MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin hasn’t been able to enjoy many unblemished opening weekends in recent years.
The third-ranked Badgers made it happen on Saturday thanks to a drive to the net by a freshman who’s quickly making himself a place among the team’s most dangerous forwards.
Grant Besse knocked home his own rebound with 3:35 remaining, giving Wisconsin a 2-1 victory over Northern Michigan at the Kohl Center and a sweep of the nonconference series.
It’s the first time the Badgers have won both games on their opening weekend since 2004, and only the second time in coach Mike Eaves’ 12-year tenure.
“There’s the psyche of winning that allows you to press forward with your coaching and your teaching,” Eaves said. “I think you can be more demanding because the kids feel good about the fact that they won.”
Besse scored his first collegiate goal in Wisconsin’s 5-2 win on Friday, and his late goal Saturday made the difference after Northern Michigan was controlling play in parts of the final period.
Besse, a true freshman who was Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey last season at Benilde-St. Margaret’s, drove up the left wing and fired a shot that Wildcats goaltender Michael Doan kicked out with his left pad.
The puck went back into Besse’s path, and he corralled it with his right skate before backhanding it into an empty net.
“Michael [Mersch] took that hit and took the defenseman out of the play and left the puck there,” Besse said. “That’s what created the two-on-one and ultimately created the goal.”
Besse is the first Wisconsin rookie to score goals in each of his first two games since Kyle Turris in 2007.
“It’s 1-1, we need to get a goal, and he has that innate ability,” Eaves said of Besse. “Good offensive players … they make bad passes and they make bad decisions but somehow, someway, the puck goes back to them. How do you explain that? It’s the thing they have.”
Northern Michigan coach Walt Kyle lamented a neutral-zone pinch by defenseman Luke Eibler, who delivered the hit on Mersch that allowed Besse to enter the zone on an odd-man rush.
However, he said the Wildcats were right in the mix until the last minutes against a quality opponent.
“The reality is they’re a very, very good team,” Kyle said. “They’re going to be a top-five team all year. We played them in their building, in a tough environment, on a bounce-back night, and I thought we played them tit for tat. …
“I don’t like losing, but I can take that one.”
Wisconsin (2-0) swept Northern Michigan (0-2) for the first time since the 1996-1997 season, and for the first time in Madison since Dec. 15-16, 1995.
Nic Kerdiles extended his point-scoring streak to 14 games, dating to last season, with a first-period goal. His shot from just inside the blue line glanced off Wildcats defenseman CJ Ludwig’s skate and eluded Doan (27 saves).
After being outshot 20-12 through two periods, Northern Michigan made a push in the third. It paid off when Eibler, a junior transfer from Northeastern, scored on a long shot of his own, one that also may have been deflected before it got past Badgers goaltender Joel Rumpel (20 saves).
The Wildcats had eight of the first 11 shots on goal in the third period at that point, but they recorded only one more in the final 10:40, not counting a Stephan Vigier shot that hit the crossbar with under 35 seconds remaining.
It wasn’t sealed until late, but the Badgers got some valuable information about themselves in addition to the two wins.
“The first game, we had a lot of scoring, offense, and it was good to see that our team could put the puck in the net,” Rumpel said. “And then we were tested a little bit today and showed that [we] can battle. … To battle back in the dying minutes of the game to pull out a tight victory, it shows our character as a team.”