It's not unusual to see Michael Mersch among the last to leave the ice after the University of Wisconsin men's hockey team is done practicing for the day.
Take Tuesday, for example. A good 20 minutes after the final drill was conducted at LaBahn Arena, while Artie Schultz waited at the other end of rink to perform his magic on the Zamboni, Mersch was working on his game.
Under the watchful eye of former UW captain and current NHL winger Brad Winchester, Mersch, the junior right winger, stood in front of the net and tried to tip shots from the point past backup goaltender Adam Miller.
The exercise demands considerable eye-hand coordination — not to mention elements of craziness and courage — and helps explain why Mersch has emerged as an offensive force for UW this season.
Heading into a non-conference series with Alabama-Huntsville (3-12-1) Thursday night and Friday night at the Kohl Center, Mersch not only leads the Badgers (2-7-5) with nine goals in 14 games, he's accounted for 35 percent of the offense to date (26 goals). Nationally, only Brown center Matt Lorito has been a single greater source of production for his team this season: nine of 25 goals, 36 percent.
Mersch, from Park Ridge, Ill., has become a force in the offensive zone this season, using his 6-foot-1, 215-pound frame to maintain possession of the puck and create room to maneuver along the walls and below the hash marks.
"When he goes into the corner he can control the space around him with his reach, his size, his stick," UW coach Mike Eaves said. "He's a man out here now."
Nowhere is that more evident than when Mersch, a fourth-round NHL draft pick of Los Angeles in 2011, barges to the edge of the crease and drops anchor. If he isn't getting a stick on shots from the perimeter, he's making it difficult for the goaltender to track the puck and locate rebounds.
Every goal Mersch has scored this season has come from close quarters around the net. Either he's redirected a shot from the perimeter, beat everyone to a rebound or found space below the hash marks and created a shot.
"If you want to be a goal-scorer, the puck's going to end up there," UW assistant coach Gary Shuchuk noted.
"That's where you get the glory," Mersch said.
That's not all you get. Opposing defenders will employ a variety of painful tactics to discourage guys such as Mersch. It may be a jab to the ribs or a stick to kidneys. It may be a chop at the ankles or the wrist. It may be a knee to the backside. It may be all of the above.
"He's not afraid to stand there and take abuse," Shuchuk said of Mersch.
Asked where he feels the most pain after a series, especially in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, Mersch smiled.
"A little bit of everywhere," he said. "There's a lot of pain in the game, but if you go into the dirty areas, good things happen."
After scoring eight goals as a freshman and 14 as a sophomore, Mersch is on pace for 24 this season. Only four players from the Eaves Era, which began in 2002, have scored 20 or more in a season: winger Robbie Earl in 2005 and '06; center Joe Pavelski in '06; center Blake Geoffrion and winger Michael Davies in 2010.
Mersch has been the anomaly in the offense this season for UW. The rest of the forward have 13 goals between them and the Badgers rank 55th out of 59 NCAA Division I programs in scoring at 1.86 goals per game.
Asked if he's carried his weight this season, Mersch demurred.
"To some extent," he said. "You look at the win-loss column and we're not where we want to be, so you're thinking, 'I could help more.' That's what I'm trying to do."
WCHA suspends Little
UW left winger Ryan Little will sit out Thursday night's game after receiving a one-game suspension Wednesday from WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod for his hit on Michigan Tech's Jujhar Khaira Dec. 8.
Video showed Little left his feet while checking Khaira at the offensive blue line in overtime. Little wasn't penalized at the time.
Eaves didn't dispute the severity of the hit or the punishment but was upset the WCHA refused to take further action against Khaira for a third-period hit on UW defenseman Jake McCabe in the series opener Dec. 7.
Replays showed Khaira grabbed McCabe's facemask from behind, wrenched the headgear sideways and threw McCabe to his back. Khaira was assessed a minor penalty for holding.