After splitting a home series against Michigan State last weekend, Wisconsin has found itself in a position where it needs positive results. With inconsistency pushing the Badgers outside the top-16 NCAA Tournament pool, UW needs to improve quickly if it hopes to make the postseason for the first time in since 2013-‘14. But they can’t just improve: They have to win. And this weekend, they have to do that against the best team in the nation.
No. 1 Notre Dame (12-0-0 Big Ten, 18-3-1 overall) has been playing unprecedented hockey over the last two and half months, and the winners of 15 straight wins have yet to lose a game in its inaugural season in the Big Ten. Still, despite the dominance of the Fighting Irish, Wisconsin (5-7-2, 11-11-3) registered 77 shots in two games against Notre Dame, and it was as close to taking down ND as anyone has been thus far in Big Ten play.
Despite the lopsided score of game two against the Irish, UW played one of its better series of the season when Notre Dame came to the Kohl Center in early December. Part of the reason that UW found some success in that series is that defensively the Badgers match up well stylistically against Notre Dame. The Irish pass the puck quickly and decisively, waiting for their opponents to chase and open up passing lanes for back door opportunities. For the most part, despite some mistakes, UW has stayed compact in front of its net this season, which should prevent open passing and shooting lanes for the puck-possessing Irish. Also, with former All-American goalie Kyle Hayton coming off his best series of the season, UW has a chance to really limit the Irish offensively.
Still, while UW may match up well defensively, creating offense against the Irish is a much more daunting challenge. Notre Dame is currently the third best defensive team in college hockey, allowing only 1.91 goals per game. ND is led by sophomore goalie Cale Morris, who is having a historic season and is probably the best player in college hockey, posting an incredible .956 save percentage.
“It’s like you’re going against Nolan Ryan or you’re going against the best pitcher in the world,” head coach Tony Granato said. “We have to try to figure out how to get to him, wear him down in some way shape or form. He is playing at an all-world, never happened before pace.”
Wisconsin has struggled to generate offense in the last few series, and in order to find any success against Notre Dame and Morris, UW will have to be much more aggressive and desperate on offense. Tangibly, that means crisp breakouts and driving hard wide. Mostly, though, UW will need its defense to join the rush and its forwards to establish a strong net-front presence.
“We need to get our D involved in the offense. We need second shots. We need screen shots. We need to be more aggressive at throwing pucks from different angles to keep him on his toes,” Granato said. “We need to make him work.”
“In practice lately we have talked about jumping up in the play, just being the next layer back and getting shots to the net,” freshman defenseman Josh Ess said. “We need to do more as a defensive group in the offensive zone.”
The Badgers feel that the most substantial cause of their recent offensive struggles, however, is not a lack of talent or schematics. After the lost to Michigan State last weekend, junior forward Seamus Malone and Granato both said that Wisconsin did not bring the level of energy and effort needed to win consistently.
If the Badgers hope to beat the No. 1 team in the nation away from home, they will need find a way to be as energized and desperate as ever.
“I think it’s just a mentality thing,” sophomore forward Max Zimmer said. “We have enough skill and speed to win every game, so I think [our energy] has been the missing piece for the last couple series. We just have to bear down and start working game in and game out.”
After the win against MSU last Saturday, Granato said that the bench had the most energy its had all season. That has continued into practice this week, as the Badgers had maybe their most intense practice of the year on Wednesday. Wisconsin was battling in the corners, fighting for pucks and even yelling at each other after scrums. The intensity wasn’t harmful and did not demonstrate a lack of chemistry. Rather, it showed that the Badgers are hungry and determined.
“I think it’s just guys getting pissed off and it’s great to see,” Zimmer said. “Obviously you don’t want to see teammates fight, but it’s fun to be a part of [intense practices] and hopefully it’s going to help us win some more games in the future.”
Demonstrating that passion and fight in practice is one thing, but doing it constructively and having it translate into offense is another — especially against a team as poised as Notre Dame. If Wisconsin can, however, bring that energy and desperation and use it to disrupt Morris and establish a net-front present, it may have a good chance to earn a much needed upset.
An upset that could propel the highly talented team back towards reaching its potential.
Wisconsin plays at Notre Dame on Friday at 6:30 p.m., and then at 2 p.m. Sunday in Chicago at the United Center.