Before Friday night’s season-opening series with Northern Michigan, the No. 3-ranked Wisconsin men’s hockey team had held only four practices, leaving Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves little time to get a feel for this year’s squad. But despite the short preparation window before the first two games Friday and Saturday night at the Kohl Center, Wisconsin accomplished something it hasn’t since 2004 by sweeping the Wildcats with 5-2 and 2-1 victories.
After Friday night’s resounding 5-2 win, Eaves commented on the nature of the game that has left him without an opening night win since 2007, when the Badgers knocked off Notre Dame.
“It’s an odd game to coach,” Eaves said. “It reminds me of craps. You roll the dice. You see what happens.
“We go right into games — you really don’t know what you’re going to get. You hope that because you’re an older team that you have more repetitions over the course of a couple years that pays dividends for you, but you really don’t know what you’re going to get.”
The sentiments of Eaves were echoed in just how different the two games were, as the Badgers (2-0-0) coasted to the win Friday night, but had to dig in deep late in regulation to pull out the win Saturday night over the Wildcats (0-2-0).
Despite the differences between the two games, Wisconsin struck for first blood in both, a crucial aspect, according to Eaves.
“The statistics say that 68 percent of all teams that score first win games, so you want to put those percentages in your favor. So having a great start and getting that start tonight was a good thing,” Eaves said.
Not only did the Badgers notch the first goal Friday night, but they scrapped their way for two more in the first period of play, giving them a comfortable 3-0 heading into the first intermission.
Sophomore forward Nic Kerdiles, who played his first two games at center this weekend after having been a winger last season, made his presence known at his new position by facilitating the first two goals and picking up the secondary assists on both.
Then in Saturday night’s game, Kerdiles switched to the center of attention as he blasted a slap shot past NMU goaltender Michael Doan to give the Badgers a 1-0 lead a little less than midway through the first period.
With points in both games, Kerdiles now currently rides a 15-game point streak dating back to last season.
Although Kerdiles contributed a great deal to both wins, he was certainly not the only one playing a part in the sweep. Over the course of the two games, 11 different players recorded at least one point for Wisconsin with six of those players recording two or more points. Senior forward Michael Mersch tied Kerdiles for the team lead in points with three of his own coming off of two assists and a goal, as well.
The first two lines for Wisconsin – Mark Zengerle, Tyler Barnes, Morgan Zulinick, Kerdiles, Mersch and Joseph LaBate – racked up 11 points and did most of the damage, but it was third wing freshman forward Grant Besse, who was the only one with two goals on the weekend.
Besse’s first goal as a Badger was the fifth and final goal Friday night, while his second goal that came late in Saturday’s 2-1 win was his first game-winner as a Badger.
Following Saturday’s game, Eaves gave his thoughts on the Plymouth, Minn. native Besse, who played four years of high school hockey and only a handful of games at the junior level.
“Good offensive players, it’s interesting. If you watch enough hockey, they make bad passes or they make bad decisions, but somehow, some way the puck goes back to them. How do you explain that? It’s the thing they have. You can’t explain that. Grant has that and it was a goal scorer’s goal,” Eaves said.
“The seven games I played in the USHL really helped make the adjustment from the high school to the collegiate level, so I’m starting to feel more and more comfortable every shift out there,” Besse said.
Meanwhile, the games also differed in that two different goaltenders were in between the pipes for each game. Junior goaltender Landon Peterson shouldered the load in net Friday, stopping 18 out of the 20 shots he faced from the Wildcats and earning him the game puck from his teammates and coaches. In Saturday’s game, Junior goaltender Joel Rumpel had similar numbers with 20 saves on 21 shots, but gave up a big goal halfway through the third that tied the score.
That mistake was later bailed out by Besse with 3 minutes, 35 seconds left in regulation, as the Badgers started the season with a quick 2-0 start, much different than how things began against the Wildcats a season ago when the Badgers were swept.
“There’s the psyche of winning that allows you to press forward with your coaching and your teaching,” Eaves said. “I think you can be more demanding because the kids feel good about the fact that they won.”