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Losing season isn’t derailing Tony Granato’s approach to Wisconsin Badgers men’s hockey rebuild

February 14, 2019

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Immediately after saying them, Tony Granato admitted that he knew the words would sound curious coming from the coach of a last-place team.

“In the big picture of how our players have played,” the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey coach said this week, “I’m happy with it.”

Talk of the big picture doesn’t usually appease those who are clamoring for positive results now, and Granato knows the Badgers haven’t won enough games this season.

Going into the final six games of the regular season, starting with a series at No. 15 Notre Dame on Friday and Saturday, UW (9-14-5) is the only Big Ten Conference team that has yet to reach double-digits in overall victories this season.

But as the probability grows of a second straight losing season — and fourth in the program’s last five seasons — Granato said he remains committed to the long game and won’t alter the rebuilding plan he set in motion nearly three years ago.

“You can get lost in the day-to-day things, and if you do and you get derailed and you change your approach, you change your plan and try to do whatever you have to do to try to get the immediate results now, you’re going to get lost in the big picture,” he said.

“We’re not. We’re going to stay with what we’ve done. We’re going to develop the kids. We’re going to play them. And we’re going to give them the opportunity to grow and help us as we move forward.”

There hasn’t been much in the form of encouraging end results for the Badgers in the last six weeks. Even though they have been leading, tied or trailing by just a goal in the third period in eight of the 10 games in 2019, they have won just once.

In discussing whether it has been difficult to stay the course despite the record falling below .500, Granato reiterated that the team’s youth presented challenges that weren’t unexpected.

The Badgers are led in scoring by a freshman, defenseman K’Andre Miller (out this weekend with an injured left leg), and have a sophomore, Sean Dhooghe, pacing the team in goals. Freshman Daniel Lebedeff has played most of the minutes in goal.

Of 19 skaters that dress for a game, it’s typical for UW this season that 13 are freshmen or sophomores. Youth can provide excitement but experience often is what provides long-term success.

Granato said he’s satisfied with the progress his young players have made. And the team has taken to showing off what’s coming to the Kohl Center next season.

During TV timeouts last weekend, UW ran highlight videos of the five-player signing class for next season on the scoreboard and introduced two of the players who were in attendance, Dylan Holloway and Mike Vorlicky.

The three others from the group — Alex Turcotte, Cole Caufield and Owen Lindmark — were at the Kohl Center in January playing against the Badgers with the U.S. Under-18 Team.

The video served as a subtle reminder to those in the house — including a sold-out crowd last Saturday — that the Badgers’ long-term plans are due to accelerate next season with a more experienced group accompanied by a freshman class that has three likely first-round NHL draft picks.

The product currently on the ice for the Badgers, however, fell into a lull in the second period of the 4-1 loss to Ohio State last Saturday that Granato described as “probably a low point of the season as far as what we look like.”

So what’s ailing the Badgers as the regular season’s finish line approaches? Players were candid in their diagnoses this week.

Dhooghe pointed at special teams, where the penalty kill statistics have been abysmal and the power play has gone cold as ice.

Even after foiling all seven Ohio State power-play tries last Saturday, UW’s penalty kill is at just 69 percent in 2019, second-worst in the country in that time. The power play is 4-for-34 in the same stretch and hasn’t cashed in over its last 25 tries in seven games.

“Our staff’s given us everything they physically possibly can,” Dhooghe said of the power play. “It’s really on us, whether it’s winning the faceoff in the (offensive) zone on the power play to not shave off 30 seconds, more pucks to the net, getting to the net — whatever it is, the fault’s on us. We’re just not executing right now.”

Captain Peter Tischke said the team’s preparation needs to be better to answer for a trend that has the Badgers just 2-10-2 on Fridays this season.

Maybe it’s in getting an extra 30 minutes of sleep or putting away the phone earlier, the senior defenseman said.

“We need to look in the mirror and see what we can do differently to prepare for the weekends,” Tischke said. “Friday night, I think, is the biggest game of the series because you get that first one under your belt and then the second one usually comes easier.”

Seamus Malone, a senior alternate captain, has been talking about trying to find consistency all season, and the Badgers still are searching.

“We know there’s stretches of time where we take over the game and we look really good,” the center said. “But then they score a goal, we don’t get a call, we don’t get a bounce and then momentum shifts and we just can’t get back.”

For his part, Granato has cringed at the Badgers’ play in decisive moments. And there have been a lot of them.

In 15 of their 28 games, the Badgers have been tied or leading by a goal after two periods. They have won only five, with five losses and five ties.

“Our team has been very competitive,” said Granato, whose team actually has led more than it has trailed this season, despite being five games under .500. “We’ve positioned ourselves in 90 percent of the games to have really good chances to win. We haven’t been able to make the plays when the game has been on the line.”