What makes sports great is the unpredictable nature of the game. As Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves put it recently, sports are the greatest reality shows on television.
For a group like the Wisconsin men's hockey team, that statement couldn't be more true. Whether it be NCAA suspensions, player injuries, or coaches leaving for the ministry, one thing after another led to a different plot twist seemingly every night.
The Badgers started the season on an awful stretch, but were able to right the ship along the way, salvaging their pride in the process. That all culminated in Saturday's win over St. Cloud State, which clinched Wisconsin a home-ice berth in the WCHA playoffs next week.
"Our job today was to find a way to create a win," Eaves noted. "We deserved this win tonight as opposed to last night where we didn't do a lot of things, I would say that tonight we were definitely deserving."
In front of an announced crowd of 5,781 at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Madison, the Badgers were able to hold off a late rally from St. Cloud to secure a 3-2 victory.
"We talked about being 1-7-2 to start the season after the game in the locker room and where we've come from," Eaves said. "To achieve home ice as a reward for their blood, sweat and tears and sticking through hard times. It's a great thing for them. Now we get to go back to the Kohl Center and we get to practice there all week in preparation. That's a big deal. That's well deserved."
Wisconsin scored just :43 seconds into the first period on a goal by junior defenseman Frankie Simonelli, but St. Cloud bounced back just seconds later on Andrew Prochno's fourth goal of the season.
Things would remain tied at one until the 12 minute mark of the first period, when Michael Mersch would notch a highlight reel goal to give the Badgers a 2-1 lead. Carrying the puck up the boards, Mersch made a fancy move around a SCSU defenseman, and lifted a back-hand shot past St. Cloud goaltender Ryan Faragher for the 2-1 lead.
The goal was a nice bounce-back effort from Mersch, who struggled at times in Friday's opener.
"I think he'd tell you he didn't play well last night and he played at the other end of the spectrum tonight -- he was dynamic," Eaves noted. "That first goal of his was a big timer."
After a slow third period, Mersch would add his second of the game on an empty-net goal with just 1:13 to play in the contest. The goal extended Wisconsin's lead to 3-1, but the Huskies were not content with the loss.
40 seconds later, Prochno pounced on a loose puck in the Wisconsin zone and netted his second of the night to cut the Wisconsin lead to 3-2 with just :33 seconds to play. The Badgers were to run out the final half-minute of play to secure the victory.
Wisconsin goaltender Joel Rumpel stopped 18 of the 20 St. Cloud shots on Saturday, but rebounded nicely after letting up a soft goal for the game-winner on Friday night.
"The biggest thing was letting go of yesterday and being in the moment," Eaves said of his sophomore goalie.
"Being a goalie you have to have short term memory," Rumpel noted after the game. "You learn from it that night and forget about it. It happens but you have to come back and forget about it."
The win clinched home-ice for the Badgers, which is a feat that Mike Eaves has not accomplished the previous two seasons.
For junior Frankie Simonelli, it will be the first time in his career that he will be able to play a home playoff series at the Kohl Center.
"Some of us have never even played in the playoffs at home before so this is shows that we've come a long way and we're all really excited about it."
Wisconsin has to wait for the Sunday afternoon results between Denver and Alaska Anchorage before they know who they will host in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
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