What Mark Zengerle did on Saturday night has roots in a private moment when calm and encouragement met fume and fury.
The struggling University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team enjoyed a landmark triumph — a 5-2 decision over 10th-ranked Denver before an announced sellout crowd of 15,325 at the Kohl Center — in part because Zengerle broke out of a personal funk.
The sophomore center fueled a comeback with his first goal in almost a month and a milestone assist — the plays coming on consecutive shifts in the second period — that helped UW snap a five-game losing streak and secure a split of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association series.
The outing for Zengerle came one night after a 3-0 loss to the Pioneers in which he failed to score a goal for the sixth straight game and was held without a point for the fourth consecutive time. That’s not what you expect from the Badgers’ scoring leader and one of the most potent offensive forces in the nation.
During a customary postgame stretching session, UW coach Mike Eaves noticed Zengerle “was beside himself with frustration” and came over to say a few words.
“You’re a good player,” Eaves told him. “You need to remember that and just relax and play.”
Zengerle did so, leading a small caravan of slump-busters to a win that moved the Badgers (13-15-2 overall, 8-14-2 with 18 points in the WCHA) into a tie for 10th place heading into the final four games of the regular season.
Junior defenseman Justin Schultz ended a six-game run without a goal — producing his team-leading 13th while on the power play — while freshman defenseman Jake McCabe picked up his first points in almost a month with two assists.
“It helped,” Zengerle said of the chat. “He recognized that I was gripping the stick a little too hard and kind of mentally not there.”
Freshman center Brendan Woods, sophomore center Keegan Meuer and sophomore right winger Michael Mersch also came through for UW in its final appearance at home.
“That was one of the best games we’ve played this year,” Schultz said.
The Badgers prevailed in part because they got a 22-save effort from freshman goaltender Landon Peterson, outshot Denver 35-24 and killed all three power-play chances from one of the nation’s most lethal units.
“This has been a long time in coming,” said Eaves, whose club was mathematically eliminated from home-ice consideration for the WCHA playoffs.
After a scoreless first — the season-high fifth consecutive period without a goal — Zengerle shifted gears in the second and went about leading a comeback that put him in storied company in program history.
Denver took the initial lead early in the second courtesy of left winger Jason Zucker. A shot from the left point by defenseman Paul Phillips caromed off the skate of McCabe in the slot and right to Zucker. Peterson didn’t have chance on the ensuing snap shot.
The Badgers got it back, scoring their first goal in 106:39, when freshman left winger Matt Paape passed from the far right boards to Zengerle unattended near the far post. He zinged a high wrist shot past goaltender Sam Brittain for his first conversion since Jan. 20.
On his next shift, Zengerle outmaneuvered Phillips for possession in the right corner and zoomed to the far side, where he spotted Woods free for a wrister from the left hash mark. Just like that, UW had the lead for good.
The assist gave Zengerle 30 for the season, making him the second forward in UW history with that many as a freshman and sophomore. The other is all-time leading goal-scorer Mark Johnson, who did it from 1976-78.
Meuer provided some breathing room early in the third when he backhanded a rebound past Brittain from a tough angle below the left circle at 1:11, but it was short lived because Drew Shore converted 21 seconds later.
The Badgers didn’t finish like a club that scored seven goals in the previous five games. Mersch rerouted a low screamer by Schultz past Brittain (30 saves) and Schultz closed things with a pinpoint laser from the left point.
The third-place Pioneers (18-10-4, 13-7-4, 30 points) lost ground in the MacNaughton Cup race, falling four points behind Minnesota. Shore said poor defense and the work of Zengerle and Schultz did them in.
“They’re both really good players and they gave us a hard time tonight,” Shore said.
Schultz likely played his last game at the Kohl Center because the All-American is expected to sign with the Anaheim Ducks when the season ends. He spent a long moment on the ice afterward. “Just kind of taking it in just in case I never get to play here again,” he said.
If so, he went out with a flourish.