Coming into the final home series of the season, the Wisconsin men’s hockey team was looking to improve on a key area in its game that had struggled all season long: its power play.
The Badgers (19-9-2, 10-5-1-0 Big Ten) had converted just 15 opportunities with the man advantage throughout the season, a Big Ten conference low, and held a power play conversion rate of just more than 15 percent.
But that all changed this past weekend against Michigan State (9-15-7, 3-7-6-4 Big Ten) as UW netted four power play goals in the series, a pair in each of the games, leading the team to a sweep over the Spartans.
“The power play was productive. It produced goals on a night that they were hard to come by. And we get four for the weekend, which we haven’t done in quite a while, so that’s a positive,” head coach Mike Eaves said. “We did enough things well this weekend to find a way to get points and do good things.”
Friday and Saturday nights’ duo of power play goals marked just the fourth and fifth times the Badgers have tallied multiple power play goals in a game this season, with the last time dating back to Jan. 3 against Alaska Anchorage at home. The weekend’s success marks the first time the Badgers have scored multiple power play goals in back-to-back games since November 2011.
While finding success in the series with the man-advantage, it took a wake up call to get the ball rolling as UW allowed MSU to take a 1-0 lead Friday night, giving up a short-handed goal on its first power play opportunity of the weekend off the stick of senior Spartan center Lee Reimer just six minutes and 52 seconds into play.
“We had a chat with that unit this week and talked about how we have to let go of what our power-play percentage is right now. What we need to do is get it going so that it becomes a contributing factor for the win. They did that,” Eaves said. “Maybe even that short-handed goal kind of woke them up tonight and got them going. They did a lot of nice things and the fact that they got two power-play goals was a contributing factor.”
It didn’t take long for the Badgers to respond, and they did so by the lead of senior winger Michael Mersch. The top power play scorer in the past two seasons, Mersch tallied back-to-back power play goals Friday to put UW back with the lead in Friday’s 5-2 victory. Mersch finished the weekend with a third goal with the man advantage in Saturday’s 2-0 win. Recording his eight power play goals on the season, Mersch is on track to become the first Badger to lead the team in power play goals in three successive seasons.
With the trio of goals, Mersch snapped his 16-game streak without a power play goal.
“Our power play’s kind of been down a little bit. We’ve been in a slump. When they scored on that, it really put our backs against the wall as a unit so it was huge for us to get that goal, and then we were able to capitalize again,” Mersch said. “So it gives us a little bit of confidence going around here because we have to contribute on the power play if we’re going to win games.”
The power play unit led by Mersch alongside seniors Mark Zengerle and Tyler Barnes, junior Jake McCabe and sophomore Nic Kerdiles account for 13 of the teams 19 power play goals of the season. The second power play squad also got on the board as junior Joseph LaBate netted a goal, scoring in the seventh minute of play Saturday to put the Badgers on the board first.
“I think our special teams has definitely picked up. I don’t know if I would say were hitting all cylinders. There’s definitely some things that we could still sharpen up,” senior defenseman and captain Frankie Simonelli said. “We’re going in the right direction moving towards the end of season here.”
Seniors Say Goodbye
Saturday’s game marked the final game in Madison for Wisconsin’s massive, nine-member senior class and also marked a monumental 17th home win, the most recorded in a season in the program’s history at the Kohl Center.
The impressive end to the home season was marked by senior success as six of the eight Badger seniors in the line up recorded a point on the weekend, led by Mersch with four points and Zengerle — who recorded his seventh goal of the season and two more assists to continue to lead the Big Ten with 23 assists.
“Having nine guys stay this long — four years — and be major contributors, the biggest comment we can make as a staff is what they were like as freshman and what they are now and the quantum leap of growth that has happened in their life,” Eaves said. “We’ve been through a lot of battles together, this group — ups and downs. And that’s how you become close.”
Following Saturday’s win the Badgers celebrated their final game at the Kohl Center by singing Varsity along with the student section.
“It was fun. It wasn’t planned or anything. It just kind of happened. Keegan Meuer was leading that and then we all hopped in. That’s usual for him. He’s a rally, rally kind of guy,” Mersch said. “It was awesome, kind of emotional for myself and I’m sure for the rest of our teammates.”