It was a fitting end to the encore performance for the nine members of Wisconsin men’s hockey senior class Saturday afternoon in front of a sellout crowd of 15,359 at the Kohl Center. Not only did they get sent off with a win, but the Badgers completed their best-ever home record at the Kohl Center with a 2-0 triumph over Michigan State, earning a series sweep of the Spartans in the process.
A night after a five-goal offensive onslaught, the Badgers (19-9-2 overall, 10-5-1-0 Big Ten with 31 points) relied more heavily on defense and the standout play of junior goaltender Joel Rumpel to defeat Michigan State (9-15-7, 3-7-6-4 with 19 points in league play) and improve their Kohl Center record this season to a remarkable 17-2-1.
And although the Badgers’ power play has struggled at many points throughout the season, it was the work of both units on the man advantage that proved the difference in the game.
“We talked about what we need to do with this power play is to be a contributor and help this team get ‘Ws’ and they did that this weekend,” Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves said. “That’s the probably the biggest growth of this group and that needs to continue.”
The only goal Rumpel and the Badgers would need to win came on Wisconsin’s first opportunity on the man advantage. While moving down the left wing boards, Badger defenseman Kevin Schulze fed Joseph LaBate in the slot. LaBate fired away a wrister and, with the help of the screen of Jedd Soleway in front of the net, the puck found its way past Michigan State goaltender Jake Hildebrand (28 saves), giving Wisconsin the 1-0 lead 7 minutes, 17 seconds into the game.
Just a little more than four minutes later with Michigan State on the power play, it appeared the Spartans had tied the game when a slap shot from near the blue line blazed past Rumpel. But after the officials reviewed the play, they determined a Spartan was in the crease during the sequence, and disallowed the goal.
That was as close as MSU would come the rest of the way, as Rumpel continually shut down each scoring chance to total saves on all 31 shots he faced in the game to earn his second shutout of the season and improve his record to 16-4-1 this season.
Rumpel’s play has continued to improve over the course of the season and has been critical to the Badgers’ success as of late, on which senior captain Frankie Simonelli elaborated.
“Having a guy like him at our backstop every night, it really helps us out. It helps your team play with confidence, as well. It starts with him and works its way forward. We wouldn’t have good team defense if we didn’t have a good backstop back there, so definitely kudos to him for how he’s been playing,” Simonelli said.
In the second period while on the third power play of the game, Wisconsin’s first power play unit gave Rumpel an insurance goal courtesy of Michael Mersch, who had three goals on the weekend. The play started at the right point with Nic Kerdiles who fed Tyler Barnes behind the goal line to the right side of the net. Barnes moved the puck to Mark Zengerle who then shoved it to the low slot where Mersch stepped into pass and one-timed the puck under the pads of Hildebrand.
With Rumpel stoning the Spartans cold on the other end, using three different gloves in the process after breaking his first one, that two-goal lead help up over the final period and two-thirds to send the seniors out on a winning note and give Eaves his 250th win as head coach.
“This is our 12th senior Saturday weekend. Each one is difficult to solve the riddle of how to win games with this weekend because there are a lot of distractions,” Eaves said.
“There’s a lot going on [during senior weekend] and we solved that riddle. We did enough things well this weekend to find a way to get points and do good things.”