Tied entering the final period of the first game back from a three-week break, there was a major opportunity in front of the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team Friday night.
The Badgers could have started the second half of the season with an energizing victory, carrying over the positive mojo they created with a six-game unbeaten streak before the holidays.
Instead, they watched No. 8 Denver rattle off three goals in 2:41 to tip the game in its favor.
A 6-3 loss to the Pioneers at the Kohl Center was a missed chance for the Badgers to launch a second-half push with a quality result.
“A couple bad breakdowns cost us the game,” UW goaltender Daniel Lebedeff said. “I think we played, overall, most of the game pretty well. We created chances. I think it was a good game except a little bit of the third period.”
Denver’s Liam Finlay broke a 2-2 tie 2:43 into the third period, tapping the puck into an open side of the net next to Lebedeff (27 saves) after a deflected shot.
UW trailed twice earlier in the game but it never regrouped from the third goal. Within moments, it allowed a pair of goals 19 seconds apart as Denver took control.
The Badgers allowed Pioneers defenseman Ian Mitchell, just back from Canada’s World Junior Championship team, to skate around the zone before passing across the ice to Tyler Ward. The freshman left wing slapped home a one-timer to make it 4-2.
Before the dust settled from that faux pas, UW saw Kohen Olischefski score from his knees at the front of the net.
The 19-second span between goals was the shortest for two goals allowed by the Badgers in the last three seasons. But it was a familiar occurrence — UW has allowed two goals within a minute five times this season.
“From the start of the third, we were on our heels,” Badgers senior Seamus Malone said. “They were on the attack the whole time. You could tell that they were willing to win those battles in front of the net. We had a couple shifts with some defensive breakdowns, and they capitalized on them.”
UW played without leading scorer K’Andre Miller, a defenseman who’ll play for the World Juniors gold medal with the United States today.
Jesper Peltonen took his spot in the defensive pairings alongside Ty Emberson. Peltonen, a freshman who had played only sparingly in two games this season, was minus-3 from being on the ice for Denver’s second, third and fifth goals.
Granato directed the blame elsewhere.
“I thought our forwards could have done a better job helping our D out,” he said. “And I thought we could have done a better job playing in the offensive zone and keeping pucks down there and creating some more offensive-zone time. We did play too much in our own end tonight.”
UW’s three-game winning streak crumbled, and Denver extended its run of victories to four by improving to 16-4-4 at the Kohl Center.
Whereas the Badgers (8-8-3) didn’t have Miller, the Pioneers (11-4-2) had Mitchell after Canada checked out of the World Juniors in Vancouver with an upset loss to Finland in the quarterfinals on Wednesday.
Mitchell had a pair of assists Friday, setting up Ward’s goal for a 4-2 lead with a slippery set of moves in the Badgers’ defensive zone.
“He’s a special hockey player,” Denver coach David Carle said. “It’s unfortunate he’s here, but he made the most of it.”
Badgers defenseman Tyler Inamoto said he and defensive partner Wyatt Kalynuk got caught in too long of a shift when Mitchell set up Ward.
“Just a lack of focus on stick details and stick on puck,” Inamoto said. “It’s unfortunate that it happened but it’s on us to stay focused during that time.”
UW, which fell to 8-1-1 this season when scoring three goals or more, rallied from a one-goal deficit twice in the second period on goals by Inamoto and Malone.
Slava Demin and Ryan Barrow scored in the first and second periods, respectively, for the Pioneers, who lost starting goalie Devin Cooley (13 saves) to a lower-body injury in the second period. Filip Larsson (12 saves) finished up for Denver.
After Will Johnson cut the Badgers’ deficit to 5-3 with 2:40 remaining, Denver’s Jake Durflinger scored an empty-net goal in the final minute.
“I can’t be too critical tonight,” Granato said. “You don’t play for four weeks. You’re playing a top-(10) team. Give them credit — they made plays. … Let’s not look too much into it. Let’s see how we respond tomorrow.”
First period: D — Demin 2 (Finlay, Mitchell), 4:15 (pp). Penalties: Freytag, W, 2:35; Lancaster, D, 12:32; Caufield, W, 18:29; Tischke, W, 18:48; Pettersen, D, 18:48.
Second period: W — Inamoto 1 (Kalynuk, Malone), 3:50. D — Barrow 3 (Davies, Staub), 15:31. W — Malone 5 (Inamoto), 19:19 (pp). Penalties: Ahcan, W, 12:11; Kalynuk, W, 17:14; Lancaster, D, 18:13.
Third period: D — Finlay 9 (Ward, McLellan), 2:43; Ward 3 (Mitchell, Pettersen), 5:05; Olischefski 1 (Finlay), 5:24. W — Johnson 6 (Gorniak, Tischke), 17:20. D — Durflinger 2 (Barrow), 19:21 (en).
Saves: D (Cooley 8-5-x, Larsson x-3-9) 25; W (Lebedeff 12-9-6) 27. Power plays: D 1-for-4; W 1-for-2. Att. — 8,893.