Leading up to its first round series against Michigan, the Wisconsin’s men’s hockey team emphasized the importance of treating the Big Ten Tournament as a new season. But against the Wolverines, the Badgers displayed all of the mistakes that had defined their regular season.
Wisconsin (8-13-3 Big Ten, 14-19-4 overall) lost both games — 6-5 in Friday’s opener and 7-4 with their season on the line on Saturday — and the team’s issues were evident throughout: inconsistent goaltending, defensive breakdowns and untimely momentum swings.
Wisconsin jumped out to an early 3-1 lead in the first 10 minutes of Friday's contest, but goals on three straight Michigan power plays made it 4-3 in favor of the home team by the end of the period. The Badgers clawed their way back to a 5-5 tie midway through the third period, but Tony Calderone's third goal of the game sealed the victory for the Wolverines.
Saturday's game played out in much the same way, with Wisconsin blowing an early lead gifted by sophomore forward Trent Frederic just 23 seconds into the contest. A series of miscues and goaltending lapses from sophomore Jack Berry left the Badgers in a 3-1 hole minutes into the second period, and each time they cut into the deficit they promptly allowed another back-breaking goal.
"I think the game was pretty much what the season was," head coach Tony Granato said to UWBadgers.com after Saturday's game. "Every time it seemed we got momentum, we shoot ourselves in the foot."
Much like it had for the previous 35 games, the Badgers' offense provided enough to win: nine goals on 85 shots, with players attacking the net and putting pressure on Wolverine goaltender Hayden Lavigne. The breakdowns came on the defensive end, where the absence of freshman defenseman Josh Ess loomed large. The Wolverines were outshot in each game but still managed 13 goals for the weekend, and at key moments they were able to get quality scoring chances around the Wisconsin goal seemingly at will.
Despite giving up seven goals, Wisconsin's defensive performance was arguably worse than even the scoreboard reflected. The Badgers caught a break when an early Michigan goal was disallowed on an offside call much earlier in the play, and had another would-be goal saved by a diving effort by junior defenseman Peter Tischke that kept the puck out of the net.
The defensive breakdowns left Granato with little to say after the game, and his assessment of the team's performance was unusually direct and critical.
"We have to be better as a team defensively to win games," Granato said to UWBadgers.com. "A lot of other guys performed well individually, but as a team we definitely have to get better at that."
The losses also marked the end of the line for the 2018 senior class and sealed their status as the first Wisconsin class to go four years without an NCAA tournament appearance in more than 30 years.
"It's up there with worst feelings ever. Especially after coming so close last year, falling in the first round this year," senior forward Ryan Wagner said. "It's tough, but you can't blame anyone."