This semifinal game was quite literally March Madness –– for Big Ten playoff hockey.
In true Badger hockey fashion, the No. 1 seed Wisconsin Badgers (20-8-1, 18-6-1 Big Ten) took down the No. 5 seed Penn State (10-12, 7-11 Big Ten) to advance to the Big Ten Championship game.
This game was a rollercoaster from start to finish for both teams, as Penn State played like they were much better than their fifth-seed label. It ultimately came down to which team was able to find the back of the net first when it mattered most, and that team was Wisconsin –– and superstar Cole Caufield.
After 19 minutes of solid defending from both teams, the Badgers were able to strike before the intermission — Tarek Baker stole the puck from Penn State defense and passed it to Dominick Mersch behind the net. Mersch then sent it to freshman Sam Stange who hit a one time shot into the left corner of the net for the 1-0 lead.
Following a questionable decision by the referees to take away a Wisconsin goal due to goalie interference, Penn State tied things up halfway through the second period. And to start off what turned out to be a chaotic third period, PSU scored again for a 2-1 lead.
The Nittany Lions’ second goal also came with a critical penalty for Wisconsin. While Penn State’s Christian Sarlo was finishing through on his shot, Badger forward Dylan Holloway penalized him via check to the head, creating a five-minute power play for the Nittany Lions.
Luckily for the Badgers, they were able to kill it and defensemen Ty Emberson built of the momentum it created by scoring for his third time this season — Mersch won the faceoff right in front of the net and got it back to Emberson who hit the puck in with a wrist-twister shot to tie things up at two each.
But once again, Penn State regained the lead by getting the puck through Badger goalie Robbie Beydoun’s five-hole.
And then, the legend himself swooped into action to save the day: Cole Caufield.
He scored in every game against Penn State during the regular season, and still leads the NCAA in goals scored this season, so it was more of a when than an if that Caufield would score.
The mystery came to a close with just under six minutes left in the period on a power play, as he notched his tenth power play goal of the season. Caufield took a pass from Linus Weissbach and sent it to the left corner of the net, skimming the rod along the way in for the 3-3 tie.
But he didn’t stop just there. The regulation period came to a close with the game still tied at three each, which meant that the game was heading to overtime. Seven minutes into the overtime period, Caufield received a stretch pass from Emberson, turned it into a breakaway opportunity and then a goal to give them a ticket to the Big Ten Championship.
Looking back on the third period, Holloway’s major penalty is what turned the game around for the trailing Badgers. This message was echoed by multiple players during the post-game interview.
“You can’t panic when things go south, you gotta stick with the game plan and trust what works. All the credit goes to the penalty kill,” Caufield said. “That’s a huge five minutes we killed off and got a lot of momentum from and then we got a power play goal to get us back in it. We don’t have panic in the room.”
Wisconsin will play the No. 2 seed Minnesota tomorrow at 7 p.m., with the game available to watch on BTN. The Badgers are 3-1 against them this season.
“We just gotta treat [tomorrow] like it’s any other game. That’s hard to do when there’s a trophy on the line,” Emberson said. “We just gotta try to play our game, play it simple, and do our thing.”