At the midpoint of the season, here’s head coach Mike Eaves’ verdict on the Wisconsin men’s hockey team: not quite yet.
After a 3-3 tie with visiting No. 1 Minnesota-Duluth in the series opener, Eaves hoped the Badgers would take a step forward in the second game. Instead, UW fell behind early and lost a 4-2 game at the Kohl Center to head into the midseason break.
“What was disappointing is we that didn’t take that mental step to come out and be that dictating team,” Eaves said. “That’s just a sign that we’re not ready for that step, we’re still awful young.”
After an encouraging performance Friday, the Badgers found themselves down 4-0 entering the third period Saturday night. Goaltender Joel Rumpel was pulled midway through the second period after giving up his fourth goal of the night and replaced with Landon Peterson.
And while the Badgers were able to come out strong in the first game of the series and take a 2-0 lead in the first period Friday, the Bulldogs asserted themselves immediately Saturday night.
Jack Connolly scored 1:39 into the game, firing a shot from the right half-wall that went off UW defenseman Justin Schultz’s leg and past Rumpel. Up 2-0 in the second period, the Bulldogs got another fortunate bounce, as a long shot from Brady Lamb missed the net but bounced hard off the boards and came right to Travis Oleksuk, who just needed to tap the puck in and give UMD a 3-0 lead.
“I thought the first two periods tonight were some of our better periods,” UMD head coach Scott Sandelin said. “Just how we were playing; I liked their energy, we were defending well, guys were in the right positions.
While UW didn’t take the step it wanted to, the young Badger squad did see a Bulldogs team that has two things that elude Wisconsin: experience and the ability to win on the road.
UMD improved to 5-0-3 on the road this season and also improved the longest current unbeaten streak in the nation (12-0-3). Wisconsin is 0-5-1 on the road this season and despite putting together a sweep of then-No. 5 North Dakota in October and a split with then-No. 1 Minnesota, hasn’t been able to put together a consistent stretch of wins.
So did UW take another step back with the loss?
“I don’t know. It’s tough to say. I don’t really think so,” sophomore Mark Zengerle said. “We’re playing a tough team, I mean it’s our own rink and we want to win, obviously. But at the same time, we’re missing two big guys in our lineup.”
It took a gutsy coaching maneuver and some Bulldogs penalties for the Badgers to finally score, as they played without a goaltender for 5:42 of the game, the bulk of it at the end of the third period with UW on the power play. Drew Olson was called for checking from behind, giving the Badgers a five-minute power play. At one point, there were six Badger skaters on the ice to three Bulldogs.
“I have to be honest with you, the six-on-three with the empty net was Shuey’s (assistant coach Gary Shuchuk) idea,” Eaves said. “He’s been selling that to us for a couple of years since he’s been with our staff. He says, ‘Coach, this works, this works.'”
It worked, as UW scored on a six-on-four and a five-on-four advantage. Freshman Brad Navin scored on a nice centering pass from Schultz at 12:41 of the third. Mark Zengerle extended his point streak to 17 games with his eighth goal of the year, putting away a rebound after Tyler Barnes made a strong drive to the net.
Friday night, Wisconsin blew 2-0 and 3-2 leads in a 3-3 tie that pushed the Badgers to 0-3-2 this season in overtime games and 1-12-21 in their last 34 overtime contests.
Schultz had a two-goal night and gave the Badgers a short 3-2 lead 28 seconds into the third period.
The Bulldogs tied the game less than three minutes later on a long shot at 3:32 of the third period. Caleb Herbert was credited with the goal.
UW certainly got its chances to put UMD away. The Badgers had eight power plays – four in the second period alone – and converted on only one. Wisconsin spent a combined 12:18 on the man-advantage, but was unable to get much through a Minnesota Duluth penalty kill unit that collapsed around the net and took away shooting lanes.
There wasn’t much the Badgers could do but shake their heads and smile.
“We came on the bench one time and were laughing because we had so many chances,” Zengerle said.
Minnesota Duluth got goals from Scott Kishel and Wade Bergman early in the second period to tie the game at two. After a rough first period, the Bulldogs looked more poised and dangerous the rest of the game, while the Badgers’ youth began to show.
Navin put the Badgers up 1-0 at of the first, scoring his first collegiate goal by tipping a Frankie Simonelli shot.
Wisconsin doesn’t play again until an exhibition game against the U.S. Under-18 team Dec. 31. Eaves didn’t get the step forward he wanted Saturday night, but is hopeful it will come in the second half of the season.
“We told the boys in the locker room right after, ‘we want to be very clear with you where we stand right now; we like this group of young men that we have in the locker room,” he said. “We see moments that are very encouraging. Those moments have to be more consistent and that consistency is going to come as we grow up together.'”