Tied 1-1 with under four minutes to play, the Badgers were vying for a game-winning goal and looking to its many veteran players to come up with the big score.
But it was the new guy in the No. 21 jersey that found the back of the net for the Badgers to seal in a 2-1 victory and a series sweep over Northern Michigan to open the season.
Freshman forward Grant Besse scored the game-winning goal off a pass from senior forward Michael Mersch, rebounding his own shot just outside the right of the crease. The second goal already this season after scoring the final goal Friday night, it appears the transition to college hockey was no hardship for Besse.
“He has that innate ability. Not only did he make the shot, he followed his shot to the net, got his rebound — it hit his shin pad and goes down to his blade — and he knows what to do with it,” head coach Mike Eaves said.
“Every game is a riddle with a non-textbook answer and we found that answer tonight with young Grant finding the back of the net.”
The Wildcats were not without a fight in game two, coming back with more intensity Saturday evening unlike Friday’s slow start. Both teams started new goaltenders Saturday with sophomore Michael Doan getting the nod for Northern Michigan and junior Joel Rumpel taking over for UW.
Doan was the first to give way to a goal as Badger sophomore forward Nic Kerdiles found a way to the back of the net 8 minutes, 11 seconds into the game. After taking the puck through center ice, Kerdiles fired a rocket that soared through Doan to put UW up 1-0. With the goal, Kerdiles has now recorded a point in 14 straight games for UW, including two assists Friday night.
“I think I feel pretty comfortable right now … I think we have a lot of confidence as a group and I think that is translating a little bit to my game right now. Confidence is important to feel good on the ice,” Kerdiles said. “I think things are just falling into place for me right now.”
Following Kerdiles’s goal the Badgers and Wildcats traded off un-capitalized power play opportunities through the end of the second period. A new fire lit under the skates of Northern Michigan to open the final period and their dominant play brought an equalizing goal with 11:40 left to play, as junior defenseman Luke Eibler ripped a shot from the top of the slot that Rumpel couldn’t adjust to in time.
“It felt like his whole body and shot angle was going blocker and then all of a sudden, I don’t know. [Mark Zengerle] said it might have touched his stick, but it looked like it changed direction and kind of hand cuffed me as I was sliding blocker and it went glove,” Rumpel said.
The goal served as a wake up call for Wisconsin, turning up the intensity to find that final goal from Besse and earn its second win of the season.
UW opens season with a bang
Friday night gave way to a much more mismatched showdown, as Wisconsin easily topped Northern Michigan 5-2 to open the season with a win for the first time since 2007.
“[For] the first game of the season, it definitely takes a few shifts to get into it. That’s what we were talking about in the locker room before. You either get hit or make a hit. A lot of our philosophy is to really get into that game mindset,” junior defenseman Jake McCabe said. “We were winning races and battles and that was good to see and it was the start we needed.”
En route to victory, 10 Wisconsin players tallied points. Junior forward Joseph LaBate gave UW its first goal just 5:07 into the season, rifling the loose puck into the back of the net from the back door after Kerdiles drew the defensemen to the slot. Just 2:32 later, senior forward Mark Zengerle found himself one-on-one with a Wildcat defenseman while on the penalty kill. McCabe knocked in the rebound from Zengerle’s shot past NMU’s redshirt freshman goaltender Mathias Dahlstrom.
Wisconsin made it a three-point lead to end the first period with Mersch connecting with senior line-mate Tyler Barnes and McCabe.
“Coach said it best — we need to go out there and establish the fastball and that’s what we did. We went out there, got the puck deep and we went at their defenders,” Kerdiles said. “So, being aggressive like that scared them a little bit, I think, and put them on their heels and turned into a lot of chances for us.”
Northern Michigan got on the board with power play goal 17:41 into the second period. A scuffle on the right side of UW’s net left defenseman CJ Ludwig with a wide open net and a loose puck on the left side and goaltender Landon Peterson unable to adjust in time.
Barnes quickly retaliated for Wisconsin to bring the lead to 4-1 to end the second period and Besse’s first career goal with Wisconsin in the third period brought UW it’s final five-goal total.
However, a ninth penalty against Wisconsin allowed Wildcat forward Stephan Vigier to bring the score within three, but it was too big of a deficit for NMU to overcome.
While goals came in bunches, so did penalties. Wisconsin’s nine penalties allowed the Wildcats to stay in the game with a short burst of momentum coming from its two power play goals.
The two victories earned Wisconsin its first 2-0 start to the season since 2004 and the first series sweep over Northern Michigan since 1996.
Next week the Badgers will travel to Boston for a pair of games against Boston College and Boston University.