A fantastic first season for head coach Tony Granato with the Wisconsin men’s hockey team came to an end on Saturday as the No. 18 Badgers lost a heartbreaking, double-overtime thriller to No. 15 Penn State 2-1 in the Big Ten tournament final in Detroit.
Freshman goaltender Jack Berry made 33 saves in the loss, holding the nation’s No. 2 offense to just two goals. Wisconsin peppered Penn State netminder Peyton Jones with 52 shots, but managed only one goal when junior forward Matt Ustaski poked in a rebound on the power play to tie the game 1-1 in the third period.
Despite the loss, there is much to be excited about for the future. The Badgers finished the season 20-15-1 after going 8-19-8 in 2015-16.
After an uneven start to the season, Wisconsin gelled after the holiday break and many of the underclassmen, including sophomore captain Luke Kunin, Big Ten Freshman of the Year Trent Frederic, and Big Ten Honorable Mention honoree Berry distinguished themselves throughout conference play.
Wisconsin finished the season ninth in the nation in scoring offense, averaging 3.39 goals per game. Four Badgers ended the year with double-digit goal tallies. Kunin led the team with 22, Frederic added 15, and Seamus Malone and Will Johnson had 10 each. Wisconsin loses a few seniors to graduation—most notably assistant captain Grant Besse as well as role players Aidan Cavallini and Jedd Soleway—but retains most of the young core barring departures for the NHL.
The young defense struggled at times throughout the year, allowing an average of 3.28 goals per game. There were flashes, however, and associate head coach Mark Osiecki has a history of developing talented defensemen. Senior Corbin McGuire departs, but Jake Linhart and Peter Tischke, who finished the season as the top pair, return, as do several others.
There were some growing pains among the goaltenders. Berry finished the year with a respectable 2.66 goals against average and .898 save percentage. Sophomore Matt Jurusik did well at times, but battled injuries and finished the year with a 3.70 GAA and .882 SV%, both of which will need to improve significantly if he is to see frequent ice time next season.
More than anything, Big Ten Coach of the Year Granato has brought enthusiasm back to program. The fans have started to return—Wisconsin finished the year second in the country in total attendance and averaged nearly 1,500 more fans per game than in 2015-16. Wisconsin’s more fan-friendly open style of play has certainly helped, as has the emergence of stars such as Kunin and Frederic.
After several years in the wilderness, Wisconsin men’s hockey is back to being competitive. The growth in 2016-17 was encouraging and there is much to look forward to next season.