From Madison to Midtown, a Wisconsin trio leads Rangers in NHL playoffs
- Once teammates at the University of Wisconsin, Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh, and Brendan Smith are all pretty different. But their on-ice chemistry has lifted the Rangers in the 2017 playoffs.
NEW YORK—On Feb. 28, the day before the NHL trade deadline, Blake Geoffrion tapped out a group text to three of his former University of Wisconsin men’s hockey teammates: “Boys getting the band back together, eh?”
The responses were brief, some "haha"s and "looking-forward-to-it"s, but Geoffrion understood the radio silence. “They’re not big texters,” he says. Plus, Ryan McDonagh and Derek Stepan were plenty busy in New York, respectively serving as team captain and an alternate for the playoff-hunting Rangers. And defenseman Brendan Smith had just been shipped from Detroit to join them, reunited in Manhattan after three years together in Madison. “Camaraderie is a big advantage,” says Geoffrion, now an assistant GM for Columbus’ AHL affiliate. “To acquire someone at the deadline who comes right in and already knows guys, you just feel that much more comfortable, almost instantaneously. Teams look at that kind of stuff now.”
For Smith, the fit has indeed gone smoothly. On one of his first days in town, McDonagh took him on a walk around the city, working from SoHo to Tribeca, down to Battery Park and back up to Chelsea for dinner. “A great tour guide,” Smith says. “It was him and his wife, they had the dog and their little girl, we wheeled around and they showed me around.” In the first round against Montreal, with the series knotted 2-2 entering Thursday’s Game 5, Smith and Brady Skjei have formed the Rangers’ most efficient possession pairing, enjoying a 57.47% shot attempt advantage when together at 5-on-5, according to Corsica Hockey.
Like the Rangers at-large, the three ex-Badgers haven’t produced much offensively against the Habs -- each has just one assist. But McDonagh leads the roster in average playoff ice time (25:35), while an all-situation workload has Stepan topping all forwards (21:06). “More than anything, they’re also the leaders of this group,” Smith says. “So to come into that, it makes it that much more familiar.” When tough times have hit, he adds, they sometimes reflect on their Wisconsin days -- particularly their run to the 2010 Frozen Four championship -- and discuss how they might’ve persevered through problems then.
“Those are guys I want to have in my foxhole,” Smith says. “They compete hard. That was, I think, the biggest thing that we took from how we played. We put it out there on the line. For some of the younger guys, that’s what we want to show in this room. That was the way of life.”
He failed to mention the importance of farts.
The word was exfuviation.
“E-X-F, or E-X-P-H,” spells Mike Eaves, the former Wisconsin coach, “and then U-V-I-A-T-I-O-N. I don't think that’s a real word. But you can ask Brendan all about it.”
Exfoliating is a spa treatment. Animals exuviate when they shed their outer skin, or feathers, or hair. Those are real words. Exfuviation, on the other hand, is an invented term that Eaves somehow came to believe was legit. “It means to pass gas,” he says, but for one Badger it simply meant, “Calm down.” Whenever Eaves thought Smith was getting too emotional during games, torturing himself too hard for mistakes, Eaves would find him on the bench and whisper, “Exfuviation.” Then, “he’d relax a little bit.”
Over the phone, Eaves laughs. He’s calling from his coaching office at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, not far from the peaceful lakeside cabin where he lives. At St. Olaf Eaves works with modest means compared to the 14 seasons he spent helming Wisconsin. For instance, the small D-III liberal arts school only hired its first full-time athletic director in July 2015. Still, he’s plenty happy — to be molding a program in his image, to have seen gradual progress over a 7-15-3 season, to flip on the television and watch three former players all wearing Blueshirts.
“The common denominator, they’re all pretty good,” Eaves says. “At the same time, they’re all distinctly unique in their personalities, which makes it great. To say they’re all the same would be boring, but the only thing they have in common is they’re very good players, very different, very unique in their own ways. It’s great they have history, that’s got to be fun for them.”
He remembers Smith as a fiercely intense, with a strong left-handed shot whose weak-side one-timer blasted 11 power play goals in ‘09-10, Smith’s third and final year at Wisconsin before turning pro. No wonder the Badgers reached the NCAA title game, because that blue line was loaded. Justin Schultz, then a 19-year-old freshman, just posted a career-best 51 points during the regular season with Pittsburgh. Sophomore Jake Gardiner is leading the entire Stanley Cup playoffs in average ice time, is a critical piece in Toronto’s quest to upset the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals.
Indeed, when asked for his memories, Smith replies while laughing, “Well, first, I think we were better than everybody. I think we naturally had more skill, but on top of that, it was the work ethic that Mike Eaves brought into the room, this life of, ‘You also work harder than your opponent and your skill will take care of it.’ It’s what we did.”
The blue line’s sturdiest workhorse, the same role he serves today for the Rangers, was McDonagh. “A freak in the gym,” says Geoffrion, who alongside McDonagh served as a team captain in ‘09-10. During bench-press tests before their sophomore season, Geoffrion recalls McDonagh cranking out so many reps at 315 pounds that the strength coach just gave up and said, "Okay, you’re done, no more.” When he would skate by the bench, Eaves swore he could hear the ice crunching underneath the power of McDonagh’s legs. “We used to say, Ryan McDonagh, shot from a cannon,” Eaves says. “He was the foundation of that defensive group.”
If McDonagh represented raw physical power to Eaves, Stepan was the embodiment of mental strength. “His six inches between his head helped make the six feet below his ears perform at a high level,” Eaves says. “He’s not the fastest guy around, but he’s so smart, in terms of angling and knowing where the puck’s going to be.” Ranked second nationally in points (54) and tied for first in assists (42) in ‘09-10, Stepan signed with the Rangers that July before Eaves could deliver on a longstanding plan to make him captain. It was something Eaves had known since a bus trip back from Minneapolis during Stepan’s freshman year. As he wandered into the back to check on the team, Eaves saw Stepan holding court, telling jokes and playing games, “Just engaging all the classes, the seniors, juniors, sophomores, didn’t matter. He had the ability to tie everyone together and make them part of the conversation. I remember thinking, that’s a pretty cool thing to have.”
After finishing third in the ‘10 WCHA tournament, Wisconsin beat Vermont and St. Cloud State to reach the Frozen Four. Playing at Ford Field in Detroit, they then pummeled RIT in the semifinals, 8-1, behind two goals from Stepan. The day before the championship game, Geoffrion won the Hobey Baker Award. But he and the Badgers were blanked by Boston College, 5-0, in which Eaves recalls Stepan crashing into the end boards during the third period, suffering a concussion, and never returning. "B.C. played a perfect game,” Geoffrion says. “It was just like, this wasn’t meant to be. But we played hard, man. Probably the most fun I had playing hockey in my career, just because of how close our team was, how hard we worked.”
Now the trio has migrated to midtown, where the series against Montreal will return regardless of what happens Thursday night at Bell Centre. All three have been on longer playoff runs since college -- McDonagh and Stepan to the ‘14 Stanley Cup Final and the ‘15 Eastern Conference finals; Smith to Game 7 of the second round with Detroit after the ‘12-13 lockout. But after Smith arrived in the locker room, it was only natural for them to feel a jolt of reminiscence.
So what about Rangers forward and Boston College alumnus Chris Krieder, whose third-period goal for the Eagles helped flip a 1-0 contest into the eventual 5-0 blowout?
“I tell him to try to pipe it, try to nix that right away,” Smith says. “And we don’t talk about it.”