The rate at which the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team scored on the power play to start the season seemed unsustainable.
Few with the Badgers probably imagined the regression would have been as extreme as it has turned out.
UW has scored just twice on 29 power-play tries over the past six games, a conversion rate that ranks among the 10 worst in the country in that time.
With the ability to send three first-round NHL draft picks out on the top unit with two other skilled offensive players, the downturn is stunning to say the least.
The Badgers and the Fighting Irish play Big Ten Conference games at the Kohl Center on Friday and Saturday.
“Teams have done a good job of fronting certain shooters,” Badgers coach Tony Granato said, “and we haven’t responded and made the plays that are available to us.”
That’s the straightforward answer, with Cole Caufield and his dangerous shot from the left circle drawing a heavy defensive presence from opponents after the team was 5-for-10 after one weekend and 7-for-18 through four games.
And when a team is trying to work its way out of a power-play funk, one of the last opponents it wants to see walking through the door is No. 4 Notre Dame.
But that’s the 15th-ranked Badgers’ fate on Friday and Saturday in a Big Ten Conference series at the Kohl Center that matches a slumping UW power play against one of the nation’s best — and most lightly used — penalty kills.
Asked this week how they plan to work themselves out of what ails them on the power play, Badgers players pointed to two factors: shooting volume and traffic in front of the net.
The latter issue has come up frequently when UW has experienced difficulty scoring.
“I think defensemen, especially on the power play, they need to see someone in front of the goalie,” Badgers captain Wyatt Kalynuk said. “Because you’re not beating anyone from the blue line with no traffic. I think guys need to shoot pucks more, but being in front of the goalie is more of an issue right now.”
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That wasn’t a problem over the first two weeks of the season as the Badgers’ initial top unit — first-round picks Caufield, Alex Turcotte and K’Andre Miller, Kalynuk and Linus Weissbach — had openings to move the puck.
Opponents learn from a team’s successes, however, and opportunities to set up a good-looking scoring try have been harder to come by lately.
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“I think we’re overthinking it right now,” said Caufield, who scored two power-play goals on opening night and has one since. “We’ve got a bunch of good players that are on the power play. You’ve just got to outwork them. We’ve got one more guy than they do. So the puck’s just not going our way right now.”
There’s no reaching for the panic button, the way Caufield described it.
“We’ve got nothing to worry about,” he said. “Just keep getting our opportunities and once those start to click they’ll keep coming.”
In going 2-for-29 over the past six games, however, the shooting frequency has been turned up from when the Badgers scored seven times in the first four contests.
A seventh, forward Liam Malmquist, likely will sign next week, according to sources.
Official statistics show that a Badgers player has launched one shot attempt for every 33 seconds of power-play time during the six-game slump. It was one attempt every 56 seconds during the more prosperous times.
They have one shot on goal for every 67 seconds on the power play in the past three weeks compared to every 80 seconds in the first two series.
UW has only a Caufield goal in a 6-1 loss at Penn State on Oct. 31 and Turcotte 5-on-3 score in last Saturday’s 5-2 loss at Omaha to show for those increased efforts over the past six games.
Personnel changes have resulted. Miller, a defenseman, started the season in the bumper role on the top unit, playing in the middle of a 1-3-1 formation. But he was shifted this week to run the top of the zone when Kalynuk and Weissbach were moved to the second unit in practice.
Dylan Holloway and Roman Ahcan moved up to the first group with Caufield, Turcotte and Miller. The second unit, which hasn’t scored yet this season, now features Kalynuk, Ty Emberson, Sean Dhooghe, Weissbach and Ryder Donovan.
“Things have changed a little bit, but I think before, we were looking at the cute play all the time,” Kalynuk said. “We were looking back door, through four sticks, spin around, backhand — stuff like that. It works a couple times, but I think we’ve just got to get the mentality more of shooting the puck from anywhere.”
Granato said Kalynuk had been unselfish in distributing the puck from the top of the zone where a more aggressive approach in shooting could have opened up more options.
UW has its work cut out against a Notre Dame team that has been on the penalty kill only 24 times in eight games, with only one goal allowed.
The undefeated Fighting Irish are aggressive in forechecking to limit the amount of time they spend in their defensive zone. They allow one shot on goal for every 94 seconds of penalty killing time.
And they rely on goaltender Cale Morris and his .964 penalty killing save percentage this season when coverage breaks down.
When the Badgers get the chance, they intend to test Morris and the Notre Dame penalty kill.
“I think we’ve just got to shoot more,” Holloway said. “Especially on the power play, we’re good at getting possession and passing it around, but if no one’s shooting then we’re not getting any chances.”