MADISON, Wis. — Assistant coach Gary Shuchuk handles all of Wisconsin’s scouting when it comes to an opponent’s power play – mainly their tendencies, formations and schemes.
One never would have known that the Badgers had to adjust on the fly when nothing No. 8 Michigan was doing resembled anything they had pre-scouted.
The top penalty kill unit in the Big Ten got even stronger Friday night, as No. 14 Wisconsin killed off four penalties to earn a 5-2 victory in front of 9,499 at the Kohl Center.
The Badgers’ second line was equally impressive, considering senior Michael Mersch recorded the program’s 190th hat trick (first since 2010) and center Jefferson Dahl recorded four points (one goal, three assists), but the stars were UW’s specialty teams.
“We had to pay special attention to what they were doing,” said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves, acknowledging the different formations. “[We] blocked a lot of shots. They worked together as a group of four at the right times.”
With a key aspect of its penalty kill – senior forward Sean Little – out while nursing a shoulder injury, along with sophomore standout Nic Kerdiles, the Badgers (12-6-1, 3-2-0-0 Big Ten) improved to 83.8 percent (62-for-74) on the penalty kill, and improved to 2-4-0 against top-10 teams this season.
“We did a good job of starting off with faceoffs,” said Badgers’ junior Matt Pappe. “A lot of times, we win the first faceoff, getting 200-foot pucks right away, making them dump in it on the forecheck and just win the battles. Get fresh guys out there and keep rolling with that.”
It also helps having one of the best goaltenders in the country.
Junior Joel Rumpel stopped 27 shots to improve to 9-1-0 on the season, the best winning percentage in the nation. On the first four power plays from Michigan (10-5-2, 2-1-0-0), Rumpel faced only four shots, none coming from below the face-off circles.
“I don’t recall having to make any outstanding or big saves,” Rumpel said. “Our team blocking shots and keeping pucks to outside makes my job pretty easy. Definitely killing those off early was a huge boost for our team to get us rolling and get the energy going on the bench.”
Michigan coach Red Berenson was complimentary of UW’s special teams, acknowledging the lack of good looks his team had, but was frustrated by Wisconsin’s two first-period goals.
Mersch’s first goal was shot from the left boards and crossed up goalie Zach Nagelvoort, while
freshman winger Grant Besse’s goal deflected off defenseman Nolan De Jong’s skate and into the twine seven-and-a-half minutes later.
“I shouldn’t say [the goals] were unearned,” said Berenson, “but they weren’t scoring chances.”
The Badgers had been padding their record with eight home nonconference games – going 7-1-0 against four teams who entered their weekend series with Wisconsin a combined 14-42-6 – but knew playing
Michigan as league foes for the first time since 1981 represented a set up in intensity, not to mention a chance at validation.
“We know it’s going to be a grind in the Big Ten conference going down the stretch,” said Dahl, who got his goal off a deflection to make the score 3-0 late in the third period. “We need to be playing our best hockey this time of year. We won battles tonight, got pucks down low, stuck to our game plan and came out with a win.”
Nagelvoort (25 saves) settled down after the early tallies, stopping all eight shots in the second period and 18 of the final 20, but got little help in front of him. Michigan went 1-for-5 on the man-advantage, including 0-for-3 on an 11-stretch between the first and second period.
On a four-game winless streak for the first time in 13 months, Michigan went 134:07 without a goal before center Andrew Copp beat Rumpel with 5:10 remaining in the game.
“We had some good chances,” said Copp. “Early on in the first and throughout the second, I thought we had some good scoring opportunities, but we couldn’t put the puck in the net. You can’t wait
until five minutes left in the game to turn it on.”
After senior Luke Moffatt scored three minutes later to cut the UW lead to 3-2, Mersch stole the spotlight.
Mersch scored an empty-net goal at 18:42, thanks to Dahl chipping the puck out of the zone and centering it to an open Mersch, and finished his night 38 seconds later, faking a pass and beating Nagelvoort stick side.
Mersch and Dahl combined for eight of the team’s 15 points and fellow linemante Brad Navin made a lot of plays along the boards to set up scoring or clearing opportunities.
“Overall, our team was really good on the walls tonight, which allowed us to produce some offense,” said Mersch.
The Wolverines are 14-8-2 in their 24 nonconference games against Wisconsin since leaving the WCHA in the 1981, but the Badgers improved to 31-18-0 in their matchups as league opponent. When asked if this
win was an important step towards earning a team identity, Eaves was blunt.
“Two-word answer to that, no question,” he said. “No question.”