While games are ultimately won or lost by the players, it’s the coaches who often receive the praise, or in some less fortunate cases, the criticism for the strategies and game plans that lead to the results.
Following a few minor adjustments in practice this week and yet another pair of victories against Alaska-Anchorage this past weekend, one might say Wisconsin men’s hockey head coach Mike Eaves looked like a genius.
Power play problems
Despite a string of success that had resulted in nine wins in the University of Wisconsin’s last 10 tries heading into the weekend series, Eaves cited one glaring statistic about Wisconsin’s only loss in that period: zero goals scored in five power plays Saturday Jan. 19 against Miami (OH).
To make matters worse, the Badgers have only amassed eight power play goals in 70 attempts this season. That number sat at a measly five goals in 66 power plays before the series against the Seawolves this weekend.
In response to the lackluster statistical production, Eaves announced his decision to switch the centers of his two top lines in preparation for their weekend series against Alaska-Anchorage in a Jan. 22 press conference.
As a result, junior center Mark Zengerle was paired with sophomore Joseph LaBate and junior Michael Mersch on the wings, while senior Derek Lee was placed with freshman Nic Kerdiles and junior Tyler Barnes in an attempt to create an offensive spark.
In total, it took less than two minutes in the series for one of UW’s new lines — consisting of Kerdiles, Lee and Barnes — to break the early deadlock when Kerdiles scored his third goal of the season. After that, the new-look Badger offense never looked back.
Twenty-eight minutes later, still clinging to a 2-1 advantage in the second period, Wisconsin’s other new line centered by Zengerle got its chance to shine when Mersch scored the Badgers’ first power play goal in seven games— a drought that stretched all the way back to Dec. 13 against Alabama-Huntsville.
“It was definitely really big for us,” Mersch said about the goal. “We kind of just let things happen. We had some set plays, but we just kind of roamed around a bit more and things just clicked for us. It was really nice.”
Mersch gave credit to the fact UW’s opponents had never seen the new line combinations as partially responsible for the team’s offensive success, particularly in reference to the scoring-explosion Friday night.
“One thing is that they weren’t able to pre-scout that, so that was a different look,” Mersch said. Then we just kind of let things happen, let things play out.”
As an offense, the Badgers lit up the visiting Seawolves for seven total goals over the weekend — three of which came while on the power play — on a whopping 56 shots compared to its opponent’s 36.
Despite creating far fewer chances for themselves in Saturday’s game, the Badgers still managed two goals and continued to spread the scoring throughout the offense, adding junior center Jefferson Dahl to the weekend score sheet and bringing the number of goal scorers to five players — including Dahl, Barnes, Kerdiles, Zengerle and Mersch — on seven goals.
While he was pleased with the progress overall, Eaves said he hopes the team’s progress doesn’t end there.
“Yes, we got the result we had hoped for by making some changes,” Eaves said after the game. “We stimulated some offense and got some goals for both units. That was the sole reason for doing that. Our hope is that we can build on what we started.”
New injury concerns
Partway through the second period Saturday night, after an apparent facial injury, Lee left the game and was unable to return.
The injury occurred on a breakaway as Lee skated with the puck down the right side of the rink. A charging Seawolf player pursuing Lee from behind reached out with his stick and appeared to make contact with the senior center’s face, but no penalty was called.
“[The referees] explanation to me was that nobody saw a hit to the head,” Eaves said. “All eight eyes said they did not see contact to the head, but the young man left the game because of some kind of injury to the head, so …”
While the extent to Lee’s injury was not made available after the game, Eaves expressed his confidence in Dahl’s ability to fill in for Lee if necessary.
“They did a pretty nice job,” Eaves said. “I think we’d have to sit back and take a closer look at what we might do in the absence of Mr. Lee, but tonight they had a little chemistry.”