Coming off a sweep at the hands of top ranked Minnesota last weekend, this weekend’s series against Penn State was significant for the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team for several reasons. Not only was it the first series at the Kohl Center in the Big Ten era — an event commemorated with several new features, including the unfurling of an American flag in the student section Friday night and a steam tunnel entrance before both games — but it was also a chance for the Badgers to get back on track in the Big Ten early on in the conference season.
With contributions from up and down the lineup, the 17th-ranked Badgers (6-5-1 overall, 2-2-0-0 Big Ten) swept the Nittany Lions with a 7-1 win Friday and 4-3 triumph Saturday, evening their Big Ten record and putting Wisconsin back above .500.
Between the two games, 16 different Wisconsin players tallied points and nine different players found the back of the net. And although many of those points came from regular contributors, there were a few players whose contributions on the score sheet were out of the ordinary, but welcomed, none more than senior forward Sean Little.
Little, who had previously only scored 13 points in his career, garnered three points on the weekend, including a very important goal against the Nittany Lions (3-9-1, 0-2-0-0) in Saturday night’s win.
After Saturday’s game, Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves talked about what Little means to the team statistically but more importantly, intangibly.
“I don’t know if you folks are aware of this but we’re 6-0 when Sean Little scores, so just a little detail I thought I’d share with you guys,” Eaves said.
“He’s that spice in your stew that gives it some flavor. He comes out and he plays hard. He plays his game. He keeps it simple and every once in a while — we’ve been asking him to chip in, go to the next level because he hasn’t done what he did tonight for, well, since last year really. Him and [Dahl] have been working after practice, doing little things to get their hands going, thinking about chipping in offensively. And tonight he was rewarded.”
But while others were interested in talking about his performance, Little humbly deflected the praise and credited his best series output since January of last season to the play of his teammates.
“I think our whole line played well. Keegan Meuer had a great game. Joe Faust with that goal was huge for us. Grant Besse made a lot of great plays. Jefferson [Dahl] set me up on the goal, which may or may not have hit Brad Navin. I’m not sure. Overall, I’d say Dahl, and Keegan [Meuer] and Besse all set me up to have a successful game,” Little said.
Including Little, the third and fourth lines — Jedd Soleway, Dahl, Navin, Besse and Meuer — accounted for nine points in the series to help propel Wisconsin to victory, especially so in the back-and-forth affair Saturday night.
After Wisconsin easily handled business Friday, Penn State came out ready for revenge Saturday night, an eerie déjà vu from when the Nittany Lions stunned Wisconsin in their second-ever meeting last season. Only 6:38 into the opening period of play Saturday and with a 5-on-3 powerplay the Nittany Lions took advantage of the golden opportunity and struck first for the 1-0 lead.
Instead of one of the top two scoring lines answering for the Badgers it was the scrappy third line with Little that responded. With Dahl moving toward from left to right toward the slot in the offensive end, he slid a pass to Little who put a soft wrister on net that found its way past Penn State goalie Matthew Skoff to tie the game at one.
Wisconsin never trailed the rest of the way, but the Nittany Lions kept themselves in the game every time the Badgers tried to pull away. With the game tied at two in the third period, it was once again the third line that came to the rescue. This time it was Little starting the play with a big hit in the corner of the attacking zone. Little then fed the puck to Meuer who set up Faust for the goal that put Wisconsin up 3-2.
Eventually, Nic Kerdiles would go on to score the game-winning goal after the Nittany Lions fought back to tie again, but the win was certainly not possible without the help of Little and his pseudo-Gordie Howe hat trick.
“When you get help from other lines other than the top two it really helps the team and fortunately he was on this weekend,” Dahl said of Little.
Unlike last year when Wisconsin faltered in the second game against Penn State, this weekend’s games, although completely different, displayed what kind of team the Badgers can be.
“We stayed persistent. We had steely resolve to do what we wanted to do and it paid off for us. The exciting thing about this is it helps us form our team identity. We’ve been talking about that early in the season. Last year had an identity as the year went on. And you only create it in terms of games and tonight was an important piece for us,” Eaves said.