MADISON, Wis. — While his team had walked away winners of seven of the last eight games to jump back into the WCHA playoff race and NCAA tournament consideration, Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves wanted more, much more, from his offense.
His response to an offense ranked 50th in the country at 2.2 goals per game? Switch up a first line that had accounted for 28 points in its 12 games together with a second line on a frustrating search for chemistry.
The fortuitous move proved successful, as No. 20 Wisconsin’s second line scored two first-period goals to ignite the Badgers to a 5-2 win over struggling Alaska-Anchorage Friday at the Kohl Center.
“We got the desired result that we hoped we would by making the change,” said Eaves. “We stimulated some offense.”
The win is the ninth straight league game in which Wisconsin (10-8-5, 7-5-5 WCHA) has walked away with a point. The last time the Badgers lost a league game, they found themselves in a tie for tenth. Heading into the series finale, Wisconsin is just five points out of first place.
“Hard work is where it all came from,” said UW junior winger Tyler Barnes. “We had a rough start to the season and we really came together and started to work hard. Now it’s starting to pay off. We’re trying to really focus on not getting away from that core aspect of our team.”
Having scored two goals or less in four of the past five games, Eaves moved senior center Derek Lee down to the second line and elevated junior center Mark Zengerle, who had only one goal in the 10 games since returning from a broken finger Dec. 7.
The goal was to ignite Zengerle – who was the returning top scorer in the nation (13-37-50) – and for Lee to continue to facilitate the first line’s production.
Both did their jobs.
Lee was credited with the first assist on Nic Kerdiles’ goal at 1:26, as the freshman poked in his own rebound off the right post to open the scoring. Lee earned the second assist after a Kerdiles pass from behind the net allowed Barnes to feather a shot between the legs of Rob Gunderson (32 saves) to give UW the lead for good.
“We’re in a tough spot mentally right now,” said Alaska-Anchorage coach Dave Shyiak. “Whenever everything is rolling downhill, it’s rolling down. It’s a tough mental makeup right now. Everything that could go wrong went wrong [tonight].”
Zengerle broke his scoring drought late in the second, scoring his fourth of the season on a wide-open net. The Badgers improved to 15-4-2 when Zengele has scored a goal over the course of his career.
“[Zengerle's] contribution offensively stimulates a lot of things,” said Eaves. “It’s important that he gets on that score sheet.”
Everything worked for the Badgers on a night where they dominated in shots (37-14) and tempo. Even Wisconsin’s struggling power play made a connection.
The Badgers entered the night with a power play ranked 57th out of 59 in the country, converting at a paltry 9.1 percent. Wisconsin’s six power-play goals were fewest in the nation and the Badgers hadn’t converted on the power play in their past seven games (0-for-21).
That changed midway through the second period on Wisconsin’s second man-advantage of the evening, as a loose puck drifted out to Michael Mersch, who buried the puck into the wide-open net to extend the lead to 3-1.
Mersch added his team-leading 15th goal on a third-period power play, marking the first game this season Wisconsin scored more than once on the man-advantage.
Of course it helped that the Seawolves entered the weekend 58th in the country on the penalty kill (74.4 percent), but the end result spoke for itself.
“It was definitely a relief for us,” said Mersch. “We kind of just let things happen. We had some set plays, but we roamed around a little bit more and things clicked for us, which was nice.”
While Wisconsin makes a push for first place and continues to trend upward, the Seawolves continue to be stuck in reverse. Currently riding an 11 game winless streak, Anchorage hasn’t won since Dec. 1, hasn’t won a road game since Feb.17, 2012 and hasn’t won in Madison since March 2005.
“They are a solid team that’s very structured,” said Shyiak of Wisconsin. “They play a strong, solid, safe game and when you make mistakes, they cashed in on some good chances. They don’t beat themselves.”