It was just an extra cushion at the time, but Michael Mersch’s third-period, empty net goal was exactly what the Badgers needed.
Mersch tallied his 22nd goal of the season, and second of the Wisconsin men’s hockey team’s 3-2 Saturday night victory over St. Cloud State (21-14-1, 18-9-1 WCHA). The junior winger netted the puck on a shot from the blue line at the 18:47 mark of the third period, giving the Badgers (17-12-7, 13-9-7 WCHA) a 3-1 lead at the time. Wisconsin men’s hockey coach Mike Eaves later described the play as “executed as drawn.”
“Our job today was to find a way to create a win,” Eaves said. “We deserve this win tonight.”
St. Cloud State got one back 40 seconds later on an extra-man goal as sophomore defenseman Andrew Prochno netted his second of the night, sending one in off the cross bar.
While the final minutes of the game were enthralling, the opening was just as hectic.
With multiple post-season hopes on the line, the Badgers came out hot and took a 1-0 lead less than a minute in. Junior defenseman Frankie Simonelli redirected a shot from sophomore and defensive partner Jake McCabe at the point just 43 seconds into the opening frame.
But the lead didn’t last for long. Twenty-four seconds later, SCSU tied things at 1 all as Prochno sent in a rebound from the top of the left key.
Before the first 20 minutes expired, Mersch gave Wisconsin the lead once again, 2-1. Carrying the puck into the zone, Mersch entered the slot, dangled around the defenseman and went to SCSU goaltender Ryan Faragher’s left post, chipping the puck top shelf.
The Badgers produced 31 shots on net to the Huskies 20. With the win UW sealed home ice advantage for next weekend’s first round of the WCHA playoffs and despite the loss SCSU still got a share of the MacNaugton Cup.
“It kind of felt like playoff hockey already,” sophomore goaltender Joel Rumpel said. “It’ll help us going into next weekend, seeing how well we can actually play and that we can hang with the top team in the league.”