It was a tale of two games for Wisconsin at this weekend's WCHA Final Five. On Friday, the Badgers fell to St. Cloud State in a close neutral zone and special teams contest. This afternoon, in a relatively meaningless third place game, Wisconsin played a blowout for almost 50 minutes before Denver made it close. They were two completely different games with different moods, and that led to some varied performance for Ducks prospects Jake Gardiner and Justin Schultz.
If you haven't watched the WCHA Final Five recently, you should. First, because it's played at Xcel in St. Paul, and if you want to see some of these kids play at a high compete level on NHL ice, it's your best bet. Second, because the Ducks scout the WCHA regularly, no doubt because David McNab is a Wisconsin Badgers alum, and you may want to see these kids play or at least get an idea of the systems and players they encountered at the amateur level.
On to the report...
If you want a basic breakdown of Gardiner and Schultz, please check out my report on the pair in November, my breakdown of Gardiner as a freshman, or my quick thoughts on them in my midseason prospects list.
Jake Gardiner (1st Round - 17th overall - 2008 Entry Draft)
I am beginning to come around to the idea of bringing Jake Gardiner along as slowly as possible. He can be a completely different player without his confidence. To open Friday's game against St. Cloud State, he was knocked down trying to bring the puck into the neutral zone and then took a high sticking penalty in the corner on his first attempt to be physical. He settled down, jumping into the play a few times, but he was generally quiet in a close game. That much is to be expected with his pairing partner, Ryan McDonagh, being comfortable enough to set up camp right in front of the net, but you wonder if Gardiner can take over that role once he becomes an upperclassman.
Fast forward to this afternoon's game, and you saw a completely different Gardiner. He was much more confident, holding the puck, splitting defenders and even forechecking on the penalty kill. A 5-1 lead in a third place game where both sides were resting players will do that, but still, it was good to see the player we drafted. If he can find that confidence in close games, I can't imagine he'll miss the next level. How long it will take him to find that confidence is anyone's guess.
But he also might want to take his time just to build his strength and conditioning. There was an interesting sequence at the end of today's game where Rhett Rakhshani knocked Gardiner down in front of the net at the whistle. Yes, Rhett Rakhshani, Denver's marquee scorer, Hobey Baker finalist and Orange, California native, but also Rhett Rakhshani of 5'10" 185 lb. fame. So, how did Rakhshani knock down Gardiner, who is four inches taller, saw him coming, braced himself and laid his shoulder down? Simple. Gardiner is also 185 lbs. He needs to find his confidence, sure, but he also needs to find the right ratio of size and speed to be the most competitive player he can be at the next level. He's not knocking on the door of either task yet, and two more years in the NCAA might be the best thing for him.
Justin Schultz (2nd Round - 43rd overall - 2008 Entry Draft)
Schultz was going to look better than Gardiner in a special teams battle against St. Cloud State for the simple reason that Schultz is a great special teams player, specifically a great power play quarterback. That much was clear in both games. He's extremely good at resetting a broken play on the man advantage, and then, not just at finding the right pass or shot but setting up the sequence that will result in a pass or shot.
Schultz generally has a great command of open spaces on the ice. He maximized the Xcel offensive zones for his forwards, keeping his toes outside the blueline and creating open areas when he had the puck inside the blueline. He called for the shot shot quite often, but he was also open quite often, never failing to find the seam in the defense. And when he's not open, he's streaking into the open ice attacking the net to make himself open. Still, it's very measured, and not what I would call 'risky.' He's just a smart player that doesn't pass up the opportunity to catch the defenders sleeping.
He's equally smart defensively, and despite being listed at the same size as Gardiner, he tends to be stronger in front of the net and along the boards. Two of his mistakes did lead to two quick Pioneer goals today, however. First, there was a power play sequence where he streaked on one knee at the goal line to block a shot attempt-- the decision proved ineffective, as he gave the shooter enough room to hold the puck and play it to the eventual goal scorer. Shortly thereafter, a pass he made in the neutral zone was knocked down and converted into a breakaway goal. It's hard to tell if the importance of the game or the blown out condition of the scoreboard had any influence on his focus at that point. He had also played the entire game without Cody Goloubef, his partner for most of the season. Up until that point, he'd played very steady hockey this weekend, and he was a standout on the power play.