Members of the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team have been forced to learn how to be a higher-ranked team in their games early this season.

As they’ve put it, the Badgers have been the hunted, which was a foreign concept in recent seasons.

A higher-ranked team stood opposite them for the first time when No. 4 North Dakota came to the Kohl Center on Friday, and the Badgers didn’t fully solve the different challenge they faced.

Neutral-zone play plagued seventh-ranked UW in a 3-2 loss to the Fighting Hawks, with a third-period, power-play goal by Nick Jones providing the difference.

North Dakota was successful in providing resistance to the Badgers’ zone entries, forcing them to try to win races for pucks in the Hawks’ zone.

“To be honest, I don’t think we did that enough,” UW captain Cameron Hughes said. “We had too many turnovers in the neutral zone and ended up playing in our zone probably too long.”

The Badgers, who got two goals from Matthew Freytag, fell to 12-4-1 under second-year coach Tony Granato in games after a loss. They dropped the second game of last weekend’s series against St. Lawrence.

UW (6-4) is just 1-8-1 in its past 10 games against North Dakota (6-2-1), a team that earned heaps of praise from Granato.

“Two really good teams, and every inch of ice out there is a battle,” he said.

“You’ve got to be prepared to play it like a playoff game, and I thought that’s the way most of the game was tonight.”

The decisive play came with Badgers defenseman Tim Davison serving a tripping penalty that ended UW’s only power play.

After he won an offensive-zone faceoff on a power play, Jones went to the front of the net and redirected Gabe Bast’s shot through the pads of UW goaltender Kyle Hayton (29 saves).

The Hawks made the lead hold up through a season-high 19 shots on goal by the Badgers in the third period and won for just the second time in five series-opening games (2-2-1).

North Dakota has been a better team on Saturdays so far, with a drastically higher scoring average and power play, but it brought a different mentality on Friday, Jones said.

“We play desperate on Saturdays because our Fridays haven’t been great,” he said. “We wanted to bring that desperation that we play with in Saturdays tonight.”

UW outshot North Dakota 38-32, including 19-9 in the final period. After freshman goaltender Peter Thome made two saves with the Badgers playing with an extra attacker in the final minute, Joel Janatuinen slid to block Jake Linhart’s last effort.

The Hawks got a major jolt Friday morning when starting goaltender Cam Johnson suffered an undisclosed injury during the team’s pregame skate. Johnson, a senior, played every minute of the Hawks’ first eight games this season and has won more than 70 percent of his collegiate games.

Thome, a draft pick of the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets, had an inauspicious start to his collegiate debut when Freytag scored on two of the Badgers’ four first-period shots.

Freytag swiped home a pass from Sean Dhooghe seven minutes into the opening period. It was the first Badgers shot that reached Thome, and the puck appeared to deflect in off the goaltender’s pads.

The Hawks had a quick answer when Collin Adams scored on a high shot 42 seconds later.

Freytag converted again, recording just his second two-goal game in 64 collegiate outings, when he cleaned up the rebound of a Tarek Baker wraparound try.

The junior’s only other multiple-goal game came at Michigan on Dec. 5, 2015.

“When you can jump on pucks like ‘Frey’ did on those goals, I think that’s a tribute to his linemates on how hard they played to give them some space,” Granato said of Freytag, Baker and Dhooghe. “That was a great line for us tonight.”

North Dakota negated the advantage again 1:25 into the second period on Austin Poganski’s rebound goal. Janatuinen’s shot popped out of Hayton’s outstretched glove for Poganski to put away before UW’s Ryan Wagner could tie up his stick.

Thome gave North Dakota its chance to rally for a second straight game, dropping UW to 6-2 when it scores first.

“He’s a battler; you can see that in him,” Jones said. “He has a battle mentality out there. We couldn’t be more happy for him.”

North Dakota 1 1 1 — 3

Wisconsin 2 0 0 — 2

First period: W — Freytag 2 (S. Dhooghe, Linhart), 6:59. ND — Adams 3 (Bowen, Bast), 7:41. W — Freytag 3 (Baker, S. Dhooghe), 15:57. Penalties: Inamoto, W, 18:34.

Second period: ND — Poganski 2 (Janatuinen, Jones), 1:25.

Third period: ND — Jones 3 (Bast, Shaw), 11:04 (pp). Penalties: Shaw, ND, 8:28; Davison, W, 10:15.

Saves: ND (Thome 2-15-19) 36; W (Hayton 9-12-8) 29. Power plays: ND 1-for-2; W 0-for-1. Att. — 9,597.


Todd D. Milewski covers Wisconsin Badgers men's hockey and the UW Athletic Department for the Wisconsin State Journal.