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Sunday, March 03, 2024
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Wisconsin falls in Big Ten Tournament to Michigan, leading to program changes

The Badgers’ nightmare season finally came to a close this past weekend against Michigan in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. After losing two winnable games, the university decided to cut ties with coach Tony Granato.

After splitting several series with high-ranking Big Ten opponents, the Wisconsin Badgers men’s hockey team (13-23-0) trotted into the Big Ten Tournament with high aspirations. By Sunday morning, they were boarding the buses back to Madison struggling to comprehend what more they could’ve done against the No. 4 Michigan Wolverines (22-11-3).

Wisconsin suffered two soul-crushing defeats in the best-of-three quarterfinals round, leading to an early exit from the tournament. Two days later, head coach Tony Granato, sustained his own unceremonious exit — a firing from the team.


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Friday

The Badgers could taste victory Friday night at Yost Ice Arena, as they held a lead with less than a minute left in regulation. That taste quickly went sour, however, after the Wolverines netted two unanswered goals — the latter coming in overtime — to take the series opener, 6-5. 

In a back-and-forth battle featuring five lead changes, Wisconsin seemed to have the last laugh at 6:39 in the closing frame. Zach Urdahl picked the pocket of a Michigan blueliner and directed the puck to Dominick Mersch, who sped down the ice on a breakaway and buried it home to give the Badgers a 5-4 lead. Just 19 seconds prior, Mathieu De St. Phalle notched his third goal of the night to even the score at four.

With the game nearing its end, Michigan appeared to respond with an equalizing goal. Freshman Adam Fantilli’s score at 18:45 in the third was called back for too many men on the ice, all but squandering the Wolverines’ comeback hopes. Yet Mackie Samoskevich provided the game-tying goal with 23.9 seconds left in regulation after his shot deflected off a Badgers' skate and dribbled over the goal line.

Both sides exchanged a flurry of shots in the opening minutes of overtime, though it was Michigan who found the back of the net first. Steven Holtz’s wrister from the point at 9:06 in the extra period served as the game's killshot, handing Michigan the 6-5 victory. Several months earlier, the junior defenseman nearly lost his life due to adenovirus complications.

Despite the disheartening loss, the Badgers’ valiant effort should not be overlooked. De St. Phalle led the pack with his first career hat trick and the first for Wisconsin since Cole Caufield accomplished the feat vs. Ohio State on Feb. 27, 2021. 

The junior forward gave the Badgers their first lead of the night on a delayed-penalty call at 8:18 in the opening frame. Sam Stange danced in from the Big Ten logo and fired the puck on net, where De St. Phalle was waiting to deflect it in for the 2-1 advantage. 

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Following consecutive scores by Michigan’s Seamus Casey and Fantilli in the second period, De St. Phalle netted his second goal at 16:44 in the middle frame. The power-play goal re-tied the contest, 3-3, but the Wolverines reclaimed the lead with a PPG of their own in the closing seconds of the period.

Saturday

The Badgers fell just short of a miraculous comeback Saturday night, erasing a seemingly insurmountable 4-1 deficit before losing to the Wolverines, 7-4.

Wisconsin trailed by as many as three goals in the second period, though stormed back into contention thanks once again to the heroics of De St. Phalle. The Lake Forest, Illinois native followed up his hat trick performance from the night prior with two goals and an assist.

Cruz Lucius kickstarted the comeback after dishing the puck to De St. Phalle, who fended off a Michigan skater and wristed it past goaltender Erik Portillo to pull within two, 4-2. A little over five minutes later, he corralled a loose puck in front of the crease and roofed it home to halve the Badgers' deficit, 4-3. 

Carson Bantle supplied the equalizer at 3:09 in the third period. Brock Caufield collected the rebound of Tyson Jugnauth’s shot from the point and threaded a cross-zone feed to Bantle, who tapped it in from the back door.


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Wisconsin stood toe-to-toe with the higher-seeded Michigan for much of the closing frame, but couldn’t prevent a last-minute scoring barrage by the Wolverines. Goals by Nolan Moyle, T.J. Hughes and Samoskevich all within the final 2:20 of play put the finishing touches on Michigan’s 7-4 win and Big Ten quarterfinal series sweep. 

Lucius netted a PPG at 10:49 in the opening frame to even the score at one. His goal was quickly overshadowed by Fantilli, however, who buried three consecutive goals in the first and second periods to establish a comfortable lead for Michigan. 

The aftermath

The Badgers ended their disappointing season 13-23-0, marking the fifth losing season in seven years under head coach Tony Granato. After finishing 10-24-3 in 2021-22 — Wisconsin’s second-worst modern-era record — the pressure was mounting for the Badgers to significantly improve this year. Another last-place finish in the Big Ten and early departure from the tournament was certainly not the desired result.

Athletic Director Chris McIntosh previously showed his willingness to enact changes at the leadership level when results were poor with the firing of head football coach Paul Chryst. On Monday, he reaffirmed this notion with the release of Granato.  

“This program has a history and a legacy that has the highest of expectations, and it deserves a chance at getting back to a championship level consistently,” McIntosh said during an impromptu press conference. “The expectations that we have necessitate difficult decisions to be made. I want nothing more than the players in this program to enjoy the level of success that generations of players before them have enjoyed here.”

McIntosh described the head coaching position as a “wide-open blank slate” that will be filled following a thorough national search. The hope will be to find a leader who can transform Wisconsin into the college hockey juggernaut they once were.

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