Location: somewhere just above rock bottom.
Population: the Wisconsin men’s hockey team.
In only their second home series of the season, the Badgers (1-7-2, 1-5-2 WCHA) were swept once again in the recently less-than-friendly confines of the Kohl Center, this time at the hands of Minnesota State (5-5-2, 3-5-0) in a pair of 4-2 decisions.
“Nobody’s quitting on anyone,” said sophomore defenseman Jake McCabe. “Obviously we didn’t see the start of the season coming. We’re going right into the wind like we’ve been saying all year.”
On Saturday, Wisconsin looked strong and had the look of a team that could very well get its second win of the season. But with a chip shot from point-blank range from freshman forward Bryce Gervais 15 minutes, 10 seconds into the first period, the Mavericks took a 3-1 lead heading into the first intermission.
At the start of the second period, UW head coach Mike Eaves replaced sophomore goaltender Joel Rumpel with Landon Peterson, who started Friday night. Peterson only let in one goal through the remainder of the game, but the damage was already done.
The Badgers did get one back quickly in the second as junior forward Michael Mersch tipped in a Jake McCabe rocket from the blue line for his team-leading eighth goal of the season.
Mersch also netted the Badgers’ first goal of Friday’s game on the third rebound of a shot 3:22 into the first period. Of Wisconsin’s 18 goals this season, Mersch has almost half of them with eight.
“He’s been getting a lot of goals for us so it’d be hard to say,” said senior defenseman John Ramage of where this team would be without Mersch. “Right now we’re still 1-7-2; maybe we wouldn’t have that win.”
Despite the loss, the Badgers seemed positive after the game, showing few signs of frustration.
They still have yet to win at home this season and have faced their fair share of bad luck as well, but Eaves maintained that righting their ship will take some time. And according to the UW head coach, it already started to turn around after Saturday night’s performance.
“When you get in these funks, it is like turning a freightliner in the middle of the ocean,” Eaves said. “You don’t turn it on a dime. You have to bring it around in a circle. With the effort that the boys made tonight, they started to make that thing turn. That is the thing we wanted them to leave the rink with tonight.”
Wisconsin peppered Minnesota State freshman goaltender Stephon Williams with shots with a total of 69 throughout the series. But Williams made 65 saves on the weekend, one of which seemed to epitomize both UW’s and Williams’ weekend.
During the third period, trailing 3-2, Wisconsin was controlling the puck and fired off several shots on net. Williams was on his back on the left side of the crease after making a few saves when junior forward Tyler Barnes had the opportunity for the tying goal. The puck sat still on the right side of the crease inches from the goal line, and Barnes simply had to chip it up and into the net. Instead, Williams threw his glove hand over just in time to block the shot, making an improbable save.
The shot, inches from the goal line, became the mark of the weekend: so many shots, yet no goals.
“There is no doubt there is frustration on the boys’ part, because they are disappointed in not getting rewarded for their efforts,” Eaves said. “Their mindset as a human being is, ‘I work hard therefore I will be rewarded with a win.’ That is an athlete’s mindset. We are not being rewarded right now with goals and/or wins. It is how you channel that frustration. To your point, it is how we channel that frustration that becomes energy for us.”
UW off-kilter in series-opening loss
While Wisconsin looked solid Saturday despite the loss, Friday was a different story. After a tough week of practice, UW came out in the first period of the series and fell completely flat.
Mersch’s first period goal was one of the few instances where the Badgers actually looked like the home team in the opening 20 minutes.
“I’m going to have to go back and talk to Jim Snider and see if we had turkey again for pregame because it looked like we had too much tryptophan in our bodies,” Eaves said Friday night. “I looked to [Gary Shuchuk] on the bench and I said, ‘Who are these guys?’ I mean, you watched us practice this week, we competed hard; we had good pace.”
Despite a slow start, the Badgers entered the third period tied 2-2. The Mavericks got an early power play off a boarding call, which sent junior defenseman Chase Drake to the penalty box. Only 38 seconds into the power play, MSU senior forward Eriah Hayes sent in a wrist shot from the slot for a 3-2 lead.
It was the Mavericks’ lone power play goal of the game, but Hayes would pick up two more Saturday night.
With 45 seconds left in the game, the Mavericks scored an empty-netter to seal the win.
After the loss — their sixth of the season at the time — the Badgers were searching for answers. Senior forward Ryan Little didn’t sugarcoat anything about how the team was feeling and was admittedly puzzled by the season’s early turn of events.
“We’re all over the map,” Little said. “ … I can’t put my finger on it. I know it’s extremely cliché and we keep saying that we have to go back to work, back to work and keep repeating ourselves. But that’s literally our only option right now.
“I know no one in that room is going to give up, the coaching staff’s not going to give up, the leadership group’s not going to give up. That’s our only option right now. We’re pretty close to rock bottom and we’ve got to dig our way out.”