ST. PAUL, Minn. — Timing was everything for Michael Mersch.
The Wisconsin senior scored twice in Friday’s Big Ten tournament semifinal game, and it was all the scoring the Badgers needed in a 2-1 victory over Penn State. As big as Mersch’s 21st and 22nd goals of the season were for Wisconsin, it was when he scored them that made a big difference.
Underdog Penn State took an early 1-0 lead just 55 seconds into Friday’s second period as Curtis Loik beat Wisconsin goalie Joel Rumpel on a breakaway. That’s when Mersch and the Badgers’ second line responded with an equalizing goal 32 seconds later. With assists from linemates Jefferson Dahl and Morgan Zulinick, Mersch’s goal completed UW’s response.
"After we get scored on, we’ve been taught to line up right for that draw and let them know that we’re coming for them," Mersch said. "To get a goal on the shift after is huge."
With time winding down in the second period, Mersch again found the back of the net when he scored on the power play with a mere 10.5 seconds to play in the period. Mersch’s second goal of the day proved to be the game winner, as Wisconsin held on for the win to advance to Saturday’s championship game at the Xcel Energy Center.
The sixth-ranked Badgers boast the eleventh-highest scoring offense in college hockey (3.23 goals per game), which is also second-best in the Big Ten behind Minnesota. Mersch has been the driving force of that offense, as his 20 goals prior to Friday were among the most in the nation. Yet underperforming in the postseason had been a criticism of the Park Ridge, Ill., native.
Wisconsin goalie Joel Rumpel made 24 saves in the Badgers’ win.
Two big goals in the inaugural Big Ten tournament helped to silence that critique.
"Offense is a real finicky type of thing. It comes and goes," said Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves. "But Michael, through all of this, he keeps staying on the ice after and doing extra work trying to get back that feeling. . . . He came through tonight in a big way, and I know he feels real good about that because it helped the team win."
Rumpel made 24 saves in the Badgers’ win. He wasn’t tested quite as often as Penn State netminder Matthew Skoff, who turned away 32 shots in a losing effort. PSU topped Michigan in Thursday’s opening round, but needed two overtimes to do so. Wisconsin, meanwhile, had a first-round bye and was slow out of the gates in the first period before finding a rhythm in the second.
For the Nittany Lions, Friday’s game was the last of the season as head coach Guy Gadowsky’s squad finished 8-26-2 overall. But he noted just how far his team — still in its relative infancy as a Division I program — has come this year. Penn State’s first Big Ten game was a 7-1 loss to Wisconsin. Friday’s outcome (PSU’s fourth one-goal loss to the Badgers this year) proved that the Nittany Lions are indeed trending in the right direction.
"Disappointed that we came up a little short today, but extremely proud of how far we’ve come," Gadowsky said. "I think Wisconsin deserves a lot of credit, not just for today, but they’ve been a tremendous team all year."
When the Badgers won the WCHA Final Five championship in this same building a year ago, it secured an NCAA tournament bd for Wisconsin. Now UW has a chance to claim the first-ever Big Ten tournament championship with a win in Saturday’s finale. Wisconsin (22-10-2) will play the winner of Minnesota and Ohio State, who face off Friday night.
While a victory Saturday isn’t necessary for the Badgers’ season to continue — they’ll be playing in the NCAA tournament regardless of the outcome — Wisconsin’s players would love to cap their first season in the Big Ten by hoisting another tournament trophy.
"It doesn’t change too much. We’re still playing like it could be our last game," Rumpel said. "We won the last WCHA. . . . We want to win the first Big Ten. Not much has changed. We’re still playing like if we lose, we’re dead."