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MADISON – Alternating between games and bye weeks over the last seven weeks, Wisconsin senior winger Michael Mersch viewed playing 10 straight home games over the next two months as an opportunity for the Badgers to get their name back into the early national title talk.
Playing the first of 12 straight home games, the Badgers got off to a good start when freshman Grant Besse and senior captain Frankie Simonelli scored in the first four minutes, setting the tone for No.17 Wisconsin’s wire-to-wire 7-1 victory over Penn State in front of 8,945 at the Kohl Center.
“It’s nice to be at home,” said Merch, one of the seven players who scored for the Badgers. “We’re getting some better crowds, which is nice, and I think we can build off that and have good momentum. It’ll be easy to rest. We don’t have to travel. It’ll be good as long as we keep taking it a game at a time and getting better as the season goes on.”
Playing its first game against an unranked team since October 12, Wisconsin (5-5-1, 1-2-0-0 Big Ten) got goals from its top three lines and 27 saves from junior Joel Rumpel to help wash out the taste of last weekend’s sweep at the hands of No.1 Minnesota on the road.
“Some games aren’t always going to be the prettiest, (but) we found a way to put (seven) goals on the board,” said Simonelli. “It’s not the easiest thing to win college hockey games every night, but we needed to come out with a win like that.”
Despite a lineup with eight seniors and nine 50-point scorers, the Badgers, the preseason pick to win the inaugural Big Ten conference championship, have experienced more struggles than successes.
UW’s five losses in its last four series – all to ranked teams - were as many as Wisconsin had in the final two months last season; a season where UW used a historic hot streak to win the WCHA tournament and advance to the NCAA tournament.
So with a rugged early season schedule giving UW its lumps, it’s made it hard for UW to get into a rhythm with the Badgers having played the second fewest games in the country.
“I know the boys would like to get on a role,” said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves. “Starting slow and building as the game went on, the guys were saying in the locker room, ‘Let’s bring what we did at the end of this game to tomorrow’s game to see if we can pick up where we left off.’”
It turns out that Wisconsin playing consecutive weeks was a positive. Besse connected on a wide-open net off a pass from Sean Little and Simonelli connected on what seemed like a harmless shot that weaved its way through traffic, allowing the Badgers to take an early two-goal lead despite playing a sloppy first period.
“We did make big mistakes and, give them credit, they finished,” said Penn State coach Guy Gadowski. “They are great finishers. They are a great hockey team. Certainly the mistakes that we made we can’t expect to get away with … We made a few mistakes and they ended up in the back of our net.”
While Mersch’s one-on-one goal early in the second period was the backbreaker, putting UW up 3-1, Tyler Barnes’ goal at 8:46 was the highlight reel. Seeing a rebound skate toward the board, Barnes pulled the puck out of the air and scored his fourth of the season between his legs.
“It was one of those goals where he showed his athleticism,” Eaves said. “He knew where the net was, where the goalie and he didn’t see it go in … He had about three open nets with his eyes opened. He should have shut his eyes based on the end result.”
Nic Kerdiles, Kevin Schulze and Brad Navin capped the scoring with third-period goals for Wisconsin.
Penn State (3-8-1, 0-1-0-0) got a first period goal from junior captain Tommy Olczyk that cut the lead to 2-1, but the Nittany Lions couldn’t muster anything else in front of goalie Matthew Skoff (33 saves) or PJ Musico (three saves) in their inaugural Big Ten conference game.
“It’s an honor to compete in the Big Ten against programs like Wisconsin,” said Gadowsky. “You have to get the first one out of the way. We would’ve liked to have a different result but at times I thought there were some positive things.”