At most he has four games left, but his college career could end the next time he takes to the ice. Regardless of what the next three weeks hold for Mark Zengerle, however, it’s safe to say he’s saved his best for last.
The Wisconsin men’s hockey first line center has had some bumps along the way throughout the course of his career, a hand injury that sidelined him early last season and a few scoring droughts, but the pieces of the puzzle have begun to fit together and it couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
Part of the explanation might have something to do with the fact that he recognizes his career is reaching its closing moments with an ever-increasing sense of urgency with each passing game.
“Every senior thinks about it. I think any of us would be lying to you if they said they didn’t recognize it going into the game,” Zengerle said of Friday’s first round NCAA game with North Dakota, which could be the last game of his and eight other seniors’ careers.
But a bigger part of the explanation of Zengerle’s crucial role for the Badgers, especially in the later going this season, has a lot more to do with the work he has put in over his four years rather than fear about his career ending.
The Rochester, N.Y. native came to Wisconsin after spending three years at the junior ranks, making him quite experienced for a freshman, something that showed in his first season in Cardinal and White. In his first year, Zengerle tallied an impressive 36 points, 31 of which were assists.
In the three years since Zengerle has continued to mimic similar numbers from his freshman season, with 50 points in his sophomore campaign, a slightly diminished 32 points last year due to the hand injury, and 43 points so far this season with 37, 23 and 33 assists in those seasons, respectively.
The rather large proportion of assists points to the natural role of Zengerle as a playmaker and passer, similar traits to a childhood hockey opponent and friend who is now an NHL superstar.
“Any hockey player has players they look up to and try to learn off of and for me, he’s one of them just because of similar size and similar strengths,” Zengerle said of Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane, who grew up in nearby Buffalo, N.Y. “Obviously, he’s at the next level with his strengths, but it’s a guy on TV you like to watch … and pick up some things.”
Although he has fewer points this season than he did in his breakout sophomore year, Zengerle is currently experiencing some of the most success of any point in his career, including an active 9-game point streak, which is the longest of any Badger this season. It could be attributed to emulating other players like Kane, but his success also owes a great deal to lessons he’s had to learn on his own and hard work in the small areas of his game.
According to head coach Mike Eaves, Zengerle has the tendency to want to make the pass more often than not even if he may have a good look at the net.
Selfishness may be an admirable trait at times, but Zengerle has learned a sort of controlled selfishness in prime-scoring situations.
“He understands that there are moments that the right thing to do is take a shot himself and not pass it,” Eaves said. “He’s come to understand.”
But outside of taking the shots when he has to, Zengerle has also worked diligently on developing his shot and finishing ability so he can put the puck in the back of the net when the opportunity presents itself.
“It’s taken four years,” Eaves said.
Zengerle admitted he came on a bit slow in the scoring category in the beginning of the season and was at first a little concerned. However, since being matched with Nic Kerdiles and Tyler Barnes on the first line, Zengerle has been on a scoring tear, which includes two game-winning overtime goals, one of which came in the biggest of stages in the Big Ten tournament championship game this past Saturday against Ohio State.
Zengerle had a rather quiet year last season without a single game-winning goal, which is something you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a passer in the first place. But this season in addition to his hot streak of late, Zengerle has accounted for four game-winners out his 10 total goals.
“That’s the important time to score now. In the playoffs and moving forward, I got to be a contributor as far as putting the puck in the net,” Zengerle said.
Zengerle has lived up to his word, and along with his linemate Kerdiles, the two are currently tied atop the NCAA for points in March with 13 apiece.
Scoring is obviously critical, but Zengerle has put in the work in the less-than-glamorous areas of the game as well.
“Another part that people don’t talk about as much is his ability to play down low in the defensive zone and just get pucks,” Barnes said. “He can go into a battle in the corner in the d-zone. He’ll just grab it and skate out with it real quick. Things that go unnoticed but for guys like us that’s huge because now you’re in the offensive zone, you have the puck, you don’t have to play defense.”
A hard worker on and off the ice, and a proven passer and more recently scorer, Zengerle will certainly be missed whenever his time comes to an end with UW. It’s unknown what will happen when his time is up. For now, however, the leading scorer in the Eaves’ coaching era isn’t concentrated on himself or the scoring marks but bringing home the national title.
“He’s playing as well and as hard. He’s a very competitive young guy. Even for his small size, he’s got a strong will and his will is something you need this time of year,” Eaves said.