Their time in Madison might be winding down, but that doesn’t mean the nine seniors on the Wisconsin men’s hockey team are anywhere near done. With a strong contribution from several key members of the senior class, the Badgers managed to separate from Michigan State Friday night at the Kohl Center on the way to a 5-2 win.
Right in the thick of things for No. 8 Wisconsin (18-9-2 overall, 9-5-1-0 Big Ten with 28 points) was senior winger Michael Mersch who tallied to critical first period goals to help the Badgers crawl out of an early 1-0 hole.
The Spartans (9-14-7, 3-6-6-4 with 19 points) grabbed that surprising lead in the game 6 minutes, 52 seconds in off a shorthanded goal with Wisconsin on its first power play of the game. After the Badgers turned the puck over in the offensive zone, MSU picked up the loose biscuit along the near side boards and broke out of its own zone on an odd-man rush. Lee Reimer jetted over the blue line and toward the Badgers’ cage and elected to shoot on the two-on-one, sneaking the puck past Wisconsin goaltender Joel Rumpel (24 saves).
But after yielding that shorthanded goal on their first try on the power play, the Badgers struck back to tie the game on their second chance on the man advantage just two minutes and 22 seconds later. With some extended pressure in the offensive zone, Wisconsin defenseman Jake McCabe threaded a pass to Nic Kerdiles in the right circle. Kerdiles then smacked a feed into the low slot to Mersch, and he redirected the puck past Spartan goaltender Jake Hildebrand, who had 23 saves in the game.
The game went into the second period tied at one, but four minutes into the second frame with Wisconsin back on the power play, Mersch found himself with another prime scoring opportunity. Once again it was the same three players combining for the goal as McCabe got the puck to Kerdiles who fired off a shot from the right circle. Mersch collected the rebound point-blank on the right side and, while falling down, mustered a shot on net that squibbed between the legs of Hildebrand.
“The first one was a really nice play and tip and the other one was a great effort. Michael has a propensity to do those things and he did it both ways on a nice one and a sloppy one,” Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves said of Mersch after the game.
However, Wisconsin still clung to that 2-1 lead late in the second period when the turning point of the game came courtesy of senior Mark Zengerle. With under 10 seconds left in the period, defenseman Kevin Schulze sauced a pass from the right wing boards all the way across to Zengerle who was ready and waiting. From the bottom of the left faceoff circle Zengerle ripped a wrister that zipped past Hildebrand top shelf to boost the lead to 3-1, a momentous goal heading into the final period.
“To get a goal to get the two goal lead at the end of the period is big time,” Zengerle said. “On the other side of things, you get that goal against you it takes a big blow out of you. But as far as the goal goes it was just an unbelievable pass by Kevin [Schulze]. I had the whole net [to shoot at].”
That crucial goal was all Wisconsin would end up needing, although Brad Navin would tack on a fourth goal 4:39 into the final period. Michigan State cut the lead to 4-2 with 2:08 remaining in the game, but when MSU pulled Hildebrand on the ensuing sequence, Zengerle worked the puck out of the zone to Mersch who set up Kerdiles for the final score on the empty net to seal the game. It was Zengerle’s first assist in his last eight games, the longest he has gone in his career without a helper as the leading assist-getter in the Mike Eaves’ coaching era.
With the win, Wisconsin improved to 16-2-1 at the Kohl Center this year, tied for the most home wins ever in one season with the 1999-2000 Badgers’ squad.
Mersch, Zengerle and the other seven seniors have the chance to set a new record for wins at home Saturday afternoon in what will be their final home game.
“The days are dwindling here, so I think you have a little extra fire in you,” Zengerle said.