MADISON -- Things have improved for the Badger men's hockey team since last season's abysmal four-win season, but tonight's game against the Gophers showed that Wisconsin still has plenty left to do before they can be a player in the Big Ten again.
The Gophers won 4-0, but neither team is likely happy with their performance tonight. Though they scored on the power play, the Gophers were plagued with the poor passing on special teams that the Badgers struggled with the whole game.
It was a well-matched first period - both teams had 12 shots on goal and the lone goal came from Hudson Fasching on a power play. But from there, the cracks started to show for Wisconsin as they failed to complete passes and generally looked a lot more like the team that took the ice early last season than one in the second-half of this season.
"Our play with the puck wasn’t what I expected - what we’ve seen recently. We had trouble connecting the dots, making passes and catching passes and sometimes that happens and you’ve got to adapt to the fact that you don’t have your A-game and you have to go to your B-game and what you’re B-game is all about is simplifying –winning races," said Eaves. "I thought some of our guys who were struggling tried to do too much with the puck and that created turnovers for them and odd-man rushes. I think a mature athlete understands that and that was kind of a lesson of tonight – fellas, if you don’t have your A-game, keep it simple. Do the little things that allow you to keep it simple and then we could maybe get ourselves back into it."
There never seemed to be a point where Wisconsin looked like the had a shot to get back in the game, but Minnesota's second-period short-handed goal seemed to be the death knell on the Badgers' fight to win the game. Their willingness to fight, however, emerged.
These teams are never on good terms and both are having less-than-desirable seasons. The ensuing frustration boiled over more often than not Friday night as both teams pushed, shoved and fought their way through three periods.
It was already a chippy game and the refs let a lot of things slide, leading to both teams pushing the limits of allowable play. There were 2 penalties. If the refs don't change how they call Saturday's game, expect even more penalties.
By the third period, neither team was doing much in the way of playing hockey. It took the Gophers seven minutes to get a shot on goal. It took almost ten for the Badgers to accomplish the feat.
Just a week ago an anonymous writer published a scathing take-down of Gopher coach Don Lucia, but you wouldn't know it as the Gophers were faster, cleaner and sharper than the Badgers from the moment the puck dropped. The Badgers have, at times, shown sparks of what could be, but still struggle to string much together. And no one on this Badgers team is good enough to try and do it all on their own.
There were flashes of brilliance, including a Grant Besse shorty attempt late in the game and a gorgeous series by Cameron Hughes that featured a dangle and getting launched across the goal mouth. But Wisconsin failed to complete basic passes and gave up possession, especially on the power play.
The students only managed to fill the lower bowl portion of their section and it was empty long before the final period ended. Coach Mike Eaves attributed his teams woes to growing pains in a pre-taped interview shown before the game started, but its clear the paying public is showing their displeasure. Not too long ago, a Badgers/Gopher game would have the Kohl Center filled to the brim and there wouldn't have been a quiet moment from start to finish. Maybe most telling about the status of both of these teams is how Gopher fans did not travel for the series. Not once in four goals was the Minnesota "rouser" audible in the press box.
Credit goes to the student section members who did show, as they loudly made their displeasure with the refs known on more than one occasion.
And despite the growing pains that Eaves talked about, Senior Eddie Wittchow isn't interested in using inexperience as a crutch anymore.
"(Being young) is only an excuse for so long. Coach says we don’t have any freshman after Christmas and we’re firm believers in that. Everyone knows our systems by this time. Everyone knows the ins and outs of being a college hockey player. We definitely do not want to make that excuse anymore and we hope people don’t make that excuse for us. It’s time for us to start winning games," he said.
Sophomore Matt Ustaski was a late scratch and he was replaced by freshman Peter Tischke. Ustaski was slotted on the fourth line up front and Tischke was added in as a seventh defender.
The teams return to the ice Saturday night to complete the series. Eaves said he's happy the Badgers get chance to hit the ice again and "reset the mechanism" as they try to forget tonight's contest and try again.