For the majority of Wisconsin’s games this season, the story has been this: UW played well, but it still couldn’t win. Often, the Badgers would play solid hockey — and even outplay their opponents — but would ultimately come up short despite stretches of smart, dominant hockey.
But with only a few series to go and No. 18 UW (7-8-2 Big Ten, 13-12-3 overall) sitting outside the top-16, close losses and moral victories are no longer enough for the Badgers. Instead, Wisconsin’s coaches have been saying that it “needs results.” And while No. 14 Penn State (6-8-3-2, 13-11-3) led Wisconsin for the majority of the night, and the story of UW’s season looked like it was destined to repeat itself, the Badgers found a way to rewrite the script and come from behind in a thrilling 4-2 victory.
“It was nice to be able to find a way to win this one,” head coach Tony Granato said. “The bench stayed believing. We felt good about our chances to find a way.”
After UW tied the game at one midway through the first, Penn State took a 2-1 lead on the powerplay with just over a minute to go in the opening frame. From the start of the second on, UW attacked the zone with speed and found a way generate shots from the slot — something that Wisconsin has struggled to do at times this season. But with each UW shot came a PSU save as Penn State held its early lead for 31 minutes and 34 seconds.
No matter what the Badgers did, they couldn’t find the back of the net. And as time ticked in the final frame, it looked as if UW was headed to another moral victory — but not an actual conference victory. Then came freshman defenseman Josh Ess.
Wisconsin has talked about the importance of generating offense from its defenseman all season long. And when senior forward Ryan Wagner collected a stretch pass from sophomore Trent Frederic entering the offensive zone, Ess intelligently joined the rush from the neutral zone and buried a one-timer to tie the game at two.
“That play that Wagner made was spectacular. He stretched them out. Freddy found him behind their D, and then just made an outstanding play,” Granato said. “Josh was on his toes as he has been all year. He got up in the play and made an NHL shot on that one-timer across his body.”
Less than six minutes after Ess’s tally, which happened with 9:36 to go in the third, junior Will Johnson tipped a shot from junior Seamus Malone into the top corner of the Penn State net, ultimately turning what would have been a promising offensive performance into an imperative victory.
In short, consistency is what differentiated UW’s win from its earlier close losses. At multiple points this season, UW has been in the position to come from behind but just hasn’t been able to generate the offense to do so. Often, that was because UW didn’t attack the offensive zone with the energy and desperation that it needed for a full 60 minutes. Tonight, however, from the opening faceoff, UW dictated the pace and tempo of the game, establishing a forecheck that allowed for more constant looks on net.
“It’s just consistency. You’re always going to get some bad breaks. We just need to play our game and if we keep doing what we’re doing, the puck is going to go in the net,” Johnson said. “We just have to bear down and keep going and going and going until we get the puck in the net.”
Part of the reason that UW was so consistent, and didn’t have five-to-10 minute stretches without any looks on net, was the play of its centers. Frederic, Malone, freshman Tarek Baker and senior Cameron Hughes centered the four lines, and having a dominant, two-way presence on the ice at all times allowed UW to break out of its zone and transition into the offensive zone with speed.
“It gives us a chance to be a little creative and have more options on the bench,” Granato said. “I like having those four centers in the center slot. It just gives us more flexibility.”
Additionally, for most of this season, UW’s freshmen have been the centerpiece of its offense. Against Penn State, though, Wisconsin not only saw contributions from its freshmen, but from its more established players as well — something that was surprisingly lacking throughout the middle of the season. Frederic has now scored in four straight games, and Malone and Johnson not only scored but created offense right in front of the PSU goal almost every shift they were on the ice.
“When there’s depth on the team it always helps. If someone’s not playing well the other guys have to step up,” Malone said. “The older guys were slacking a little bit and the freshman stepped up. Now we all have to get going and play consistent.”
While its win against Penn State was just one in a number of conference victories that UW needs down the stretch to make the Tournament, it signals that Wisconsin has the right pieces and the ability to generate consistent enough offense to beat any team left on its schedule.
UW takes on Penn State again tomorrow night. Puck drop set for 7 p.m. at the Kohl Center.