Senior forward Brock Caufield took the puck as he wheeled into his own zone.
He gathered, circled and skated through the neutral zone and directly in-between two Yale defenders. A power crossover step with his right skate had him going directly into the body of a Bulldog. As the defender closed, he quickly moved the puck to his forehand, where he sniped a shot through the legs of the backchecker, and over the right blocker of Yale’s Nathan Reid.
For the first time since the previous season’s Big Ten Tournament, the Wisconsin Badgers men’s hockey team was 60 minutes away from a trophy.
No, this trophy was not a national championship or even a conference championship, but it was a trophy nonetheless, and it was a trophy that the struggling Badgers desperately needed.
It had been 9 months since Wisconsin separated from Cole Caufield, Dylan Holloway, Linus Weissbach, Ty Pelton-Byce and one of the best teams in school history. But, the Cardinal and White were playing for a championship once again.
Much like last year’s trophy games, the Badgers started down. After two periods, Wisconsin trailed by two and looked at another disappointing result in what had been a long string of disappointing results.
But, for the first time in what felt like a long time, it was Wisconsin that got the good bounce. Freshman Corson Ceulemans snapped a wrister from the near-corner that somehow hit off Providence’s Chase Yoder, and through the legs of Providence goalie Jaxson Stauber.
All of the sudden, Wisconsin was playing like the team that was ranked in the top-15 of nearly every preseason poll.
It took a while, but a rebound shot through traffic by Mathieu De St. Phalle somehow got through Stauber and into the back of the net. It was his second in as many days, and the second of the game by Wisconsin to even the score with just a few minutes left.
A fast-paced overtime resulted in nothing. But a Zach Urdahl shootout winner had the Badgers celebrating while “Jump Around” played through a half-full Fiserv Forum.
No, it wasn’t a national championship game, but this year’s Badgers raised a trophy to the sky.
The year did not go as planned for Tony Granato and his Badgers. He does not need anyone to tell him that at Wisconsin, a season like that is a massive disappointment.
Wisconsin walked out of Fiserv Forum that late Friday night with a 6-12-2 record. They weren’t playing great, but they were coming out of the hardest part of their schedule with a trophy, a road win over Michigan and a home overtime thrilling victory over arch-rival Minnesota.
They had more than a week off, a relatively light part of their schedule in front of them and some well-deserved confidence.
These Badgers fought, don’t let that be forgotten.
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With just over five minutes left in their second game of a home series of Ohio State, the Badgers held a lead with a chance to make another big splash.
The night before, they led these same Buckeyes going into the third period. But three unanswered Ohio State goals had Wisconsin leaving the rink with yet another heartbreaking loss.
But, this night seemed to be different. Wisconsin was dominating No. 17 Ohio State again, and Jesper Peltonen had just scored his first career goal to give the Badgers a late lead.
It took 40 seconds for Ohio State’s Georgii Merkulov to tie the game. While the game was officially scored as a tie, Ohio State won in a shootout.
The Badgers left a weekend where they led the No. 17 team in the country after two periods both nights, winless. The disappointment was felt, and it carried over to the rest of the season.
Wisconsin lost nine of their next 12 games, and they lost by multiple goals in seven of those contests.
It was ugly. The offense was missing and the defense seemed disoriented. The injuries piled up as the losses did too, and mercilessly, the regular season came to a close with an abysmal series against Minnesota, in which the Badgers were outscored 13-0.
The season where nothing went right ended after the most embarrassing losses of all.
In the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, Wisconsin came out flying. For the first time in a long time, they had gotten a break, and the reset button seemed like it may have been hit. They out-worked, out-pressured and ultimately out-scored a Notre Dame team that was flat-out better than them.
Ceulemans scored again, and Jared Moe had his best game of the season. Suddenly, Wisconsin had a bit of confidence, and they found themselves just 60 minutes away from advancing in the conference tournament.
But the next 60 minutes did not go their way, and neither did the 60 after that. Ultimately the Badgers fell flat again. The scoring touch that eluded this team all year was missing, and it eventually ended their season.
It was hard to give up on these Badgers. Everything went against them from day one.
They lost almost everything from a season ago, but for some reason, this was never treated as a rebuilding year. The pre-season rankings put unnecessary pressure and expectations on this year’s club.
This season needs to be recognized, noted and moved on from by Tony Granato and his staff. Just 12 months ago they were Big Ten regular-season champions and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
They lost their top four scorers, their top defensive pair, their goalie and their captain. But these Wisconsin Badgers didn’t lose their fight.
The seniors deserve to be honored for their contributions to the program — Roman Ahcan, Josh Ess, Caufield, Jack Gorniak, Tyler Inamoto, Max Johnson, Dominick Mersch, Peltonen and team captain Tarek Baker. These nine men brought a conference championship and an NCAA Tournament berth to a program that desperately needed it.
These guys did not give up on their team, their coach or their season until the very end, and their effort should be saluted.
Wisconsin will be back. They will have a lot of new pieces and one of the youngest rosters in America, but the talent will be there.
This season was less than ideal, but the future is coming quickly.