In Wisconsin’s opening game of its first series against Minnesota, the Badgers dominated the Gophers for almost the entire game, outscoring them 4-1 over 49 minutes and 34 seconds of the 60 minute contest. But for a 10 minute and 26 second stretch in the second period, Minnesota scored four unanswered goals and stole a 5-4 win from Wisconsin, who deserved a victory for its stellar play throughout the majority of the game.
All season long, No. 17 Wisconsin (8-9-2-1 Big Ten, 14-3-3 overall) has been stressing the importance of playing a complete 60-minute game. In almost every game this year, UW has had long stretches of dominant hockey, but it often allows its opponents to score in bunches or quick spurts. But this weekend against No. 12 Minnesota (7-10-1, 16-13-1), in a series that UW almost certainly needs to sweep if it hopes to make the NCAA Tournament, Wisconsin will need to play a full, consistent 60-minute game.
In the Badgers’ 3-2 loss to Ohio State early in the season, Wisconsin outplayed the Buckeyes and led OSU 2-1 with just over five minutes to go but surrendered two goals under four minutes to close the game. Similarly, in its first game against Notre Dame, UW outplayed the Irish for 45 minutes but gave up three straight goals in the third in a 3-2 loss. This trend of losing dominant efforts manifested again against Michigan, as the Badgers gave up three goals in under six minutes, highlighting UW’s struggles to play a complete game.
Of course, playing a full 60 is not an easy task. A more consistent effort necessitates significant mental and physical preparation immediately before any contest and even in the days preceding the game.
“I think you go back to the individual. Did you prepare? Did you get enough sleep during the week? Are you nutritionally sound?” assistant coach Mark Strobel said. “It even comes down to 15 minutes before the game and where your brain’s at.
“Our guys need to stick to our system and not have those track meet breakdowns where two D jump into the rush versus one or getting three forwards diving down versus one staying high as an F-3. We have to stick to our game which is tracking a hunting and helping out in our end. When we retrieve the puck together as five man units, we can transition that’s when were at our best.”
Playing at a high level, and in a conference as competitive as the Big Ten, it is impossible to go a full game without conceding momentum. Wisconsin’s objective then, rather than perfection, is limiting its opponents favorable stretches to just a minute or two, rather than giving up grade-A chances for 10, 15 minutes straight.
“It’s just consistency,” junior Will Johnson said. “There’s always some hiccups, not getting calls you want, some guys will go down with injuries, some guys will be double shifting and then have to take a break, things can just get jumbled. It’s just being able to take advantage of a disadvantage and turn it into something you can utilize.”
While Wisconsin has often conceded goals in bunches, it has, especially recently, been able to play a full 60 — highlighted, of course, by its shutout win against No. 1 Notre Dame.
“I think knowing they’re No.1 is a huge hype. A lot of it is about preparation before hand. Obviously you want to be treating every series like you’re playing a No. 1 team, but when you do play that No. 1 team you know you can’t let up for a single minute or they’re going to take advantage of you,” Johnson said. “It’s the same thing coming into Minnesota. This is a team we played for about 58 minutes and they beat us, so we know we need to play a full 60 or else they’re going to capitalize.”
And right now, unlike in earlier stumbles, Wisconsin believes in its roster, its talent and its system, and the Badgers look much more emblematic of the team that beat Notre Dame 5-0 than the team that lost to Minnesota 5-4.
“We have come together more as a team as the season has gone on, especially that part of believing in each other,” junior forward Matthew Freytag said. “Just being there for each other is a huge part of playing that full 60, especially against Minnesota, a team that thrives on mistakes like that.”
Puck drop Friday night is set for 8 p.m. and Saturday for 7 p.m. at the Kohl Center.