The Wisconsin Men’s Hockey team is off to one of the worst starts in program history with an abysmal 2-6-0 record in the opening eight games and a worse 0-4-0 record on home ice.
The Badgers entered last weekend’s series against Penn State after sweeping Minnesota Duluth on the road. Following their sweep over Duluth, Wisconsin appeared to be on the upswing, having shown an improved offense — scoring eight total goals in two games. However, the Penn State series brought the high hopes crashing back to reality. Wisconsin managed to score only one goal in the two game series — a crushing blow to what appeared to be an improving offense.
Wisconsin’s complete turnaround from the Duluth series showcased a fundamental flaw in this year’s team — inconsistency. In the Duluth series, Wisconsin consistently looked to be the stronger team. The Badgers won both games handily by scores of 5-2 and 3-0. However, during the Penn State series, Wisconsin showed moments of promise, but simple errors destroyed any momentum.
In the first game versus Penn State, Wisconsin took an early lead after Dominick Mersch scored 3:41 into the first period. Yet, the Badgers struggled for the duration of the period because of a few key reasons.
After the Wisconsin goal, the Badger style of play changed. Instead of continuing to pressure their opponents, Wisconsin played a much more defensive style. In Wisconsin’s moments of promise, they played aggressively and forced Penn State’s players into mistakes. This same style was what led the Badgers to victory in the Duluth series.
Wisconsin cannot abandon their aggressive play. When they find success, they are playing aggressively and actively forcing mistakes. The Badgers’ changing style is a key reason for their current inconsistency. Until they find an identity, Wisconsin will continue to be a tale of two teams.
Another key area the Badgers need to find consistency in is the neutral zone. Wisconsin and Penn State alike struggled between the blue lines. The Badgers made numerous turnovers on long lead passes or skated into trouble and reduced their ability to control possession. With Wisconsin’s inability to assert dominance in the neutral zone, they struggled to create offensive zone entry, which led to diminished offensive zone possession.
Wisconsin’s power play is also failing them. The Badger power play units have been remarkably consistent — consistently poor. The Badgers are currently 3-26 on the power play, an appalling 11.5% and ranked 50th in the nation. For a struggling offense, the power play is supposed to provide the spark that fuels offensive development. The Badgers’ power play is not doing that — it is likely creating a further dejected offense.
The second Penn State game was far less competitive for the Badgers. Following a first period in which Wisconsin held the advantage in shots on goal, the Badgers played the next two periods being outshot 31-17.
The Badgers once again changed their identity in the second and third periods and did not play in a fashion that allowed them to create offensive opportunities.
Not all hope is lost for this Wisconsin team, however. The Badgers showed the most potential when they created offensive opportunities. In both games against the Nittany Lions, Wisconsin registered 32 shots on goal. The Badgers desperately need to finish plays in front of the opposing goal and find ways to score. Likewise, they must eliminate costly penalties after momentum-building shifts.
In the Penn State series, when Wisconsin held offensive zone possession, there would often be penalties called against the Badgers. The penalty calls killed any momentum and forced them back into a defensive mindset. Additionally, with a struggling offense, too many penalties will eventually lead to an insurmountable deficit which the Badger offense is not capable of overcoming. Wisconsin’s penalty killers have been incredibly effective recently — allowing only three goals in 18 opportunities. Against stronger Big Ten opponents like Minnesota and Michigan, discipline will be essential.
The Badger coaching staff must figure out how to play a full hockey game in a fashion that creates success. The players alone cannot make the necessary adjustments — proper game planning will make or break this season.
The current standard of play is not sustainable for the Badgers. If they want to fill the Kohl Center, this team must find a consistent identity that will lead to wins. Until they do, Wisconsin may be a competitive team, or, they may be disastrous. As of now, there’s no way of knowing which Wisconsin team will show up each night.