Badgers’ rally comes up short to start the season and Granato era

Ten minutes after Tony Granato watched his official debut as Wisconsin men’s hockey coach live Friday night, he was behind a laptop computer screen reliving it.

“Technology’s nice,” he said. “You got it right at your fingertips as soon as the game is over.”

Searching for anything in particular?

“Just looking at chances, for and against, to see if I missed anything,” he said.

Alas, Granato couldn’t find one that would have changed the outcome into something more festive.

The Badgers fell behind 19 seconds into their non-conference season opener with Northern Michigan and wound up having to endure a 3-2 loss before an announced crowd of 3,091 at the Resch Center.

Like Bob Johnson and Mike Eaves before him — coaches who built downtrodden UW programs into NCAA title winners — Granato lost his first game behind the bench.

Reconfiguring a young team that won just 12 of 70 games the last two years is a process, Granato reminded.

“We learn from what happened tonight and we’re better tomorrow,” he said of the series finale. “We’ve got to find the areas to improve on and look to make a few adjustments for (Saturday).”

Granato had a vision for how his team would play in its first true game of the season and it didn’t include a slow start. After all, an energized, upbeat training camp began with a 10-1 romp over Victoria University in an exhibition game on October 1.

“In my mind I pictured us getting off to a better start,” he said. “I think the way we’ve gone, what we’ve built on, I thought we’d be nice and confident and calm.”

Instead?

“Everyone was a little on edge,” sophomore right winger Will Johnson said.

“Some nerves early on,” sophomore center and captain Luke Kunin said.

That helps explain how left winger Gerard Hanson scored a rebound goal on the opening shift for the Wildcats.

Johnson got it back later in the first when he followed up his own shot from the slot and chopped the puck past goaltender Atte Tolvanen.

But an ill-advised boarding penalty on junior left winger Cameron Hughes midway through the first created a 5-on-3 power play that Northern Michigan used to take the lead for good on a goal by left winger Robbie Payne.

Making the outcome harder to swallow for the Badgers was the fact an apparent tying goal on a third-period power play by Hughes was counted, then mystifyingly dismissed by referee Pete Fresema after a video review.

The sequence came after senior defenseman Corbin McGuire beat Tolvanen from the slot 35 seconds into the third.

“He thought it went so he signaled goal,” Granato said. “Then he went to replay and couldn’t find (the puck). He said he had to go with that.”

Johnson said he saw the puck go between Tolvanen’s pads and beyond the goal line.

“They saw what they saw,” Johnson said of the officials. “I thought we had that goal.”

The first weekend of the regular season for the new-look Badgers began with some cool moments.

Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy made a surprise visit to their team dinner Thursday night and delivered a memorable speech. He related how much fun he had watching the Wisconsin football team knock off then-fifth-ranked LSU 16-14 at Lambeau Field on Sept. 3.

It was McCarthy who helped arrange for Granato’s players to obtain tickets to that game. The gesture goes back to when Granato was an NHL assistant in Pittsburgh and saw to it that McCarthy, a Pittsburgh native, had access to Stanley Cup playoff tickets.

In addition to receiving a good luck nudge from an NFL coach, Granato got some kind words via text from his former players in the NHL.

It was interesting to get a glimpse of how Granato and his associated head coaches — brother Don and close friend  Mark Osiecki — handled game day.

After warmups and before the Badgers took the ice for their first official shift of the season, they sat in front of their new coaches and heard Don Granato calmly, but forcefully outline the game plan.

First, a question.

“Good to be back?” he asked to claps and whoops from all corners of the cramped dressing room.

As Tony Granato observed from the entryway and Osiecki stood nearby, Don Granato walked back and forth in front of attentive faces and spoke firmly.

“Stay in the moment and execute,” he told them.

“Play for this team,” he continued.

“Stick to what wins hockey games,” he added.

When all the advice had been dispensed, Tony Granato walked around the room, stopping at every cubicle and wished everyone good luck.

UW fell short in part because it was able to convert only once on eight power plays. Tony Granato said special teams, play through the neutral zone and poise with the puck were points that would be addressed.

“Play a better 60 (minutes),” he said of the goal for the series finale. “Lots of the game I liked and parts of it where I thought we were a little uptight with the puck. We could have made better decisions with it.”

Granato said his players forced plays that weren’t there.

“It’s tough when you’re chasing from behind,” he said.

Sophomore goaltender Matt Jurusik (16 saves) mirrored the team in front of him. He was too anxious early, but settled in as the game moved along.

“I thought we did better as the game went on,” Kunin said after the Badgers had a 29-19 edge in shots.

“We had those first-game jitters,” Johnson said. “It happens sometimes in those first periods where you have to relax and take a deep breath and calm down.”

The Badgers did eventually, but not before an opportunity was squandered.

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