Wisconsin's Dynamic Top Line Almost Never Happened
by Jashvina Shah/Staff Writer
In early December, Nic Kerdiles and Mark Zengerle approached Badger head coach Mike Eaves, requesting to be put back together on the same line.
Kerdiles and Zengerle started the season on separate lines, with Kerdiles centering Joseph LaBate and Michael Mersch. Zengerle continued centering Tyler Barnes, while Morgan Zulinick joined the line.
This season, Eaves moved Kerdiles to center so the Badgers would have more balance down the lineup.
“We worked well together, but I had played with Mark [Zengerle] for a good part of the year last year,” Kerdiles said. “We know what we’re capable of doing together so we knew that we were going to be able to produce consistently and help the team in that case.”
Eaves made Kerdiles the left wing on a line with Zengerle and Barnes on Feb. 15, 2013. The line netted 54 points (20g, 34a) over the last 14 games of the season.
“We always wanted Nic to be our other winger but you know sometimes you don’t want to say something to the coach, but things were all right,” Zengerle said. “It was little less production but it’s one of the things you got to ride with and see if it’s best for the team.”
But after spending the first semester playing on separate lines, Kerdiles and Zengerle wanted to be reunited.
“I was open to trying it out and I enjoyed playing center,” Kerdiles said. “But when we thought we were lacking a lot of production and things like that, Mark and I had multiple talks about it.
“We both kind of finally looked each other and we’re like, ‘We gotta go talk to him.’ “
Eaves wasn’t convinced.
“We still in our minds would have had to have somebody that we thought could step into that second line center and be dependable for us as a coaching staff,” Eaves said.
Not long after talking to Eaves about the switch, Kerdiles left for the World Junior Championships and Jefferson Dahl took over his center spot. Kerdiles returned on Jan. 4 and played in one game before separating his shoulder and missing the next six. During that time, Dahl and LaBate took up two of Wisconsin’s center spots.
“We had another young man on our team, Joseph LaBate, take some time at center ice and he did a very nice job,” said Eaves, a former center for the Badgers and in the NHL. “So it gave us the luxury of staying strong down the middle without losing anything and then we were able to put Nic and Mark back together along with Barney.”
So on Feb. 14, once Barnes returned after missing four games from a shoulder injury, Eaves put Kerdiles, Zengerle and Barnes back together.
“Maybe that was a silver lining in Nic getting hurt,” Eaves said.
After Eaves reunited Kerdiles, Zengerle and Barnes, the trio started sitting next to each other in their road locker rooms.
“Good players recognize other good players,” Eaves said. “And I think that, especially in most team sports at a high level, you’re only going to be able to be as good as the people around you. Other good players make you really effective.
“When they have the skill sets that they have, they actually make each other better.”
Beyond the ice
Last season when Eaves announced Kerdiles, Zengerle and Barnes would play together, the trio headed to Dotty’s Dumplings for a line dinner.
“I’m pretty sure that’s where we went,” Kerdiles said with a laugh.
“We were happy that we knew we were going to play together, and that’s why we really wanted to make sure that we could show chemistry.”
One year after the initial dinner at Dotty’s, the trio has formed an off-ice friendship.
“Barney’s just a laid back, goofy kid and Nic’s kind of got his head on straight as a young kid and very determined and focused,” Zengerle said. “But we’re all good friends, we do a lot of things together, we’re always talking and having fun on the bench.”
Zengerle and Barnes have been roommates and close friends since their freshmen year at Wisconsin, and now Kerdiles is a part of that group.
The summer before this season started, Kerdiles and Zengerle were in Madison, Wis., for summer training. They borrowed a friend’s boat and sailed out to Lake Mendota to go tubing. Kerdiles, an Irvine, Calif., native, couldn’t stop laughing at how pale Zengerle was.
“I like to be tan and just to see how pale he was it was kind of funny and the comments he made,” Kerdiles said with a laugh. “Just being on the boat with him this summer was a lot of fun, and we were able to keep our friendship going and build on it.”
Kerdiles and Zengerle continue the food tradition during the season, eating Chipotle together every Thursday. When they’re at home, that is. The pair still eat together when the Badgers are on the road, just elsewhere.
“Our relationship has grown a lot, off the ice and we’re able to do a lot of things together and not focus on hockey,” Kerdiles said.
“I’m glad that hockey’s done this for me, [helped me] meet two great guys that I’ve built a good friendship with.”
More than the game
On March 23, 2013, at the WCHA Final Five championship game against Colorado College, Wisconsin was up 3-2. With Colorado College’s Joe Howe out of position, Kerdiles had a shot at an open net.
But he couldn’t score.
