Following the program’s longest midseason break in 53 years, Wisconsin coach Tony Granato openly wondered if the team’s physical practices would carry over into their Big Ten home opener. He didn’t have to wait long to find out.
Scoring twice in the first 6:21 of the game, Wisconsin never looked back in a 5-1 victory over Michigan State on Friday at the Kohl Center to begin the Badgers’ second half.
“When you have that big of a layoff, you’re always worried or concerned how you’re going to come out of it,” Granato said. “We had the energy. I thought we were a little sloppy at times, a little bit rusty trying to get into the game, but fortunately we were able to get a couple goals.”
Wisconsin (9-7-1, 2-1-0-0 Big Ten) got more than a couple goals, getting tallies from five separate players and assists from seven others in a performance that was all about shaking the rust off.
No Badgers team has faced a longer stretch between games since the 1963-64 season. That team – the first in the program’s modern era – went 27 days between closing the first half on Dec. 14 and next playing on Jan. 11.
This season’s UW team lost at Michigan on Dec. 10 in its last game of 2016, then had a few more days of practice before final exams and holiday travel.
“I think we have a lot more to bring,” center Trent Frederic said. “I don’t know if that was our best. We haven’t played in a long time.”
Not only was Wisconsin fighting a long layoff, but the Badgers didn’t have sophomore forward Luke Kunin (11 goals, 17 points), who was given the night off after captaining Team USA to the gold medal in the IIHF World Junior Championships in Montreal on Thursday. He’s expected back in the lineup Saturday.
Granato had two main goals for his team entering the second half – play smart and consistent. Wisconsin delivered on both those fronts when the right read led to a tally.
Defenseman Cullen Hurley hit center Jason Ford right on the stick as the center was skating between the circles. His shot from one knee got past goalie Ed Minney (31 saves) at 2:21 into the game and got UW going.
Facing a 5-on-3 advantage for 1:36, an ill-advised pass left the zone and left little time left before the first penalty cleared. Showing no panic, center Seamus Malone steered the action to the right side of the net before rifling a pass to wide-open forward Will Johnson camped at the left post. The sophomore never had an easier goal, putting UW up 3-1 at 2:40 in the second.
“We showed a lot good things,” Malone said. “We weren’t completely happy with this performance but for the first game back I think we eased our way into it and got things done.”
Entering the weekend with the worst team save percentage in college hockey, stopping only 85.8 percent of the shots on its goal, Wisconsin got a 25-save night from freshman Jack Berry.
“It could have been a lot closer,” Granato said. “Berry made some big saves for us.”
Juxtaposed to Wisconsin’s lengthy delay, the Spartans (4-12-1, 0-3-0-0) had only 10 days off during the semester break – tied for the fewest of any team in college hockey – and grinded through two physical defeats last weekend against Western Michigan and Michigan in the Great Lakes Invitational.
It showed. Even with Villiam Haag’s goal at 7:21, Michigan State was outshot 14-3 in the first period (tied for the fewest first-period attempts the Badgers allowed all season), allowed a power-play and short-handed goal in the second and couldn’t capitalize on a better third period.
“I didn’t think we came with any jump right from the beginning,” Michigan State coach Tom Anastos said. “They got those early goals and built their momentum. We got a goal, but I didn’t like our effort.”
No. 11 Ohio State 3, No. 2 Penn State 0
Senior goalie Christian Frey delivered 46 saves for his first shutout of the season for the Buckeyes (10-3-4, 2-1-0-0 Big Ten), who scored a goal in the last 2:15 of each period to register the upset. The Nittany Lions (13-2-1, 2-1-0-0) entered the game with the nation’s longest unbeaten streak at 13, last losing Oct.17.