, but Connelly looked great today," senior assistant captain Tom Gilbert said after Thursday's practice.

Included at the end of that practice was the usual contest to end the week in which the players take their turns going one-on-one with the Badger goaltenders.

In basic terms, the contest goes round-by-round, if the player scores they move on to the next round until there is just one man left standing.

Thursday, that player was Connelly, who kept the final two players from scoring on three consecutive occasions. He was mobbed by his teammates who will be counting on him this weekend. And do not think for a minute that the players purposely allowed him to win the contest in order to boost the confidence of their rookie backstop.

"Guys always want to win that," junior assistant captain Andrew Joudrey said. "It shows he can make the saves when he has to and he'll be ready tomorrow night."

Connelly's only action outside of practice this season came in an exhibition against the U.S. Under-18 team last month.

While the Badgers escaped with the win, giving up five goals in his debut was not the start the freshman was looking for, but he said just getting back into action gave him a boost in confidence.

His teammates seem to have confidence in him as well.

"Look at how everybody played in that game—it was right before exams," Joudrey said. "We see him every day, we see how much he's gotten better and how hard he works. As a team we're ready."

Connelly picked quite the weekend to make his official debut. Not only will the Badgers be looking to knock off the two-time defending national champion Pioneers, but they will be doing so in front of a sell-out crowd at the Kohl Center.

"I never thought it would be my first WCHA game, but it's arrived," Connelly said. "I'm more excited than nervous."

But while the Cheltenham, Pa. native will probably go through a variety of emotions before taking the ice Friday, the captains are working hard to make sure the team takes it as just another game day.

"Nothing's going to change this weekend," senior assistant captain Tom Gilbert said. "We're going to come out hard, score some goals and get four points this weekend."

The Badgers are taking Elliott's injury as just a bump in the road which every team faces once in a while.

They will see just how big that bump in the road is going to be when they hit the ice this weekend.

What: No. 19 Denver (9-5-2 WCHA, 12-10-2 overall) at No. 1 Wisconsin (13-1-2, 18-2-2)
When: Friday, Jan. 20, 7 p.m.; and Saturday, Jan. 21, 7 p.m.
Site: Kohl Center, Madison, Wis.
Broadcasts: Friday's game will be broadcast on TV live on FSN North while Saturday's contest will appear live on UPN-14. Both games can be heard live on the radio on WIBA-AM 1310.
Series notes: Wisconsin leads the overall series with a 66-44-9 all-time record against Denver. The Badgers lead 32-23-5 in games played in Madison, but are just 1-7-2 against the Pioneers at the Kohl Center. This is the only regular-season series between these two teams this year.

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