MEGHAN CONLIN/Herald Photo”Offense sells crowds, but defense wins games,” Badger defenseman Joe Piskula said, mimicking the commonly heard sports axiom. This season the Badgers have managed to fill the stands with their offense (3.48 goals per game), something that has come as a bit of a novelty in the Mike Eaves coaching era.As always, though, Wisconsin has continued to win its games with stellar defense, starting at the top with senior blue-liner Tom Gilbert.Gilbert’s emergence last year as one of the league’s top defensemen gave the gritty Badger defense a face. Even now, followers can easily spot when the senior is on the ice by the long locks protruding from underneath his helmet. More than that, they can recognize the controlled ferocity with which he plays.”He’s such a competitor,” assistant coach Mark Osiecki said. “He is probably one of the most, if not the most, competitive guys on our team.”That spirited play put Gilbert on the map last season, when coaches gave him more responsibility due to a large amount of underclassmen defensemen and the loss of Ryan Suter, who left the team to pursue a career in the NHL. Gilbert helped the team hold opponents to 2.2 goals per game for the season.”Something happened in the second half of last year where he was given more responsibility, it was a necessity thing, and he just blossomed,” Eaves said. “Then his confidence grew, and he’s continued to play that way.”Gilbert has gone nowhere but up since that time. This season, as his team climbed the ranks to No. 1 in the country, Gilbert led a defense that at one time was ranked first in the country. He also emerged as one of the top scoring defensemen in the WCHA, as he currently ranks second in defensemen scoring in the WCHA with 18 points.While his feats on the ice continue to rack up, his status in the media has been put in neutral. Although he was the face of last year’s stingy defense, this year the media has focused on the play of goaltender Brian Elliott.It is hard to ignore a netminder that is leading the country in every viable goaltending statistic, but it’s also hard to ignore a 6-foot-3 defenseman who creates the outer wall around the net. “A lot of people look at us as a one-player team, and that’s Brian Elliott,” Osiecki said. “Obviously, he’s done very well, but I think it does steal a little bit away from how gifted Tom Gilbert is.”Whatever the attention level, the assistant captain has continued to go about his job and has done it better than almost anyone at his position. He and defensive partner Piskula have anchored the best team defense in the WCHA, with the Badgers allowing only 1.83 goals per game this season.The pair have also become paramount to the team’s offensive success, as evidenced by plus / minus ratings of +23 for Gilbert and +24 for Piskula — by far the two highest ratings on the team. Not only are teams not scoring when those two are on the ice, but the Badgers also become more effective on offense.”He’s a very good offensive defenseman,” Piskula said of his defensive partner. “He knows when to jump in the rush and when to find that line in the offensive zone. It’s good to watch him and see the stuff he does.”Piskula has watched, and he has learned. He has scored 11 points of his own this season, a personal best and significant improvement from last season’s total of six points. Most of that learning has been done by observing the way Gilbert plays.”He’s more of a leader by example,” Piskula said. “He tries to do everything to a tee and just lead that way.”Gilbert’s effectiveness on offense can be attributed to his expanded role. He is the quarterback on one of the team’s power play formations, and he often times acts as a fourth offensive player when the Badgers are on the attack. His increased role has led to a career-high 22 points this season.When Gilbert is not helping his team score, he is doing the little things that help his team win. He cuts off shooting lanes, blocks shots with the best of them and he makes very few mistakes.What the future holds for the rangy defender nobody knows. The Edmonton Oilers hold rights to Gilbert when he turns professional after they traded Tommy Salo and their 2005 sixth-round draft pick to get him from the Colorado Avalanche. His coaches believe his career won’t end in college.”I think he’ll play,” Osiecki said of Gilbert’s chances in the NHL. “He’s going to have a chance to play, and once he gets his chance, he’s going to stay and play very well.”For now, though, Gilbert will continue blocking shots for Wisconsin. The NHL will have to wait.