MADISON, Wis. — It was a meaningless exhibition game designed to get their legs back under them after a 20-day layoff, but it was a golden opportunity to members of a Wisconsin hockey team that hadn’t tasted a lot of victories since the calendar turned to November.
Going through a 3-5-2 skid, including 1-5-2 in the WCHA, just getting the winning feeling back in the locker room following their 4-3 victory over the U.S. Under-18 team was a step in the right direction.
“It was more important to shake off the rust after break, and obviously getting a ‘W’ is a good thing,” said sophomore Mark Zengerle said. “It does carry over.”
Evidentially. Playing their first meaningful game since December 10, the Badgers looked like a team reinvigorated, getting four points from junior defenseman Justin Schultz and scoring three points on the power play in a 6-3 victory over RIT in front of 11,741 at the Kohl Center Friday.
The storyline of the nonconference billing was a rematch from the 2010 Frozen Four semifinal, a game which Wisconsin (8-9-2) won 8-1 two days before being shut out by Boston College, 4-0. The rematch however, was in name only for the Badgers, as only six Wisconsin players remain from that squad, compared to 12 from RIT (10-7-2).
It’s a reason why the loss was a motivational factor in the RIT locker room and simply addressed in the UW one.
“For us seniors and juniors, it definitely burned, and this weekend allow us a chance to get back at them,” said RIT senior Cameron Burt. “We played a good game, the score doesn’t show it, and we had a couple turnovers that they cashed in on.”
But when one of those players cashing in on mistakes is a Hobey Baker candidate like Schultz, the minor issues become glaring.
Schultz’s two goals were vastly different, all the more reason to marvel at his athleticism. His first tally is a likely candidate for Sportscenter’s Top 10 plays of the night. Off a turnover at 5:50 in the first, Schultz knocked in a shot from his knees with the heel of stick after getting slashed on his drive to the crease.
The second was pure speed at 13:28 in the second, receiving the feed from Derek Lee, playing his first meaningful game since he lacerated his thumb October 28, and charging to the left circle before unleashing a blast past senior goalie Shane Madolora (27 saves). The goal gave Schultz his 100th career point at Wisconsin, and UW a 3-1 lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
“It’s obviously pretty cool; not many people do it, especially for a defenseman,” said Schultz, who moved into a tie for fourth place on UW’s career goals list by a defenseman. “It’s quite an honor, and more importantly we got the win.”
He was also initially credited with UW’s second goal, rifling a shot from the high post into the upper left corner of the net, but scoring officials ruled between periods that winger Michael Mersch slightly deflected the puck in front of the net.
“(Justin) has an innate ability to skate,” said UW coach Mike Eaves, who won his 200th game in his 10th season at Wisconsin. “He has a specialness with the ability to see ice in his shot, something you don’t see a lot from defensemen, being able to snap it from the point like he can and put (the puck) in areas where it can get tipped or pure score. He’s really special.”
Freshman Jake McCabe’s first collegiate goal was the eventual game-winner, fellow freshman Jefferson Dahl scored his third of the season, and sophomore Keegen Meuer added his fourth, all in the third period, helping UW survive a late onslaught after RIT scored twice in the first 5:57 to cut the lead to one.
It went so bad for RIT the last 10 minutes that senior Scott Knowles received a game misconduct for a retaliation cheap shot after he elbowed the wrong player in the back of the head following a hit behind UW’s net.
“We still battled, but when we got it to one goal, we needed it to stay at one goal for awhile,” say RIT coach Wayne Wilson. “Once they pulled ahead, we exerted a lot of effort to get back in the game, and maybe we put too much effort into that.”
Wisconsin also got 30 saves from freshman goalie Landon Petersen and two assists from Zengerle, who passed Wisconsin and Olympic great Mark Johnson into second place on the school’s list by scoring a point in his 18th straight game.
“It was the prettiest points — but that’s how it works sometimes,” said Zengerle. “It’s nice to keep it going. If I am not on the board, then I really didn’t do my job.”
RIT got goals from three different sources, but the Tigers couldn’t generate much on the power play (four shots and no goals in two opportunities) and fell to 10-27-3 against non-Atlantic Hockey foes since the start of the 2006 season.