Wisconsin looks to carry superb defensive play into weekend against Northern Michigan

Seamus Malone helped the Badgers earn a win on Saturday after a lackluster loss on Friday.

Image By: Jon Yoon and Jon Yoon

The No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers have started the year 4-1 behind victories against the No. 19 and No. 13 teams in the nation — a substantially better start than the last two years in which the Badgers were a cumulative 3-4-3 (0-2-3, 3-2-0) after the first five games of each respective season.

The biggest reason for Wisconsin’s early season turnaround and dominant start has been its drastically improved defensive zone play — specifically, playing defense as a “five-man unit.”

“I think we’re working as five more than we have in the past. We keep it as a unit,” junior forward Seamus Malone said.

“Coach talks a lot about being a five-man unit, staying tight,” freshman defenseman Tyler Inamoto said.

“I think the biggest thing for us defensively is moving as a unit of five,” freshman defenseman Wyatt Kalynuk said.

Malone, along with Inamoto and Kalynuk, all separately stated how playing as a unit of five is the biggest factor in Wisconsin’s early defensive improvement.

For the Badgers, playing as a five-man unit primarily entails having their forwards in correct positions in the defensive zone. It often seems that a team’s defensive performance hinges on the play of the defenseman, but the forwards have just as much of a role defensively.

Last season, when playing transition defense, the Badgers often chased the puck to the boards, and the forwards, especially UW’s center, left the middle of the ice vacant, allowing wide open, grade-A chances for its opposition — often resulting in tap-in goals from the slot.

This season, however, the Badgers are staying compact in the middle and not leaving the slot open. Instead, Wisconsin’s centers have been determined to return to the middle of the ice and pick up the opposing players coming into the slot.

“Our low forward has been helping out a lot,” Kalynuk said. “Our centers have been helping out big time in the D-zone covering in the middle of the ice.”

“We talk about [not chasing] a lot. You can’t be puck watching,” Malone said. “You have to stay in your positions, stay with your responsibilities in our end. We’ve been doing this well and I hope we keep doing it because it helps our offense when we get the puck back quicker.”

According to Malone, the term that Wisconsin coined to describe its defensive strategy is “five on a die.”

“We talk about five on a die. You want to be on a dice. You want to be that five, so if you get outside to try and get a puck and you miss it, you have to get right right back to the middle. That’s been our focus and we’ve been doing pretty well with it.”

Over the past few years, Wisconsin has developed a reputation of having a high-octane offense with a lot of talented forwards. While the Badgers still do boast a group that can make incredible plays and score the puck, they, more significantly, have a roster filled with impactful two-way forwards.

Malone, as well as sophomore Trent Frederic, senior Ryan Wagner, junior Will Johnson and senior Cameron Hughes have all made consistent contributions at both ends. Many other young forwards are starting to make an impact in their own zone as well.

“It shows. Our record is 4-1, and the more forwards we have playing two-ways, the better off we’ll be,” Malone said. “You can’t have everyone playing two-ways at all times, but it helps to have the amount of two-way guys that we have.”

This weekend, Wisconsin heads to Green Bay to take on Northern Michigan. The Wildcats aren’t the most prolific team offensively, but they have the ability to break out on the attacking end, as they have scored at least three goals in three of their four games this season.

Accordingly, Wisconsin is again emphasizing team defense going into the weekend. If the Badgers continue to stay compact in the defensive zone and protect the front of the net, there is a good chance they could come back to Madison 6-1.

Puck drop for the first game of the series will be at 7 p.m. Friday. The second game will start 5 p.m. the next day.

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