MADISON, Wis. — Notre Dame’s task should have been challenging enough this weekend. Visiting No. 4 Wisconsin, the highest-ranked team in the Big Ten, already required poised, crisp hockey from the Irish. Add about a full game’s worth of Irish penalty minutes, and a successful weekend in Madison ultimately demanded near-perfect play from Notre Dame.
Perhaps more significantly, positive results necessitated mistakes from a Badger team that rarely makes any. But Wisconsin’s discipline, aided by over 20 total minutes on the power play, held up. As a result, Notre Dame dropped both Friday’s and Saturday’s games at the Kohl Center.
“It cost us both games I thought, taking major penalties,” Irish head coach Jeff Jackson said. “I don’t know where that came from all of a sudden, because we haven’t been doing that. It was a big factor in both games, the penalties that we took.”
The weekend’s outcome means that Wisconsin will end the regular season as the only Big Ten team to take all 12 available points from the Irish. Though Notre Dame competed well in all four games, it often couldn’t get out of its own way.
“A big part of [the season series] was us beating ourselves,” Jackson said. “[Wisconsin is] a good hockey team, there’s no question about that. But I get more concerned about the things that we’re doing.”
Now riding a three-game losing streak, Notre Dame’s postseason hopes took a major hit in Madison. The Irish sit at 14-14-2 overall with an 8-10-2 Big Ten mark, still barely holding on to fourth place in the conference. Meanwhile, Wisconsin kept the heat on front-running Michigan State, remaining within 5 points of the Spartans by improving to 22-6-2 overall and 13-4-1 in league action.
Irish fumble series opener with wayward second half
Notre Dame couldn’t have drawn up a much better start to the weekend. Friday’s game opened with consistent pressure from the Irish, bookended by a few tremendous saves from graduate student goaltender Ryan Bischel.
In the first period’s final 12 minutes, Notre Dame’s makeshift third line went to work. With senior forward Grant Silianoff still on the shelf, junior forward Tyler Carpenter skated with the third line for a second consecutive weekend. His line mates, juniors Justin Janicke and senior Hunter Strand, teamed up for the opening goal. Off a broken play near the blue line, Janicke found the puck and broke in on a 2-on-1. He slid the puck right-to-left for Strand, who flicked it home in rhythm for the 1-0 lead.
Nine minutes after Strand scored his fourth goal of the season, he earned the secondary assist on Carpenter’s fifth. Once again, the play ran through Janicke, who snuck a centering feed through traffic to the top of the crease. There, an off-balance Carpenter banged the puck in, doubling Notre Dame’s lead.
Throughout the second period, a change in momentum boiled underneath the ice. Senior defenseman Zach Plucinski exited the game with a 5-minute major for grabbing a facemask, sending Wisconsin to a long power play while down two. However, Notre Dame killed off the major, generating several odd-man rushes in the process. As the game reached its midpoint, the Irish still appeared very much in control.
But in the period’s final minute, the proverbial levee broke, and Wisconsin woke up. The Badgers scored twice in 15 seconds, with centermen Christian Fitzgerald and David Silye combining to tie the game. Fitzgerald’s tally resulted from a 2-on-1 made possible by senior defenseman Drew Bavaro toepicking at the Badger blue line. Silye’s strike, a sharp-angle rebound goal, followed poor coverage from Notre Dame at the front of the net.
A mere 78 seconds into the final period, Silye scored again for Wisconsin’s first lead. After a battle below the goal line, Notre Dame lost him at the top of the goal crease, and Cruz Lucius found him for a tap-in goal.
Over the game’s remaining 18 minutes, Wisconsin would hang on to the slim advantage, thanks in large part to another Irish major penalty. With 8:07 left, freshman defenseman Henry Nelson laid a textbook hit from behind and earned an early exit. As the 5-minute penalty expired — and just nine seconds after Jackson pulled Bischel for an extra attacker — Carson Bantle buried an empty-netter to make it 4-2. With four unanswered goals in the night’s last 21 minutes, Wisconsin would win by that score.
“We played pretty well at times [Friday] night, but you can’t take that many penalties and expect to win — and our penalty kill did a great job,” Jackson said. “But the problem is that [Friday] night, it was almost a whole period worth of penalties, so you’re playing shorthanded when you could be playing 5-on-5. And we’ve had our challenges scoring to begin with, so when we’re shorthanded — and we had good chances even shorthanded — but when you don’t finish, you’re chasing the game all the time and it’s really hard to play that way.”
Offensive woes, penalties down the Irish again in Saturday loss
Against Jeff Jackson’s wishes, Notre Dame would play that way some more on Saturday. After the Badgers jumped ahead on William Whitelaw’s breakaway goal six minutes in, the Irish took three minor penalties by the end of the second period. But the score would hold at 1-0, as freshman forward Cole Knuble rang the post in tight before Wisconsin whiffed on a couple yawning cages during a power play.
As Notre Dame’s penalty kill remained perfect despite overuse, its much-maligned man-advantage unit found the tying goal early in the third. With 15:01 remaining, senior forward Landon Slaggert parked himself at the top of Wisconsin’s goal crease. There, he stuffed home a loose rebound for a greasy goal, his team-best 17th of the season.
The tie game, however, would last no more than 5 minutes. Knuble’s slashing minor put Wisconsin on the power play halfway through the third, leading to a go-ahead, redirection marker from Simon Tassy.
The goal from Tassy, who got under the skin of several Notre Dame players late in Friday’s game, kicked off a stretch of mental deterioration from the Irish. Wisconsin would score again with 6:08 left to play on a controversial sequence. The officials ruled that an Irish defenseman pushed Badger forward Owen Mehlenbacher into Bischel’s crease, where he remained as Sawyer Scholl tucked in a wraparound finish.
Jeff Jackson challenged the play, believing that Mehlenbacher remained in the crease for too long.
“Bischel wasn’t allowed to play his position,” Jackson said. “Whether the guy got pushed in, he had plenty of time to get out of the crease. That’s my biggest complaint.”
The call on the ice stood, solidifying a goal that would stand as the game-winner. Moments later, Henry Nelson received yet another 5-minute major and game misconduct. After initially committing a minor for kneeing, he cross-checked a Badger to the head post-whistle. The sequence left Notre Dame with four players (five with Bischel pulled) for the remainder of the game. Knuble scored a power-play goal in the final 4 minutes after Wisconsin took a minor penalty, but the Badgers held on for a 3-2 victory and series sweep.
Up next, the Irish will take on No. 8 Minnesota in their final regular season series at Compton Family Ice Arena. Back in November, Notre Dame split with the Golden Gophers in Minneapolis. Minnesota resides 8 points ahead of Notre Dame in the standings and will pose a major test for an Irish team coming off perhaps its most mentally taxing series to date.
“Our veterans have to lead, and our young guys have to follow,” Jackson said. “If it’s the older guys taking the penalties, it’s one thing, but it seems to be a lot of the younger guys right now that are taking a lot of the penalties. They’re going through their first years as players, and sometimes they make bad decisions. It’s unfortunate because they’re all good players, and they all can contribute to our team. But they have to recognize how much they hurt us when they take stupid penalties.”