Welcome to big-time college hockey, Penn State.
In its first year at the D1 level as a varsity hockey program, Penn State (12-14-0) has had its fair share of ups and downs. Sunday's contest against Wisconsin (14-10-7, 10-7-7) was another learning experience for the upstart Nittany Lions.
In front of an announced crowd of 8,547, Wisconsin overcame a sluggish start to blow out Penn State, 5-0, and earn the home fans free custard from Culvers for scoring five goals or more for just the third time this season.
Penn State is playing its first season as an independent, but will join Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State in the new Big Ten hockey conference next season.
Wisconsin was able to put up five goals on the Nittany Lions, but probably could have had seven or eight considering they put 51 shots on Penn State goaltender PJ Musico.
The Badgers were led up front by Tyler Barnes who had a hand in four of the five Wisconsin goals on Sunday. The junior winger assisted on the first three goals of the night, and chipped in a goal of his own to ice things in the third period.
The Eagan, Minn., native has had a frustrating season from a points standpoint, but has recorded six in his past three games after Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves re-united the line that also features Nic Kerdiles and Mark Zengerle.
"I've had opportunities this season, I haven't been able to close on them," Barnes said after the game. "That's when I would really be nervous, if I wasn't getting opportunities. So I knew to keep working hard and bear down, and eventually they would start coming."
"A lot of that comes from (line-mates) Mark (Zengerle), and Nic (Kerdiles) and how they are playing and helping me out. We're really getting some quality chances, and I think that's where it stems from."
Barnes is second on the Badgers in goals with eight, and Eaves noted after the game that the more Barnes' confidence grows, the better it is for this team.
"Hopefully it's a confidence thing, a momentum thing for him," Eaves said. "I think more than anything if he can have that feeling of confidence from the inside out and have that momentum going that could be real valuable for him and us."
On a night where Wisconsin honored its senior class, it was captain John Ramage who would get things started for the Badgers. A sluggish first period that saw the Wisconsin record just six shots on goal led to an inspired between periods speech by the St. Louis native.
The message? We're better than this.
Leading by example, it was Ramage who put the Badgers up 1-0 on his sixth goal of the season just 1:26 into the second stanza. A centering pass from Barnes found the stick of Ramage who sent a fluttering shot past Musico.
It wasn't the prettiest shot of his career, but it set the tone for the rest of the game. Wisconsin goaltender Joel Rumpel mentioned after the game how the guys in the locker room look up to the guy with the "C" on his sweater.
"Best captain I've had in my playing career," Rumpel said of Ramage. "We have a lot of respect for him, great captain."
Rumpel wasn't too bad himself, as he pitched his fourth shutout of the season, and the seventh of his career.
After the game Ramage passed the credit back on Rumpel, noting that Wisconsin plays with confidence when its goaltenders are sharp.
"It starts with (Joel) Rumpel in the back-end," Ramage said.
The Badgers would extend their lead in the second on a rare power-play goal. Wisconsin entered the night ranking dead last in the country in power-play percentage, but saw both its units tally in the win.
The first goal on the man advantage came on a hard working play. Michael Mersch, who leads the Badgers in goals and points, picked up his 17th goal of the season when he found a rebound out front and batted it past Musico.
The other power-play goal was Wisconsin's fifth, and final, goal of the night. After a great play to keep the puck in the zone, Kerdiles showed his play-making creativity by finding a streaking Joseph LaBate on the back side. The sophomore winger's initial shot was stopped, but classmate Brendan Woods was there on the back door to bury the rebound.
Wisconsin's other two goals came from the emerging line of Kerdiles, Zengerle, and Barnes. Kerdiles tapped home his sixth of the season after Zengerle found him with a crafty pass from the side of the Penn State net.
Barnes' goal came shortly after he came out of the penalty box in the third period. After serving two minutes for roughing, Barnes came flying out of the box at the exact same moment Wisconsin regained possession of the puck. In a great effort play, Keegan Meuer was able to chip a pass up to Barnes as he was falling to the ice which sprung Barnes on a breakaway. Barnes did the rest, roofing the puck on his backhand past Musico.
With the win, Wisconsin jumped eight spots to No. 17 in the Pairwise ranking which is used to mimic the NCAA tournament selection process. To earn an at-large birth in the tournament, Wisconsin will likely need to finish in the top 14 of the PWR.
Ramage noted that while the team is aware of its situation, the best thing that they can do is keep winning hockey games.
"Every team looks at the standings, every team wants to know where they are at," Ramage said. At the same time, we're trying to control what we can control, and that's to win. By doing that we'll be in a good place at the end of the season."
"It doesn't matter where we are at in the Pairwise, if the team is rolling and hot going into the playoffs, I like our chances."
The Badgers will be back in action in a rare Monday night game as they attempt to sweep Penn State. The game will be shown live on the Big Ten Network at 7 PM.
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