Sometimes good just isn’t good enough.
By just about any measure, Wisconsin (8-10-3 Big Ten, 14-14-4 overall) played well Friday night against Minnesota (8-10-1, 17-13-1). The Badgers skated well, controlled play for extended stretches, crashed the net and got a strong performance from senior goaltender Kyle Hayton. But it just wasn’t enough, and all the good play means little after a 4-2 loss that severely hampers their NCAA tournament hopes.
The gulf between performance and results has been the story for Wisconsin all season, and it played out in glaring detail again on Friday night.
“We played well, we played where we wanted to play … you have to find a way to bury one,” associate head coach Mark Osiecki said. “That’s the Minnesota-Wisconsin rivalry and that’s what we need in college hockey. You knew it was going to come down to that and it did today.”
Wisconsin failed to convert offensively in a number of situations, as they turned their 40 shots into just two goals, but the power play was foremost amongst the missed opportunities. The Badgers had four opportunities on the man advantage between Matthew Freytag’s tally to open the scoring and Tyler Sheehy’s goal to put the Gophers up 2-1, but couldn’t make anything of their 14 power play shots.
Time and again with a Minnesota skater in the box, the Badgers got pucks on Gopher goaltender Mat Robson, but each time the rebound bounced out of the reach of Wisconsin’s sticks and harmlessly away from the goal.
“We generated opportunities and you’d like to bury a puck. But you can’t get frustrated and I thought our guys got a bit frustrated by not scoring a goal,” Osiecki said.
The Badgers had jumped out to an early lead thanks to a fortuitous goal from fourth-line forwards Matt Ustaski and Freytag.
Ustaski lost the puck in his skates on a broken rush, but it took a lucky bounce right onto Freytag’s stick and the junior winger ripped it past Robson to give Wisconsin the 1-0 lead with just under 13 minutes elapsed.
Hayton kept Wisconsin in the lead even as the Gophers mounted an assault on the net with 16 first-period shots, including a couple point blank chances. Minnesota evened it up just under two minutes into the second with a snipe from Steve Johnson that took a deflection off the stick of Brannon McManus.
Wisconsin threw 23 shots at the net in the middle frame but couldn’t get a single one to go. The performance, both dominating and ineffective, left Wisconsin’s players frustrated, yet somewhat pleased after the game.
“It’s pretty upsetting that none of those chances were going in. But it’s a good thing that we were making plays. You know, things were happening, good things were happening,” Freytag said. “I think if we stick with the consistency, playing our game like that and dominating a team like that the bounce will eventually come.”
The key bounces would ultimate come for Minnesota forward Tyler Sheehy — first on a rebound that bounced straight to the junior stick to give the Gophers a 2-1 lead, and again when UW defenseman Jake Linhart unwittingly screened his own goaltender and let another Sheehy shot find twine to make it 3-2 for the visitors with less than five minutes left.
Wisconsin made a push in the games dying moments, and sophomore forward Trent Frederic almost connected with Ustaski for what would’ve been the senior’s second goal of the game. But just as they had earlier, Wisconsin’s chances didn’t find the back of the net, and it was Minnesota’s Darian Romanko who finished off the scoring with an empty net goal to provide the final margin.
“I think we have to keep playing our game and not letting back,” Freytag said. “Tonight’s game is over and all we can do is be ready for tomorrow and take it to them.”