The margins between winning and losing are often small, for Wisconsin’s men’s hockey team on Saturday night, they couldn’t have been smaller.
With three minutes and 23 seconds left in overtime Cole Caufield was bearing down on Notre Dame goaltender Cale Morris on a wide-open breakaway.
Four seconds later, the puck was sitting on the Irish’s goal line just inches from a Wisconsin win. 16 seconds after that, it was in the back of the Badgers’ net and the Irish were the ones skating away victorious.
Fans in the Kohl Center crowd still had their hands up in celebration as the buzzer sounded on No. 15 Wisconsin’s (1-3-0 Big Ten, 6-6-0 overall) 5-4 overtime loss to No. 4 Notre Dame (3-1-0 Big Ten, 8-1-1 overall), unable to process the whiplash of the final moments.
“Kinda sums up the game of hockey. Sometimes you get a bounce, sometimes you don’t,” head coach Tony Granato said. “Tonight it didn’t go our way.”
Morris stopped Caufield’s initial try on the breakaway, but as Morris swept his leg around the puck came free and hovered on the edge of the Notre Dame goal for two chaotic seconds until Irish defenseman Nate Clurman swept it away.
With two Badgers still looking for the puck Notre Dame’s Colin Theisen started to rush the other way, and although Wisconsin goaltender Daniel Lebedeff made the first two saves in quick succession, Alex Steeves was able to finish on the third try.
“It definitely stings. Right before they score we get one on the goal line so obviously it sucks a lot,” junior defenseman Wyatt Kalynuk said.
Wisconsin had to battle back repeatedly just to be in position for a tense overtime period as they fell behind 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 in the game’s opening 25 minutes.
Each time the Badgers were able to find an equalizer. Linus Weissbach and Dylan Holloway teamed up on a give-and-go for the first goal; Weissbach made a perfect cross-ice pass between two Notre Dame defenders to find Holloway open at the right faceoff circle with 12 minutes and 36 seconds left in the first period.
It was Weissbach on the receiving end seven minutes later as he buried a feed from Sean Dhooghe on a three-on-one. Kalynuk was the third to erase a lead, this time with a wrister from the right slot just 31 seconds into the third period.
“I loved the way we responded,” Granato said. “There were lots of parts of the game when we fell behind and it looked like they were taking over that we found a way to get back in it.”
Wisconsin took its first lead of the night with its newly-refigured power play. A night after setting up two power-play goals, sophomore defenseman K’Andre Miller got one of his own. Miller’s shot from the top of the zone found its way through and over Morris’ blocker to put the Badgers up 4-3 with nine minutes remaining.
Wisconsin got agonizingly close to finding a fifth goal — in regulation and in overtime — but watched as several grade-A scoring chances failed to come to fruition.
Caufield and freshman forward Owen Lindmark were both left empty-handed on third-period breakaways; Caufield’s try gloved by Cale Morris and Lindmark’s shot wide of the net. The Badgers’ best chance of regulation came with three minutes left when freshman forward Alex Turcotte got his stick on a rebound that had bounced into the air and tapped it towards the goal.
The puck floated over Morris’ head for a brief second before bouncing harmlessly off the crossbar and over the back of the net.
“We had a lot of chances, it was a close game the whole way so you can’t just blame it on one time or one breakaway,” Caufield said.
The Irish had no such bad luck in front of the net, scoring three times on plays where they found a loose puck in the Wisconsin crease and pushed it past or over Lebedeff for the goal.
“They did a good job at our net,” Granato said. “Give them credit because that’s what they do. That’s a team that’s very opportunistic and they know how to score those ugly goals.”
Wisconsin showed once again Saturday night that it’s capable of scoring highlight-reel goals, but this time it was the ugly ones — and two inches of red paint — that proved the difference between winning and losing.