Heading into the bulk of conference play in the inaugural Big Ten season, the excitement and expectations surrounding the No. 9 Wisconsin men’s hockey team have steadily risen over the course of three series over break.
In front of 14,273 fans in the final game before classes commence, the Badgers triumphed 3-1, capping off the break with a series sweep of then-eighth-ranked Michigan Jan. 12. Not only did Wisconsin complete one of its best series of the season thus far, according to head coach Mike Eaves, the Badgers (13-6-1 overall, 4-2-0-0 Big Ten) also saw the highest single-game attendance of the year in Saturday night’s affair.
As Eaves discussed, with the bigger crowd and play picking up, his team’s anticipation of the seven regular season series that remain is quickly escalating.
“They’re jacked,” Eaves said. “They talked about walking out to 10,000 people on Friday with the ice storm going, ‘Holy smokes, people really must like us.’ Then Saturday it was packed — 14,000 without the student section. Playing in the Kohl Center when it’s packed, it’s special.”
Surprisingly, the Badgers’ dominating performances over the Wolverines came with Wisconsin short-handed as sophomore Nic Kerdiles and senior Sean Little missed the series with shoulder injuries.
So with Wisconsin’s fourth-leading point getter Kerdiles and the “spice in our stew,” as Eaves has referred to Little, both out, other players needed to step up against the Wolverines. Luckily for Eaves, his team came out firing on all cylinders with contributions coming from all over the ice.
In Friday’s game against the Wolverines, the newly formed second line of Brad Navin, Michael Mersch and Jefferson Dahl transformed into a three-man wrecking crew in the 5-2 win.
Mersch, Wisconsin’s leading scorer with 24 points on the season, continued much of what he has been doing all year but at a whole new level. Scoring two goals in the game’s final 1 minute, 18 seconds, he broke through for the first Wisconsin hat trick since Justin Schultz in 2010-2011 season and had four points on the night.
But it was an unlikely scoring contribution from Dahl, who set up Mersch on his final two goals, which set the pace for the Badgers during the weekend.
“He’s kind of been the unsung hero on our team the last few years,” defenseman Jake McCabe said of Dahl’s five points on the weekend that included a goal and four assists. “He’s the guy under the radar that does everything well — blocking shots, penalty killing for us, winning face-offs — just all around consistently, probably the most steady player on our team. To finally see him get rewarded with that second line ice time and the points that he was producing, it was really nice to see from him.”
Despite those performances by Mersch and Dahl among others during the weekend, it was still an all-around team effort in the absence of Kerdiles and Little.
“Friday night, you had Dahl and Mersch step up big time,” Eaves said. “On Saturday, Joseph LaBate stepped up with a big goal and an assist and played center and did a nice job for us there. Kevin Schultze had four points and looked like a world beater. So we did have individuals step up, but the first comment about that whole thing is how everybody stepped up.”
But a weekend before dismantling Michigan and leading for the entire series, Wisconsin ran into a tough matchup with Alaska Anchorage and lost 3-2, marking the first home defeat of the season. UAA has struggled through several sub-par seasons in recent years, but as Eaves said in an interview last Monday, the Seawolves have the ability to surprise a number of teams this season. Wisconsin fell into that trap in the first game, but rebounded in the second game with a 4-3 victory to split the series.
The series offered Wisconsin a bit of a wake-up call in the midst of a comfortable 12-game home stand.
“Sometimes you need those bumps in the road to kind of get on the right target and we saw that with us last year,” forward Mark Zengerle said in an interview Monday. “We held a little meeting during the week last week before the Michigan series to establish what we want and what everyone needs to do. Turned out that we looked like geniuses for this weekend, but the season is more than that so just got to keep building off this past weekend.”
One of the key trends throughout all three series over the winter break, which also included a sweep of Alabama-Huntsville Dec. 27-28, was the emerging play of goaltender Joel Rumpel. The junior from Swift Current, Saskatchewan started five of the six games over break and nine of the last 11. Rumpel owns a .932 save percentage on the year along with a Big Ten-leading 1.85 goals-against-average.
For now, Rumpel seems to have pulled away in the goaltending battle with Landon Peterson, but Eaves was quick to remark that Peterson always has the chance to knock off Rumpel from the top position.
“The separation in numbers has grown and I think Rumpel is on a roll now,” Eaves said. “One thing about Pete though, he’s going to keep Rumps honest because he competes so hard in practice.
“Petey is right there knocking on the door and Petey’s still knocking on the door. Rumps has been given a little bit more rope here to play but if he doesn’t stay sharp, Petey is right there for us.”
In the midst of some of the best play of the season, Rumpel and the Badgers, which currently sit in second place in the Big Ten standings and just four points behind No. 1-ranked Minnesota, still have room for improvement as the Big Ten race hits top gear.
“There’s always room [to improve],” Eaves said. “Perfection is something that’s strived for, never achieved, but there’s nothing wrong with looking to excellence. Excellence is kind of that space between trying and perfection. Excellence is more attainable than perfection but it’s kind of fun to strive for that.
“We can improve. And the thing about our improvement, the key button that we want to push is being that consistent in that ability to play at a high level.”