In the first two years of Tony Granato’s coaching tenure with the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team, the Badgers went into their holiday break with disappointing slides leaving them one game above .500.
They have the same record relative to .500 this season, but with a vastly different tone to it.
The Badgers extended their unbeaten streak to six games with a 3-0 victory over Michigan State on Saturday at the Kohl Center, with Daniel Lebedeff posting his first collegiate shutout.
With the next three weekends off, UW has put itself in position to make some noise when its schedule resumes in January.
“If we’re going to make a push this season and we’re going to get anything out of it, we’ve got to get going right now,” Granato said of the team’s mentality over the past three weeks.
The Badgers (8-7-3, 4-3-3-1 Big Ten) were 5-7 after losing five times in a six-game stretch in November but have gone 3-0-3 since. They earned their first Big Ten Conference sweep since February 2017 on Saturday to tie the longest unbeaten streak in the last six seasons.
The Badgers were 10-9-2 when they reached final exams last season and 8-7-1 in 2016-17 but won just two of their final seven games both times.
They charted a new course this season, with goals by Sean Dhooghe, K’Andre Miller and Seamus Malone providing the offense Saturday amid a 43-21 advantage in shots on goal.
“I’d say that’s a 60-minute effort right there,” Dhooghe said.
In a sign that the Badgers are turning to him as the primary option in goal, Lebedeff started his season-high fifth straight game and made 21 saves.
He faced only eight shots through the first two periods but the Spartans (6-9-1, 2-5-1-1) tested him in the final 20 minutes. On the best of his 13 saves in the third, he slid to his right to stop Cody Milan’s power-play one-timer with about eight minutes remaining.
Lebedeff, a freshman from Finland, had the starring performance in front of his mother, Päivi, and members of his former junior team, the Janesville Jets.
“It was awesome,” Lebedeff said. “I think I had a couple chances earlier in the year to get a shutout but I kind of blew it away. It’s nice to get it out of the way at this time of the year. And, of course, it’s nice to give this kind of effort to my mom, who’s here watching Wisconsin hockey for the first time.”
The Badgers, who last went unbeaten in six straight games with sweeps in three consecutive series in December 2013, got started with a power-play goal by Dhooghe in the first three minutes for the second straight game.
Dhooghe scored 2:05 into Friday’s 5-3 victory off a pass from Linus Weissbach on a man advantage, and he did it again 2:36 into Saturday’s contest.
Both shots from the left side of the zone hit the roof of the net, but against different goalies. The Spartans started John Lethemon (40 saves) on Saturday after Drew DeRidder allowed five goals the night before.
Dhooghe’s score made it three straight games with a Badgers power-play goal, which followed a nine-game span where they converted only three times total.
With the benefit of three power plays to none by the Spartans, the Badgers had a 19-4 advantage in shots on goal in the opening period. The 19 shots on goal were a UW season high for a period.
“They were moving it and skating and taking a lot away from us,” Michigan State coach Danton Cole said. “Their (defensemen) were able to get pucks through to the net and ours weren’t.”
With the advantage of getting the last line change as the home team, the Badgers continued to match the Spartans’ talented trio of Taro Hirose, Patrick Khodorenko and Mitchell Lewandowski with freshmen Roman Ahcan, Dominick Mersch and Brock Caufield.
UW held Michigan State’s top line, which averaged more than nine shots on goal per game entering the contest, to two through the first two periods, both by Hirose. The line ended up with a combined seven shots thanks in part to two power-play tries in the third period.
In the first minute of the third, seconds after the Spartans killed the Badgers’ fifth power play of the night, UW took a two-goal lead, with Dhooghe setting up Miller’s fourth score of the season.
Low on the left side, Dhooghe threaded a pass to Miller in the opposite circle for a one-timer that beat Lethemon.
Malone scored into an empty net with 2.1 seconds remaining, diving to poke the puck in while chasing it with a Spartans player.
“We know how we can play,” Miller said. “We’re a very hard team to play against when we play our best, all lines are going, all defensemen are going.”
Michigan State 0 0 0 — 0
First period: W — S. Dhooghe 9 (Weissbach, Miller), 2:36. Penalties: Milan, M, :57; Sanford, M, 9:44; Goodsir, M, 13:45.
Second period penalties: Cesana, M, 3:19; Baker, W, 4:03; S. Dhooghe, W, 16:55; Saliba, M, 16:55; Lewandowski, M, 18:52.
Third period: W — Miller 4 (S. Dhooghe, Weissbach), :57; Malone 4, 19:57 (en). Penalties: Malone, W, 5:11; Ahcan, W, 11:26; Malone, W, 14:11; Osburn, M, 14:11.
Saves: M (Lethemon 18-11-11) 40; W (Lebedeff 4-4-13) 21. Power plays: M 0-for-3; W 1-for-5. Att. — 10,215.