ST. PAUL, Minn. — The dreams of the Penn State men’s hockey team came to a crashing halt Friday afternoon.
The magic could not quite last another day.
Michael Mersch scored twice, including the decisive goal with 10.5 seconds left in the second period, as Wisconsin ousted the Nittany Lions 2-1 in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals at Xcel Energy Center.
“It was a phenomenal year to compete in,” Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky said. “It was an absolute honor. And disappointed we came up a little short today but extremely proud of how far we’ve come. I think Wisconsin deserves a lot of credit, not just for today, but they’ve been a tremendous team all year.”
The No. 6 Badgers (23-10-2) will head to the conference title game — playing for an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament — at 8 p.m. Saturday, where they will meet Ohio State, a 3-1 upset winner over No. 1 Minnesota.
Joel Rumpel was solid in the Wisconsin net, making 24 saves, although the Badger defense allowed only a handful of decent scoring opportunities for the Nittany Lions all game.
“It’s not that they buzz around you so much in our defensive zone, but they wear you down,” Gadowsky said. “They make plays but it’s more heavy, tough. They’re really hard to play against. They make you play a physical hockey game. I think that’s what separates them.”
Curtis Loik scored Penn State’s goal, while Matthew Skoff had another busy day in net, stopping 32 shots, including several spectacular saves to keep the Lions’ hopes alive all afternoon.
“Skoffer played tremendous,” Gadowsky said. “He played a lot better than we hoped he would have to play tonight, but when you have great goaltending, that certainly helps to keep the game close. We weren’t able to sustain enough pressure tonight.”
Over the span of just over 26 hours the sophomore netminder made 84 saves, allowed three goals, had a .966 save percentage and a 1.18 goals-against average while logging 152 minutes, 39 seconds of ice time.
“It wasn’t anything,” Skoff said. “I think all year, you play so much and you practice so much, it didn’t really affect me that much. So I think any time I just get in the net, I need to try to focus on what I have to do at that time. So just try to do my job every night.”
The tired Nittany Lions (8-26-2) began to show their worn out legs following Thursday’s double-overtime win over Michigan, while Wisconsin had the day off.
“We just didn’t have any jump today at all,” said Gadowsky, whose team was outshot 34-25. “And maybe some of it is for playing a game, almost two games last night and then having to play a great team like Wisconsin.”
Penn State got on the board first, with a turnover turning into a break the other way, with Kenny Brooks centering the puck into the slot for Loik, who lifted it up over Rumpel for his seventh goal of the season. David Glen started the rush with a steal near the Penn State blue line.
But the lead was brief — a mere 32 seconds — before the Badgers tied it with Mersch taking a cross-ice pass and racing at and then past Skoff before slipping the puck into the net.
“They were huge,” Mersch said of the quick scoring answer. “After we get scored on, we’ve been taught line on break for the draw and let them know that we’re coming for them. So to get a goal on the shift after is huge. Jefferson (Dahl) made a good pass to me and I was able to drive the net and put it in.”
A too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty in the final minute of the second put Wisconsin on the power play, and after being thwarted on earlier man-advantage situations, the Badgers peppered Skoff with shots before finally cashing in with 10 seconds left, with Mark Zengerle sending the puck across the crease to Mersch for the tap-in and his 22nd score of the year.
The loss marked the 16th one-goal game for the Nittany Lions out of 36 contests this season, falling to 5-11 in those games. But the outcome also was a marked improvement from the first meeting between the teams, a 7-2 Badger win in early December.
“There’s a huge difference,” Gadowsky said. “Not only defensively, there’s just a difference in confidence and a difference in our experience. And I feel like we’re just a much, much different hockey team. I think if you ask any of the guys, they’ll agree that they feel a lot more mature than they did at the start of the year.”
The improvement also was noted on the other bench from a team that will be in the 16-team NCAA field regardless of what it does Saturday night. The NCAA bracket will be announced Sunday.
“They play well together,” said Badgers coach Mike Eaves, whose team has won seven straight in Xcel Energy Center and nine of its last 11 games over the last month. “They have a very good goaltender that allows them to make some mistakes and he covers for them. They keep working hard. And every one of their lines contributes. Take a look at the numbers of their line, they’re pretty close. Every line that comes over the board is going to chip in some form or fashion. But the foundation of why they are here is the fact they play hard.”