Building blocks

Freshman goalie Shane Connelly has plenty to gain from eight games in net

It was far from an ideal situation to skate into, but freshman goaltender Shane Connelly calls his eight-game debut for the University of Wisconsin men's hockey team, an "amazing experience."

Connelly was thrust into the thick of the Badgers' drive for a national championship when junior netminder Brian Elliott injured his knee Jan. 18 in practice. Elliott did not return until last week, easing into the practice routine and playing Saturday night at Michigan Tech, as UW came away with a 4-4 tie.

In between, Connelly played eight consecutive games, posting a 3-5 record, a 2.64 goals-against average and an .888 save percentage. The stretch started roughly, with Connelly losing his first four games. But he won three of his last four starts, and capped his run in goal with a shutout of the Huskies in Houghton, Mich., Friday night.

"In my mind it wasn't a great way to take advantage of it with Brian going down and everything like that," Connelly said. "But things happen for a reason and I was called upon.

"I think I got more comfortable with each game, kind of summing up with the last (at) Michigan Tech."

Before Elliott's injury, it appeared that Connelly would be fortunate to play a period, let alone a game—or eight consecutive contests.

"I didn't think I was going to be able to play eight games (this season), kind of the way Brian was on a roll and the team was rolling," Connelly said. "My goal was maybe just to get my feet wet but I'm in the pool now. I got to swim around a lot with some big games. If it's Friday or obviously next year, then I'm relishing my experience here my freshman year, more than I expected."

The Badger coaching staff's stated goal is to get Elliott (18-2-3, 1.51, .939) ready for the postseason. He enjoyed a full week of practice this week for the first time since his injury and there is no guarantee that he will play both games this weekend.

Whether Connelly's next game comes Friday or Saturday at Minnesota State, the following weekend or the following season, he will draw plenty from the experiences of the past five weekends.

"I think that he's gotten better each week that's he got along," goaltending coach Bill Howard said. "He's got more comfortable in the net and now he's got a taste and an experience of playing."

"It's definitely a growing experience," Connelly said. "I've learned a lot. I've played in front of a sold-out Kohl Center four times, and then in Lambeau was an amazing experience too.

"I really enjoyed the whole trip there, kind of being a go-to guy there for a few weeks. It was kind of just my show."

Prior to Elliott's injury, Connelly's only playing time came in the Badgers' exhibition victory, when Connelly let up five goals.

After watching Elliott play every regular-season second in net, Connelly leapt between the pipes two days before the Badgers opened a sold-out weekend home series against defending national champion Denver. The follow week the Badgers hosted now top-ranked Minnesota. UW lost all four games and an eight-point lead in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association standings disappeared.

"I think it was a little unfair to him to get tossed in against Minnesota and Denver right away, and I think that he's made steps and gotten better because of these games," Howard said. "Now he knows what it's like to play back-to-back, how he's got to prepare for it. He's going to benefit down the road a great deal from this."

"We all kind of struggled a little bit and we kind of went into a little funk," Connelly said. "My first few games, I obviously I thought could have played a lot better and definitely got a chance to win some of those games against Denver and Minnesota… But it's a learning experience."

A learning experience that has made Howard's teachings more comprehensible. Howard's style is to break a goaltender down, strip him of his bad habits and build him back up again.

"It really makes more sense once you're able to see yourself in a game, instead of practice, watching video," Connelly said. "It all comes together once you've played a few games and you're able to make sense of it all."

"He's getting better with his concentration, better on the first shot," Howard said. "Still got to be a little more consistent in some of the things that he does and better control of the rebounds, but that comes with time."

Connelly still sees plenty of areas for improvement in his game, but he is more confident in net than he was a month ago, and the Badgers are more confident in him.

"I want to get better in all areas," Connelly said. "Still every day I want to improve on everything that I've had in the past and that I've learned this year. Patience is a big thing for me. I've worked a lot on staying up more and Friday I thought I did a really good job of staying up more. And just being patient and… the whole knowledge of the game. Reading the plays more, just learning to be a more knowledgeable goaltender."

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