Wisconsin returned to conference play last weekend in a two game series against Michigan. The Badgers entered the weekend without a conference win while Michigan entered ranked No. 5 in the nation. Wisconsin managed to split the series, taking their first conference win on Friday night.
Here’s what we learned against Michigan.
Wisconsin played with a revitalized style against the Wolverines. They played with more willingness to attack and apply pressure, forcing Michigan into errors the Badgers could exploit.
The new style utilized against Michigan showed potential as Wisconsin was able to not only remain competitive with a worthy Big Ten adversary but even defeat them over the course of two games.
Wisconsin will need to make certain adjustments to maintain a high level of play with their new identity. For one, the Badgers must learn to play at higher speeds. This may be their most difficult challenge as a mistake-prone team because decisions must be made faster.
The series against Michigan showed the learning curve Wisconsin faces as they committed plenty of unforced errors. With time, however, mistakes may gradually decrease, and Wisconsin could finally become competitive as they learn their style.
Wisconsin’s turnovers on Saturday cost them a chance to win both games against Michigan. The game was tied at 2-2 when Michigan scored shorthanded due to an unforced turnover in Wisconsin’s defensive end. The goal, which came with 6:42 left in the game, put Wisconsin in a hole they could not climb out of, leading to their defeat.
While one turnover in the Saturday game led to a game-winning goal, Wisconsin’s turnover woes were present over the course of the weekend. This is a byproduct of their new system, but it must be cleaned up immediately.
Wisconsin managed to create offensive opportunities when they had possession of the puck, which must continue if they hope to turn their season around. Once Wisconsin solves their turnover issues, they should expect more success in the offensive zone.
Power play struggles continue
The power play has not been a bright spot for Wisconsin all season, and last weekend was no exception. The Badgers had six power play opportunities in each game and managed to score only once. Wisconsin is now ranked 45th in the nation with a 15.3% efficiency with the extra skater.
Part of Wisconsin’s struggle on the power play against Michigan was the inability to maintain possession upon offensive zone entry or defensive zone breakouts. Often, the Wisconsin strategy for offensive zone entry was to shoot the puck along the boards only for it to be stopped by a Michigan player behind their net and cleared. Upon that clearance, Wisconsin encountered a high pressure penalty kill which stymied Wisconsin’s breakout attempts.
Part of Wisconsin’s trouble is a lack of options. They failed to create viable passing lanes which could have opened up the Michigan defense. Usually, the Badgers’ power play breakout consists of two players below the goal line with a third swinging either through the defensive zone or behind the net. The other two players are in or near the neutral zone where Michigan could create coverage. The neutral zone coverage then prevents a smooth zone entry.
Wisconsin needs to open some options to create space and move up ice to gain the offensive zone where they can establish dominance.
Penalty kill shines
Wisconsin’s special teams are not completely lost. They prevented Michigan from scoring a single power play goal. Michigan entered the weekend operating at 29.4% on the power play, ranking second in the nation. Wisconsin killed all eight penalties they received, including a five minute check from behind assessed to Charlie Stramel in Saturday’s game.
Resisting Michigan’s power play was an enormous feat, one which Wisconsin’s penalty killers should be incredibly proud of. While the next series against Minnesota should be another challenge, the Gophers operate at 24.1% efficiency — the Badger penalty killers should enter play with enormous confidence.
Offense heating up
Wisconsin’s offense started the season incredibly slow but has slowly started to heat up. In the past three series, Wisconsin scored seven, nine and eight goals respectively. Compared to the start of the season when the Badgers scored more than one goal in only three of their opening six games, the offense has come alive.
Part of this newfound success is Wisconsin’s ability to create high quality shots. In their series against Michigan, Wisconsin found success with shots from the blue line through screens. Michigan goalie Erik Portillo struggled to make saves on such opportunities.
Additionally, Wisconsin was able to combine their puck movement to create quality shots. When Wisconsin was able to create quality, they also found the back of the net.
With rival Minnesota next for Wisconsin, many positives can be taken from their split against Michigan. With a few adjustments, Wisconsin may be able to turn their season around and salvage some success after winter break.