The chances were there. So was the grit and energy from Penn State hockey players at the end.
But after his team fell 4-2 to No. 5 Wisconsin on Friday at Pegula Ice Arena, Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky was wondering where the spark was at the beginning of the game against the Badgers.
Then, Wisconsin (20-9-2, 11-5-1-0 Big Ten) forced Penn State players to chase the puck, outshot the Nittany Lions 16-8 and held a 2-0 lead after the first 20 minutes.
“I’m disappointed that we came out as flat as we did,” Gadowsky said. “They were very good that first period. I give them credit. But I also feel we weren’t ready to do that. That’s my responsibility and that’s got to change. I thought we caught up a little later to make it a game but I thought we gave away the game in the first period. They played very well in the first period.”
The Badgers’ early efforts elicited high praise from coach Mike Eaves.
“I thought the first period we played tonight was as tight and as solid as we’ve played in a long time,” Eaves said.
But the Badgers would loosen up after Michael Mersch and Tyler Barnes spotted them a 2-0 lead with shots from in close.
With Casey Bailey in the box for slashing, Mersch parked his 6-foot-1, 215-pound frame in front of PJ Musico and jammed a rebound past Penn State’s goalie to give Wisconsin a 1-0 lead 4:41 into the game.
Just over 10 minutes later, Tyler Barnes picked up a Nic Kerdiles drop pass in the slot and wired it over Musico’s shoulder. The Nittany Lions, who got the first scoring chance of the game when Dylan Richard swiped at a puck in front of Wisconsin goalie Joel Rumpel, started to generate scoring chances late in the first.
But Penn State couldn’t finish against Rumpel.
Midway through the first, Nittany Lion winger Jacob Friedman foiled a Wisconsin dump-in and turned it into a breakaway. But Friedman couldn’t get a clean shot away. In the second period, Bailey and Eric Scheid took off on a 2-on-1 rush but Bailey just missed the net over Rumpel’s shoulder.
Moments later, Richard tried to get Penn State on the board with a shorthanded breakaway but was stopped by Rumpel, who used his stick to poke the puck away from Richard. Penn State captain Tommy Olczyk was stymied on his own breakaway two minutes later by Rumpel, who met Olczyk at the top of the crease.
“You look at his numbers all year. He’s great and I think that’s the part that’s sort of hard to swallow,” Gadowsky said of Rumpel. “We had (three) breakaways. We had a couple odd-man rushes. We did have quality, quality chances and he made it look easy. From our standpoint, he’s definitely one of the best we’ve seen.”
The Badgers took a 3-0 lead midway through the second when Kerdiles slung a Mark Zengerle pass by Musico from the right faceoff circle. Kerdiles would add an assist on an empty net goal in the final seconds to cap a four-point night.
Collectively, Kerdiles and his linemates, center Zengerle and winger Barnes notched nine points in the game.
“We had no answer for the Kerdiles’ line,” Gadowsky said. “They were strong on the puck and they beat us in battles. So you can certainly say they deserved that.”
Bailey tallied for Penn State on the power play with just under eight minutes to play. He drifted up ice from the goal line and waited below the left faceoff dot for a pass from Richard. When it arrived, Bailey whipped it past Rumpel on the short side. Taylor Holstrom cut the Wisconsin lead to a goal when he redirected a Richard shot through Rumpel.
Zengerle scored into the empty net 53 seconds later to cap the scoring.
“We came out slow,” Holstrom said. “We were kind of watching seeing what they were going to do. I think after playing them in our own rink, seeing how they play, we’re definitely going to come out (Saturday) with bigger confidence especially after (Friday’s) score.”