It wasn’t a win, but you couldn’t have told that from the reaction of Wisconsin’s bench as they streamed onto the ice.
The emotional outpouring, from Jack Berry’s exuberant sliding fist pump to Peter Tischke’s elated hugs, wasn’t about the extra point in the conference standings that the Badgers had just earned as much as the expression of a team that has finally found its confidence after months of underperforming expectations. The final score said only that Wisconsin (7-8-3 Big Ten, 13-12-4 overall) tied Penn State (6-8-4, 13-11-4) 4-4, but the team left the ice emotionally and victoriously.
“We had two comeback wins this weekend,” sophomore forward Max Zimmer said, undeterred by the official result. “It was just a lot of emotions coming out at one time and everyone’s pretty happy after two wins.”
Wisconsin dug itself an early hole in an opening period marred by defensive zone breakdowns and dangerous scoring opportunities in front of the UW goal. That Wisconsin escaped the opening frame down by just a goal was a testament mostly to the Nittany Lions’ inability to capitalize around the net.
That margin wouldn’t last for long after a turnover by senior forward Ryan Wagner lead to a breakaway and a penalty shot goal for Penn State’s Brandon Biro that put the visitors up by two goals. It was just the break the Badgers didn’t need, and it looked as if the team might be headed for yet another agonizing series split.
“In the beginning of the season, that’s where we would’ve hung our heads and been like ‘alright we’re out of this, we’ll get them next time,’” Wagner said. “But Coach has talked a lot about mental toughness and I think that’s where it comes into play.”
It was Wagner who personified that mental toughness first, as he bounced back from his error to score on an eventful breakaway that included multiple collisions with the referee and a full-fledged stumble after he crossed the blue line.
Penn State seemed to have an answer for everything Wisconsin could throw at them. First with a Chase Berger breakaway just minutes after Wagner’s tally that put the Nittany Lions up 3-1 and then another back-breaking goal early in the second to extend the lead to 4-2 only 21 seconds after sophomore defenseman JD Greenway had brought Wisconsin back into the game.
The Badgers faced that two-goal deficit three times on the night but managed to battle back after each, showing the confidence that has surrounded the team since their stunning 5-0 upset of No. 1 Notre Dame. First it was freshman forward Linus Weissbach, making up for a mistake that lead to the first Penn State goal, punching in a loose puck during a goal-mouth scramble that made it 4-3 with just under 15 minutes remaining.
With the clock winding down and the Badgers offense fizzling, sophomore forward Max Zimmer stepped up to play the hero’s role after junior Seamus Malone forced a turnover that found its way to Zimmer’s stick. The sophomore stepped into a one-timer that beat PSU’s Peyton Jones with just two minutes and 51 seconds on the clock.
Wisconsin had a few more chances to capture the victory in the waning seconds and overtime, but were unable to come away with a fifth goal. All it took in the shootout was a single goal, provided by Weissbach, as sophomore goaltender Jack Berry stoned all three Nittany Lions shooters to provide the game’s emotional exclamation point.
“That’s the most satisfying weekend that we’ve had all year. The fight, the battle, the compete, the no-quit mentality,” head coach Tony Granato said. “We didn’t stop. And I love the compete all the way through to the last second.”