The Wisconsin men’s hockey team, still in the hunt for the inaugural Big Ten hockey title, will travel to Michigan State this weekend for its final regular season series.
The Badgers (21-9-2, 12-5-2 Big Ten) sit five points behind first-place Minnesota (42 points), as both teams head into the weekend with six points on the line. To claim the Big Ten title, UW will have to secure a series sweep while UM would need to be limited to a loss and a shootout loss. Although an unlikely feat for UW, as the Golden Gophers have won five of their six last games including a sweep over Michigan — who the Gophers will again take on in Ann Arbor this weekend — Wisconsin is using the opportunity to close out the season on the road with the stakes high as practice for the upcoming postseason.
Wisconsin has struggled to carry its superb home record (17-2-1) on the road prior to last weekend series sweep at Penn State, winning just four games outside the Kohl Center all season.
“I think it’s a great opportunity … We look at it as the fact that we get to go on the road and play. We’re going to play on the road when it comes to the Big Ten Tournament, when it comes to Regional, when it comes to hopefully the Frozen Four,” head coach Mike Eaves said at a press conference Monday. “So it’s just as we’ve used the term ‘dress rehearsal’ before to get in that mindset.”
Entering the upcoming series on a three-game road winning streak, Wisconsin’s top line of senior center Mark Zengerle, senior winger Tyler Barnes and sophomore winger Nic Kerdiles is firing on all cylinders, scoring five of the team’s seven goals against the Nittany Lions last weekend.
The duo of Zengerle and Kerdiles produced 12 of the 19 total points on the weekend, earning the pair the Big Ten’s First and Second Stars of the Week awards, respectively.
“I think Mark’s game has risen, his point production has risen, as [Kerdiles] is saddled next to him. I think they did get excited playing with each other, and you can see the chemistry is finding itself again. So they’re doing some really fun things out there,” Eaves said.
“Although [Barnes] doesn’t get as much of the flair, he did a lot of work for that line,” Eaves said. “He won a lot of races in battles this weekend in the corner. That opens up space for those two. So they’re once again playing at the level they were last year.”
After a 4-2 win Friday, in which all three players recorded a goal and Zengerle and Kerdiles left the ice with four points each, UW found itself in overtime Saturday tied 2-2 after a late goal by PSU. But Zengerle kept UW’s Big Ten title hopes alive, scoring the game-winning goal with just 20. 3 seconds left in the overtime period.
“We responded well in the second and the third and, in the overtime, we were dominating in that five minute overtime,” Eaves said. “Our play makers made a play for us to get us to victory.”
Zengerle currently leads the team in points with 36 off nine goals and 27 assists, and as of late, his performance has been unprecedented. Making a name for himself as a playmaker throughout his UW career and as the leading assist man in the Mike Eaves coaching era, Zengerle has broken out in the scoring role lately, tallying five goals in his last five games.
Meanwhile, Kerdiles owns 30 points so far this season, third-most for UW, and Barnes sits right behind his line mate in the fourth position with 23.
As far as the series with the Spartans goes, Wisconsin closed out its regular season home schedule three weeks ago with a sweep over Michigan State.
While the Badgers’ power play got its wheels going against MSU with its first pair of games with multiple power play goals since 2011 against Mercyhurst, it was the standout performance of goaltender Joel Rumpel that really came to the forefront during the two games. The junior recorded 55 saves in the series and earned his ninth career shutout in the team’s 2-0 victory in game two. Currently, Rumpel ranks second among the nation’s goaltenders with a .937 save percentage.
Since the teams last met, MSU dropped a game 7-1 to Michigan in Ann Arbor only to turn around their play the following night at home and earn a 4-3 victory. Like Rumpel, Spartan goaltender Jake Hildebrand is at key strength of his team, as he ranks 20th nationally with his .927 save percentage.
Looking ahead, getting UW’s second, third and fourth lines contributing more has been the focus of coaching discussion as of late.
“I think upstairs as we talk as a coaching staff, we’re talking about how can we keep improving, can we get more scoring from our secondary people, can they chip in more than just what they are right now,” Eaves said. “We think they can.”
For Eaves that means getting his three lines outside of the first forward unit going offensively. While senior winger Michael Mersch leads the team in goals, with 20 on the season as a regular contributor on UW’s second line and on the power play, it hasn’t been the other offensive players who have made a splash, but contributions from the Badgers’ defense.
Senior blue liners Frankie Simonelli and junior defenseman Jake McCabe have shown up on the scoreboard regularly with 17 and 23 points on the season, respectively.
“We think our second, third and fourth lines can still contribute more. And that’s what we’re trying to this weekend and even going to the Big Ten Tournament,” Eaves said. “Every weekend we’re going to try to get better, so we’re looking at those type of things that we can get from our kids.”
Wisconsin and Michigan State will face off in East Lansing, Mich. at 6 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday.