Commentary: Wisconsin Surviving Growing Pains

Despite injuries to top players, Wisconsin has failed to miss a beat with younger players stepping up to fill the void.

Wisconsin found themselves in some auspicious spots over the weekend and, for the most part, managed to find success in different aspects throughout the course of the two game series against Duluth. More importantly, the Badgers are beginning to develop an identity.

One of the most glaring struggles for the Badgers in their previous five games was the inability to generate any momentum on the scoreboard in the first 20 minutes on the ice. All the same, the Badgers had shut down their opponents in the opening period as well, not allowing a goal to find its way into the back of their net.

Both of those statistics changed Saturday night, as Wisconsin once again found themselves playing from behind after allowing Duluth to score the first goal of the night, on a power play no less. And right on cue, much like these Badgers have done previously this season, they battled back, scoring two goals in the final five minutes of the first period to go into the locker room with a 2-1 lead.

Even with the Badgers getting out shot 15-5 in the second period and allowing Duluth to score another power play goal, Wisconsin battled back when freshman Jamie McBain scored with 12 seconds left in the period on a shot from the point to give the Badgers an edge going into the third period.

"It is good to always go into a break with a lead, especially when we know we haven't played our best hockey yet," Davies said.

For Wisconsin hockey fans, it was a weekend that saw the torch begin to be passed as the younger players are beginning to get some weight in their skates. Gone are the flare and glamour of Earl and Pavelski and the poise of Burish and Gilbert. In are the hard-nosed players of Michael Davies, Blake Geoffrion, Ben Grotting, John Mitchell and Jamie McBain. It was a special weekend for Grotting, Geoffrion and Mitchell, who all scored their first collegiate points in Saturday's victory to go along with Davies' first collegiate goal.

Although they don't have the same dramatic style that some of the predecessors had, these freshmen certainly do the little things well that have put opposing teams on notice.

"[Wisconsin] still does a lot of little things really well and they play together [compared to last season]," UMD head coach Scott Sandelin said. "The only difference is they don't have the talent like the Robbie Earl's and Joe Pavelski's but they aren't a lot different from the other teams that lost talent. It gives the younger players a chance to step into those roles and they had young players do that for them [this weekend]."

What has made the Badgers learning curve even more of an urgent matter has been the devastating injuries to Wisconsin's top three returning point scorers from a year ago. Junior Kyle Klubertanz is week to week with a deep thigh bruise, senior Ross Carlson is 3-4 weeks with a right knee injury and highly-touted sophomore Jack Skille will be sidelined 4-6 weeks with a hyper-extended elbow.

Still, ever since those three Badgers went down, Wisconsin has yet to lose, which goes to show that even though that trio is important for the Badgers, UW has a talented group of young guys that can fill the void when necessary.

"We have some young guys that can step in and play," senior Jake Dowell said. "They have some valuable experience right now and with the guys out right now, they have stepped in and filled these roles. They have really turned some heads the last few games."

It also doesn't hurt the learning curve when you have a brick wall in senior Brian Elliott stopping the puck. Although he wasn't up to his usual standards this weekend, Elliott has given Wisconsin a chance in every game this season. Much like a few years ago when the Badgers had Bernd Bruckler in net, Wisconsin has relied on their defense and their goaltending to keep the pucks out of the net and give the youngsters a chance to find their shooting touch on the opposite side of the ice.

"There were a lot of breakdowns and times where we turned the puck over and [Elliott] was there as our backbone," Eaves said. "A lot of our guys have short term memories when they play in front of him."

In addition to Elliott, Wisconsin would be in dire straights without the leadership of assistant captain Jake Dowell, who has improved his game far-and-away more than any returning Badger this season. Dowell scored just five goals last year and, at one point, didn't score a goal for 21-straight games. In just six games this season, Dowell has equaled last year's goal total by being active in front of the net. Even though he was credited with two goals on Saturday night, Dowell set up the Badgers third goal of the night by screening Stalock to allow Davies to get the go.

For Eaves, Dowell has been doing the little things all season long.

"Jack's play tonight has been indicative on how he's came back and played at a higher level all year," Eaves said. "There's something extra in his step and a purpose and has done a nice job in not only taking his game to the next level, but his teammates as well."

It's still early in the 2006-07 campaign, but Wisconsin has dealt with a lot of adversity already through six games this year. Even so, the Badgers are only ½ game worse than they were a year ago record wise and they are doing it with a vastly different personnel and with a much larger target on their backs.

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