A new era of hockey falls upon the Kohl Center Friday night as the No. 17 Wisconsin men’s hockey team opens the inaugural Big Ten conference at home with a matchup against hockey newcomer Penn State.
“We have something that we are excited about. Hopefully we will get our first Big Ten win and be back home here for a while,” senior forward Mark Zengerle said.
The Badgers (4-5-1, 0-2 Big Ten) will be looking to pick up that first set of wins in the conference after falling to No. 1 Minnesota (11-2-1, 2-0 Big Ten) on the road last weekend in back-to-back games of the B1G’s inaugural series. Follow a 4-1 loss Friday — despite taking an early 1-0 lead — the Badgers returned to the ice Saturday only to find a heartbreaking 4-3 loss in the final seconds of regulation.
“We did more good things than poor things,” head coach Mike Eaves said. “We weren’t in our zone very much. We did a lot of good things but we got beat by our mistakes.”
Though losses are never taken lightly, especially against the team’s biggest rival, Eaves was especially pleased with the pace his team skated at for the 120 minutes of ice time across the border. He believes that, alongside eliminating the fatal mistakes, maintaining that pace will be the key to Wisconsin victories moving forward.
“Hopefully we will be able to play at the same speed and pace that we did and execution other than those four mistakes,” Eaves said. “If you can play with that same speed and pace that we did last weekend at Mariucci [Arena], that is top-level hockey and that is where we want to be.”
Eager to get back on the ice to avenge their losses, the Badgers will play on back-to-back weekends for the first time since their opening two series’ of the season back in the middle of October. Having to maintain focus in a peculiar week-on week-off schedule with three bye-weeks has been a challenge both players and coaches have acknowledged.
Now, with the recent losses, the Badgers are more ready than ever get back on the ice and collect a pair of wins.
“A lot of guys are looking forward to it, especially after last weekend with the couple of losses. You get to go back out and try to get a couple of wins. It’s fun to have something to play for,” junior goaltender Landon Peterson said. “This first half is coming to an end, and I think a couple of big wins especially in the Big Ten is huge. Two wins is a big deal for us.”
Aiding UW in its preparation for the Nittany Lions (3-7-1, 0-0 Big Ten) is a not too distant memory of the first time Penn State rolled into Madison last year. Riding a momentous win against the Gophers at the Hockey City Classic, the Badgers entered their first-ever series with the newly-formed Penn State hockey team, soundly winning 5-0 in game one.
But a different fate fell upon UW as it saw a 2-0 lead fall to force an overtime period, eventually losing 4-3 to close out the season at the Kohl Center.
“That was a pretty emotional killer for us last year. We ended up turning it around in the end but yeah the feelings we had after that game were pretty bummer-like,” Zengerle said. “We definitely don’t want to have that repeated.”
Penn State will debut in the B1G conference this weekend after a mediocre start to its second season as a Division I program. Opening with a 3-3-1 record, the Nittany Lions have dropped four-straight games against then-No. 13 Massachusetts-Lowell and then-15 Union.
Returning are most of their key players, including goaltender Matthew Skoff and redshirt junior forward Taylor Holstrom, who recorded two goals against UW last season including the game-winner in overtime.
Under the direction of head coach Guy Gadowsky, Penn State finished its first Division I season with a near-. 500 record and went 3-2 against its new B1G opponents, splitting series’ with UW and Michigan State and trouncing Ohio State in a single-game meeting.
“They shoot from everywhere. They play a simple solid game and can rely on their goaltending to make saves when they need them,” Eaves said. “It will be very similar to last year.”
Skoff and the PSU defensemen will be warding off a UW offense that averages three goals-per-game this season, led by a deep and experienced offense. Led by a strong upperclassman core of senior forwards Michel Mersch, Tyler Barnes and Zengerle and junior defenseman Jake McCabe, the veteran Badgers account for 43 percents of the team’s scores and nearly half of all assists this season.
Last Saturday, Zengerle recorded his 100th career assist for UW. He will carry the accomplishment into the weekend as momentum, looking to even translate a few of those goal-making opportunities to scores of his own, having notched just one goal so far this season.
“It was nice… I’ve got to start shooting the puck more and scoring some goals but it was cool,” Zengerle said. “It just shows how many good players have come through here in my past few years.”
The Badgers and Nittany Lions will face off at 7 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Kohl Center.