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 his second in Wisconsin’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 crossbar.
While the final minutes of the game were enthralling, the opening was just as hectic.
With multiple postseason 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 one-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.
“It was kind of a patient kind of play,” Mersch said. “The best word to describe it, I don’t know. I’ve never scored like that — that’s probably my prettiest score as a Badger.”
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 MacNaughton 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.”
Friday night was a different story with even more on the line at the time.
There was a chance to share a piece of the MacNaughton Cup with a sweep. The Badgers still needed to secure home ice advantage for the WCHA playoffs. On top of all that, they were keeping a keen eye on their NCAA tournament hopes.
As St. Cloud State senior center Drew LeBlanc netted an empty netter with 55 seconds left in the contest to give the Huskies a 4-2 lead, those hopes were put on hold and any chance at the MacNaughton Cup was dashed.
“We’ve been do-or-die for two, three months,” junior forward Tyler Barnes said. “We’ve had to have a late push this whole season. Nothing’s lost at all. It was a tough one tonight.”
Going back to the program’s roots and playing in the Dane County Coliseum, the Badgers struck first. Scoring their third power-play goal in two games, sophomore winger Joseph LaBate sniped a shot from the right circle at the 14:34 mark of the first period for the 1-0 lead.
Special teams were an important factor for UW after it lost senior and top penalty killer Ryan Little to a game misconduct only four minutes into the contest. After killing off the five-minute major, the Badgers capitalized on their second power play of the period and their lone power-play shot on goal at the time.
Before long, SCSU netted a power-play goal of its own on a Jonny Brodzinski shot. Three minutes later, Barnes gave UW the goal-advantage again, netting a feed across the slot from freshman Nic Kerdiles.
Despite the 2-1 lead and 11 shots on goal in the third, the Badgers couldn’t hold off the Huskies as they went on to score three goals over the course of the final 20 minutes.
Less than 70 seconds into the final frame, Brodzinski tied things up once again. St. Cloud State netted one more before the empty netter when Nick Jensen sent the puck near post and it trickled over the goal line, as Rumpel couldn’t quite cover it up.
“That third goal was a mistake by our young goaltender,” Eaves said. “You make your own luck and [SCSU] had a little bit of hard work and luck with them tonight.”