Fifteen. That's the amazing number of freshmen and sophomores Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves suited up Friday night in the Badgers season opener versus Northern Michigan. Saturday night, two more freshmen and another sophomore saw their first action of the season to make it eighteen underclassmen in the lineup between the two nights.
As you can expect with a squad that young, there were some ups, there were some downs, and there were some times where you wanted to throw the remote control through the television set.
Friday night the Badgers dug themselves a two goal hole before making a furious third period come back. The Badgers first got on the board when a shot by sophomore defenseman Joe Faust from the point was re-directed by a Northern Michigan defenseman before finding the back of the net. Freshman Joseph LaBate would cap the Badgers come back with just over a minute remaining in the third period when he deposited a Derek Lee pass past Wildcats goaltender Reid Ellingson.
Just when the Badgers thought they had gotten through the five minute overtime period unscathed, a breakdown in the defensive zone cost the Badgers what they thought was a hard earned tie. Northern Michigan forward Reed Seckel picked up a loose puck and with only four seconds remaining in overtime, and was able to wrap the puck around the net and bank it off of Badger goalie Landon Thompson and into the back of the net.
Despite the loss, Eaves was proud of the way his players handled the adversity of being down two goals late friday.
"That’s the thing we talked about after the game. The thing we want them to leave the rink with tonight is the idea that we came we didn’t quit. We persevered."
The great thing about college hockey is that you get to come back the next night and redeem yourself. The Badgers were presented with that opportunity on Saturday, and took advantage of it despite a slow start.
Like Friday night, the Badgers found themselves down two goals to Northern before they finally woke up. Top line winger Tyler Barnes provided the jolt the Badgers needed in the second period when he got off an absolute laser beam that ricochet off both pipes before finally crossing the goal line.
Five minutes later the Badgers top unit was at it again, this time it was left winger Michael Mersch finding the twine. Justin Schultz found Mersch coming through the slot and Mersch buried it over Wildcat goalie Jared Coreau's glove to tie the game at two.
The Badgers top line of Barnes, Mersch, and Mark Zengerle got much of the publicity leading up to the season but didn't produce on opening night recording zero points. They also were a cumulative plus/minus -7 in the opener. Eaves was excited about the way his top unit bounced back Saturday.
"It was nice to see the line of Zengerle, Mersch and Barnes play at the level they’re capable of. They were disappointed in their effort last night, and we had a long talk about it. They want to be ‘the guys’ on this team, that means offensively, and play against the other top line. They didn’t hit that mark last night, and they did tonight."
Junior Derek Lee, one of only five upperclassmen to see action over the weekend, is undoubtedly going to be relied upon to be an offensive force for the Badgers this season. He took matters into his own hands Saturday night scoring the eventual game winner with just over four minutes left in the third period. In a remarkably similar play to the one Florek made the night before to win the game for the Wildcats, Lee was able to snatch up a loose puck on a wrap around and deposit it in the net.
Friday night freshman goalie Landon Peterson who was making his first collegiate start for the Badgers, stopped 16 of 19 shots in the Wisconsin loss. Joel Rumpel, the other freshman goalie on the roster stopped 31 of 33 shots in his debut on Saturday. Despite the outcome, Eaves was satisfied with the way his young goalies played and is likely to continue rotating both for the forseeable future.
"I think we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing right now based on what we saw. Both played well enough to play again and gained experience. I think there’s a lot of value too as watching as a young freshman. I’m hoping Joel sitting on the benches last night saw what was coming and that helped him tonight. At this point right now I see both kids continuing to play."
The Badgers will be right back at it next weekend as they open up WCHA play in Houghton, MI against Michigan Tech. The Huskies are coming off of a sweep over the weekend of American International. Game times both nights will be 6:00 PM Central. There will be no televison broadcast this weekend, so make sure you dust off your radio's and listen in to Brian Posick.