Another 40 minutes of strong play against one of the nation’s top teams, and once again nothing to show for it.
A night after breaking a 38-game unbeaten streak when leading after two periods and costing themselves a chance at a marquee win, the No. 12 Wisconsin men’s hockey team (4-5-1 Big Ten, 10-9-2 overall) was once again done in by a late-game offensive surge by No. 4 Notre Dame (10-0-0, 16-3-1) as they fell 6-2 Saturday night at the Kohl Center.
The two teams traded goals for much of the first two periods, with the Irish taking a pair of one-goal leads on a power play tally from sophomore forward Cal Burke and a shorthanded strike from junior defenseman Dennis Gilbert. Wisconsin was able to equalize both times, but Burke’s second goal sent the visitors into the locker room up 3-2 with 20 minutes remaining in the weekend.
Despite the deficit, Wisconsin had controlled play for long stretches against one of the nation’s top defenses and had a slim 24-22 edge in shots on goal. The Badgers came out strong in the final period, registering six consecutive shots on goal, but Notre Dame battled back with an intensity Wisconsin was unable to match.
“We just can’t close games right now,” freshman forward Sean Dhooghe said. “I think that’s something we’re trying to figure out as a group still.”
Gilbert delivered the first dagger on a rebound off of a toe save by senior goaltender Kyle Hayton that put the Irish up 4-2 with just under nine minutes remaining and gave the Badgers a significant uphill battle. Burke stuck the blade in further just minutes later on a breakaway goal that gave Notre Dame a 5-2 lead.
When the dust finally settled, the Badgers were left with a 4-goal loss in a game that had remained competitive for 50 minutes, a stark reminder of the gap between the two teams.
“I’d like us to learn from their team and what they did and how they played,” head coach Tony Granato said. “They stayed with a game plan and they believed. Do it over and over and over again until the other team breaks, and we broke.”
The first line of Seamus Malone, Cameron Hughes and Will Johnson — which combined for just two shots on goal — was a notable weakness even on a night when players up and down UW’s lineup struggled. After the game coach Granato was blunt in saying the team needed better leadership and a more consistent presence at the top of the lineup.
The loss drops Wisconsin to 4-5-1 in conference play — the first time it’s been below .500 in the Big Ten since a loss to Ohio State in the second game of the season — and leaves plenty of areas for improvement as the Badgers enter a month-long finals break.
“I still believe this team can be a contender, but after the first half of the year we have to come back and have a different mindset each and every game and each and every shift,” Granato said. “Period to period and game to game you have to play the same way. You have to have an identity.”
If Wisconsin has had an identity so far this season, it’s been one of missed opportunities and close calls — a reputation it’s only added to with this weekend’s performance.