MADISON, Wis. — Michael Mersch relished the opportunity to grow as a hockey player.
A sophomore from Park Ridge, Ill., Mersch led all the freshmen in goals scored last season with eight, but was never needed to fill the vital role of penalty killer until injury after injury after injury began piling up inside Wisconsin’s training room.
“I heard my name called, and I just had to step up and fill a role,” Mersch said.
Inserted onto the penalty kill previously to help compensate for injuries, Mersch did more than kill off the power plays by registering three points, including scoring a short-handed goal and assisting on another in a three minute first-period stretch, to give Wisconsin a much-needed 7-2 victory Friday over Mercyhurst.
With his young team resembling more a MASH unit than a cohesive unit, Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves has attempted to unbind his hands from behind his back by expanding the roles of some of his youngest players. It’s not like he really has a choice, considering his lack of veteran options.
The Badgers (6-8-1) were already thin on experience entering the weekend, with junior winger Ryan Little and junior center Derek Lee out with hand injuries and little-used freshman forward Tyler Lapic out with the flu. As a result, Eaves skated eight sophomores and four freshmen on his top four lines, including a sophomore that had been switched to defense earlier in the season.
Imagine Eaves’ displeasure when Keegan Meuer was booted at 12 minutes for checking sophomore defenseman Nick Jones from behind, meaning UW was put on its heels for five minutes without one of its members of the penalty kill, while not playing that well as a team to boot.
“We were doing additions on the run,” said Eaves, who also lost winger Sean Little to a leg injury in the first period. “We had too much turkey in our belly in the first period and couldn’t do the things we needed to do. The injury bug has been here awhile. It’s just gotten bigger.”
Enter Mersch, who Eaves said he put on the power play not out of necessity, but because the sophomore has a long reach, a level of intelligence, and a willingness to block shots. The intelligence proved to be the boost.
Camped behind senior Max Strang, Mersch hit Jefferson Dahl breaking between the circles and fist pumped when the center flung it into the net to open the scoring. On the same penalty kill, Dahl returned the favor, beating Stang (eight saves) stick side to put UW in control permanently by injecting some energy on to the bench.
Mercyhurst (6-6-1) entered the weekend 6-1-1 in its last eight games and in first place in the AHA, but only went two-for-six on the power play.
“We took a deep breath while they gritted their teeth and dug in,” said coach Rick Gotkin of the five-minute major. “They did such a great job of blocking shots, and we got frustrated a little bit.”
Given the second assist on a second-period goal by Justin Schultz to make the score 3-0, sophomore center Mark Zengerle extended his points streak to a career-best 14 games. It’s the longest at UW since 1989-90, when winger Chris Tancill put together a 15-game run. Zengerle added his sixth goal and three third-period assists for good measure, having a hand in all three of UW’s power-play tallies.
“Every time he is out there, he is a threat to score,” said Schultz of Zengerle, whose four assists boost his team-lead to 15. “His vision is so good and his skills with the puck are so good that he makes it a threat every time he is out there.”
Wisconsin also got third-period tallies from Frankie Simonelli, a second goal from Mersch and Schultz, and a career-high two points from senior Eric Springer, as the Badgers scored the most goals since putting up seven against Alabama-Huntsville on Oct. 17, 2010.
Since becoming a member of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association in 1969, the Badgers are 11-0 vs. schools from Atlantic Hockey.
The Lakers got a second-period power play goal from Nick Jones and a third-period tally from Derek Elliott, but couldn’t muster much against a physical WCHA team.
“I thought in stretches we played pretty well,” said Gotkin, whose team dropped to 0-2-0 and has been outscored 12-3 against the WCHA this season. “We didn’t have a lot to show for it. It’s just tough to come from behind, especially in this venue against a great team like Wisconsin. I thought it was a closer game than 7-2.”