This weekend’s Badger Hockey opening series certainly could have gone better. But given the tremendous youth of this year’s squad — the squad features only two seniors and five juniors — perhaps some growing pains should have been expected. The pains manifested themselves early, as the Badgers only managed a split against non-conference rival Northern Michigan, losing 3-2 in overtime on Friday night and battling back to win by the same margin on Saturday night.
Wisconsin dominated the goal in the first period of game one but couldn’t capitalize, entering the second period with a 0-0 tie despite out-shooting the Wildcats by a 10-3 margin. Northern Michigan made the Badgers pay in period two, as Kory Kaunisto and Justin Florek each tallied goals and the Wildcats took a 2-0 lead into the final period. The Badgers fought back to get within one under seven minutes to go on a Joe Faust goal and then tied it on their first power play goal — in 10 chances! — off the stick of Joseph Labate with less than two minutes remaining.
The five minute overtime period was four seconds too long for the Badgers to salvage a tie. Reed Seckel forced a game-winner past Wisconsin’s freshman goalie Landon Peterson at 4:56 in overtime to win the game for the Wildcats. One more stop from Peterson would have meant a tie instead of a loss, but the missed opportunities for the Badgers were plentiful. A one-for-ten mark on the power play is a recipe for disaster, as the Badgers spent essentially an entire period with the man advantage — a key behind their 29-to-19 shot domination of the goal — but couldn’t slip anything beyond NMU goalie Reid Ellingson, who picked up 27 shots in the victory.
The Badgers fell behind 2-0 yet again in Saturday’s tilt, as yet another freshman goalie, Joel Rumpel of Saskatchewan, was shaky in his first ice time at Wisconsin — and he cannot be completely blamed, as both goals came on Wildcat power plays. Rumpel would settle down nicely and save all 23 shots he saw in the final two periods (29 of 31 overall), giving the Badgers a chance for a comeback. The Badgers were once again on the power play for much of the game, earning nine advantages on 18 minutes worth of Northern Michigan penalties. Again, the penalty kill of the Wildcats stymied the Badgers for almost all of the game, with only one breakthrough coming on the Badgers’ first goal, a shot from sophomore Tyler Barnes, a de facto veteran for this year’s young team.
The Badgers finished the comeback in the second despite losing the shots battle 14-10. At the 16:21 mark Michael Mersch, another sophomore, shot one past Jared Coreau, the Wildcats’ second goalie of the weekend. All was quiet until the third period, when the Badgers took advantage of a 4-on-4 and scored on junior Derek Lee’s first goal of the season at the 16:16 mark, earning a narrow victory. Defenseman and assistant captain Justin Schultz was all over the ice in Saturday’s game, tallying assists on all three Badger goals.
Despite a clear learning curve for the Badgers — particularly on the special teams side — the Badgers posted a decent, if somewhat disappointing result against a talented Northern Michigan team, the 30th ranked team in the USCHO.com poll to the Badgers’ 17th. It wouldn’t be surprised to see the Badgers drop after a 1-1-0 weekend at home against a lower ranked team, but this is the time for Mike Eaves’ team to figure things out and prepare for the WCHA slate.
The Badgers will travel to Houghton next weekend to take on the Michigan Tech Huskies in both clubs’ first WCHA action. Michigan Tech comes into the series with a 2-0-0 record, albeit with the two victories coming against the miniscule American International University, a school with an enrollment of only 1,200. Michigan Tech finished a brutal 2-24-2 in WCHA play last season, well in last place, so the Badgers should be expected to handle the Huskies with ease.