ST. PAUL, Minn. — Less than 24 hours after defeating Michigan in double overtime, Penn State proved once again that it is a team that won’t go down without a fight.
On Friday, however, the Nittany Lions were on the wrong side of a 2-1 game when they fell to Wisconsin in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament.
Big Ten tournament
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Mersch scored the game-winning goal with 11 seconds left in the second on the power play when he stationed himself at the top of Penn State goaltender Matthew Skoff’s crease and hammered home a cross-crease pass from Mark Zengerle.
Penn State’s Curtis Loik opened the scoring in the game when he went on a two-on-one rush with Kenny Brooks in the first minute of the second period. Loik put a shot top shelf past Joel Rumpel after Brooks hit him with a one-time pass.
Wisconsin didn’t trail for long — for 32 seconds to be exact.
“It’s a mind-set that this group has, that it’s about responding,” Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said. “And to be able to come back and do that, we’re right back on top and we have the momentum. They pushed and we pushed back.”
Mersch’s first goal of the contest came after Jefferson Dahl fed him a pass from the blue line. Skoff denied the senior’s first shot, but he was able to slide the rebound past the sprawling goaltender.
“To get a goal on the shift after [Penn State's goal] was huge,” Mersch said. “Jefferson made a great pass to me and I was able to drive the net and put it in.”
Morgan Zulinick, who joined Dahl and Mersch on the second forward line, also had an assist on the goal. Eaves said that he was happy to see a line other than the first, which is made up of Nic Kerdiles, Zengerle and Tyler Barnes, get in on the team’s scoring.
“The Zengerle line has been doing a lot of the goal scoring at the end of the season,” Eaves said. “We’ve been looking for secondary contributions from Dahl’s line. They got a little bit of a start at Michigan State and tonight they carried on and got a big first goal for us.”
The Badgers’ strong second period came after a lethargic opening period. Eaves attributed that to the fact that Penn State had played the night before, and Wisconsin had been idle for a week.
“They were making decisions with the puck before they got it,” Eaves said of the first period. “We were a step behind, so that’s why we looked off.”
Rumpel finished the game with 24 saves and Skoff had 33. Friday was the fifth time this season that Wisconsin downed Penn State.
“Any team in our league and around college hockey is hard to beat five times in a row,” Rumpel said. “They’ve put in a good effort every single time; four out of five have been one-goal games. They’re a good team and they put in a great effort. I’m glad we came out on top.”
For Penn State, its tournament ended one day later than its seed would have suggested it should have.
“We just didn’t have any jump today at all,” coach Guy Gadowsky said. “Maybe some of that has to do with playing almost two games last night and having to play a great team like Wisconsin.”
Gadowsky’s tone during the postgame news conference was upbeat and positive.
“I’m extremely optimistic,” he said. “I think Penn State in what we have in our venue and atmosphere deserves to be right up there in the Big Ten. I do think we’ve come a long way.
“We’re a much different hockey team,” he added. “If you ask any of the guys, they’ll agree that they feel a lot more mature than they did at the start.”
Skoff chimed in and said that not only did he believe that this tournament would help Penn State in the long run, but that he also saw the team take a lot of strides this season.
“Our first Big Ten game I think we lost 7-2 against Wisconsin,” Skoff said. “It was a 2-1 game in the playoffs. I think that speaks about how good we got defensively throughout the year.”
The Badgers advanced to the tournament’s championship game, which will be played at 7 p.m. CDT Saturday. They will face the winner of Friday’s game between Minnesota and Ohio State.