MINNEAPOLIS — Michael Mersch had obviously been crying. They were tears of anguish, the kind that flow when you make a mistake you can’t explain, exposing those closest to you to grave consequence.
Mersch was very nearly the savior for the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team Saturday night, but the senior right winger wound up being a catalyst for a bitter 4-3 Big Ten Conference setback to Minnesota at Mariucci Arena.
Mersch scored his team-leading sixth goal midway through the third period to pull 12th-ranked UW into a 3-all tie, but his ghastly turnover in the final minute led to the decisive conversion as the top-rated Gophers finished off a somewhat rare series sweep.
Coupled with a 4-1 victory in the series opener Friday, Minnesota swept a series from the Badgers here for the first time since 2006.
“I let my team down tonight,” Mersch said in a calm voice after being one of the last to leave the visitor’s dressing room.
The Badgers (4-5-1 overall, 0-2 Big Ten) probably deserved a better fate during a game in which senior center Mark Zengerle recorded his 100th career assist. They seemed on the verge of at least a draw, surviving an adventuresome outing by junior goaltender Joel Rumpel (31 saves) and more head-scratching work from an inconsistent officiating crew.
One night after giving the Gophers five power plays in the first 18 minutes of the game, Brian Aaron and Kevin Shea saw fit to give them five straight to close out the game. UW killed off all five after going 5-for-6 in the opener.
The officiating brought a mea culpa of sorts from UW coach Mike Eaves, but not before he addressed how it all ended.
“I didn’t see the play — I was kind of starting to think about the next group and who to send (out on the ice) and even overtime a little bit — but apparently it was a poor decision in the middle of the ice and the young man that’s in there feels really bad right now,” he said. “Hopefully it’s a lesson learned by everybody.”
Mersch made a great play to set up senior defenseman Frankie Simonelli for the first UW goal and was on the ice when sophomore center Nic Kerdiles converted later in the opening period to provide a 2-1 advantage.
But Mersch also was on the ice for the last two Minnesota goals, the latter coming with 26 seconds left courtesy of right winger Seth Ambroz, who converted four times in the series and accounted for both winning goals.
Mersch had the puck and was coming out of the left corner when he tried to feed to sophomore defenseman Kevin Schulze in the slot. The pass went right to center Travis Boyd, who turned quickly and sent a shot on net. Ambroz got enough of the puck to reroute it past Rumpel, triggering a huge roar from the announced crowd of 9,973.
“Coach, he trusts me to put me out there and it’s a tough feeling right now,” Mersch said.
“I just got too comfortable with myself. I obviously should have chipped it out of the zone and made the safe play there.”
“I think being a senior on this team, guys look up to me to make plays and I didn’t execute at the end of the game today,” Mersch continued. “So, it’s pretty frustrating for me and probably my teammates right now outside (on the bus). But they’re doing a good job of showing support for me.”
Eaves liked how his players rallied around Mersch after the game. After all, anyone of them could have been the goat. Besides, Eaves said Mersch “worked his fanny off.”
“You can’t blame it on one player,” Kerdiles said.
The Gophers (11-2-1, 2-0) have a lot of highly regarded freshmen, but Ambroz is a junior, Boyd is a junior and their left winger, Tom Serratore, is a senior. Their work in front of goaltender Adam Wilcox (20 saves) was a major key to the sweep.
“It was a good weekend for us,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said.
Rumpel, 6-1-2 in his past nine true road starts, looked shaky early, but Eaves said he got better as the game went along.
Eaves probably wouldn’t say the same thing about the officiating, which seemed wildly inconsistent from one game to the next. Asked about the five straight power plays for the Gophers — UW had one man-advantage all night — Eaves bit his tongue.
“You know that we can’t answer, so here we are again,” he said, referring to a Big Ten rule that calls for a fine for publicly criticizing game officials.
Eaves implored the gathered media to call Steve Piotrowski, the Big Ten’s supervisor of officials, for answers.
“I’d love to say something, but I can’t unless you want to give me $1,000 that I can give them,” Eaves said.
Instead, Eaves will try and manage the pain.
“When you work this hard and get this close and don’t win, it hurts,” he said. “So we have to build on that hurt.”
Wisconsin 2 0 1 — 3
Minnesota 1 1 2 — 4
First period: W — Simonelli 2 (Mersch, Zengerle), 4:23. M — Rau 3 (Warning), 5:08. W — Kerdiles 5 (Zulinick, Faust), 14:39. Penalties: Lettieri, M, 6:03; Guertler, M, 6:03; McCabe, W, 6:03; Simonelli, W, 6:03; Ambroz, M (double minor), 9:39; Zulinick, W, 9:39; Zengerle, W, 18:24.
Second period: M — Ambroz 6 (Serratore), 17:51. Penalties: McCabe, W, 6:25; Simonelli, W, 18:59.
Third period: M — Skjei 2 (Holl, Rau), 3:44. W — Mersch 6 (Kerdiles, McCabe), 10:37. M — Ambroz 7 (Boyd), 19:34. Penalties: Wittchow, W, 5:50; Kerdiles, W, 15:14.
Saves: W (Rumpel 8-10-13) 31; M (Wilcox 7-9-4) 20.
Power plays: W 0-for-1; M 0-for-5. Att. — 9,973.