STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — It could have been the breaking point for a team coming to the end of a losing season.
Instead, University of Wisconsin men’s hockey players have used what happened the last time they opened a series at Penn State as a point to move in a positive direction to launch the Big Ten Conference playoffs.
Two weeks ago, the Badgers were embarrassed by the Nittany Lions 8-2 at Pegula Ice Arena to start the penultimate regular-season series. What happened on the ice was only the start.
No one was willing to share the specifics, but it’s apparent that there were some strong words said when the team returned to its locker room.
“It was what you’d expect after a game like that,” forward Sean Dhooghe said. “Guys really have got to hold each other accountable.”
The demoralizing loss pushed the Badgers six games under .500 — the worst in three seasons under coach Tony Granato — and ensured a losing conference record. That they weren’t competitive in the game was disheartening to them, and they let each other know it.
“It was pretty frustrating,” goaltender Daniel Lebedeff said. “But we just settled everything in the locker room.”
It’s one thing to talk things through and another to back up the words. The Badgers have done the latter since the episode.
UW takes a three-game winning streak into a best-of-three Big Ten quarterfinal series at No. 18 Penn State that starts Friday.
There have been two clear wake-up call moments for the Badgers this season. After the first — a sweep at Ohio State in November — they went six games without a loss but then lost momentum with a three-week break.
The loss at Pegula was the second, and UW responded with a 7-3 victory over the Nittany Lions and two overtime victories over Michigan. It was the first time in the last five seasons that the Badgers finished the regular season with a victory.
“Their quick response in being able to turn it around just 24 hours later against the same team was something that was important for them to gain confidence in each other, to say, ‘Hey, if we’re going to salvage something out of this year we’ve got to change and make amends for what happened,'” Granato said.
The Badgers are 2-1-1 against Penn State this season, with a 3-3 tie and an 8-5 victory at the Kohl Center in the first half of the season. But playing against the Nittany Lions, the nation’s top-scoring team, often has been a challenge.
Penn State does better than perhaps anyone in college hockey of quickly turning an innocent-looking play into an offensive chance. What UW was able to do when it won at Pegula last month, however, was a blueprint for success.
The best way to keep Penn State from mounting sustained offensive pressure is to keep the puck off of its players’ sticks. By controlling the puck themselves, the Badgers were able to do that and keep the Nittany Lions from getting into their comfort zone of heavy shot production until UW had a lead.
“It’s all about puck management this weekend,” defenseman Peter Tischke said. “I think our forwards have been doing a great job with that, really getting back and tracking back and hunting the puck.”
UW scored at least seven goals twice against Penn State this season, but Granato said his team isn’t ready to play the same free-wheeling style as this weekend’s opponent.
“If we can play under control and be disciplined with lots of our different parts of our game, we’ll have a chance to make them play in their own end,” he said. “And if we can do that, we’ve had some success in three games of the four.”
In the fourth, Granato said the Badgers tried to trade chances with the Nittany Lions, and it ended up with the six-goal loss that led to the locker room discussion.
The week leading into that game also included Granato handing out punishments to freshman forward Roman Ahcan and
junior goalie Jack Berry for undisclosed, off-ice incidents. So there were already the making of some frayed nerves going into that series.
“We had a good talk and we really figured out what we had to do and what needed to be done the rest of the season to make a push for things,” Tischke, UW’s captain, said of the aftermath of that Friday game.
“Everyone got on each other,” forward Matthew Freytag said. “We came together as a team the next day and you could see it: We had fun again. That was the biggest thing.”
Said Granato: “Some things needed to be said, and they were said.”
Now the Badgers are playing to keep their season going, and they’re in a better place mentally than they were that fateful Friday night two weeks ago.
“We’ve got some good momentum with us, good chemistry, everything in the locker room,” Freytag said. “So I think it’s going to be fun to watch, for sure.”