So much of what happened in the first half of the season was unexpected to the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team.
Coach Tony Granato offered that direct assessment after his team closed the 2017 portion of its schedule by being swept by No. 4 Notre Dame last Friday and Saturday.
The Badgers thought they would have been able to build on a resurgent 2016-17 season and match higher expectations. Instead, all areas of the game have shared in struggles, and the inability to find a consistent identity has been puzzling.
“Losses hurt a lot more and losses are a lot more confusing when you think at the start of the year your expectations of being an elite team means you win consistently,” Granato said. “We have not won consistently, and that’s disappointing.”
On Sunday, the Badgers started a 26-day stretch without a game before the second half starts Jan. 5 at Penn State. Carrying the taste of a 6-2 home loss into the break wasn’t how they pictured spending the exam period and holidays but it’s the reality they face.
Other realities: They are barely above .500 at 10-9-2, sit in the bottom half of the Big Ten Conference standings and have a losing record at the Kohl Center.
A team that was getting preseason attention as a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament now will have a tough road just to get into the field.
“We have to figure ourselves out and come back a better team the second half of the season because we’re going to need a big push to make things happen,” Badgers defenseman Peter Tischke said.
UW has been mediocre against ranked teams, sinking to 4-5-2 after the pair of losses to a Notre Dame squad that has become the runaway Big Ten leader, 17 points ahead of the fifth-place Badgers.
What might end up making a bigger difference is that UW was able to post only a 6-4 record against unranked foes, including home losses to 1-14-1 St. Lawrence and 7-7-2 Mercyhurst.
“I still believe this team can win consistently,” Granato said. “I still believe we can be a contender. But after the first half of the year, we have to come back and have a different mindset each and every game, each and every shift and how we face each and every opponent.
“And we haven’t been consistent to deserve to be with North Dakota, with ... Notre Dame and with Minnesota. We have to be more consistent if we want to be a ranked team or a national contender.”
UW, which fell one spot to No. 13 in Monday’s USCHO.com Division I poll, can look around the lineup to find deficiencies in consistency.
Last weekend’s losses highlighted a few. Some of its better offensive players have been good contributors in spurts but had shortcomings exposed in others.
UW’s first line of Seamus Malone, Cameron Hughes and Will Johnson generated only 12 shot attempts at even strength against the Irish. Ryan Wagner had a hand in three of the Badgers’ four goals but was minus-5.
In Notre Dame, the Badgers saw a team that can control the way it wants to play the game despite allowing goals and having bad shifts. Granato said he hoped his team took a lesson there.
“They stay with the game plan and believe,” he said.
Granato didn’t have an answer for why graduate transfer goaltender Kyle Hayton hasn’t found the rhythm that he had as a second-team All-American at St. Lawrence last season. Backup Jack Berry wasn’t able to fully win away the starting job, either.
Asked after Saturday’s loss what UW needed to become a better team, the coach was blunt.
“More consistent goaltending, for sure,” he said. “More consistent specialty teams. I think our power play has been really, really good. Our (penalty kill) has been up and down at times.
“But just period to period and game to game, you’ve got to play the same way. You have to have an identity, so you have to know what your guy next to you is going to give you. The other team has to know what you’re going to give them.”
UW will spend the next three weeks trying to find it.