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Saturday, March 06, 2021
Minnesota Wisconsin Hockey

At 4-4-0, the Badgers have shared similar starts in each of coach Tony Granato's four seasons in Madison. This weekend's series against No. 20 Omaha could prove to be an inflection point for the Badgers this season. 

Weekend series against No. 20 Omaha already a pivotal matchup for Badgers

Eight games into the season, Wisconsin’s men’s hockey team sits at 4-4-0; a split in the first road series, a sweep of the home opener, a split at home, and swept on the road.

Eight games into the 2018-’19 season, Wisconsin’s men’s hockey team was 4-4-0; a sweep of the home opener, a split in the first road series, a split at home, and swept on the road.

Two years ago the Badgers stood at 5-3-0 through eight games, the same record they held in head coach Tony Granato’s first season.

This year’s outfit has shown plenty of stylistic similarities with recent Badger teams, down to the inconsistent goaltending and high-flying offense that sometimes struggles to get started against quality opponents.

Asked Monday if he thinks his team is making progress, Granato focused instead on the progress the team needed to take from last weekend’s sweep at the hands of Penn State.

“I don’t think we played as well as we would have liked to against Penn State, so the progress part comes from learning from what happened on why we didn’t perform as well,” Granato said. “We had that discussion before we came home and also [Monday] morning before our first practice since the series.”

Four losses aren’t anywhere near enough to doom Wisconsin’s season, and there’s plenty of time for the Badgers to correct some of the flaws they’ve shown in the first eight games. This weekend’s series at No. 20 Omaha isn’t a must-win, but it is likely an inflection point. Three years and eight games into Granato’s tenure, the Badgers aren’t running out of time to make changes — but those changes won’t make themselves.

Sophomore Daniel Lebedeff looked like the reliable goaltender Wisconsin has lacked for the past four seasons when he stopped 57 of 60 shots in the sweep of two-time-defending champions Minnesota-Duluth, but he ranks 63rd among Division 1 goaltenders in goals against average and 57th in save percentage. The Badgers’ penalty kill has improved from 56th in the country last year, but still ranks 43rd.

“The biggest thing for us, are we seeing signs of progress,” Granato said. “Going into this weekend we have to go back and see if we can figure out the difference between Duluth and Penn State and turn that into a positive series this week.”

Wisconsin’s Achilles heel for the past four seasons has been consistency: in the goaltending, in the special teams, in the results. A good series against Omaha, especially on the defensive end and around the net, would be a positive sign for the team’s direction. The Badgers face the paradox of attempting to find consistency in a single game, or a single series.

The past two seasons have been full of would-be inflection points — a 5-0 win over then-No. 1 Notre Dame in 2017-’18, a season-opening sweep of Boston College the next season, this year’s home-opener sweep of Minnesota Duluth — each followed by a series of losses to inferior opponents. Nothing the Badgers do Friday and Saturday can, on its own, show that they’ve made the progress needed. 

Wisconsin has shown, in Granato’s words, the ability to be “something special.” But until they do so, it seems not even the head coach knows if this team’s next five months will look different than past seasons.

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