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Saturday, September 18, 2021

UW welcomes Penn State, looks for sweep over Nittany Lions

Just minutes after Wisconsin’s dominating — and emotional — 5-0 win over No. 1 Notre Dame at the United Center, the team’s attention had already turned from celebrating the biggest win of the season to looking for more success.

“There’s so much belief in that locker room. After the game you could tell we were ready to go, we wanted to play again,” junior forward Seamus Malone said. “I think that was a turning point in our season. I think we’re gonna keep it rolling.”

The No. 18 Badgers (6-8-2, 12-12-3) might have wanted to get right back out on the ice after their confidence-inspiring shellacking of the country’s top team, but they’ll get their opportunity to prove whether or not that performance was a fluke or a sign of things to come when they welcome No. 14 Penn State (6-7-3, 13-10-3) to Madison this weekend.

Extended winning streaks like the one Wisconsin just snapped are rare in the parity-filled world of college hockey, but there’s been a different feeling around the team on and off the ice since Sunday’s win. For the first time all season, players and coaches are talking about winning not just the next game, but the one after, and the ones beyond that as well.

“We've seen streaks, so we talk about how we're good enough to go on a streak here, whether it's seven or eight or nine. And that's what we have to build upon, that win on Sunday,” associate head coach Mark Strobel said.

Every one of Wisconsin’s eight remaining games is against a team ranked ahead of it, and any stretch of consecutive wins against such a schedule will be a tough task. To pull off such a streak, the Badgers will need a more consistent presence in the net.

Consistent play between the pipes is important defensively, but it also plays an underappreciated role in the team’s offensive success — a fact that was on display in Sunday’s win. With sophomore goaltender Jack Berry stoning the Fighting Irish on every opportunity, Wisconsin never had to play from behind and was able to dictate the pace and establish a forecheck. Armed with an early lead, Wisconsin’s forwards were able to get into prime scoring positions and pressure a Notre Dame defense that didn’t have the luxury of defending a lead.

“To me, it's a confidence thing,” Strobel said. “I thought our goaltending was good, and when we can sure that up from the net out, any team is going to play differently in front of that player.”

Berry was “that player” against Notre Dame, but even a 40-save shutout hasn’t been enough to give him a clear edge over senior Kyle Hayton in the battle for the crease. Last season Wisconsin had some success with a goalie platoon, but this year Berry and Hayton have struggled to find consistent success between the pipes. Both goaltenders have shown the ability to win games with standout performances, but neither has posted the numbers needed from the backstop of an NCAA tournament contender.

Berry will likely get the start in Friday’s opener, based on his play in Sunday’s win, but his place on the ice is far from assured in the long term.

“It's been a competition all year as far as we're concerned. The guy that can win the net will be winning games,” Strobel said. “The bottom line is the Badgers gotta win, so whoever that, is we need ‘W’s.’”

Puck drop is Friday at 8 p.m. in the Kohl Center, followed by a 7 p.m. rematch on Saturday.

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