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Sean Dhooghe photo

After four games, Sean Dhooghe is one goal shy of matching his six-goal total from his freshman season.

A month ago, when he had only practices against his teammates to use as evidence, Sean Dhooghe said he had a feeling that his summer strength and conditioning work was going to pay off.

Four games into the season, it would appear so, not because of the volume of goals that the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey sophomore has produced but in how he has scored them.

Dhooghe has finished off his five goals by being around the net for rebounds or passes from teammates. A year ago, he felt like he was being pushed around too easily in that space but his offseason work gave him more weight, more muscle and more leverage.

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Sean Dhooghe mug 11-18

S. Dhooghe

He couldn’t change his 5-foot-3 height, but he could change what he did with it, and the Badgers so far have reaped the benefits.

Dhooghe is tied for the national goal-scoring lead as No. 14 UW enters a non-conference series against Michigan Tech at the Kohl Center tonight and Saturday.

“It’s nice feeling it in practice before, but now getting in game situations, things get brought up to another level,” Dhooghe said. “I’m still feeling really good about it and not getting bumped off pucks as easily as I thought I was last year.”

After playing at 143 pounds last season, Dhooghe worked his way past 150 in the offseason to give himself a better base.

It seems to be working: The five goals he has scored is one fewer than his total over 37 games as a freshman, and it’s the best four-game start to a season by a Badgers player since Kyle Turris also had five goals in 2007.

Dhooghe is symbolic of the nature of forwards on this year’s Badgers team, even as he stands at one extreme.

He’s the shortest of 14 UW forwards, but that group doesn’t include anyone taller than 6-foot-1 senior Matthew Freytag. Eleven of the forwards stand shorter than 6-0.

There are no prototypical power forwards on the team. Instead, the Badgers run the offense with speed and energy, plus the backing of some bigger defensemen.

In total, the Badgers roster averages 5-foot-11.16 inches, the shortest UW team since 1980-81.

But it wouldn’t be accurate to say that the forwards shy away from physical confrontations to claim their space and the puck.

“He’s 5-foot-3 and he plays like he’s 6-foot-3,” Badgers coach Tony Granato said of Dhooghe. “He goes to the hard areas. He’s around the net. He scores his goals from a short area around the net. He’s not scoring goals from the top of the circles or with big, powerful shots from the outside. He’s scoring them by paying a price.”

Dhooghe had two breakaways on a 43-second shift last Saturday at St. Lawrence but had to work a little harder to get the first of his two goals in UW’s 7-1 victory.

He tested Saints goalie Arthur Brey’s glove hand on the first effort and went for the blocker side on the second. No dice on either.

After the second, the puck came free at the side of the net and Dhooghe fought through bodies to get there and put it away.

He later scored a power-play goal from close range at the left of the net thanks to a precise pass from Max Zimmer. At Clarkson last Friday, he scored his two goals on another pass from Zimmer that left him 1-on-1 with the goalie in front and on the rebound of a Wyatt Kalynuk shot.

The first of his five goals in a three-game span came Oct. 13 on another rebound of a Kalynuk effort.

The pattern is in Dhooghe’s positioning and his work with linemates and power-play partners.

“A bunch of guys are paying the price all over the ice,” Dhooghe said. “A lot of our goals this year have come off blocked shots as well. I think if you pay the price at the beginning, you’re going to have to pay the price at the end but you’re going to have a good result.”

Two other elements of Dhooghe’s work over the offseason may also be factoring into his good start. For the second straight season, he took part in an NHL development camp after going undrafted. This year’s experience with the Columbus Blue Jackets gave him insight into making himself a “better person, teammate and player,” he said.

His brother, Jason, also a Badgers sophomore, said part of Sean Dhooghe’s drive is for a spot on the U.S. World Junior Championship team in his final year of eligibility. Sean Dhooghe survived the cuts to play through the end of the summer evaluation camp with USA Hockey; another camp takes place leading up to the event in December before the final team is chosen.

Sean Dhooghe showed the U.S. staff that he can play bigger than his size at the summer camp, and his five-goal start to the college season can’t hurt his chances to be one of the depth forwards for the elite under-20 tournament.

“I think if I keep working and I get that chance, I’m going to go give it my best and see what happens,” Dhooghe said.

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Todd D. Milewski covers Wisconsin Badgers men's hockey and the UW Athletic Department for the Wisconsin State Journal.