Michael Mersch has been a goal scoring machine during his Wisconsin career, but for whatever reason he has struggled to produce in the playoffs. That all changed Friday afternoon in the Big Ten tournament semifinal against Penn State at the Xcel Energy Center. Propelled by two goals from Mersch, the Wisconsin men’s hockey team trumped the Nittany Lions by a final score of 2-1 in St. Paul to move onto the Big Ten Tournament championship game Saturday.
Mersch had tallied just four points in his career during the postseason with just one goal to his credit in 10 career postseason games, but in the midst of just one period he doubled his goal output to deliver the game-tying and what proved to be the game-winning goals for Wisconsin (23-10-2).
“He’s been great against us,” Penn State head coach Guy Gadowsky said of Mersch. “That’s not a surprise to us. He’s been great against us all year. He’s a tough, big body to handle. He’s great on the power play. But he’s also a confidence guy, five-on-five, and tough to handle in defensive zone.”
All of the scoring in the game in fact was contained in just the one period, the second period, in which Mersch tallied both of his goals. It was Penn State (8-26-2), though, which struck first in a bid to continue its season after eking out a double overtime victory over Michigan Thursday.
After the two teams played to a scoreless draw in the first 20 minutes, Penn State came out eager in the second frame and finally broke the scoring drought just 55 seconds into the second period when Curtis Loik chopped a centering pass from Kenny Brooks over Wisconsin goaltender Joel Rumpel.
According to Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves, it took his players almost the whole first period to get their feet under them after having a week off since playing their last game and having a goal scored just moments into the second period could have set the Badgers back. But Mersch and the second line picked the Badgers back up after falling down and quickly equalized the game just 32 seconds after the Nittany Lions had taken the lead.
“Penn State was playing at a higher level, quicker pace. They were making decisions with the puck before they got it. And we started to pick it up a little bit in the second period,” Eaves said.
Badgers’ redshirt freshman Morgan Zulinick started the play when he dug for the puck at the blue line up against the right wing boards and came up with possession. Zulinick slid a pass to center Jefferson Dahl at the far edge of the left circle who then found Mersch at the right goal line. After Mersch was denied by PSU goaltender Matthew Skoff on his first attempt to stuff the biscuit home, he put away the rebound chance into the back of the net to tie the game at one.
The rest of the second period remained rather uneventful, although Penn State did get the first power play advantage of the game a few minutes after the Wisconsin equalizing goal at the 3:11 mark. After failing to score on the man advantage, Penn State took a penalty at the tail end of its first power play to send Wisconsin on its first power play chance of the game. The Badgers came up empty on their first chance and were thwarted on their second opportunity as well with around five minutes left in the second period.
But the third time was the charm for Wisconsin as with just over a minute left in the frame Wisconsin came into the zone on an odd man rush and with only one Penn State defenseman back another Nittany Lion jumped off the bench into the play, resulting in a penalty for too many men on the ice. Mersch and the Wisconsin power play jumped on the chance, and with 10.5 seconds left in the period Mersch sent home another rebound, after the initial shot came from Zengerle at the right goal line, into the back of the net to put Wisconsin up 2-1, a lead that would hold up for good.
Penn State had several quality chances in the final period and had nine shots on goal, but Rumpel stood tall to the task and came up with all nine shots to give him 24 saves in the game.
The Badgers helped out their goaltender in the waning moments of the game by keeping the puck in the offensive zone and not allowing Skoff (32 saves) an opportunity to get to the bench for an extra attacker. Wisconsin held offensive possession for almost the last minute of the game and as the Nittany Lions finally broke out of their zone for one last opportunity, the Wisconsin defense forced them into a turnover at the Badger blue line and took the puck back as the horn sounded on the Badger victory.
With his two goals in the game, Mersch has 22 goals on the season which includes 10 power-play goals.
“It was a matter of time. Because of his work ethic, this flow and ebb that
offense has, he works through it, shortened the time he was down in the valley and he’s back on top,” Eaves said about Mersch ramping up his postseason scoring.
“Michael [Mersch] knows that one of his responsibilities on our team is to be on the score sheet. He takes great pride on that. It’s nice for him. That gives him confidence, and he gets that confidence, maybe he can stay up there for a while.”
Wisconsin will play the winner of the Ohio State-Minnesota game at 7 p.m. Saturday night at the Xcel Energy Center.