In the moments following one of the season’s highlights, University of Wisconsin men’s hockey coach Tony Granato shared a thought about the state of his team that he never imagined he would have to utter.
The Badgers had just earned an emphatic, 5-0 victory over No. 1 Notre Dame, ending the Fighting Irish’s 16-game winning streak with a dominating performance in all areas.
It was the kind of result that matched the lofty predictions made before the season for UW in the wake of a comeback campaign in 2016-17.
Yet the Jan. 21 victory in Chicago only brought the Badgers back to a 12-12-3 record, and Granato revealed his amazement with where the season had gone.
“I’m going to be honest with you: I’m shocked we’re a .500 team right now with how we’ve played,” he said.
That game offered a turning point for the Badgers, but through a variety of factors that became familiar specters, the eventual direction was down instead of up.
And when you consider the season as a whole compared to the Badgers’ hopes at its outset, shock is an apt description.
UW went 2-7-1 after the Notre Dame victory, including a six-game losing streak to end the season 14-19-4.
Defense was the most obvious culprit, with the Badgers allowing four goals or more in eight of the 10 games since they blanked Notre Dame and sitting in the bottom quarter of teams nationally for goals allowed per game for the season.
That was a full team shortcoming, not simply an excoriation of the goaltenders or a corps of defensemen which featured three freshmen for most of the season.
A team that, at some moments, looked like one that could have fulfilled predictions of being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament also suffered through some unwieldy stretches of poor play. Those ends of the spectrum sometimes came in the same game.
Although UW had strong individual performances, it also had opportunities for a difference-maker to step forward go unfilled.
“We expected more out of this group,” said sophomore center Trent Frederic, who led the team with 17 goals. “It is what it is. It’s hard to look back and say we could have won here, could have won here.
“I wouldn’t say we really ever got any bounces all year. Last year, some stuff went our way. Maybe we weren’t as fortunate or maybe that was ourselves. But it just felt like one of those years (where) we were always fighting it.”
Inconsistency was one of the central themes of the season, which started with the Badgers rising to No. 5 in the rankings with a 5-2 record on Oct. 23.
From that point, UW wavered on its goaltending, with graduate transfer Kyle Hayton and sophomore Jack Berry each getting chances to claim the No. 1 spot. Neither did, and the coaches continued to vacillate through the season’s final games.
Granato said throughout the last few months that the Badgers didn’t handle the preseason expectations well. UW was 20-15-1 in 2016-17 and came within one victory of making the NCAA tournament in Granato’s first season.
Beyond October this season, the team’s performance didn’t match up.
“For a month of the season, we deserved to be that top team,” Granato said. “We went to some tough buildings and won. We established ourselves as a team that should be respected. But after that, it became difficult for us. We couldn’t get anything rolling consistently. We just couldn’t get to be the team we thought we would be this year.”
Granato missed six of the Badgers’ games while coaching U.S. teams, first at the Deutschland Cup in November and then at the Olympics in February. Whether that played into the team’s inconsistencies is a matter for debate.
What is fact is that the 2017-18 season concluded a four-year stretch that produced the program’s three worst records in the past 15 years.
With four- and eight-win seasons at the start that led to the coaching change through which Granato replaced Mike Eaves, the Badgers are 46-79-18 since 2014-15. That’s the worst record for a four-year span in the team’s 55-year modern era.
UW will lose eight seniors, including leading scorer Ryan Wagner. Another potential departure is Frederic, a first-round NHL draft pick of the Boston Bruins in 2016 who said after Saturday’s season-ending loss at Michigan that he would talk with UW coaches about his future.
A deep recruiting class stands to continue Granato’s remake of the team. Five of the eight players who have signed a National Letter of Intent to join UW next season are among players ranked for the June NHL draft.
For now, that future doesn’t erase the shortcomings of a season that didn’t live up to expectations.
Shortly after Saturday’s final loss, Granato responded in the affirmative when asked if he was still shocked that the team finished under .500.
“We’ve got some time to reflect now, and I don’t want to jump into conclusions just after our last game,” he said. “But there were lots of things that went on during the year that we need to be better as a staff on getting our team to make that next step.
“There were times that we challenged them during the year that I thought we were going to make a push to get going, and instead we’d go out and we’d lay an egg.”