A poor line change which directly led to a penalty as well as a pair of unanswered goals from the Big Ten’s leading goal-scorer in each of the last two seasons were just a little bit more than the underdog was prepared to deal with as the six-time NCAA national champion WISCONSIN BADGERS were able to fend off the brave but overmatched PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS 2-1 at the semifinal stage of the inaugural BIG TEN ICE HOCKEY TOURNAMNET.
Wisconsin (23-10-2) had earned the right to bypass the quarterfinal round after finishing second in Big Ten Conference standings during the regular season whereas the previous evening Penn State (8-26-2) had seen the Nittany Lions skating against the Michigan Wolverines in an exciting tournament contest that almost made it to the halfway mark of the second overtime period, it certainly shall be noted here.
Fatigued or not, it was the Nittany Lions who went to the lead after Canadian legionnaire CURTIS LOIK, the sophomore left wing from North Vancouver, British Columbia, did well to finish off a two-on-rush rougly a minute into the second period. Loik’s 7th strike of the season (which placed the 20-year-old in a tie for fourth place on the Penn State goal-scoring chart) was set up by a fabulous saucer pass from KENNY BROOKS, the versatile right wing from Las Vegas, Nevada, who was one of only four players to appear in all 36 of the Nittany Lions’ NCAA games during the 2013/14 NCAA campaign. It was Brooks who initiated the scoring movement with a fine defensive play in his own zone; an important touch by Canadian legionnaire DAVID GLEN, sent Brooks away down the right wing.
Penn State Nittany Lions defenseman CONNOR VARLEY (2), the homegrown sophomore from Lansdale who has scored four goals in 56 NCAA games thus far in his collegiate career, battles with Wisconsin Badgers blueliner EDDIE WITTCHOW, the sophomore from Burnsville, Minnesota, who was the sixth round pick (# 154 overall) of the Florida Panthers at the 2011 National Hockey League Draft, during the Big Ten Conference tournament semifinal contest at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Wisconsin would not remain behind for long and equalized only 28 seconds later when center JEFFERSON DAHL sent a cross-ice pass to Badgers scoring ace MICHAEL MERSCH streaking in on the right wing. The senior from Park Ridge, Illinois, who led all Big Ten Conference skaters in goal-scoring the past two seasons in succession, skillfully shifted to his forehand and then powered the puck past Penn State netminder MATTHEW SKOFF. It was the 21st time that Mersch had lit the lamp this season but, unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, Wisconsin’s big gunner was only just getting started.
Penn State were able to kill off a couple of penalties in the second period but a bad line change and subsequent bench minor with barely over a minute to skate before the final intermission would prove to be the Nittany Lions’ undoing. Wisconsin’s highly touted left wing NIC KERDILES, the second round selection (# 36 overall) of the Anaheim Ducks at the 2012 National Hockey League Draft who appeared with the United States national team at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championships in Sweden this past winter, picked out Badgers center MARK ZENGERLE at the right side of the net and the Big Ten’s leader in assists this season quickly centered the puck to an unmarked Mersch in front. The scoreboard clock showed just 10.5 seconds remaining in the period when the fourth round choice (# 110 overall) of the Los Angeles Kings at the 2011 NHL Draft easily tallied his second goal of the contest.
Penn State did have a couple of power play chances halfway through the third period but were only able to generate a combined total of two shots on goal during those two opportunities. Wisconsin’s Canadian legionnaire JOEL RUMPEL, the undrafted junior netminder from Swift Current, Saskatchewan, had a solid outing and showed why he had been named as one of ten finalists for the prestigious Hobey Baker Memorial Award the previous day. Perhaps the Badgers’ best defensive exhibition of the evening came in the closing stages when both fabulous forechecking and deliberate puck possession from the Wisconsin trio of Kerdiles, Zengerle and right wing TYLER BARNES, the proverbial local boy from Eagan, Minnesota, prevented the Nittany Lions from removing their goaltender until only eight seconds were left in the contest.
And, thus, out of the very first conference playoff tournament went number six seed Penn State — but not without a measure of honor.
Wisconsin Badgers prolific right wing MICHAEL MERSCH (25) buries the centering pass from close range in the slot to score his second goal of the closely-contested Big Ten Conference tournament semifinal match-up with the underdog Penn State Nittany Lions at the Xcel Energy Center in the capital city of Minnesota.
March 21, 2014
Big Ten Conference Semifinal
Xcel Energy Center – St. Paul, Minnesota
Attendance : 7,963
WISCONSIN 2 – PENN STATE 1
20:55 … PSU – Loik (Brooks, Glen)
21:27 … WIS – Mersch (Dahl, Zulinick)
39:49 … WIS – Mersch (Zengerle, Kerdiles) – ppg
shots-on-goal : WIS 34 ( 11 + 13 + 10 ) – PSU 25 ( 8 + 8 + 9 )
penalty minutes : Wisconsin 8, Penn State 8
WISCONSIN : Rumpel – McCabe, Faust ; Schulze, Simonelli ; Wittchow, Drake – Kerdiles, Zengerle, Barnes ; Zulinick, Dahl, Mersch ; Besse, LaBate, Little ; Navin, Meuer, Soleway
PENN STATE : Skoff – Jensen, Juha ; Koudys, Thompson ; Williamson, Varley – Bailey, Scheid, DeRosa ; Goodwin, Holstrom, Milley ; Loik, Glen, Brooks ; Olczyk, Richard, Saar