MADISON — Two weeks after splitting a series at home against Northern Michigan, the Badgers were back on the ice Friday night to take on the Merrimack Warriors.
In the first game of the back-to-back, the Badgers edged the Warriors by a final score of 3-2 in an exciting game throughout.
The Badgers scored just 21 seconds in after Ryan Wagner stole a puck on the forecheck and quickly got it to Luke Kunin who put it in the back of the net. Jake Linhart struck next on the power play on a snipe from the point.
The Warriors fought back in the second, scoring a goal and keeping the Badgers off the scoresheet, but could not complete the comeback in the third. Max Zimmer’s first career goal from Dan Laboske and Seamus Malone early in the third period was the insurance the Badgers needed to bring home the victory. Jack Berry finished the game with 17 saves on 19 shots.
Game two was not as successful for the Badgers. Wisconsin came out flat and let the Warriors dictate play throughout most of the game. Sami Tavernier scored the game’s opening goal from Brett Seney at 13:23 in the first period. The Badgers struggled to move the puck and create chances.
Late in the first period there was an awkward collision in front of the Badger net, leaving goalie Matt Jurusik in serious discomfort. He would not return for the remainder of the game, sidelined with a lower body injury.
Freshman goalie Jack Berry came into the game in relief of the injured Jurusik, and made 14 saves on 15 shots to keep the Badgers within striking distance.
Matthieu Tibbet scored the second goal for the Warriors on assists from Mathieu Foget and Ethan Spaxman early in the second period. Both goalies were perfect after that, resulting in a 2-0 Merrimack victory.
Here are three takeaways from this weekend’s split series versus Merrimack.
1. Shuffled Lines
An injury in practice on Thursday left leading scorer Trent Frederic sidelined for this weekend’s games, and at least the next couple of weeks as well. Frederic had four goals and eight assists throughout the first eight games this season and spent time both on the power play and the penalty kill. The loss of “a mister do everything for you” forced coach Tony Granato to really mix up the lines less than 24 hours before game time Friday night.
“It was a little bit of a scramble, but I think our guys should feel compatible with each each other… I was pretty happy with them,” Granato said after the game.
Coach Granato needed guys to step up and Seamus Malone stepped right into the roll Frederic usually plays. Malone played in Frederic’s usual spot between Max Zimmer and Dan Labosky, and helped set up Zimmer’s first career goal as a Badger. He played in all situations, including the power play and penalty kill. That entire line had a great night, each player recording a point and not allowing a goal against.
Overall the lines worked out well together on Friday night. They were defensively sound, allowing only 19 total shots to the net and blocking eight. The team was also able to put up three goals. The two on the power play were the difference in the game.
Saturday night was a bit of a different story.
“The lack of having practice time together with the units because of the Frederic injury was a little bit of a factor in this weekend,” said Granato after the game.
The team looked sound defensively especially after the first period in Saturday night’s game, but could not generate enough chances offensively to break through on the scoreboard.
2. Pace of The Game
The Badgers were slightly disadvantaged in 5-on-5 play after the first period on Friday night.
“There were parts of that game where we got a little bit flat,” said Granato. “I think they were able to frustrate us a little bit with that clogged up neutral zone play that they were effective with in the second period.”
The Badgers had trouble using their speed and let the Warriors control much of the play through the second period. Merrimack was able to narrow the lead to one goal in that period and stay in the game.
The first period however, is how the Badgers really want to play. Granato praised his teams hunger to start the game: “I thought the pace to start the game was outstanding by us… we got the two goals [and] we were in pretty good control of that game all the way through the first.”
The Badgers need to keep that pace up in order to be effective. When they were moving fast they were able to get pucks deep and create odd man rushes. That kind of play inevitably leads to scoring chances and, just as importantly, keeps the opponent in their own zone.
Offensive zone time and odd man rushes also often lead to penalties drawn, which the Badgers had eight of on Friday night.
On Saturday, the Badgers came out slow, and the Warriors took advantage. In the first period alone, the Warriors managed to get 16 shots to the net and put one past Jurusik into the back of the net.
The Warriors would only get 13 more shots on goal in the final two periods, but the pace and desperation at the start of the game were enough for Merrimack. Getting the game’s first goal was all they needed to win the game.
“We’ve gotta learn from it,” Granato iterated. “We’ve gotta understand that if you wanna be an elite team or a team that consistently wins you gotta be ready at starts of games.”
The Badgers were the less desperate team to start the game, and throughout. They had limited time in the offensive zone, and when they did, the puck typically went around the boards once and then quickly left the zone.
Merrimack’s defensive effort kept the Badgers’ pace down, and held the Wisconsin offense in check for the entire game.
3. Getting Goals on the Power Play
One area where coach Granato was not completely satisfied by his team’s play was on the power play. Wisconsin had eight chances with the man advantage and scored two goals, but Granato thinks there’s more the team can do.
The best example of the power play looking weak was on a 5-on-3 power play early in the second period. The power play unit did not look to shoot and didn’t produce any quality scoring chances with the two man advantage.
Both Ryan Wagner and Luke Kunin did look good with the man advantage Friday night. Wagner effectively screened Merrimack’s goalie, not allowing him to see Jake Linhart’s snipe from the blue line. Luke Kunin had a couple chances from the left circle, and even rang one off the post.
Coach Granato had high praise for Kunin’s one-timer saying, “When he gets to the NHL he’s going to be compared a lot in that spot to players like Ovechkin, Stamkos.”
Granato has high aspirations for his top line center, but looks for more out of his team as a whole on the power play.
Saturday night was even more frustrating for the Badgers on the power play, as the unit came up empty, mustering only nine shots on six opportunities.
Merrimack’s penalty kill bottled up the Badger power play well, blocking shots and clearing pucks all night.
“I saw a desperate team over there,” said Granato. “I don’t know how many times they dove in front of our shots tonight… I don’t think we got as many good looks tonight on the power play.”
The power play is an area where Granato intends to put a lot of emphasis in practice for the coming week.
“We might fool around with the combinations a little bit,” Granato speculated. “I think sometimes when you use the same players over and over it gets a little stale and a little flat footed.”
Overall the Badgers have a lot to learn from this series, and Granato is confident the team will be able to bounce back next weekend.
“I think we’ve established ourselves in a lot of areas,” said Granato. We’ll see if the Badgers can continue to establish an impressive résumé on the road when they head to Colorado to face Colorado College and the University of Denver.
Three Stars (whole series)
3rd Star: Luke Kunin (1G, 8 Shots, +1)
2nd Star: Brett Seney (2G, 1A +3)
1st Star: Collin Delia (33 Saves, Shutout)