MADISON, Wis. — To complete its season-long comeback, Wisconsin had to avoid allowing another third-period comeback.
Leading by a goal entering the third period for the second straight night, the No. 14 Badgers held off a St. Cloud State team desperate to keep the MacNaughton Cup to itself.
Michael Mersch scored twice, and Wisconsin beat the No. 8 Huskies 3-2 to lock up home ice for the first round of the WCHA playoffs and force St. Cloud State to share the league title with Minnesota.
The Badgers (17-12-7, 13-8-7 WCHA) tied for fourth place in the standings, finishing 12-3-5 in their final 20 WCHA games after a 1-5-2 start.
“This year’s been a long journey for us,” Badgers defenseman Frankie Simonelli said. “To get home ice, I know for a lot of us, there’s a lot of gratitude in the locker room. It’s been a while for most of us. Some of us have never even played in the playoffs at home before.”
The Huskies (21-14-1, 18-9-1), meanwhile, needed just one point from the regular season finale to lock up the MacNaughton Cup for themselves.
Instead, they’ll have to share the Cup with the Gophers, who moments after Saturday’s games went final were Tweeting pictures of the team with the hardware after a win at Bemidji State.
“I’ve got a whole lot of other things to worry about besides that,” said Huskies coach Bob Motzko, who learned about the Cup’s whereabouts from a reporter. “On a scale of one to 10, that’s a negative-8.”
Wisconsin’s Simonelli and St. Cloud State’s Andrew Prochno traded goals in the opening 67 seconds, but the Badgers took the lead into the first intermission thanks to an impressive solo effort by Mersch.
Simonelli sent Mersch and Brendan Woods in on a two-on-one break, and Mersch waited out a poke attempt by the Huskies defender and another by a trailing St. Cloud State player before lifting a backhanded shot past Ryan Faragher (28 saves).
Mersch was scoreless and minus-1 in a 4-2 loss to St. Cloud State on Friday, but responded a night later to jump to third nationally with 22 goals.
“He’d tell you he did not play well last night, and he played at the other end of the spectrum tonight,” Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said. “He was dynamic. That first goal of his was a big-timer.”
Said Mersch, “I haven’t scored like that. I think that was probably my prettiest goal as a Badger.”
Eaves included goaltender Joel Rumpel in the category of impressive responses after Friday’s loss.
Rumpel stopped 18 shots to atone for a shaky tiebreaking goal in Friday’s loss in which the Badgers let a 2-1 lead slip away in the third period.
“I knew I had to have a big game to respond to it and to give my team a chance to get two points tonight,” Rumpel said. “Being a goalie, you have to have a short-term memory.”
Said Eaves, “He let yesterday go. He didn’t hold onto it.”
Mersch scored his second goal of the game into an empty net with 1:13 left to put the Badgers ahead 3-1, but Prochno cut the lead to one with 32.3 seconds left.
St. Cloud State didn’t get another good chance however, and lost to Wisconsin for the first time in eight games since the 2010 regional final that sent the Badgers to the Frozen Four.
The Huskies top line of Ben Hanowski, Drew LeBlanc, and Kalle Kossila combined for just one shot on goal and a minus-8 plus-minus rating.
“I was disappointed in our top guys tonight,” said Motzko, whose power play got just two shots on goal over four opportunities. “They’ve got to find a way to answer in a game like that.”
St. Cloud State won the head-to-head tiebreaker with Minnesota because it won more league games, and gets the top seed for the playoffs. It will host last-place Alaska-Anchorage in the first round.
Wisconsin clinched a tie for fourth and will be either the fourth seed or the fifth seed, depending on the outcome of Sunday’s game between Alaska-Anchorage and host Denver.
If the Pioneers win, the Badgers get the fourth seed, with Denver fifth and Minnesota State sixth. Otherwise, Minnesota State gets the fourth seed and Wisconsin takes fifth.
Either way, getting home ice for the first time in three seasons was a satisfying result for the Badgers.
“Being 1-7-2 [overall] and where we’ve come from, and to achieve home ice as a reward for their blood, sweat and tears and sticking through hard times, it’s a great thing for them,” Eaves said.