Mersch’s big day sends Badgers to Big Ten championship
ST. PAUL, Minn. – As highly-ranked teams continued to drop like flies over in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the Wisconsin men’s hockey team made sure the trend didn’t extend to the ice, ending upstart Penn State’s Cinderella hopes and advancing to the Big Ten Championship game with a 2-1 victory.
Penn State (8-26-2) reached the tournament semifinals with a thrilling upset of third-seeded Michigan, and looked poised to threaten the second-seeded Badgers (23-10-2) when Curtis Loik took a cross-ice feed from Kenny Brooks and finished the two-on-one past UW goalie Joel Rumpel (Swift Current, Saskatchewan) to put the Nittany Lions up 1-0 just 55 seconds into the second period.
But Michael Mersch (Park Ridge, Ill.) and the Badgers provided a swift and powerful counter, netting a pair of goals to secure a lead they would never relinquish.
The first goal came just 32 seconds after PSU took its only lead. Morgan Zulinick (Kamloops, British Columbia) got the play started by picking up a Penn State turnover near the blue line and finding Jefferson Dahl (Eau Claire, Wis.) across the ice at the left circle. Dahl slung the puck to the slot, finding Mersch, who powered it home to tie the score.
That wouldn’t be all for Mersch, who put the Badgers ahead for good when Mark Zengerle (Rochester, N.Y.) found him in the slot for the power-play finish with 11 seconds left in the second period.
That would be all the cushion that Rumpel and the Wisconsin defense would need. Rumpel finished with 24 saves on 25 shots to earn his 20th win of the year. After allowing four power-play goals in five chances to Michigan State last weekend, the Badger penalty kill kept Penn State off the board on three tries.
PSU’s Matthow Skoff finished with 32 saves on 34 looks for UW, while the Badgers scored once on three power plays.
The defensive highlight of the game came when the combination of Nic Kerdiles (Irvine, Calif.), Tyler Barnes (Eagan, Minn.) and Zengerle harassed the Nittany Lions on the forecheck in the last minute. The trio played keep away with the puck and prevented PSU from keeping possession for long enough to pull their goalie until it was too late.
The Badgers advance to the Big Ten Championship game to play the winner of the Minnesota-Ohio State game, set for later on Friday. The championship game starts at 7 p.m. on Saturday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., and will be televised on BTN.
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