Photo Credit: Matthew Semisch, Radio Free Omaha
Led by four-point nights from Michael Mersch and Mark Zengerle, Wisconsin was able to sweep Nebraska Omaha on the road at the Centrury Link Center in Omaha.
Earlier in the season we talked about how the Wisconsin men's hockey season was so crazy that someone could write a book from it. Little did we know we were just touching the tip of the iceberg on the crazy meter.
Just days after losing at home to Penn State--a team that was playing club hockey last year--the 16th ranked Badgers (16-11-7, 12-7-7 WCHA) went on the road to Omaha and took all four possible WCHA points from No. 13 Nebraska Omaha (18-14-2, 14-10-2 WCHA). The finale included a 6-2 rout of the Mavericks in front of an announced crowd of 12,146 at the Century Link Center Saturday night.
While the sweep is impressive in itself, Wisconsin did it by scoring 10 goals on a weekend they played without second leading scorer Derek Lee, who was left home with a knee injury. To add insult to injury, Lee's replacement, Brendan Woods, was ejected late in the first period Saturday night after committing a vicious checking from behind penalty.
After the game Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves noted the storms that were weathered earlier in the season are starting to pay off for this Badgers club.
"I think that speaks to what we went through in the first 10 games," Eaves said, referencing Wisconsin's 1-7-2 start. "That built some resilience within our group. We didn't have a lot going for ourselves in those first 10 games. Not a lot of offensive mojo, guys getting hurt, suspended. Yet we came out of that and one of great benefits was that this group became a resilient group, and we're seeing a little of that now."
Wisconsin forward Mark Zengerle, who had one of his best games of the season, also spoke about the Badgers' ability to step up in the face of adversity.
"Woods gets kicked out, Lee's out, that's two guys up front that have been helping us all year," Zengerle noted. "I think it shows a lot with how our team has been reacting to things."
The six goals scored by the Badgers were a season high. Wisconsin also notched two goals on the power-play, and added a third that went in shortly after time expired on an Omaha penalty.
"It's like a batter in baseball who is batting .200 and he's a pretty good hitter, he's probably due," Eaves said after the win. "And we're due here. The offensive thrust, the power-play doing what it did tonight, penalty-kill doing good, we were due for that."
The two power-play goals were a welcomed sign for a club that came into the game ranked dead last in the country in power-play percentage. However, Eaves noted after the game none of that matters when you step onto the ice on any given night.
"We talked today we're 59th in the country on the power play," Eaves said. "That doesn't matter. What matters is what we do tonight. What we do on the penalty kill, tonight. What we do offensively, tonight. Stats are for guys with good stats, we have to go out and execute."
And execute they did.
Just like Friday night, Wisconsin was able to take an early lead on the Mavericks. This time around it was Tyler Barnes giving the Badgers the 1-0 advantage on his ninth goal of the season.
With the Badgers on the power-play, Michael Mersch carried the puck in the zone and centered a pass to Zengerle. The junior center then flipped the puck to Barnes, who sent a screened shot against the grain that was able to slip past the pad of UNO goaltender John Faulkner.
Nebraska Omaha would bounce back later in the period to tie the score on Josh Archibald's 18th goal of the season. The nation's leading scorer, Ryan Walters, set up the play sending a pass towards a wide open Archibald who had snuck behind the Badger defense, and Archibald did the rest, re-directing the puck past Wisconsin goaltender Joel Rumpel.
The Badgers thought they had taken a 2-1 lead late in the period on a goal by Woods, but the tally was waived off after the referees ruled that Woods kicked the puck in the net on video replay.
That was the last we would see of Woods on the night. Woods was whistled for a blatant checking from behind penalty at the 17:43 mark of the first period, and was ejected from the contest for the major penalty.
The Woods major came at a crucial time when the game was still tied at one. A goal or two on the five minute power-play for Omaha could have swung the game in a completely different direction.
"When Woods went out the lineup, that's either going to be a motivator or an excuse," Eaves said. "The young men in the locker room talked about that, and they went out and made it a motivator."
After killing off the five minute major to Woods, Wisconsin would regain its lead at the 2:56 mark of the second period. A shot from Jake McCabe bounced off the back boards behind the UNO net, and Faulkner somehow allowed the puck to bounce past him directly into the crease. Ryan Little was the beneficiary, tapping the puck past a confused Faulkner.
The floodgates opened from there, as the Badgers received second period goals from Mersch, McCabe, and Zengerle on top of Little's tally to extend the lead to 5-1 heading to the final period of the weekend.
Mersch would go on to add his second goal of the night, and 20th of the season, just :41 seconds into the third period.
A pinball goal from UNO's Nick Seeler at the mid-way point of the period was too little, too late for UNO. By that point the energy had clearly been sucked out of the Mavericks, and they showed little pizazz the rest of the way.
Both Zengerle and Mersch had four point games, and that's what the Badgers need from their star players at this point in the season. Zengerle had been fighting through a small slump earlier in the month, but appears to be well past that now. He was especially good Saturday night according to Eaves.
"He had some magic," Eaves said. "He was making plays, the puck was going in for him. That confidence is maybe building at the right time for him."
Fellow junior Tyler Barnes had a three point night as well, and seems to have turned a corner since being benched in the Bemidji State series for missing a team meeting. Since that time, Barnes has recorded nine points in six games.
With the win, Wisconsin moves up to fourth in the WCHA standings with just one week to play. The Badgers' best chance at earning an NCAA tournament birth starts with earning a first round series at home in the WCHA playoffs. Wisconsin took major strides in that department over the weekend.
"It's about getting as many points as we can," Eaves said. "Four was optimal, but we're going to fight and scratch for anything we get, and we got four."
Believe it or not, the Badgers still have a shot to win a share of the MacNaughton Cup, which is awarded to the WCHA regular season champion. Just four points behind league leading St. Cloud, Wisconsin hosts the Huskies for two games in the final week of the regular season next weekend at the Veteran's Memorial Coliseum in Madison.
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