In between Grand Forks, North Dakota and Madison, Wisconsin there lies a 600 mile stretch of road known as I-94. If you happened to be driving on I-94 on Sunday, you likely saw a lot of smiling faces wearing green and white.
Thousands of fans made the drive from North Dakota to see the first top-ten matchup at the Kohl Center since 2010. They all went home happy Sunday after seeing their No. 4 Fighting Hawks (6-2-2, 1-1 NCHC) come from behind four separate times in their weekend series with the No. 7 Wisconsin Badgers (6-4-1, 1-1 B1G).
Friday night saw the Fighting Hawks overcome a 1-2 third-period deficit to steal the game late, winning 3-2. On Saturday, another two third-period goals from North Dakota sent the game to overtime, where the score would end in a 2-2 tie.
For the Badger faithful this was was hardly a surprise.
Friday night marked the fourth loss for Wisconsin this season in which they were tied, or winning, in the third period.
Yes, the fourth. That’s all of them.
Saturday night was hardly better as another third-period blown lead eventually ended in a tie, though it felt like a loss. When asked if there was an underlying problem for the Badgers in third periods this season, head coach Tony Granato had a simple answer.
What Granato can’t deny are the statistics condemning his team’s struggles. The Badgers are outscoring opponents 27-16 through the first two periods of games. In the third, they’re getting outscored 9-12.
All year long Granato has preached the importance of winning non-conference games. After Wisconsin narrowly missed out on the NCAA tournament last season, there’s no room for error in the coach’s second season.
“’Boys, we’ve got to bear down,’” Granato told his team earlier this season. “‘They don’t get anything this period because these are meaningful games. … All the way to the end of the season, it goes in your rankings.’”
Although wins against No. 4 North Dakota certainly would have helped that cause, there were some positives to take away from Saturday night’s game as the Badgers enter Big Ten play.
Dhooghe brothers net first career goals
While the top line struggled to create much offense, freshman brothers Sean and Jason Dhooghe stepped up with their first collegiate goals to help the Badgers come away with a tie on Saturday. Their inaugural goals came just 32 minutes apart, and both gave the Badgers a one-goal lead over the Fighting Hawks.
Sean was the first to score, but much of the credit can actually be given to his brother, Jason.
Late in the first period, Jason went down to block a shot in Wisconsin’s defensive zone. The freshman forward had been out there for a long penalty kill and was just trying to clear the zone, but the puck ended up ricocheting off of his shin guards and down the length of the ice.
Right to his brother, Sean.
Sean happened to be coming out of the box at the perfect moment, scooping up the loose puck and drawing a penalty shot as he was taken down from behind. North Dakota goalie Peter Thome had no shot at saving the ensuing penalty shot as Sean dangled around him to slot it past his left leg.
How much credit did Jason take for his brother’s first collegiate goal?
“All of it,” he said after the game.
Jason would add his own goal later in the game to put the Badgers up 2-1, capping off an eventful night for the duo.
“It’s cool scoring your first goal, and when your brother is on your side doing the same thing that same night, in front of a huge crowd in such a big game, it was really special,” Jason said.
Kyle Hayton looked sharp in goal
While Kyle Hayton hasn’t exactly looked like the All-American he was last year at St. Lawrence, the graduate transfer goalie has been a massive upgrade at the position for Granato’s team.
On Saturday night the Fighting Hawks poured on the shots, but Hayton kept the Badgers in the game by making multiple highlight reel saves en route to a total of 30 on the night. Unfortunately for the Wisconsin goaltender, North Dakota snuck two past him to rob him of the win.
The first goal allowed by Hayton came on a shot taken after he was knocked to the ice. The officials reviewed for interference, but the contact appeared to happen outside of the crease. The second came from behind the goal line as Gersich managed to sneak it between Hayton’s pad and the post.
Don’t let the fluke goals take away from what was a great game by Hayton. He was agile moving side to side all night, and was successful tracking pucks through the slot area that was constantly crowded with Fighting Hawks.
Hayton also shut down both of the North Dakota skaters in the penalty shootout after overtime. Although the shootout didn’t count for Wisconsin’s record, Hayton was still excited for the opportunity.
“Before the shootout started he came to the bench and said how much he loves shootouts. Everyone else was kind of nervous about the thing and he’s over there with his mask off telling everyone how great this is, that we get to have a shootout tonight,” Granato said.
The Badgers will need Hayton to be solid as they enter conference play against some of the most offensive-minded teams in college hockey. On Saturday night the other four Big Ten teams that played averaged four goals each.
Regardless of the opposition, Granato knows his goaltender is up for the challenge.
“He’s a leader and competitor back there, he’s got a lot of energy and he’s very poised and confident,” Granato said. “He is what we expected him to be. He’s a great goaltender.”
Freshman defenders step up
With just over a minute to play in the first period, freshman defender Tyler Inamoto was charged with a game misconduct and a five-minute major for a hit to the head on North Dakota’s Joel Janatuinen. The ejection left Wisconsin with a five-minute penalty to kill off, and five defensemen for the remainder of the game.
In a typical game the Badgers will play three defensive pairings. Three freshman are paired with three different upperclassmen. With Inamoto out for the game the pairings went out the window. Instead, Granato utilized a rolling defensive unit that sometimes left both freshman on the ice together.
“I think that’s the biggest thing when a coach can throw you over the boards in key situations when you’re young players like that, instills the confidence in them,” Granato said. “All three of those young players have a ton of poise for freshmen D.”
The freshmen class is such a vital part to the success of this Wisconsin team, and it’s clear that after only 11 games they’ve earned the trust of Granato and the rest of the upperclassmen.
“We didn’t know each other coming in, and to kind of build that relationship together over the past couple months, and to go out there and just compete like we’re upperclassmen, or even like we fit in and everyone is kind of accepting us, it’s fun to go out there and battle with these guys,” freshman defender Wyatt Kalynuk said.
The puck will drop in East Lansing at 6 p.m. this Friday for a Big Ten matchup with Michigan State.