With No. 4 Notre Dame traveling to the Kohl Center, Wisconsin was looking for what would be its best win so far this season. Ultimately, the Badgers didn’t earn that, but UW did play its best hockey of the season.
With 15 minutes remaining in the game, Wisconsin (4-4-1 Big Ten, 10-8-2 overall) led Notre Dame (9-0-0, 15-3-1) 2-0 and looked primed to give the Fighting Irish their first loss of the season. But within the final three quarters of the third period, Notre Dame scored three goals to erase the Badgers’ lead and take the game, 3-2.
“We gotta stick together as a group there in the last 10 minutes and come together as a group and play a full 60,” freshman forward Tarek Baker said. “It’s unacceptable to have those things happen in a two-to-nothing game and have them come back three-to-two and beat us like that.”
While the loss hurts, and beating Notre Dame would have been a signature win, Wisconsin is taking many positives away from the close contest.
“There was lots of positives for sure,” head coach Tony Granato said. “There were lots of positives. That’s a heck of a hockey game.”
Specifically, tonight was the best that Wisconsin has moved the puck all season. All four lines were breaking the puck out more smoothly, filling lanes in the neutral zone and attacking wide, passing pucks through the crease to accumulate chances.
It seemed like whenever a Notre Dame defender moved to put a stick on the puck, Wisconsin quickly found an outlet pass and moved the puck up the ice with speed — especially between UW’s second line of senior Ryan Wagner, Baker and freshman Linus Weissbach.
“We did a lot of good things offensively. We made a lot of plays. Sometimes you make great plays and you have a goalie back there who’s the last line of defense and he’s pretty darn good,” Granato said. “We will have to stay with it tomorrow. We will have to find a way to keep generating chances.”
Both of UW’s goals were a direct result of this chemistry. On the opening tally, Weissbach’s tape-to-tape pass found senior forward Cameron Hughes in front of the net who one timed a power-play shot home. Then in the second, freshman forward Tarek Baker picked up the puck in the neutral zone and used a streaking linemate to pull a Notre Dame defender away and create space for a shot.
Additionally, Wisconsin established better net front presence than it recently has. After shooting a puck on goal, the Badgers crashed the net hard and earned multiple extra chances on net from right in the crease.
“As a group we were pretty solid net front. We’ve been preaching it all week and I feel like we had a lot of chances net front,” Baker said. “We just got to pull it to either side and put it upstairs because the goalie is pretty quick on his feet.”
Still, despite the multitude of chances, Wisconsin could only manage two goals. Notre Dame sophomore goalie Cale Morris was poised between the pipes and thwarted Wisconsin from scoring what could have easily been five goals.
“Their goalie is as good as there is in college hockey,” Granato said. “[Morris] made the big saves when we were up 2-0 to keep it there and give them a chance.”
Not only was Morris incredible for the Fighting Irish, but Notre Dame was the most complete, solid team the Badgers have faced this season. Between stout defense and decisive, quick-passing offense, Notre Dame truly looked like a potential NCAA champion.
Still, even facing an opponent that good, Wisconsin expects to beat teams like that, especially after holding a lead for most of the game.
“You have to play pretty good to beat teams like that. It was a good hockey game. There was chances. Both teams had chances,” senior forward Cameron Hughes said. “It’s tough. But that was a pretty good hockey game to watch and play in.”
“It’s just frustrating to walk out of hear knowing that we had them and let it slip away,” Granato said.