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How Wisconsin's special teams have turned around, fueling a better set of results

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Not every special teams contribution is as obvious as what the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team did on the power play to win last Saturday’s game.

Sometimes they’re small elements like shot blocks on the penalty kill, pieces that fit together to make a difference in aggregate.

Badgers players have turned in both marquee performances and efforts easily lost in the shuffle on special teams to help propel the team’s best stretch of results this season.

UW is 4-2-2 in its past eight games entering a series Friday and Saturday at Penn State. It was seven games under .500 in its first 16 contests, when a dour power play and the worst results of any penalty kill in the country dampened the spirit.

“I think the mentality has changed quite a bit because I think we’re starting to believe in each other and ourselves and feel that there’s a lot of good things going on,” Badgers coach Tony Granato said. “And I think that goes hand in hand with the success of both the power play and the penalty kill.”

Subtle changes have given the Badgers better results on both the penalty kill and power play.

They were 6-for-53 (11%) with a player advantage in the first 16 games and 9-for-36 (25%) since. More players are contributing, particularly Mathieu De St. Phalle with three power-play goals in the past eight games.

More scoring on the power play sometimes comes down to better bounces of the puck, but UW players have helped that cause by improving technically and tactically.

“We’re seeing tendencies of the other team that we can expose, and I think guys have just used their brains to catch onto that,” said Mark Strobel, the Badgers associate head coach who works with the power play. “And in the game, it’s just organically happening.”

A five-minute power play in the third period of a game against Michigan State that UW trailed 2-1 last Saturday showed two of the things that have improved. Brock Caufield’s one-timer from the high slot to tie the game came after a good set of passes around the zone.

Passing was more scattershot earlier in the season and it cost the Badgers time.

“Now it’s just get it, move it smooth,” Strobel said. “The chemistry’s starting to pay off, I think.”

De St. Phalle’s go-ahead goal 84 seconds later came from a similar place on the ice as Caufield’s shot. This one had Carson Bantle serving as an impediment for the eyes of Spartans goaltender Pierce Charleson.

Bantle, a 6-foot-5 sophomore who went into the top power-play group after Roman Ahcan was ejected in the first period, has been more of a factor for the Badgers near the net as he has grown more comfortable through the season and recovered from shoulder injuries.

“I just thought it’d be imperative for him to cross the goaltender’s eyeballs as well as being really good down low,” Strobel said.

The Badgers were 4-for-10 against Penn State in December, the start of their eight-game stretch of improved results.

“Everyone’s really understanding where they can be at on the power play, whether that’s half wall, net front, up at the point, moving around,” said Tarek Baker, who assisted on both power-play goals in the third period Saturday. “I feel like guys aren’t so stuck on staying in one spot. Being interchangeable is a big thing.”

The stats are trending in a positive direction for the penalty kill, too, after a horrific start in which it allowed a goal 16 times in 44 tries (a 64% success rate). UW has allowed only one power-play goal in the past eight games and has scored one short-handed goal to be even during that span.

Goaltending is a critical part of the penalty kill, and Granato credited Jared Moe with providing stability and taking some pressure off the players in front of him. The skaters in turn have lessened Moe’s load.

They blocked 27% of power-play shot attempts in the first 16 games but stepped in front of 35% in the past eight. That helped push the frequency of shots getting to the goalie from one every 55 seconds to one every 75 seconds.

Defenseman Anthony Kehrer blocked four shots on one Penn State power play in the third period of a Dec. 11 game, where the Badgers rallied from a 4-1 deficit but lost 5-4 in overtime. Kehrer, Brock Caufield, Daniel Laatsch and Tyler Inamoto all were credited with blocks during a third-period power play last Saturday, keeping the Badgers’ deficit at one goal before their rally.

Kehrer said he realized earlier this season that his shot blocking had decreased.

“I don’t know if it was mental or what it was,” he said. “But (I was) going back to the basics of my game and blocking shots is part of it. I think I’ve been way more committed to that and I think that’s been a whole team mindset as well.”

Inamoto said Badgers penalty killers also are being more aggressive in battling for loose pucks and clearing the zone so they don’t have to block shots. Opponents have attempted fewer shots relative to power-play time in the last eight games compared to the first 16, a sign that UW has done better to keep teams out of their setup.

“These past couple of weeks, having the success that we’ve had on the PK and the PP, it’s a confidence booster,” Inamoto said. “We’re definitely rolling right now and ready to keep it going.”


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