If there's one area the Wisconsin men's hockey team has been looking to improve this season, it's on the power play. The Badgers have been ineffective in that category much of the year and entered the weekend just 3-for-29 (10.3 percent) over their past 10 games.
If the Michigan State series is any indicator, things are starting to turn in the right direction.
The Badgers went 4-for-11 on the man advantage on the weekend, including both goals on Saturday in a 2-0 win over the Spartans to complete the sweep over MSU on senior night.
In front of a sellout crowd of 15,359 at the Kohl Center in its final home game of the season, Wisconsin (19-9-2, 10-5-1 Big Ten) received 31 saves from Joel Rumpel and power-play goals from Joseph LaBate and Michael Mersch.
"(The power play) produced goals on a night that (goals) were hard to come by," head coach Mike Eaves said after the game. "And we get four for the weekend, which we haven't done in quite a while, so that's a positive."
The victory over Michigan State (9-15-7, 3-7-6 Big Ten) drew the Badgers within one point of Big Ten-leading Minnesota. Wisconsin currently sits in second place with 31 points, while the Gophers have 32 and also two games in hand on the Badgers. More importantly, UW created separation between itself and third place Michigan, who split at home with Penn State.
Joseph LaBate gave the Badgers a lead just 7:17 into the opening period on his 10th goal of the season. After taking a pass on the power play from Kevin Schulze, the junior center wristed a shot that caromed off a Michigan State defenseman and past goaltender Jake Hildebrand for the early lead.
It appeared as if the Spartans tied the game later in the period, but the goal was eventually waived off after a review from officials CJ Beaurline and Marco Hunt. A long-range shot from Matt DeBlouw found the back of the net, but the referees ruled that MSU center Lee Reimer was in the crease and impeded UW goaltender Joel Rumpel from making the save.
Michigan State couldn't solve Rumpel the rest of the way, as he earned his third shutout of the season and the ninth of his Wisconsin career, tying Terry Kleisinger and Graham Melanson for second on Wisconsin's all-time list.
"Our team emphasizes a lot on our team defense and we wouldn't have good team defense if we didn't have a good backstop back there," UW captain Frankie Simonelli said. "So, definitely kudos to him with how he's been playing and hopefully he can keep it going down the stretch."
Michael Mersch would add all the insurance the Badgers would need on his Big Ten-leading 19th goal of the season early in the second period. Once again taking advantage on the power play, three seniors hooked up on senior night to extend the lead for Wisconsin.
Tyler Barnes made a pass from behind the goal line around the back of the net to Mark Zengerle who swiftly centered a feed to Mersch on a pop-out play. Mersch, who now has 30 points in 30 games this season, one-timed the pass from Zengerle past Hildebrand for the two-goal advantage.
After a stick-salute at the conclusion of the game, the Wisconsin seniors honored the crowd by facing the student section as they sang "Varsity" before skating off the Kohl Center ice for the final time in a Badger sweater.
"It was awesome," Mersch said. "Kind of emotional for myself and I'm sure for the rest of our teammates."