No matter who is on the roster or what the stats sheet says, some teams simply know how to beat another team, time and again.
The Wisconsin men’s hockey team (1-4-1, 1-2-1 WCHA) opened its home slate last weekend against precisely that kind of team — Colorado College (5-3-0, 2-0-0) — which always finds a way to best the Badgers.
“Sometimes teams just have your number and I have no idea why,” senior forward Ryan Little said. “We’ve struggled with them ever since I’ve been here. If I knew why I would do everything in my power to change it. It’s just how it is right now.”
Head coach Mike Eaves was unable to explain the phenomenon, especially given the extreme differences in the way the games played out Friday and Saturday.
With plenty of emotion between the rink dedication to former Wisconsin head coach Bob Johnson and the home opener Friday night, the Badgers started out hot, netting two goals in the first period. But with a weak showing in the second, emphasized by a 17-7 difference in shots on goal in favor of CC, the Tigers tied things up 2-2.
After a back-and-forth third period, the game went into overtime, where CC ended things quickly, scoring 25 seconds in for the 5-4 game-winner. The Badgers only managed 26 shots on goal to the Tigers’ 39.
Saturday night was an entirely different affair. While both teams combined for nine goals in game one of the series, CC goaltender Joe Howe made 33 saves to keep UW off the board. Colorado College netted three goals off 22 shots on goal for a 3-0 game two decision and the series sweep — for the second season in a row.
Last year, CC swept UW 4-2, 4-1 at home, and in 2010-11 it ended UW’s postseason run by winning the final two games of a best-of-three series in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. The last time the Badgers won a regular season matchup with the Tigers was Jan. 15, 2010, with a 4-0 decision in game one of a series in Colorado Springs, Colo.
If the results weren’t offensive enough for the Badgers, a Mark Zengerle broken finger adds yet another hurdle to the season.
The Badgers opened the second period of game two short-handed, as Michael Mersch was serving an interference penalty that carried over from the first period. The top centerman blocked a shot with his hand, ultimately breaking his left index finger. He reportedly knew it was broken the second it happened and will miss four-to-six weeks.
The Badgers need to find a way to fill in for Zengerle while he heals simply because it’s a tough blow to their offense. The Rochester, N.Y., native was the top returning scorer in the nation from last season, posting 13 goals and 37 assists in 2011-12 for 50 points and scoring a point in every game this season before the injury.
“Losing a guy like Mark is a big impact on the team,” junior forward Tyler Barnes said. “He’s a great player, but we can’t worry about what we could or couldn’t do without him. He’s out for now.”
“If we want to make a blanket statement, it makes it more difficult for us to score goals than it has been,” Eaves said. “… There’s going to be a hole there for a while.”
While Wisconsin didn’t give a consistent performance against Colorado College, that inconsistency was most noticeable in Friday night’s 5-4 overtime loss. With a strong first period, the Badgers didn’t keep up the pressure in the second and barely kept it up in the third.
Eaves is not one to make excuses, but he did point out the Badgers’ unfamiliarity with their own home rink in game one’s postgame press conference, noting they have not played on the Bob Johnson Rink regularly since September and instead practice at the adjacent LaBahn Arena — their new practice rink.
“I wouldn’t say that’s an excuse whatsoever,” sophomore defenseman Jake McCabe said. “Granted there is seven more feet on the width of the ice sheet but … our systems have to adapt to the different dimensions of the rink and we can’t use that as an excuse.”
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