In the first game of the Wisconsin men’s hockey series with No. 3 Minnesota Friday, one player, junior forward Michael Mersch, single-handedly kept UW in the game.
Twice falling down a goal to the Gophers, Mersch brought the Badgers level just as many times on two gritty goals to help the Badgers earn their way to a 2-2 tie on Minnesota’s home ice.
On the season, Mersch has six goals in eight games, and five of the Badgers’ 11 goals in conference play. He is the only player — besides injured junior forward Mark Zengerle — to score more than one goal this season.
On a team that has only won one game in eight tries this season, it would not be an understatement to say Mersch has become the go-to player on offense in Zengerle’s absence.
While many of his goals are not beautifully placed one-timers from the top of the slot, his gritty offensive style has made him a vital cog in Wisconsin’s offensive scheme.
“He’s a very important piece of our offense,” redshirt junior Keegan Meuer said. “Really what he brings to the table for us isn’t scoring goals; it’s what he does that allows him to score goals. He finds pucks in the corners for us; he wins battles in the corner.
“He protects the puck and controls it so well and is able to dish it out to a teammate, and then he creates a screen and gets a tip in or a rebound.”
But despite his recent success, the junior from Park Ridge, Ill., hasn’t let his early-season string of goals get to his head.
“It kind of is what it is right now, guys are going to have to step up, we’re going to have to get more opportunities from other guys,” Mersch said. “I’m hot right now, but someone else can get hot at any certain time, I’m just going to keep working hard and hope to contribute to this team.”
From a young age, Mersch’s destiny to be a Badger was never in much doubt.
After a select festival for U.S. youth hockey players, Mersch first encountered the Wisconsin hockey team in the form of a letter the team sent him. While the letter was just a standard letter sent to many potential Wisconsin recruits, it opened the door to further communication between the two parties continuing on throughout the rest of his youth career.
Following an unofficial visit to see UW later in his youth career, Mersch said he fell in love with the school almost immediately.
“I came up on an unofficial visit with my youth hockey coach and saw a game,” Mersch said. “It kind of just grew from there; I loved it at first sight.”
Signing on to play for the Badgers starting in 2010, Mersch’s talents immediately stood out for UW, as he scored eight goals in his freshman campaign to lead all UW freshmen.
Mersch did so well, in fact, that at the conclusion of his freshman season he entered the 2011 NHL Draft and was subsequently selected 110th overall by the Los Angeles Kings.
With his hockey future locked up, it would have been easy for Mersch to skip out and test his luck in the NHL, but he said the opportunities college hockey offer have provided him with invaluable experience as he prepares for an NHL hockey future.
“It gives you time, you still get an education, which is huge; me and my family, we always say I’m getting a two-in-one package playing here at Madison and going to school,” Mersch said. “It gives you time to develop your game, you’re in no rush. … I’m not rushed; I’m just enjoying playing.”
Now in his third year with the Badgers, Mersch has quietly become one of the veteran players on a youthful team that has only three seniors to lead the way — something his teammates say will go a long way in helping a lost Wisconsin team find an identity as it moves forward in the long WCHA season.
“He’s one of those guys where you can be a leader without having to say anything,” Meuer said. “Just the way [he] acts around the rink and the way [he] carries [himself]. … Those kind of things rub off, and I think he brings a lot of that to the table.”