The University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team couldn’t dig its way out of a hole created by a poor start this time.
The problems went deeper than that in a lackluster Sunday at the Kohl Center for the Badgers.
No. 19 UW suffered from a lack of intensity in long stretches of a 3-1 loss to Michigan that gave the Wolverines a Big Ten Conference series split and sent the Badgers back under .500.
They allowed a pair of 2-on-0 rushes, one of which turned into a critical Michigan short-handed goal. They were outworked in the faceoff circle.
But in the end, it came back to another unenthusiastic start to the game. UW was able to get a tie at Minnesota and a victory against Michigan after falling behind by two goals in its previous two games but couldn’t draw on that same plan again Sunday.
“You’re not going to win consistently like that, if you don’t start the game and take control of it and how you want to play and set the tone,” Badgers coach Tony Granato said.
Luke Morgan finished off a 2-on-0 short-handed rush in the second period to give Michigan a 2-0 lead, and Strauss Mann stopped 28 shots to deliver a first conference win for the Wolverines (5-9-2, 1-6-1-0 Big Ten).
Seven minutes into the first period, Michigan was outshooting UW 11-2. Nearly 15 minutes in, the Wolverines had won 15 of 17 faceoffs.
Captain Wyatt Kalynuk didn’t have an answer for why slow starts have continued to plague the Badgers (7-8-1, 2-5-1-1).
“I wish I did,” he said. “I wish I could put my finger on it. That’s just hockey sometimes. I wish I could tell you what our problem starting games would be, because it would be easy to fix it.”
Cole Caufield scored for the first time in five games, a power-play goal with 5:28 remaining in the third period that cut the Badgers’ deficit to 2-1 and at long last gave them some life.
Less than a minute later, however, UW defenseman Ty Emberson was called for a minor penalty that became a five-minute major and game misconduct for contact to the head after the referees checked the replay. Emberson hit Nick Pastujov in the face mask.
That changed the Badgers from a team ready for a late push to one that had to search for an equalizer while short-handed.
“That’s the right call, based on the fact that anything to the head (is called a major),” Granato said. “Ty’s probably the cleanest player in the game tonight, but his hands got up a bit as he was trying to defend. Unfortunately, he was a little high on it. Bad timing for a penalty like that.”
Michigan finished the game on the power play and got an empty-net goal from Jake Slaker in the final minute.
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The Wolverines won 60% of the faceoffs (42-28), using an early push that got the Badgers off their game.
“Sometimes it’s technical and there’s skill. And sometimes it’s just an intensity,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “I thought not only the centers but other guys helped immensely on it tonight.”
The early numerical disparities accurately represented the flow of the game: The Wolverines had the chances and the Badgers were chasing.
And it took only 2:23 for Michigan to jump ahead on freshman Eric Ciccolini’s first collegiate goal. Morgan beat Badgers defenseman K’Andre Miller wide up the left side and found Ciccolini open in front of the net.
UW got settled later in the opening period and outshot the Wolverines 13-5 over the final 13 minutes. But the team’s two best chances — both coming off rare faceoff wins in the offensive zone — hit the post off the sticks of Sean Dhooghe and Kalynuk.
Another Badgers shot off the post in the second period, this one by Caufield on the power play, turned into a Michigan short-handed 2-on-0 rush when the puck rolled around the boards and out of the zone.
With UW’s Alex Turcotte, Dylan Holloway and Roman Ahcan trailing the play, Michigan’s Garrett Van Wyhe raced ahead and set up Morgan for an easy putaway past sprawling Badgers goaltender Daniel Lebedeff and a 2-0 lead.
“We were all going forward there and we couldn’t get back,” Caufield said. “It’s a tough goal to allow there. There’s nothing Daniel could have done about it; it’s a 2-on-0. The bounces weren’t going our way tonight.”
Even with two power plays, the Badgers had only four shots on goal in the second period. That was a season low for a regulation period and tied the lowest period output in 126 games under Granato.
Lebedeff made a season-high 40 saves — Michigan outshot the Badgers 43-29 — but got only one goal of offensive support as UW fell at home to Michigan for the first time in nine tries.
“We’ve got to just find ways to dig down deep and figure it out,” Caufield said, “because this is just going to keep happening.”
Michigan 1 1 1 — 3
Wisconsin 0 0 1 — 1
First period: M — Ciccolini 1 (Morgan, Raabe), 2:23. Penalties: Baker, W, 3:22; Holloway, W, 18:00.
Second period: M — Morgan 1 (Van Wyhe), 2:55 (sh). Penalties: Luce, M, 1:49; Summers, M, 8:37; Kalynuk, W, 18:50.
Third period: W — C. Caufield 10 (Miller), 14:32 (pp). M — Slaker 2 (Lambert, Lockwood), 19:14 (en, pp). Penalties: Inamoto, W, 3:11; N. Pastujov, M, 3:11; Emberson, W (major, game misconduct), 15:17.
Saves: M (Mann 15-4-9) 28; W (Lebedeff 15-10-15) 40. Power plays: M 1-for-5; W 1-for-3. Att. — 9,571.