It was the first time Wisconsin and Michigan were facing off in a game since 2010, but the Badgers wasted no time in welcoming the Wolverines back to Madison.
After a two-goal outburst in the first period and a dominant performance most of the way, Wisconsin somehow let Michigan back into the game in the late going leading 3-2 with 2:02 remaining. But, Michael Mersch soothed the nerves of the 9,499 in attendance with two goals in 38 seconds — the final one giving him a hat trick — as Wisconsin triumphed 5-2 in the return to Big Ten play.
It was a night that got off to a bit of an unconventional start for the Badgers (12-6-1 overall, 3-2-0-0 Big Ten), which included abysmal weather outside that led Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves to thank the fans for making the trek during his opening statement.
“I think it was amazing crowd that we had tonight. For the number of people to get here through the weather, it’s just a tribute to the Wisconsin hockey fan and the athletic fan in general (to get that win). So for the people to come out tonight, I really think that’s a tribute to them and the boys really appreciate it,” Eaves said.
As far as the game was concerned, the unconventional, or rather odd start was the first goal. Mersch fired a soft wrister 4:07 into the first period that look like an easy glove save for Michigan goaltender Zach Nagelvoort, but the puck ended up deflecting off his glove in behind him, finding the back of the net.
Then Wisconsin opened up a two-goal lead midway through that first frame when freshman Grant Besse circled around behind the cage from left to right and fired a shot from the near the left post that ricocheted off Nagelvoort and squeaked over the line.
From that point on there was little action and few quality scoring chances until over halfway through the third period when the flood gates opened for both teams.
Jefferson Dahl put Wisconsin up 3-0 with 8:13 to go and it looked like Wisconsin had all but sealed the deal.
However, Michigan answered just three minutes later to cut the lead to 3-1 on Andrew Copp’s score. Another three minutes later the Wolverines struck again after Joe Faust took a costly high-sticking penalty. Wisconsin had held Michigan scoreless on four previous powerplays, but the Wolverines finally hit twine on their fifth chance when Luke Moffatt beat Rumpel near-side with a blast from the slot to trim the lead to 3-2.
On the verge of an improbable comeback, Michigan made one last ditch effort to tie the game with just over a minute and a half left, pulling Nagelvoort for an extra attacker. But the Badgers stood tall to the task, worked the puck out of the zone, and Jefferson Dahl, who had a career-best 4 points on the night, found Mersch in the slot for an empty netter with 1:18 to go.
Then with 40 seconds left Dahl and Mersch found themselves on a two-on-one, and Mersch made it count, firing a wrister past Nagelvoort to secure the first hat trick by a Badger player since Justin Schultz Nov. 27, 2010.
“The last goal was a goal scorer’s goal. Goal-scorers love to score goals and when they get on a roll that’s a good thing. Ride that wave as long as you can,” Eaves said of Mersch who leads the Big Ten with 14 goals. “I think he hadn’t scored in three or four games, so maybe he’s back on that roll again.”
Although Wisconsin responded well in the late going, powering through to only its third win over a ranked opponent in nine tries, there is still one more game left in the series and more work to be done, according to Mersch.
“This was a good game for us, but you got to build on it and keep moving forward. So, yeah, signature win for a night, but you got to make it a weekend,” Mersch said.
Joel Rumpel came up with 27 saves in the win, improving to 9-1-0 overall, while Nagelvoort stopped 25 shots for Michigan and fell to 6-4-1 this season.[Photos by Chris Lotten]