Wisconsin’s opening-night shutout win over then No. 10 Boston College caught the attention of the college hockey community and signalled that the Badgers had the talent to exceed expectations in 2018-’19. But given the program’s recent history, what they did the next night seemed even more significant.
In December 2011, Tony Granato received a phone call. An old friend from college had gotten a new job and was moving into town, and Granato was supposed to help him find a place to live. It was a normal story, except for a few details; Granato was an assistant coach for the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins and his old friend was Paul Chryst, who had just been named the newest head football coach at Pittsburgh.
The No. 16 Wisconsin Badgers (0-0-0 Big Ten, 4-4-0 overall) dropped both games of their weekend set to the No. 14 North Dakota Fighting Hawks (0-0-0 NCHC, 4-2-1 overall). Friday’s contest ended in a 5-0 blowout in favor of the Fighting Hawks, and Saturday night’s contest ended just seconds into overtime as Jacob Bernard-Docker found the back of the net for North Dakota, giving it a 3-2 win.
Five-on-five, Wisconsin played well enough. It battled for loose pucks, tracked back to shut down odd-man rushes and got traffic in front of the net to disrupt the opposing goaltender’s eyes and rhythm. The Badgers allowed a goal, but they scored one, too. It wasn’t a stellar performance, but it was good enough to have a chance at a win.
By numbers alone, Wisconsin’s men’s hockey team was always going to be reliant on its underclassmen this year.
As a freshman, it took Sean Dhooghe 22 games and three months to score four goals for the UW men's hockey team. On the first road trip of his sophomore year, it took him just five and a half periods.
Nearly two years ago to the day, head coach Tony Granato made his home coaching debut against a top-10 Boston College team and left with a statement win. The same script played out again Friday night as an unranked Badger squad (0-0-0 Big Ten, 1-0-0 overall) welcomed the No. 10 Eagles (0-0-0 Hockey East, 0-1-0 overall) to the Kohl Center and captured a 3-0 upset.
When head coach Tony Granato took over the Wisconsin men’s hockey program in the spring of 2016, he was agreeing to take stewardship not just of a team, but of an entire culture.
For the first time since the 2013-’14 season, the Wisconsin Badgers had legitimate NCAA Tournament expectations heading into their season.
Leading up to its first round series against Michigan, the Wisconsin’s men’s hockey team emphasized the importance of treating the Big Ten Tournament as a new season.
“We don't want to think about what’s happened in the past. It’s a clean slate.” As sophomore forward Max Zimmer alluded to earlier this week, Friday marks the start of essentially a new season for Wisconsin.
With an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament out of the picture, and little chance of capturing home-ice advantage for the first round of the Big Ten tournament, Wisconsin’s men’s hockey team entered Columbus for its final series of the regular season looking to recapture some momentum after a deflating home finale. After a pair of four-goal beatdowns at the hands of No. 6 Ohio State (14-8-2 Big Ten, 21-8-5 overall), the Badgers (14-17-4, 8-13-3) have acquired plenty of momentum — that of a stone dropped from a cliff, rather than a team surging into the postseason. Wisconsin started the weekend off strong, and took it to the heavily-favored Buckeyes for the first 40 minutes of Friday’s game.
Friday nights haven’t been kind to Wisconsin this year — the Badgers have dropped numerous series openers in disappointing fashion — but just about every time they’ve bounced back with a strong performance the following night.
Sometimes good just isn’t good enough. By just about any measure, Wisconsin (8-10-3 Big Ten, 14-14-4 overall) played well Friday night against Minnesota (8-10-1, 17-13-1). The Badgers skated well, controlled play for extended stretches, crashed the net and got a strong performance from senior goaltender Kyle Hayton.
In Wisconsin’s opening game of its first series against Minnesota, the Badgers dominated the Gophers for almost the entire game, outscoring them 4-1 over 49 minutes and 34 seconds of the 60 minute contest.
Hockey is vastly different than any other sport. It’s remarkably fast, uniquely physical and fiercely emotional.
Wisconsin and Michigan are both in full desperation mode. No. 18 Wisconsin (7-8-2-1 Big Ten, 13-12-3-0 Overall) will likely need to go around 4-2 over its last six games and have a pretty successful Big Ten Tournament run in order to make the postseason.
It wasn’t a win, but you couldn’t have told that from the reaction of Wisconsin’s bench as they streamed onto the ice. The emotional outpouring, from Jack Berry’s exuberant sliding fist pump to Peter Tischke’s elated hugs, wasn’t about the extra point in the conference standings that the Badgers had just earned as much as the expression of a team that has finally found its confidence after months of underperforming expectations.
For the majority of Wisconsin’s games this season, the story has been this: UW played well, but it still couldn’t win. With only a few series to go and No. 18 UW (7-8-2 Big Ten, 13-12-3 overall) sitting outside the top-16, close losses and moral victories are no longer enough for the Badgers. And while No. 14 Penn State (6-8-3-2, 13-11-3) led Wisconsin for the majority of the night, and the story of UW’s season looked like it was destined to repeat itself, the Badgers found a way to rewrite the script and come from behind in a thrilling 4-2 victory.