Friday nights haven’t been kind to Wisconsin this year — the Badgers have dropped numerous series openers in disappointing fashion — but just about every time, they’ve bounced back with a strong performance the following night. Associate head coach Mark Osiecki even acknowledged the pattern after Friday night’s dispiriting 4-2 loss to Minnesota.
“We’ve done it all year. We as a staff have faith in our guys that they’ll respond,” Osiecki said.
Suffice it to say that Wisconsin’s response wasn’t quite what Osiecki had in mind. Taking on the Gophers on senior night with the last hopes of an at-large NCAA tournament berth on the line, Wisconsin (8-11-3 Big Ten, 14-15-4 overall) fell behind early and never recovered in a 7-1 loss to Minnesota (9-10-1, 18-13-1).
The puck had barely dropped before Wisconsin made the first of many costly mistakes. Just 67 seconds into the game, a rush up the left side of the ice by Minnesota’s Casey Mittelstadt got defenseman Peter Tischke turned around, and the junior defenseman hit the ice trying to make a play on the puck, which left Leon Bristedt open to bury the puck past sophomore goaltender Jack Berry.
The Gophers were just getting started, and they would add two more tallies in the opening period, first on a one-timer from Brent Gates and then on a five-on-three score by Tyler Nanne that put the visitors up 3-0 and sent Berry to the bench.
“I think you have to tip your hat to Minnesota a bit. They played well and they were on their toes and they put us on our heels quickly,” Osiecki said. “They put a lot of pressure up-ice on us and we didn’t respond to it and that set the tone.”
The Badgers clawed one back in the period’s closing moments when senior captain Cameron Hughes set up sophomore forward Trent Frederic on the back door to make it a two-goal difference, but the goal ended up as the last, and only, bright spot for Wisconsin.
Minnesota put the lead back at three goals early in the second on a rebound goal from Rem Pitlick, and from there the rout was on. Minnesota added another goal in the middle frame and two more in the final 20 minutes, each successive goal quieting the already dispirited home crowd.
For 60 minutes Minnesota looked like the team with its season on the line as it outplayed the Badgers in every aspect of the game. A night after getting blanked on four power play chances, Wisconsin managed to go a season’s worst zero-for-seven and took four penalties on the man advantage.
Freshman defenseman Josh Ess left the game with an upper-body injury less than five minutes into the game, and it left the Badgers struggling to match the depth and speed of Minnesota’s forward lines.
“He plays a lot of minutes for us so it definitely hurt,” senior defenseman Jake Linhart said of Ess’s absence. “It was hard to get up into the play shift after shift and we couldn’t really create anything offensively.”
Senior forward Ryan Wagner described the locker room as near-silent after the game.
“I don’t think anything really needed to be said,” Wagner said. “It sucks for us [seniors], that being our last game at home. We know what happened, we know what we have to do to fix it.”
Wisconsin now heads into a bye week before closing the season with a pair of games against No. 6 Ohio State in Columbus.