Men's hockey

Badgers stumble on road against Michigan State's top line

Head coach Tony Granato's hiring in 2016 boosted season ticket sales by 26 percent over two years, but he's yet to get the Badgers back to the NCAA tournament.

As Wisconsin headed to East Lansing for its road test against Michigan State, the focus inside and outside of the locker room was on how the Badgers (5-6-5 Big Ten, 9-12-5 overall) would handle their second meeting with the Spartans (6-8-4, 10-13-5) elite top line without the ability to dictate line matchups.

Wisconsin had stifled that top line of Patrick Khodorenko, Taro Hirose and Mitchell Lewandowski for most of the first two games in Madison, but on the road it was Michigan State’s trio that took control, outscoring the Badgers 6-3 across two games as the Badgers gained just two points on the weekend. With the 4-1 loss and 2-2 tie, Wisconsin fell to sixth in the Big Ten standings.

Khodorenko and company asserted themselves early in Friday’s opener; the junior scored his 15th and 16th goals of the season to bookend the first intermission. Both goals came with Wisconsin’s second line — freshmen Brock Caufield and Dominick Mersch and sophomore Linus Weissbach — on the ice.

Mersch and Caufield, joined by classmate Roman Ahcan, had succeeded against the Spartans top line in the first series, but with Weissbach by their side they failed to find the same success on the road.

“They’re all really high-skilled players,” senior defenseman Peter Tischke, who was on the ice for the first two goals, said to UWBadgers.com. “We need to do better… we need to stay together as five. There were times when we were all on the wrong page.”

Lewandowski joined in on the scoring with a power play goal minutes later, continuing the Badgers recent woes on the penalty kill. Freshman defenseman Ty Emberson scored the lone goal in the final minutes of the second frame, but it was all Wisconsin could muster in yet another frustrating offensive performance away from home.

Hirose scored an empty-netter of his own to complete the final 4-1 and extend his advantage as the nation’s leading point scorer.

If the story of Friday night’s loss was Wisconsin’s early defensive breakdowns, Saturday evening’s tie and shootout win served as another reminder of the Badgers’ inability to convert scoring chances away from home.

Wisconsin entered the game shooting a moribund 6.8 percent in road games on the season, converting their chances at half the rate it had in home games. Despite scoring a pair of goals, the Badgers lowered that mark with two goals on a season-high 58 shots, good for a shooting percentage of 3.4.

“You just have to stay positive,” senior forward Matthew Freytag said to UWBadgers.com of the team’s shooting woes. “If we keep attacking, keep going, those bounces will come and if they don’t, just like tonight, we’ll get that one point still.”

Hirose and Lewandowski scored for the Spartans, and their line finished the weekend with all six of Michigan State’s goals.

With leads of 1-0 — off an early goal by senior forward Will Johnson — and 2-1, from Weissbach, Saturday’s game marked yet another occasion in which the Badgers held a third-period road lead and failed to come away with three points. And while senior forward Max Zimmer scored in the sudden-death shootout to capture a second point in the conference standings, it wasn’t enough to pull the attention away from what they had let slip.

“As much as you don’t want to be result-focused, the way the season’s going, we have to be,” head coach Tony Granato said to UWBadgers.com. “We deserved three points, and we got two… It’s been the pattern of our season.”

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