Wisconsin sweeps Michigan State after 28-day layoff

Captain Luke Kunin, just two days removed from winning a gold medal, leads squad in second game

Kunin played a huge role in the Badgers win Saturday. 

Image By: Jessi Schoville

A lot can happen in 28 days.

Even with practice and conditioning, 28 days without playing a hockey game will inevitably build rust. But for the Badgers, the 28 days off ultimately did not damage the momentum they were building before their break.

In Wisconsin’s (10-7-1, 3-1 Big Ten) first hockey game since Dec. 10, the Badgers took down Michigan State (4-13-1, 0-4) by a score of 5-1 in the opening game of their second conference series of the season.

“I thought after the 28-day break we were all nervous as coaches, because you never know,” head coach Tony Granato said. “I thought we had a lot of momentum in the first half of the season and it kind of felt like we were getting to our game in the Michigan series. We were playing pretty well so when you have that big of a layoff you are always a bit worried and concerned about how you are going to come out of it.”

Despite the eventual lopsided win, the Badgers did not come off the break especially strong early in the first period. Although they scored two early goals, the long layoff was evident through turnovers and sloppy play in the defensive zone.

“I think we had a lot of energy, but I think there was a little rust in the first period,” sophomore forward Seamus Malone said. “Guys were making some plays that probably weren’t the best. It’s just one of those things where if you haven’t played in a month, the rust does start to build up, but after you play and get a couple shifts in, it just gets easier.”

From the start of the second period on, however, the Badgers seemed to kick the rust and looked like a well-oiled machine. Despite playing without their captain and sophomore center Luke Kunin, who was just returning from captaining the gold-medal-winning USA team at the World Junior Championships, the Badgers seemed to have the chemistry of a team that did not look like they were coming back from such a long break.

Specifically, each of the first two lines looked especially strong together. Freshman Trent Frederic centered juniors Ryan Wagner and Cameron Hughes on the Badgers’ first line, and that line played hard and smart all game, creating offense and rarely giving up transition attacks.

“We had a couple of days to practice together and those two are really good players,” Frederic said. “I think we kind of all bring something different so I think we worked together and gelled pretty well.”

The Badgers' second line, with Malone centering senior Grant Besse and freshman Max Zimmer, also had a particularly strong game, especially from the hands of an emerging Zimmer.

“I think that line has been good for us. I think Max is going to continue to gain confidence playing with those guys,” Granato said. “Sometimes a long break like that for a freshman, you get a little time to reflect and go back on the first half. He had a ton of great chances for us and not a lot of them went in. I think he’s one of those guys who has the skill level, especially playing with those two, to be a guy that can get hot and really elevate his game as far as the production side goes.”

About halfway through the second period in Saturday’s game, Michigan State was on an extended five minute powerplay and was putting pressure on the Badgers, about to cut into Wisconsin’s then 3-1 lead.

The Spartans’ Zach Osburn took a pass at the point and unloaded a slap shot, but it didn’t make it to the net. Instead, Wisconsin’s Luke Kunin came out of nowhere with a sliding block that helped the Badgers clear the zone and kill the penalty.

What may have seemed like just a shorthanded block was actually much more. That block not only helped the Badgers kill that penalty and retain their lead, but the captain’s dedication to playing two-way hockey set the tone for the Badgers, demonstrating how to give up your body to finish games, which ultimately accumulated in a Badgers 5-1 victory.

“He was great offensively, but what made the night for me was that four minutes we had a kill when (Tim Davison) got thrown out of the game there and he slid in front of that slapper,” head coach Tony Granato said of Kunin. “It’s what he did for Team USA, and this game was as important for him as those World Championship games that he just played in. So I think that said a lot to our team.”

Just one day before this weekend’s series, Kunin’s Team USA, which he captained, won the gold medal in the World Junior Championships in Canada. Kunin did his best to make it back in time for the series, but his travel didn’t allow him to play the first game of the weekend against Michigan State.

“Yeah I think I wanted to, you know, I don’t like watching hockey games and whenever you can suit up and help your team win, that’s what I want to do,” Kunin said. “But with playing the amount of games in the short period of time that I had and not being well rested, I didn’t think it would benefit the team.”

Still, even after playing so many games for Team USA, Kunin didn’t skip a beat for Wisconsin when he got back in the lineup in game two, coming up with the biggest play of the game on that block.

“I think that set the energy and the commitment to keep the puck out of our net for the rest of the game,” Granato said. “I thought that moment right there was really the moment where everybody on the bench said they we’re winning this game and we’re doing everything that we can to. That’s what he has the ‘C’ on his jersey for. The shot block to me is what I thought was the key in the game for how we were able to finish off a team.”

Not only did Kunin come up with that huge block, but he also scored twice in the game, which elicited much louder than average roars from the crowd. Wisconsin was playing behind one of their biggest crowds of the season, but whenever Kunin made a play, they made a point to show their support for the new world champion.

Even though Luke is coming off of a genuine gold medal game, he is looking to treat every game from here on out with Wisconsin as a gold medal opportunity. Luke played a huge role for USA in the juniors, and he continued to come up just as big for the Badgers this weekend.

“Yeah it’s pretty special. It’s a great thing that has happened in my life so far, winning that,” Kunin said. “I’m just focused on Wisconsin now and helping this team win hockey games.”

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