With one of the largest senior classes in quite some time, the Wisconsin men’s hockey team had high hopes heading into this season and started off as the No. 2 ranked team in the country. But in the pursuit of a National Championship to live up to the big expectations both inside of and outside the locker room, the Badgers’ season was halted prematurely in the NCAA regional semifinal against North Dakota, ending the careers of nine seniors with the 5-2 loss.
After winning the Big Ten Tournament last weekend, Wisconsin (24-11-2) secured one of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament and what it had hoped would be a bit easier path to the Frozen Four. But with the Big Ten Tournament win over Ohio State, which prevented the Buckeyes from receiving an automatic bid, Wisconsin ended up helping fourth-seeded UND in the tournament. And not only did the Badgers aid North Dakota’s tournament cause, but they were faced with the tough task of taking on North Dakota Friday night in Cincinnati at U.S. Bank Arena.
Right out of the gates, North Dakota (24-13-3), who finished second in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference regular season and third in the tournament, hardly looked like an underdog and took the lead just five minutes and six seconds into the first period.
Although Wisconsin had fallen behind early, defenseman Frankie Simonelli didn’t think the first goal changed Wisconsin’s attitude.
“I don’t think we were on our heels at any point. It was a pretty toe-to-toe game for the most part,” Simonelli said.
After digging an early hole, Wisconsin climbed back into the game to tie it at one, a situation Wisconsin found itself in again in the third period.
In the third with UW down 2-1 this time, Nic Kerdiles skied the puck into the zone near the right wing boards which, after bouncing several times, eluded both UND defenseman that were clustered together near the blue line. Badgers’ forward Tyler Barnes came roaring into the zone behind the play and picked up the loose puck floating at the top of the right faceoff circle and, with a wide open look at the net, blasted the puck past North Dakota goaltender Zane Gothberg with 10 minutes and 28 seconds to go in the game.
Even though Wisconsin had tied the game, North Dakota was the team that dominated the final period, outshooting Wisconsin 14-6 in the last 20 minutes.
Badger netminder Joel Rumpel, who finished with 30 saves, managed to turn away the multitude of scoring chances and it appeared the game was headed for overtime. But with one minute and 44 seconds left, North Dakota’s Brendan O’Donnell let go what seemed like a fairly harmless shot from the right point. A screen in front of Rumpel by North Dakota’s Mark MacMillan meant to block his view resulted in a rather fluky goal as the puck caromed off MacMillan and somehow ended up redirecting into the back of the net.
It appeared MacMillan had made contact with Rumpel, who immediately protested the goal, and so the referees reviewed the disputed go-ahead score.
“The referee did come over and say, ‘Coach the North Dakota player did not bump your goaltender. It hit him and went it. It was a good goal.’ You have to trust their ability to make that call and that’s what he told us,” Eaves said.
Having tied the game a few minutes before the game-winning goal and despite being outshot, Wisconsin appeared to have momentum on its side. But with the heavy advantage in the shot department in the period, the Badgers didn’t put themselves in a good position to win the game.
All it took for North Dakota to secure the win, the 14th time since 2003 a No. 4 seed has upset a one seed, was the lucky bounce late in the game, which despite the lopsided-looking final score was close until the final minute.
“Once we tied it up 2-2 there I really thought we had it. We were buzzing. It was kind of a flashback of our comeback games. We tied it up and then we had the momentum but like coach said, they got the bounce today,” junior defenseman Jake McCabe, who was on the ice when the game-winner was scored, said.
Wisconsin made a last ditch effort to save its season by pulling Rumpel after the go-ahead goal was scored, but on the ensuing faceoff in the Badger offensive zone, UND’s Rocco Grimaldi backhanded the puck out of the zone which slid all the way down the ice into the Badger net.
Down 4-2 now, the Badgers pulled Rumpel once more and again Grimald converted into the empty net to complete a hat trick and silence any hope of a comeback.
Despite falling in their final games as Badgers, the nine seniors have left a lasting legacy not limited to just once performance. Eight of the nine seniors have played in more than 100 games in their careers, including Michael Mersch who played in every single game and was the leading goal scorer (67) in the Mike Eaves coaching era and Mark Zengerle, the new leader in points while Eaves has been at the helm with his 162.
Although they were unable to get to the National Championship in their careers, the seniors led the way to back-to-back conference tournament titles, in the WCHA last year and the Big Ten this year, and will be missed greatly in the lineup come next season.
“Your last of the year is always a tough game, especially for our group of guys. We’ve got nine seniors that gave us great leadership this year. But as we said to these young men, they left nothing inside of them. It was all on the ice and for that reason alone they can walk out of this building with their heads held high tonight,” Eaves said.