Twenty-four games into the season, Seamus Malone has grown tired of talking about the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team not having a suitable work ethic in a game.
“It’s getting old. We’ve said it too much,” Malone said Friday. “We’ve talked about this too much, and it’s getting late in the season.”
A 2-0 loss to last-place Michigan State at the Kohl Center was the most recent addition to a list of bad defeats this season by the 18th-ranked Badgers, who are winless in their past five games.
UW was listless in generating quality scoring chances through the first two periods and wasn’t able to beat Spartans goaltender John Lethemon for the second straight game.
Lethemon made 30 saves for his fourth shutout of the season and second against the Badgers, who fell below .500 for the first time since Oct. 7, 2016, when they lost Tony Granato’s first game as head coach.
“We were flat tonight,” Granato said. “At this point of the season, there’s no excuse for it. We’re battling for home-ice advantage ... right in the middle of the pack. If you drop any farther out, that’s not going to be an option anymore. So we’ve got to get going.
“We’ve dropped all year. Last year, we climbed all year. This year, we started up high and we’ve dropped pretty consistently.”
Michigan State (9-13-1, 3-9-1-1 Big Ten) allowed 20 goals in a four-game losing streak that preceded Friday’s opener of a Big Ten Conference series.
The Spartans had a much better defensive effort Friday, but the Badgers (10-11-3, 4-7-2), who fell into a tie for fifth place in the seven-team league, also had fingers pointing at themselves afterward.
UW generated just five shots on goal from the quality scoring area in front of the net over the first two periods before recording seven in the third as it tried to rally.
“We didn’t get in front of the net in the first two periods,” said Malone, a junior who tied for the team high with four shots on goal. “I think in the third period we finally got there and we created chances. But it all starts with how we work and how we get the pucks to the net.”
The scoring shortfall wasted a strong effort by goaltender Kyle Hayton, who stopped all but one of the 20 shots he faced.
Perhaps his best save was a left-pad stop on Patrick Khodorenko at the doorstep during a second-period power play.
“I thought he played outstanding,” Granato said.
Lethemon was a little better, foiling a Malone short-handed effort with less than eight minutes to play.
“We want to try to keep them more perimeter,” Lethemon said of UW’s shots. “I thought we did that for the most part. As a goaltender ... those are the stops that you’re supposed to make. And then you strive to make that extra save like on that short-handed one.”
The Badgers disputed the one that got past Hayton, a power-play rebound putaway by Mitchell Lewandowski with 11 seconds left in the second period.
With Peter Tischke serving an interference penalty, Hayton kicked out a Taro Hirose shot from the right side while Khodorenko and Badgers defenseman JD Greenway crashed the net.
The rebound went past them as they collided with the goaltender, and Lewandowski pushed the puck into the net.
Granato unsuccessfully challenged the contact on the play as goaltender interference by Khodorenko even though it took place outside the crease, where offensive players have more latitude.
“I thought he skated straight into Kyle and spun him around and didn’t allow him any chance to recover to make a save,” Granato said. “I’d challenge that one every single time. That was a big point of the game.”
Said Hayton: “I think my mobility was impeded enough where I couldn’t make the save. So to me, it’s got to be interference.”
Cody Milan ended UW’s comeback hopes by scoring into an empty net with 1:06 left in the third.
The Badgers have scored only eight goals in their five-game winless streak (0-4-1), and they haven’t led in a game in 250:17.
Michigan State 0 1 1 — 2
Wisconsin 0 0 0 — 0
First period penalty: Malone, W, 13:05.
Second period: M — Lewandowski 12 (Hirose, Gatt), 19:49. Penalties: Eliot, M, 3:11; Linhart, W, 8:18; Gatt, M, 11:56; Ghafari, M, 17:21; Tischke, W, 19:20.
Third period: M — Milan 4 (Rosburg), 18:54 (en). Penalties: Osburn, M, 7:58; S. Dhooghe, W, 12:15.
Saves: M (Lethemon 8-12-10) 30; W (Hayton 7-7-5) 19. Power plays: M 1-for-4; W 0-for-4. Att. — 9,703.