Mike Eaves' seat gets hotter with Wisconsin's loss to Penn State - Photo Credit: Larry Radloff Photography
UW's at-large NCAA tournament hopes were all but dashed Monday night when the Badgers dropped a 3-2 non-conference game in overtime to Penn State.
One of the staples of the Mike Eaves era at Wisconsin has been the Badgers' ability to play with a lead. Given its style of play over the years, Wisconsin has been a tough team to come back on with its usual air tight defense and goaltending.
That certainly wasn't the case Monday night, as Penn State (13-14) was able to erase a two goal deficit in the third period to tie up the game, and eventually beat No. 16 Wisconsin (14-11-7, 10-8-7 WCHA) in overtime at the Kohl Center in front of an announced crowd of 9,078.
Third period Penn State goals from Taylor Holstrom and Casey Bailey forced the extra session, and it was Bailey who was able to strike again in overtime for the game winner with just 34 seconds to play.
Wisconsin dominated huge chunks of the contest, and out-shot the Nittany Lions 44-36. The opportunities were there for the Badgers to put the nail in the coffin, but they couldn't take advantage Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves said after the game.
"We're going to look back at this game and say it was a game of missed opportunities," Eaves noted. "We're going to probably look at the film and say we out-chanced them two-to-one and we didn't score enough to put it out of the game in regulation."
In just its first season as a full-fledged D1 hockey program, Penn State has knocked off Michigan State and Ohio State in addition to its landmark win Monday night against the Badgers. Quite the resume for the team who will join the Wisconsin in the newly formed Big Ten hockey conference next season.
Regardless of who they've beaten, the loss is an embarrassing one for a Badger club that has NCAA tournament aspirations. The loss dropped Wisconsin from No. 17 in the Pairwise to No. 28, virtually crippling its ability to earn an at-large birth. That fact wasn't lost on Eaves after the game.
"I think what it does is it just squeezes the importance of our last four games. We have to primarily win out, so that’s our task at hand."
To make matters worse, Wisconsin suffered another hit on the injury front, as senior center Derek Lee was knocked out of the game with an apparent leg injury in the first period. Lee was seen limping off the ice, and would not return to the contest.
Wisconsin took its first lead of the night 16:40 into the second period on a rare 2-on-0 line rush. Mark Zengerle picked up puck in the neutral zone with speed and found himself all alone with line-mate Nic Kerdiles. The junior center fed a pass over to Kerdiles who gave it right back, and Zengerle went top shelf, roofing it over the glove of Penn State goalie Matt Skoff for the 1-0 lead.
The Badgers were able to extend their lead 6:41 into the third period on Joseph LaBate's fifth goal of the season. The rangy winger carried the puck into the zone and let a wrist shot fly. After hitting the stick of a PSU defenseman, the puck fooled Skoff and found the back of the net.
The Nittany Lions would get a soft goal of their own just seven seconds later. A turnover on the faceoff at center ice saw Penn State's Holstrom carry the puck into the attacking zone. Holstrom fired a long-range wrister that fooled Wisconsin goaltender Landon Peterson.
Later in the third period with UW's Michael Mersch in the box, Penn State would tie things up on the man advantage. Peterson went for a poke-check, but Penn State's Bailey had quicker hands and pushed it through the legs of the Badger net-minder to tie the game at two.
"The first one was a shot and hit off our defensemen's glove and I lost it," Peterson said after the game. "The second one, I was trying to clear the puck, get a poke check, and their guy beat me there and went five hole."
Despite the momentum change, Wisconsin still had plenty of opportunities to end the game in regulation. Unfortunately for the Badgers, Skoff was outstanding between the pipes for Penn State. Junior center Mark Zengerle noted after the game that despite the play of Skoff, Wisconsin has to be better at finishing its chances.
"We had plenty of chances to kind of get that cushion to put them away," Zengerle said. "(Skoff) played pretty well, but at the same time, we have to finish our opportunities."
The Nittany Lions were the better team in the extra session, and were rewarded for their efforts with less than a minute remaining in the game. A failed clearing attempt in front of the Badger net was picked off by Holstrom, and he did the rest, slicing a shot past Peterson for the game winner.
For a Wisconsin team who has come back from its 1-7-2 start to the season to pull all the way up to No. 17 in the Pairwise, this is a tough loss to swallow.
"I wouldn't say momentum has been lost, but yeah it's devastating," Zengerle said.
Wisconsin has four regular season games remaining -- two at Omaha next week, and two at the Coliseum the following weekend vs WCHA leading St. Cloud. At this point the Badgers have to be able put this behind them if they want to make something of the rest of the season.
"What can you do about it? It happened," UW sophomore Jake McCabe noted. "We’ve got to go back to work. We have to win out here. It’s obviously a painful loss, but we’ll start rebuilding right now and come back to work on Wednesday."
The loss is an embarrassing one for a school in Wisconsin which considers itself a national power. That said, they sure haven't played like one over the past handful of seasons.
If the Badgers don't make the NCAA tournament this season, it will mark the third year in a row and the fifth in the past seven that Eaves has failed to lead his club to the tournament.
Unacceptable results from a program of this prestige.
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