A new season opens Friday night for the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team, a chance to start anew and wash away any lingering frustrations of a campaign gone wrong.
The 2017-18 season, when the Badgers went from a top-five team near the end of October to a finish five games under .500, hasn’t been a topic that coach Tony Granato has broached with his players in advance of Friday’s opener against No. 12 Boston College at the Kohl Center.
Learn the lessons and move on, he said. There are a handful of entries that players will carry with them as wisdom gained from the trying times, but one was mentioned by just about everyone.
The Badgers can’t be as inconsistent as they were last season, when one pebble in the middle of the road could send the team careening off course.
“It’d be a close game and it would just be the one thing went the wrong way and the whole energy would just go downward,” senior wing Matthew Freytag said.
“As a team and as older guys, we’ve been there, seen it happen. We’ve been on the plus side of when we almost won the Big Ten (in 2017) to the side where we lost all those games at the end of the year. So we know how the things shift and how to respond to them and keep it from falling down like that again.”
The Badgers carry over a six-game losing streak from last February and March, and that stretch highlighted all of the issues that manifested themselves throughout the season.
Offensive production went in waves. Goaltending was suspect. UW’s opponents got the better of the decisive moments.
How do the Badgers turn that around?
“It starts with our mentality,” senior wing Will Johnson said. “Everybody has to be on the same page at all times. And I think there were times last year where it just didn’t work that way.”
Did last year’s team come unglued in the locker room?
“When you think you’re going to win a game and lose in the third period, it’s always tough to recover from those,” Johnson replied.
Sophomore center Tarek Baker pointed to those moments in explaining where things went wrong for the 2017-18 Badgers and where they need to go better now.
In 26 of the Badgers’ 37 games a year ago, the teams were tied or one held a one-goal lead at some point in the third period. UW was 7-15-4 in those outings and just 2-6-2 after the new year.
The inability to win the critical parts of the game was costly.
“So for us returners, we’re going to try our best to bear down on those chances to win close games like that and give us a better chance to make the (NCAA) tournament at the end of the year,” Baker said. “Every point is crucial in making the playoffs.”
Other shortcomings have become warnings for this year’s group.
“I think our Fridays were slow,” sophomore defenseman Wyatt Kalynuk said. “That killed us.”
“I think there were times when maybe we threw on the jersey and thought it might have been a little easier,” sophomore wing Sean Dhooghe said. “There were times we could have focused a little bit before the games, maybe be a little more prepared.”
Granato wasn’t interested in assigning blame or getting into the behind-closed-doors team dynamics from last season’s finish other than to say that there were some things he wasn’t happy with.
“We didn’t perform up to what our expectations were,” he said before the start of the school year. “That’s all that matters.”
What matters to the Badgers now is that the issues of last season aren’t allowed to continue into the current season. Granato said there’s more depth and more energy with the new group, and there are nine freshmen who bring a clean slate into the team.
Badgers players have proclaimed their unity at the start of this season, saying the freshmen have blended into the group because most of them spent the summer on campus.
“Everyone supports one another, so it’s good,” Freytag said. “Everyone likes each other. That’s always the positivity to have on a team.”