MADISON, Wis. – A 12-day layoff – and the first weekend without any games since late September — was the perfect time for first-year head coach Tony Granato to build some synergy with his lines with conference play four weekends away.
And then Wisconsin loses one of its top centers on Thursday, causing lines to be shifted, the power play and penalty kill to be altered and doing it all with little-to-no practice.
“We’ve basically have had the same lines for quite some time now,” Granato said. “It was a little bit of a scramble.”
Despite some flat parts, Wisconsin’s jumbled top line was the difference for the Badgers, making impacts that did and did not show up on the stat sheet, in their 3-2 victory over Merrimack Friday.
Center Luke Kunin, defenseman Jake Linhart (power play) and winger Max Zimmer (power play) all scored for Wisconsin (6-3-0), which is off to its best start since 2010-11.
“We’ve established ourselves in a lot of different areas,” first-year head coach Tony Granato said. “I think we’re an excited team to watch.”
With co-leading scorer Trent Frederic – described as “Mr. Do Anything” by Granato – out with an upper-body injury suffered in practice, junior winger Ryan Wagner jumped to the top line with Kunin and senior Grant Besse to play extensively for the first time this year, while junior Cameron Hughes moved to the middle center between wingers Jason Ford and Will Johnson. Those changes also forced alternations to the third and fourth line.
It made no difference early on, as a turnover forced by Wagner in the defensive zone found its way on to Kunin’s stick. A mini breakaway and a shot that deflected off goalie Drew Vogler’s pads found the back of the net at 21 seconds.
It wasn’t the last time Wagner was in the right place at the right time. With Wisconsin on the power play later in the period, Wagner skating in front of Vogler perfectly screened the sophomore net minder, allowing Linhart’s shot from to find the corner of the net from just past the blue line.
Wagner received an assist on the first goal and plenty of admiration for the second one.
“He got the one assist on the first goal but he was responsible for both of them,” Granato said. “He caused that turnover and gave Luke that great chance … On that second one the goalie never saw it. He’s not a big man, (but) he knows how to position itself in front of the net.”
Zimmer’s first collegiate goal at 1:36 was the eventual game winner.
As it stands right now, Wisconsin’s offense doesn’t need to deliver much with freshman Jack Berry between the pipes. Having already set the record for longest shutout streak to start a career, Berry pushed his number to 144 minutes, 17 seconds before Merrimack’s Brett Seney knocked one in off his right skate.
Seney scored his second goal – with his stick this time – at 5:37 of the third, but the Badgers held off a late flurry in the final minute to win for the fourth time in five games.
In his first two starts, Berry has 39 saves and only given up Seney’s two goals.
“It’s pretty impressive for a freshman,” Hughes said of Berry. “He’s been unreal. To get him another win and another good performance from him is nice.”
Other Big Ten results
No.10 Penn State 7, Arizona State 4
Freshman forward Denis Smirnov registered the fourth hat trick in program history and Penn State took over the nation’s longest unbeaten streak – staying unblemished for its 10th straight game (9-0-1) – following its home shutout over the Sun Devils. Penn State out shot Arizona State, 54-26, and scored six of its goals at even strength. Arizona State is 0-4-0 against the Big Ten and 1-18-0 against ranked teams in its two years as a division-1 program.
No.14 Ohio State 4, RPI 0
Senior captain Nick Schilkey scored his 11th and 12th goals of the season and goalie Matt Tompkins stopped 28 shots for the Buckeyes in their road win in upstate New York. It was the third career shutout for Tompkins, who helped the Buckeyes go 5-for-5 on the penalty kill. The Buckeyes have scored at least four goals in seven of their last nine games, lead the country with 4.50 goals per game and remain undefeated (5-0-3) on the road.
No.15 Minnesota State 4, No.7 Minnesota 1
Minnesota State got two goals from Brad McClure and 25 saves from Jason Pawloski to notch the home upset in the first game of a home-and-home series. Three of the Mavericks’ four goals were scored in the final five minutes of the period, including two on the power play. Sophomore Tommy Novak scored the lone goal for the Gophers, who saw their modest four-game unbeaten streak end. The Mavericks have won four of their last five against the Gophers.
No.16 Michigan 6, USA Under-18 team 3 (exhibition)
Five different players scored for Michigan in the Wolverines’ come-from-behind exhibition victory over the under-18 team. Trailing 1-0 after the first period and 2-1 late in the second, Michigan didn’t take its first lead until the 2:31 mark of the third period, a period in which it outscored the U18 team 4-1. The Wolverines played three of their four goalies and had 16 plays finish with a positive plus/minus ratio.