MADISON, Wis. — With five more games remaining, Wisconsin senior captain John Ramage had a hard time embracing the senior day festivities being bestowed on him, especially with two vital conference series looming on the schedule.
That didn’t mean he didn’t embrace the opportunity, though.
One of only three seniors on Wisconsin’s young club, the captain’s goal at 1:26 of the second period was the game-winner as No. 18 Wisconsin registered a 5-0 victory over future conference rival Penn State Sunday at the Kohl Center in the first hockey meeting between the two schools.
Michael Mersch added his team-best 17th goal of the season, while Nic Kerdiles, Tyler Barnes and Brendan Woods added third-period insurance tallies for Wisconsin (14-10-7), which jumped six spots in the PairWise rankings into a three-way tie for 17th.
“Every team wants to know where they are at, but at the same time, we’re trying to control what we can control and that’s with a win,” said Ramage. “By doing that, we’ll be at a good place by the end of the season.”
With Wisconsin’s final home series in two weeks being played down the road at the Coliseum, Wisconsin’s home rink from 1967-1998, school personnel decided to honor UW’s modest senior class prior to the series opener and it allowed Ramage a brief moment to reflect.
Ramage’s second year as captain has been much more enjoyable than his first. A 2010 fourth-round pick of the Calgary Flames, Ramage felt the weight of the captain’s ‘C’ on his chest after it was placed there prior to the season. Feeling like he had to do more to earn its justification, Ramage finished with a career-low 10 points, including an ugly minus-10 in the plus/minus ratio.
“His strength is also is weakness,” said Badgers’ coach Mike Eaves. “He’s a caring guy and he wants to whatever it takes to help his teammates out. Last year, his fault was he tried to do everything himself instead of delegating and trusting his teammates to do his part.”
This year has been much better.
Ramage’s six goals are a career high, his plus-12 ratio is second on the team and his leadership was vital in helping the Badgers turn around a 1-7-3 start to the season to be 13-3-4 since Dec. 1.
“He’s been great – best captain I’ve had in my playing career,” said sophomore goalie Joel Rumpel (22 saves). “He came in [after the first period] and told us, ‘We’re better than that. We need to be better than that.’ We have a lot of respect for him.”
The only thing that hasn’t improved for Wisconsin is the power play, but even that took steps in the right direction.
Nearing the end of the second period, Mersch’s shot from the right post deflected off Penn State defenseman Peter Sweetland’s face shield and into the net at 16:05 to double the lead.
Woods added a power-play tally late in the third period, giving the Badgers just their second game this season with multiple power-play goals. Wisconsin improved to 11.3 percent on the power play, leapfrogging Penn State (10.7 percent) out of the cellar.
Playing their final two games of their inaugural season as NCAA Division I independent, the Nittany Lions (12-14-0) missed an opportunity to beat its third Big Ten school by taking seven penalties for 14 minutes, resulting in little offensive flow and a ton of shots on sophomore goalie PJ Musico (46 saves).
“You’re going to take penalties when we’re always chasing from behind,” said Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky. “This is great experience for us [and] this is a great opportunity to get information.”
Even when the Nittany Lions were on the power play, it turned out poorly, getting caught out of position as its power play expired late in the third period that resulted in a breakaway goal from Barnes coming out of the box.
After only attempting six shots in the first period, Wisconsin threw 22 and 23 shots on net in the second and third periods, respectively.
“Our team knows what we have,” said Barnes, whose goal was set up by a winger Keegan Meuer making a pass from his knees, “and what we are capable of.”
The late nonconference series was a window into the future for both programs. Next season, the Badgers and Nittany Lions will join Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota and Ohio State in forming the Big Ten, a move that set off conference realignment shockwaves two summers ago.
With each team playing one another in a home-and-home series and wanting to take advantage of the Big Ten Network’s television platform, Sunday-Monday series or afternoon faceoffs may become more common.
What is evident by the amount of third-period fisticuffs is that the two schools have already started to formulate its rivalry.
“I think it’s just going to be fantastic,” said Gadowsky. “We’re getting a taste of the rivalry. When two Big Ten schools get together, it doesn’t matter what the school is, there’s a little extra on the line.”