“It was kind of a gimme goal and we’re still up 3-2 and there’s a faceoff with [about] 1:40 left. I go to the faceoff and we see Nick getting down on himself,” Zengerle said with a laugh. “[He’s] yelling at himself in the middle of the ice.”
So Zengerle and Barnes skated over to Kerdiles for a pep talk.
“Hey, you know we’re up 3-2 here. It doesn’t matter, we just can’t have them scoring,” they told him.
As seniors, Zengerle and Barnes have played in 240 more games combined than Kerdiles has.
“I think because Nic’s a little younger, he wants things right away,” Eaves said. “The other two lads can say, ‘Hey it’s okay, we’ll get it next shift. Just stay calm here and get it done.’”
Kerdiles said playing with senior linemates has helped him grow both on and off the ice.
“They’ve been around college hockey for a while now and not just with the game,” Kerdiles said. “I think freshman year I got a lot of my growth from those two guys.”
Zengerle and Barnes also give Kerdiles pep talks when he needs them, as they did on Nov. 15 at Miami. Kerdiles had a six-game point streak on the line, but he wasn’t able to score. Kerdiles was getting frustrated and confused, and was very quiet on the bench.
Zengerle skated over to Kerdiles and gave him a pat on the head.
“Hey, smile kid,” Zengerle told Kerdiles.
The three skaters, who sit next to each other on the bench, are always communicating.
“Nic is kind of like me in a way, we’re both really competitive, but you’ve got to keep your emotions in check,” Zengerle said. “[It’s] something I’ve gotten better with my age and all that so sometimes you got to kind of cool him down a little bit.
“So Barney’s probably more of the policeman of that aspect,” Zengerle added with a laugh.
Last season, Ryan Little’s stall separated Kerdiles and Zengerle. After he graduated, Kerdiles moved over and now sits next to his linemate at the Kohl Center.
“With Mark especially we have a lot of talks. I have those games where I don’t play my best, I’m not producing and I feel guilty for not contributing to the team. “He’s there to let me know that sometimes the games don’t go your way,” Kerdiles said. “[Because] once you get down on yourself you’re really just taking yourself out for the game and maybe the weekend.”
Against Penn State on March 8, Make Zengerle sent a feed to Kerdiles for a shorthanded goal. The goal accounted for two of the 12 points the pair combined for on the weekend.
“They know where each other are before they get the puck,” Eaves said. “And that makes it very hard to play against them. They’ll be putting the puck to a space and nobody’s there quite yet, but they’re getting there.
“I think that even the shorthanded goal (last) Saturday was a result of Mark getting the puck and throwing to a space where Nic had gotten open and it turned out to be a very good thing for us.”
In their first game as a line this year on Feb. 14, they didn’t score a point. But they’ve had no trouble since then, netting a combined 32 points (12g, 20a) in the last seven games.
“We’re all pretty smart players so where know where to be on the ice for each other,” Kerdiles said. “We don’t have to waste energy trying to make up for each other’s mistakes. … We slow the game down but at the same time we’re still able to be productive out there.”
They may be smart players, but they’re very different skaters with complimenting styles.
“As far as Barnes goes, I think he’s a hound dog. He gets to all the pucks, he wins a lot of battles and he’s great around the net,” Zengerle said. “Nic can kind of do it all. He’s a very good skater, he’s got great awareness and vision and his skating really gets him around.”
Even with their combined talent, it took Zengerle, Kerdiles and Barnes a while to create chemistry when Eaves first put the skaters together in 2013.
Kerdiles started the 2012-13 season with a 10-game suspension. He returned on Nov. 30 against Denver, and one week later Zengerle came back after missing a few weeks and six games with a broken finger.
After a few practices, the trio found their chemistry. They played in their first game together on Feb. 15, 2013 and played out the season as a line.
“I think the expectations were that they would be able to do something dynamic,” Eaves said. “Experience helps the coaching staff at that time, because we’ve been around long enough to know that sometimes it takes a little time for the chemistry to get full stride”
Eaves knew he’d play the Kerdiles-Zengerle-Barnes line against opposing team’s top lines this season. So he challenged the line to play better defensively.
Each week in practice, Eaves said the team has been working on defensive drills. Last year he also emphasized defense, holding video session with the players to show where they could be better with the puck.
“Coach has always been [saying] the better you are without the puck, the more you’ll have the puck. So that sounds good to us,” Zengerle said.
Zengerle netted two goals in their second game together and has scored in every game since. During that seven-game point streak he’s tallied 14 points.
“Every game it seems that they’re getting more dynamic, they’re finding their stride once again and it’s fun to watch,” Eaves said. “They do some very special things because of their unique gifts and it is truly fun, even for us as coaches, to watch.”