For many, the new year is a time for change, a time for reinvention, a time to improve yourself and to achieve your goals. The Wisconsin’s men’s hockey team needed it to be all of that after an underwhelming finish to 2017 that left the Badgers on the edge of NCAA tournament contention.
But in the first series of the year against No. 11 Penn State (5-4-3 Big Ten, 12-7-3 overall), it looked more like the same old Badgers, rather than new year, new team. 15th-ranked Wisconsin (4-6-2, 10-10-3) was sloppy defensively, inconsistent in goal and unable to put together a 60-minute effort en route to a loss and a tie in its 2018 opener.
The Badgers fell behind just 96 seconds into Friday night’s matchup, and trailed by two after only nine minutes. Wisconsin would never get closer than that as they dropped the series opener 5-1.
Goaltending — an issue throughout 2017 — was again a culprit in the loss as sophmore Jack Berry allowed four goals in just 23 minutes before being replaced by graduate transfer Kyle Hayton. Berry’s job was made tougher by PSU’s skilled forward group, who put three of the first four goals in off the inside of the goal posts.
"Those were good shots, that's why I say you can't blame Jack on those goals. Those were nice shots,” head coach Tony Granato said to UWBadgers.com. “They had flow all night, a nice rhythm to their game. Pretty much right throughout their lineup, they took it to us."
It was a thoroughly forgettable performance by the Badgers — who were outshot and allowed both a shorthanded and power play goal, as well as a hat trick for Penn State’s Nate Sucese — in a game with potential postseason implications.
“I didn't think it was the start we wanted and things need to change. We'll be ready tomorrow,” senior forward Ryan Wagner said to UWBadgers.com after Friday’s game.
The Badgers didn’t look so ready when tomorrow came. UW fell behind twice, first 1-0 and then 3-1, and looked set for a painful sweep. Wisconsin battled back on goals from freshman Sean Dhooghe and junior Peter Tischke to secure a 3-3 tie, but failed to score in the shootout. Despite the underwhelming result which gave PSU two points in the Big Ten standings, Granato was upbeat about the team’s performance in the rematch.
"I thought we battled like crazy tonight. I thought our compete level was where it needs to be,” Granato said to UWBadgers.com. “That was a great response from a disappointing performance last night. Our guys battled hard, we played well."
Wisconsin’s play in Saturday’s game may have been enough to appease Granato, but it still gave the Badgers just one point in the conference standings, leaving them tied for fifth in the Big Ten with just twelve games remaining. UW entered the series ranked 15th in the country and will likely fall out of the top 16, a proxy for the NCAA tournament field, for the first time this season in USCHO.com’s next rankings. The Badgers return home to take on last-place Michigan State next weekend, and anything less than a sweep will effectively dash Wisconsin’s hopes of an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament in 2018.