MADISON, Wis. – Awarded the game puck following his team’s 7-1 win Friday night, senior Sean Little wasn’t so sure if his first puck award of his four-year career wasn’t delivered purely out of pity.
He doesn’t have to question it now. Little scored the first tally for the Badgers and created a turnover that resulted in another, key tallies that allowed No.17 Wisconsin to eek by Penn State, 4-3, Saturday in front of 10,079 fans at the Kohl Center.
“I am not the most offensively talented guy, so to have three points on the weekend is definitely a plus for me,” said Little. “Everyone around me pretty much set me up for success.”
Michael Mersch scored his team-leading eighth of the season and Nic Kerdiles notched the game-winner to allow the Badgers (6-5-1, 2-2-0-0 Big Ten) to sweep their inaugural Big Ten home series.
“Last weekend, we didn’t get any points against Minnesota; Big Ten is open now,” said Kerdiles. “We’re fighting for three points every night. Getting six points on the weekend is huge. Whether it was ugly or not, we got it done.”
Wisconsin was in need of spark after top-line center Ricky DeRosa scored an even-strength goal for Penn State (3-9-1, 0-2-0-0) midway in the second period, and Little — the team’s off-the-wall character — delivered one with his left shoulder.
Third-line defenseman Connor Varley was knocked flat by Little, jarring the puck loose behind the net. Little started the tic-tac-toe passing play that ended with Joe Faust’s first tally of the season.
The play helped Wisconsin tie the score at three and Little to earn the team’s ‘hard hat’ award, given to the unsung hero of the game.
“He’s that spice in your stew that gives it some flavor,” Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said of Little. “He plays hard. He plays his game. He keeps it simple. We’ve been asking him to chip in, go to the next level, because he hasn’t done what he did tonight since last year.”
Wisconsin learned about Penn State’s grit the hard way nine months ago. After dominating the hapless Nittany Lions, 5-0, in a February series, the Badgers were stunned the next night, 3-2 in overtime, to put a potentially damaging loss on to its resume.
At times, the script seemed eerily similar. Penn State showed much more gusto and fight than it did during the drubbing the night before, twice answering a Wisconsin one-goal lead with a tally of its own.
The Nittany Lions tied the game with 7:41 with Zach Saar’s athletic goal, firing the puck past UW goalie Joel Rumpel (27 saves) despite being off-balanced.
“I felt like we played a much more consistent hockey game, and I felt good about it,” said Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky.
Problem was, according to Gadowsky, the “wrong guy had the puck on his stuck,” as Kerdiles netted the game-winner four minutes later when he was uncovered in the slot.
“We’re all aware of what happened last year,” said Kerdiles, referring to the overtime loss. “We talked about it, but we didn’t focus on it that much. We just knew we had to start off strong and play our game.”
Little had scored only five goals in 96 career games, but found a seam in the slot to score his first of the season to tie the score. Little scoring continues to be a good omen for Wisconsin, as the Badgers improve to 6-0 when the 5-foot-11-inch third-line winger scores a goal.
“When you get help from other lines other than the top two, it helps the team,” said assistant captain Jefferson Dahl, who also credited Little by wearing a pair of lucky underwear. “Fortunately, he was on this weekend.”
Although it was put on the penalty kill six times and fell to 1-9-0 all-time against ranked teams, Gadowsky believes his roster, comprised of seven freshmen and 11 sophomores, is starting to push the needle in the right direction, especially since it grinded with a team expected to compete for a national title.
“At times, we showed what we can do,” said Gadowsky. “You’re never comfortable against Wisconsin, but we felt like we were in the game the whole way.”