After winning just 12 games over the last two years, Wisconsin rebounded from a dismal stretch with a 20-win season in Tony Granato’s first year at the helm. But the Badgers needed a 21st win to make the NCAA Tournament, a victory that they came within inches of snagging.
Wisconsin came up short, though, ending a strong campaign that signaled the beginning of a turnaround for a program that was once the premier program in college hockey.
"We took a great jump," sophomore captain Luke Kunin said. "We put Wisconsin hockey back on the map where it should be. We even feel like it should be higher than we are right now. I think it was a great turn in the right direction for our program."
The Badgers (20-15-1) fell to the Penn State Nittany Lions (24-11-2) in the Big Ten Championship game in a double-overtime thriller for the ages. Liam Folkes shattered the Badgers’ hopes of reaching the NCAA Tournament, scoring the game-winning goal on a breakaway 6:43 into the second overtime.
Folkes scored the Nittany Lions’ early goal as well, putting Penn State ahead with a power play tally in the first period. PSU would hold that lead for most of the game until the Badgers started to apply pressure in the third quarter.
UW outshot the Nittany Lions 18-5 in the third, culminating in a power-play goal by junior forward Matt Ustaski with 8:15 left.
The two squads would battle for a scoreless 20 minutes, sending the game into another overtime.
Wisconsin had its chances in the second overtime period, including a shot on the power play from freshman forward Trent Frederic that dinged off the crossbar.
The Badgers outshot the Nittany Lions 52-35 overall, including 19-13 in the two overtime periods.
"Our guys played their hearts out. We had lots of chances; we made good shots on [goal] too, but they couldn't find their way in," Granato said. "Some games you battle and play like crazy and get great chances and they don't go in."
From a big-picture standpoint, it’s difficult to consider the Badgers’ season anything but a success. They won 2.5 times more games than they did last year, finished second in the Big Ten and knocked on the door of the NCAA Tournament after falling woefully short the last two seasons.
Nonetheless, UW literally came within inches of earning a spot in the tournament. If Frederic’s shot was just a bit lower, it would probably have found twine and the Badgers might have hoisted the Big Ten champion's trophy.
Instead, they left the ice for the final time this season with a bittersweet taste in their mouths with their season coming to a heartbreaking end after a gut-wrenching, double-overtime loss.