Wisconsin Riding High
Eaves Credits Returns of Kerdiles, Zengerle with Success
by Tony Jovenitti/CHN Reporter
MADISON, Wisc. There’s no mystery behind Wisconsin’s eight-game unbeaten streak — Nic Kerdiles and Mark Zengerle are back in the lineup.
“It sounds like a simple answer,” Badgers coach Mike Eaves said. “But those two guys are game-breakers.”
The NCAA suspended blue-chip freshman forward Kerdiles for 30 percent of the season over violations stemming from the 2012 NHL Entry Draft last summer in Pittsburgh. And a few weeks into the season, Wisconsin’s leading scorer, junior forward Zengerle, touted early as a Hobey Baker Award candidate, broke his finger and sat out four weeks.
The Badgers struggled their way to a 1-7-2 record, including a pair of 4-2 losses to Minnesota State on Thanksgiving weekend at the Kohl Center. Those two victories then propelled the Mavericks to a 9-1-0 streak.
“We were playing some decent hockey, but we couldn’t finish our chances,” Eaves said. “As a result, we had a tough time winning games.”
But now, as the Badgers head to Mankato to face the red-hot Mavericks for the second time, they bring their own streak to the table. Since that home series against Minnesota State, the Badgers haven’t lost, posting a 5-0-3 record.
“Getting Kerdiles and Zengerle back in the lineup has sparked the offensive side, and we’ve scored a few more goals lately,” Eaves said. “That’s the one thing we were missing earlier in the year. Now those guys are back in, we have some good chemistry going and we’re finding ways to win games.”
Eaves pinpointed Kerdiles, in particular, for giving the Badgers the energy boost needed to put pucks in the net.
“He brings an energy and a physicality to the game,” Eaves said. “He’s not quite averaging a point a game, but as a freshman that’s pretty good.”
Through his first eight games as a Badger, Kerdiles notched six points, including three goals. Since his return, the Wisconsin offense is throwing an average of five more shots a game toward the net. But he was quick to deflect any praise.
“I don’t give myself a lot of credit, I just think I bring energy and hopefully the guys feed off that,” Kerdiles said. “Hopefully, that helps the guys get pumped up a bit when I’m back in the lineup.”
Nov. 30 marked the end of Kerdiles’ suspension, and he joined his team on the road for a tough series against Denver. Wisconsin earned a tie on Friday night and defeated the Pioneers on Saturday.
“The timing was good, we needed [Kerdiles’] energy, he contributed offensively and we found a way to win,” Eaves said. “Anytime you can win on the road, it’s a little extra boost in the way you walk and carry yourself. So we got some energy from that, and that was the beginning of it.”
Kerdiles also pointed to the win at Denver as the turning point in the season. He said knocking off the top team in the WCHA boosted the team’s confidence and showed them that it has what it takes to beat high-quality teams.
Now that the calendar's flipped, the schedule gets a little heavier with WCHA games, continuing with the series in Mankato this weekend. Kerdiles said the team can continue the streak by doing the little things, all the way from maintaining processes, to practicing hard and playing through the whistle. Eaves thinks the games will be decided not by which team can find the most offense, but by goaltending.
“It always starts there,” he said. “We’ll need our goaltenders to play solid.”
According to Eaves, goaltending has been the one constant for the Badgers this year. The sophomore tandem of Landon Peterson and Joel Rumpel sport a combined .929 save percentage. Peterson boasts a 1.80 goal- against average, while Rumpel’s not too far behind at 2.08.
“There’s not a game that we lost that we can fault on the goaltending,” Eaves said.
Also, the Badgers will be getting another player back in the lineup, even though they’ve only missed him for two games. Jake McCabe, who captained the United States World Junior team to the goal medal in Ufa, Russia, last week, returns to the Wisconsin blue line this weekend.
“I think he’ll bring – intrinsically – an experience he’ll be able to share with his teammates about winning at a high level,” Eaves said. “The pace was unbelievable, and I hope that he keeps that pace right in his mind, because that would be a big boost for us."
“He’s a good leader and he had a great tournament over there,” Kerdiles said of McCabe. “He’ll help us back on defense and just give us that little bit more confidence that we need.”
While Minnesota State and Wisconsin bring a combined 14-1-3 streak into the weekend, the Badgers remain focused not just on the Mavericks, but on the bigger picture.
“There’s still a lot of season left for us to make some changes and get up the standings,” Kerdiles said.“We believe in each other, and we believe we’re going to go far and make a run.”