“I don’t think the work ethic was where it needed to be. They obviously wanted it more. It was on us. We didn’t bring what we had to bring. We have seen this week after week where we don’t bring the work ethic, and it needs to change tomorrow night.”
Following the No. 18 Badgers' (5-7-2 Big Ten, 11-11-3 overall) 2-0 loss to Michigan State (3-9-1, 9-13-1) on Friday in the opening game of their weekend series, junior forward Seamus Malone was emotional and upset with his team’s effort.
“I have said it before, but it’s getting old. We’ve said it too much,” Malone said. “I think we need to stop talking about the work ethic. We do it all week in practice. We work our bag off. I think we do a really good job in practice, but we need to bring it to the games.”
For the firm majority of the contest, Wisconsin played at maybe its slowest pace of the season. The Badgers struggled to generate any offense, and most of their shots were harmless and from a distance. UW did generate some quality chances at some points in the third period, but, really, from start to finish, the Badgers could not establish any offense in front of Michigan State's goalie.
“We didn’t establish much flow to the game at all,” head coach Tony Granato said. “Offensively, we have a good shift, they followed it up by countering, by just neutralizing any sort of offensive threat we had, so we never really had any momentum in the game. So kind of just one of those ho-hum games.”
Defensively, behind freshmen Josh Ess and Wyatt Kalynuk, the Badgers were solid. Wisconsin made few mistakes all night and protected its zone pretty well. In fact, the only non-empty net goal MSU scored was on a rebound in which graduate transfer goalie Kyle Hayton got bumped by a Spartan forward.
Still, offensively, it was one of UW’s worst performances of the year. Not only could the Badgers not find the back of the net against the second worst defensive team in the Big Ten (in terms of goals allowed), but they simply had no drive or grit attacking the net.
Both the Wisconsin players and coaches still believe that this team can make a Big Ten Tournament run and even compete in the NCAA Tournament, but not if it plays with the lackluster energy that it did in its opening 2-0 loss.
“It’s getting late in the season. We still have 11 games, and I still believe in this team. I think we all believe in each other and I think there’s still time to turn this around, but it has to start tomorrow night,” Malone said.
“It’s not the performance you wanted tonight. It’s not what we were looking for, but to look at 60 minutes and use that to judge where we are, I don’t think that’s accurate,” Granato said. “I think we have the personnel, I believe in the players that we have, we’re still trying to grow as a program and get better.”
Then, in the second game of the series, Wisconsin got just what it was looking for. The night after getting shut out, Wisconsin buried five goals in a 5-2 win and looked much more energized and driven offensively.
“We got to the net. We had a lot of energy between periods. I felt good about the energy that was in the locker room throughout the game, before the game,” Granato said. “Really, on the bench tonight, that might have been the best it’s been all year.”
As Granato and Malone said, there is still a belief in this team. A belief that each night, the Badgers can play like they did in the second game of this series. And a big part of that belief is the potential for balanced scoring.
All season, the freshmen have been the most consistent part of the Badgers team. Surprisingly, the more established players like sophomore Trent Frederic, senior Cameron Hughes and juniors Seamus Malone and Will Johnson have been inconsistent and less dominant than they would like to be, at least offensively.
But in the second game against Michigan State, those players came alive and played some of their best hockey in a while. Malone, Frederic and Wagner each scored, and the veteran players all contributed offensively.
“It’s awesome to see. Talking about the freshmen, guys like Ess, Kaly, Linus, Bakes, all of them have stepped in and played a major roles. But we can’t rely on just them,” Wagner said. “Big guys stepped up tonight like Freddy and Shea [Malone] and even JD coming back from his little absence. It’s nice to see.”
Still, while the second game of the series was a very positive step for UW, it has a lot of work to do if it wants to accomplish its preseason goal of being a threat in the NCAA Tournament. Currently, UW sits outside of the Top 16, is fifth in the Big Ten and will face the No. 1 team in the nation, Notre Dame, next weekend.
For a few weeks now, UW has been alternating between good and bad games. But if Wisconsin wants to climb in the rankings, it will need to play well every night. That starts with more performances like Saturday, with balanced scoring and more of an impact from the established players.
“Those guys were big tonight,” Granato said. “For us, [Frederic, Hughes, Wagner], really all our forwards, if they can become consistent, and we can get balanced scoring like we did tonight, that will certainly help us in the second half.”
Not only will those top players need to make an impact night in and night out, but Wisconsin will need to play with that same energy and drive throughout the rest of the season. With Notre Dame and Ohio State, who are the third and fourth best defensive teams in the nation, still on the schedule, the Badgers will need to play with consistent desperation and grit in order to steal games and series down the stretch.
And maybe most importantly, UW will need Hayton to perform at the level he did this weekend throughout the rest of the season. Hayton was UW’s best player against MSU, making 35 saves on 38 shots. The former All-American looked dialed in all weekend, moving his body into shots and making difficult stops look mundane.
Wisconsin travels to Notre Dame next Friday, and then plays the Fighting Irish in the United Center in Chicago on Sunday. While Notre Dame is yet to lose in conference play, Wisconsin feels ready to play its best weekend of hockey of the season.
“We don’t have a choice,” Granato said. “Our team is good enough to make the Tournament. We got ourself in a position by being inconsistent over the first 20 plus games where we have to perform, where we have to get results.”