One of the points of emphasis that the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team laid out for the second half of the season was closing out games.
It took the Badgers until the fourth outing after their midseason break to even have their first chance at it, but they executed the plan nearly to perfection Saturday night.
Ryan Wagner and JD Greenway scored in the opening 2:18 of the third period to expand a lead in what turned into a 5-2 victory over Michigan State in front of a season-high announced attendance of 13,735 at the Kohl Center.
The Badgers ended the longest winless streak of the Tony Granato coaching era at five games with a response to a flat outing.
“It was really important for us to bounce back and show our fans how hard we can play,” said Granato, whose team lost 2-0 to the Spartans on Friday. “And when we do play that hard, how much fun it is to watch.”
UW couldn’t finish off teams five times in 15 games before the team’s midseason break in which it held a third-period lead.
The Badgers seemed determined Saturday to not fall short again after Trent Frederic scored a short-handed goal with 3:06 left in the second period for a 2-1 lead.
Wagner snapped a shot from the high slot past Spartans goalie John Lethemon 1:36 into the third.
Greenway followed 42 seconds later with his first goal of the season, a slap shot from the right circle.
“A big thing we’ve been talking about has been energy on the bench,” Wagner said. “Once we got rolling, and I scored and JD scored, even when they got a goal back, the energy was always positive on the bench. And moving forward, that’s what it’s going to have to take to close out games.”
Kyle Hayton finished with 16 saves for the Badgers (11-11-3, 5-7-2 Big Ten Conference), who split the season series with the last-place Spartans (9-14-1, 3-10-1-1).
UW generated a short-handed try that Frederic finished off late in the second period to go ahead for good.
Michigan State’s Carson Gatt couldn’t handle Cody Milan’s pass off the right wall, and UW’s Seamus Malone was there to pounce on the turnover while Frederic skated ahead for a lead pass.
Malone connected with Frederic up the middle of the ice for a breakaway. Lethemon stopped Frederic’s wrist shot from between the faceoff circles, but the rebound came right back to the center for a backhanded putaway.
“It came at a perfect time,” Granato said.
Not so much for the Spartans.
“You get a power play and, momentum-wise and psychological-wise, you’re looking to extend that and take a lead, and it goes the other way,” Michigan State coach Danton Cole said. “It was bad timing.”
The Badgers broke an 0-for-12 power-play drought with Sean Dhooghe’s deflection goal in the first period.
Lethemon (21 saves) had shut out the Badgers in two straight games, including a Nov. 11 contest in East Lansing, so the breakthrough was significant.
The Badgers also hadn’t led in a game since Dec. 8, a span of 258:54 of playing time.
UW got that opening goal by getting traffic in front of Lethemon, a trait that largely was absent on Friday.
“I thought our ability and our willingness to battle to get around him tonight made it harder on him,” Granato said.
Hayton and Malone teamed up to preserve the lead on a Michigan State power play late in the first period.
Hayton kept his left pad down to stop a Sam Saliba rebound effort. Malone got in the way of a Mitchell Lewandowski shot from the slot, deflecting it over the glass.
Michigan State’s formidable top line pressured the Badgers defense in the second period and generated a tying goal from Lewandowski, his second score of the series.
Lewandowski scored again on a third-period power play to cut UW’s lead to 4-2.
But Malone scored into an empty net with 1:14 to play to seal UW’s first home win since Nov. 26 against Mercyhurst.
Michigan State 0 1 1 — 2
Wisconsin 1 1 3 — 5
First period: W — S. Dhooghe 5 (Kalynuk, Weissbach), 8:37 (pp). Penalties: Malone, W, 5:31; Saliba, MS, 6:42; Ghafari, MS, 14:09; Wagner, W, 14:09; Frederic, W, 17:08.
Second period: MS — Lewandowski 13 (Hirose, Rosburg), 11:24. W — Frederic 9 (Malone), 16:54 (sh). Penalties: Johnson, W, 1:08; Stevens, MS, 3:58; Milan, MS, 7:16; Apap, MS, 11:49; Wagner, W, 15:44.
Third period: W — Wagner 9 (Linhart), 1:36; Greenway 1 (Freytag, Baker), 2:18. MS — Lewandowski 14 (Khodorenko, Hirose), 6:06 (pp). W — Malone 8 (Baker), 18:46 (en). Penalties: Inamoto, W, 5:02; Greenway, W, 6:49; Smith, MS, 10:09.
Saves: MS (Lethemon 6-12-3) 21; W (Hayton 6-5-5) 16. Power plays: MS 1-for-6; W 1-for-5. Att. — 13,735.