Front and center for ‘fourth' line

Nick Licari, Andy Brandt and A.J. Degenhardt have assumed a leading role in the postseason

MADISON—There is little glamour in being a fourth-line forward, but the service senior left wing Nick Licari, junior center Andy Brandt and senior right wing A.J. Degenhardt provide for the University of Wisconsin hockey team is invaluable. They rarely contribute on the scoreboard, but their persistent, physical play wreaks havoc on opponents.

"They were our best teachers in the Cornell game," UW coach Mike Eaves said, referring to the Badgers' 1-0 triple-overtime win in the Midwest Regional final two weekends ago. "Our other lines are striving to play the way they were in terms of their energy."

UW will need that type of an effort from its fourth line again this weekend in order to reach its goal of winning the national championship. The top-ranked Badgers (28-10-3) matchup with a similarly deep Maine (28-11-2) team in a Frozen Four semifinal at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee.

Through a maze of line combinations, Licari-Brandt-Degenhardt has been a unit for the past eight games, in which the Badgers are 7-1-0. They have combined for just eight goals and 12 assists all season, but the trio contributes in many ways that never appear in the box score.

"I think we create a lot of energy and create pretty good pressure," Licari said. "Just as much if not more than any other line. The difference is that we don't score a lot of goals."

"We know our job is not to go out there and score goals for the team," Degenhardt said. "If we can chip in one here or there then that's great. But basically we're there to go out there and bang up their D a little bit and play solid defensively. If we get our chances, we get our chances."

Licari (5-foot-8, 182 pounds), Brandt (6-1, 186) and Degenhardt (5-10, 186) do not exactly form the biggest line around, but they have developed a reputation for big hits and a pesky style that takes advantage of their speed.

"As a line we're getting five, six hits a shift," Licari said. "Everybody builds off that."

In their first three seasons at UW, Licari and Degenhardt played 121 and 118 games, respectively. Brandt was on the ice for 68 games over his first two campaigns.

The Badgers, though, came into this season with uncanny depth at forward, putting playing time at a premium, even for veterans.

Licari has bounced around to different lines, but has been in the lineup for 39 of 41 games. For his current linemates, however, playing time was tenuous earlier this season.

"Every day you come to practice you're vying for a spot," Brandt said. "You've got to come out here, you've got to work hard and you've got to prove yourself to the coaching staff."

Degenhardt played sparingly for the first half of the campaign but has sat out just once since Dec. 30, registering 28 games for the season. Brandt played in just seven of UW's first 28 games, but has suited up for 13 straight heading into the Frozen Four.

"It was just hard work (and) making the most of your chances," Degenhardt said of earning a spot in the lineup. "I think the three of us, every night we go out there, we work our hardest and create energy for our team."

The determination they exhibited just to win playing time has translated well to the ice, and served as an example for the rest of their teammates.

Said Brandt: "When you are battling to get in the lineup and you know at any point that you can get removed from the lineup, you take a look in the mirror before you go out there every game and you look deep down and you know that you've got to bring your ‘A' game if you want to stay in."

"You take a look at where Andy Brandt was and where A.J. Degenhardt was at the beginning of the year," Eaves said. "They were not in the position they wanted to be in. And they have just literally said, ‘I'm going to control the things I control and I'm going to be my best every day in practice. I'm going to be vocal. I'm going to be positive. And when I get my opportunity I'm going to be ready.' And both those young men have done that.

"We have talked about that with them. They understood that and they've made it a part of who they are, and they flourished in that."

Eaves prefers to avoid the "fourth line" label, which can obscure the trio's importance, especially after the way they played in the Midwest Regional.

"I don't know if we necessarily look at each other as a fourth line," Licari said. "We feel and we are a big part of this team."

"Their ice time that they've received lately hasn't been fourth-line ice time," Eaves said. "When I'm putting them out there every other time, I'm saying ‘Boys keep it going. Keep showing the rest of the team and keep giving us that energy that you have.' It's been really fun to watch."

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