With two key players missing from the lineup in the first road series since the end of November, the Wisconsin men’s hockey team faced an imposing task when it traveled to Michigan over the weekend to take on the 12th-ranked Wolverines.
After sweeping the first series between the two squads, No. 9 Wisconsin (14-8-2 overall, 5-4-1-0 Big Ten) dropped Friday’s game 3-1 but salvaged a 2-2 tie Saturday night to earn one point in the Big Ten standings.
Although the Badgers only came away with one of the six possible points in the weekend against the Wolverines (13-6-3, 5-2-1-1), Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves remained optimistic under the circumstances.
“We’ll take the one point, put it in our hip pocket and go home,” Eaves said after Saturday’s tie.
“In some ways it was a moral point for us, being a little shorthanded and finding a way to give ourselves a chance to get ourselves more than one point but getting one point—the guys rose to the occasion today.”
In the series, Wisconsin was tasked with playing without two of its top-four goal scorers in Nic Kerdiles and Tyler Barnes. Kerdiles, who is fourth on the team with eight goals on the season, has now missed the last three series after sustaining a shoulder injury in the Jan. 4 game against Alaska Anchorage. Meanwhile, Barnes sat out this weekend, making the games only the second and third he has missed in his career after he injured his shoulder in the late moments of the Jan. 25 loss to Ohio State at the Kohl Center.
Without two of the key offensive pieces, Wisconsin struggled to put the puck in the back of the net throughout the course of the two games, scoring only three goals.
But despite a lack of offensive production, the Badgers fought toe-to-toe with the Wolverines in the 2-2 tie Saturday night that eventually ended in Wisconsin’s first shootout of Big Ten play.
Following a scoreless first period of play, Wisconsin struck first on a highlight reel goal from senior winger Michael Mersch 1 minute, 2 seconds into the second stanza. After working the puck free along the right half boards, defenseman Joe Faust fed Mersch on the right goal line near the goal mouth. Mersch proceeded to play a no-look, behind-the-back pass to himself between the legs of Michigan defenseman Kevin Clare, which he then slid past Michigan goaltender Zach Nagelvoort (25 saves).
“It was just one of those plays around the net,” Mersch said about his team-leading 15th goal of the season. “I’m always sitting around the net, so when you have something like that and you have a defender on your hip you want to make a move to the net. It was just split instinct move there and it worked out for me.”
A little more than nine minutes later, the Wolverines came back to tie the score at one when Tyler Motte, who had two goals in the series, collected a rebound and fired it past Wisconsin netminder Joel Rumpel (39 saves).
Wisconsin would respond at the 16:14 mark of the second after an interesting sequence of play. Only moments before, it appeared Michigan had taken a 2-1 lead on a goal off the rush from defenseman Andrew Sinelli. However, after the officials reviewed the goal, they determined Sinelli had made contact with Rumpel before the puck trickled over the goal-line and disallowed the goal.
That set the stage for Wisconsin’s Mark Zengerle who chased down a loose puck in the neutral zone and raced past Derek DeBlois in the process. DeBlois was left no choice but to pull down Zengerle, forcing a penalty shot to be awarded to Zengerle. Zengerle capitalized on the chance, beating Nagelvoort five-hole for the 2-1 lead.
Wisconsin went to the second intermission still leading and came out in the third trying to hold on for the win, but Michigan would not be denied in the final frame. The Wolverines outshot the Badgers 12-2 in the third period, with Luke Moffat tallying the equalizer with 12 minutes, 58 seconds to go in the game.
Neither team would score the rest of the way, forcing a 5-minute overtime session in which Wisconsin put six shots on net, doubling Michigan’s three chances. But even though Wisconsin tripled its shots from the third period, none of them found twine, ending the game in a 2-2 draw.
With the new format of Big Ten play this season, the game descended into a shootout, where Michigan notched the only goal coming from Moffatt to pick up an extra point in the Big Ten standings. That extra point puts Michigan one point ahead of Wisconsin and moved the Wolverines into second place.
Even in the shootout loss, Wisconsin seemed to have a surge of momentum in the late-going Saturday, which was similar to how the series began Friday night. The first game of the series saw the Badgers equal the Wolverines with 13 shots on goal in the first period. However, Michigan scored on two of those chances to take a 2-0 lead into the first break, and those two goals were all it would need.
Wisconsin seemingly controlled play in the first 10 minutes, but once again it was Motte who broke through for Michigan, pounding home a rebound at the 13:10 mark of the first period to sway the tide in favor of the Wolverines. Only one minute and 20 seconds later, Michigan would strike again. After Sean Little failed to put home a point-blank one-timer, Michigan’s Alex Guptill broke out of his own zone on a breakaway and beat Rumpel, who finished with 31 saves, for what was the eventual game-winning goal.
The first goal, followed by the failed scoring opportunity for Little and subsequent Michigan goal turned the tide in the Wolverines favor and put Wisconsin in a hole it could not escape.
“I thought all four lines were getting scoring chances. We were outplaying them, winning races and battles but we just couldn’t find the back of the net in the first 10 [minutes]. They popped a couple of quick ones and we just lost our energy from there,” Little said.
Michigan would score again just over 12 minutes into the second period, causing Eaves to use his timeout to settle down his players. Wisconsin regrouped and responded with a goal from Joseph LaBate just a minute and one second later, but the Badgers could not find the net the rest of the way as the 3-1 final score held up over the final period and change.
As Eaves commented following Saturday’s game, his team did not attain its goal by only grabbing one point on the weekend, but the performance considering the circumstances provided a learning opportunity heading into the remainder of Big Ten play and a home matchup against No. 1 Minnesota this Thursday and Friday.
“I think we were disappointed. I thought [Friday] night we didn’t play to the level we were capable of and everyone keeps talking about having those two guys out. That doesn’t matter. We rose to the occasion tonight. Coming in here and doing that with what we had is something we could use in the future,” Eaves said.