ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Max Zimmer tried to catch his breath after one of the most grueling practices of the season for the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team.
It wasn’t an easy task, the way that the Badgers, fresh off a sweep at the hands of Ohio State, got their lung capacities stretched during on-ice sessions this week.
“We need it,” Zimmer said between deep breaths just after coming off the ice on Monday. “We’ve got to do something to get back on track. If we’re not working as hard as we can in the games we’ve got to do it during the week to help us in the weekends.”
UW has won just once in six November games and has been outscored 19-8 with two shutouts. The Badgers have lost four straight road games with another two contests away from home ahead against No. 14 Michigan.
The slump has the team looking for answers, and the signs from this week’s practice were the players were going to have to work their way out of it.
“We’re not joking around, how good the Big Ten is and how you have to be sharp in your preparation every day during the week,” Badgers associate head coach Mark Strobel said. “And when game time comes, the execution then has to be there. Right now, we’re seeing that it hasn’t been there so we’re going to keep working to make sure it’s there.”
Strobel played a role not unlike a drill sergeant on Tuesday, putting players into competition that left the losing side doing skating drills.
“We’re definitely pushing in a good way,” he said. “And I think we’ll see who the guys that respond are.”
UW will be looking for that response when it plays the Wolverines at Yost Ice Arena, and it can’t afford more instances of a stumbling block that has popped up recently.
Until the last two weeks, the Badgers had been successful in avoiding the kind of quick goals that dramatically shift momentum. Then Minnesota scored on three consecutive shots. Then Ohio State broke a scoreless tie with two goals in 25 seconds.
In the past four games, UW has conceded a goal within a minute of another opponent score three times.
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“The momentum in college hockey is more significant than it is in the NHL,” Badgers coach Tony Granato said. “And that’s one thing that when another team gets on a little bit of a roll, we’re going to have to find ways to stop it quick.”
Taking a wider look, the Badgers have allowed two goals within a minute 12 times since the start of the 2016-17 season, Granato’s first as coach.
Of those goals, eight either tied the game, put the opponent into the lead or turned UW’s one-goal deficit into two.
The examples in the past two weeks all fit into one of those categories. Minnesota scored three times in 74 seconds to erase UW’s 2-0 lead. The Badgers were hanging with sixth-ranked Ohio State until the Buckeyes scored on consecutive shifts in the last minute of the first period.
“I don’t want to keep saying we’re young, but that’s part of it,” Granato said. “And that’s part of the growing process, is understanding those situations and the importance of the next shift after a goal.”
For their part, the Badgers have scored two goals within 60 seconds eight times under Granato, but none this season. UW hasn’t tied or taken a lead with the second goal on any of the occasions but twice extended a lead to two goals.
They’re 7-0 in those games, with three of them coming against Michigan. When they allow two goals in a minute, they’re 3-8.
As much as anything, the Badgers are eyeing their collective mentality when the opposition scores. Granato wants to see a simple approach of establishing a forecheck and emphasizing discipline in not allowing chances in the defensive zone.
Noise on the bench counts for something, too.
“There’s been a couple times this year where they score a couple goals and everyone goes silent on the bench,” Zimmer said. “That’s the last thing we need. We need energy and we need guys to get back out there and score a couple goals.”
The Badgers needed all the energy they had to push themselves through the first two days of practice this week. The coaches saw it as a reminder of how the players need to perform to earn victories.
“We’ve got to learn how to battle,” forward Roman Ahcan said. “In the games, nobody’s going to take it easy on us so we can’t take it easy on each other. It’s just going to push us to get better every day.”