North Andover, Mass. – 39 seconds was all it took to change the outcome of the game. Wisconsin scored three times in that span during the second period to break a 1-1 tie and cruise to a 4-1 victory over Merrimack.
Saturday night marked the third straight win for the Badgers, who are now 4-1, the best start for the program since the 2004-05 season.
“I love the way we competed. That’s a hard rink to play [in] and a hard team to play against. They are tenacious and they compete. Every battle was a tough one. That was really encouraging,” said second year Wisconsin coach Tony Granato.
The game’s fortunes seemed to turn on an unfortunate bounce for Wisconsin. Merrimack tied the score, 1-1, at the 7:12 mark of the second period on a disputed goal. Granato challenged the goal call, but the referees confirmed the call on the ice.
Instead of allowing the goal and momentum to swing Merrimack’s way, Wisconsin buckled down and came back with a vengeance to support its goaltender.
“[Goaltender] Kyle [Hayton] was playing great. The goal was somewhat questionable. For how hard Kyle has battled for us all year, we said, let’s get going for Kyle and take this game over. It was an inspiration for our team,” Granato explained.
“The way they did that was huge. They battled back right away. It lit a fire under their butt after that,” Hayton concurred.
Seamus Malone’s power play tally with 7:59 remaining in the middle frame proved to be the game-winner. Max Zimmer and Ryan Wagner scored ensuing redirection goals off similar point shots from defenseman Peter Tischke.
Badgers Roll Four Deep
One thing that stood out all night was Wisconsin’s ability to consistently roll four lines. There was not much difference in each forward grouping. Jason Ford, who scored the first goal, and Zimmer are both listed on the team’s fourth line. Malone centers the third line and Wagner is on the first line.
“We have skill and speed on all four lines. I think that showed tonight. It’s nice to finally put the puck in the net a few times,” said Zimmer, a sophomore who hadn’t found the back of the net since January 6 of last season.
Granato also praised the depth and pointed out the need for the bottom six to contribute to the offense in order to have success as a team.
“We need that out of them. Those guys can make plays. They’re all capable of being good offensive players,” said Granato.
Hayton Making Quick Impression
Hayton, a graduate transfer from St. Lawrence, made 41 saves for his fourth victory of the season. As a new player to the program, he’s assimilated himself nicely, and earned the respect of his teammates.
“He’s not just a good goalie. He’s a great guy in the locker room. He provides a lot of energy. He’s a great teammate,” said Zimmer.
Hayton’s expertise at stopping pucks translates to the other end of the ice where the forwards can play with more confidence, and knowing their goaltender will have their backs if they make a mistake.
“It’s awesome. I could go on for hours about how good of a goalie he is. It’s comforting to have such a great goalie back there. It helps on the offensive side.”
After three starts where his numbers weren’t all that great, he elevated his play this weekend. The Denver, Colo. native has a 1.50 goals against average and .959 save percentage over the past two games, including Friday’s 5-2 win at Boston College.
“It was a bit of an adjustment coming in. Getting more practice under my belt and getting into games with these defensemen helps me adjust more,” said Hayton.
Uncharacteristically, Hayton reacted with furor to the goal call on Merrimack’s lone score. He raced to the bench to protest that the puck never crossed the line. It was a rare show of emotion for a goaltender who plays with an extreme calmness.
“He doesn’t get rattled. He’s very confident. It gives our team that feeling of confidence,” Granato explained.
Hayton will be Wisconsin’s most important player this season, but he’s been impressed with the group in front of him through five games.
“They’re a talented group of guys. We have four lines that can play every night. We have four lines that can score. The defense had a great weekend. They block shots, dive and make plays,” Hayton complimented.
Hayton and the Badgers return to action next weekend with two neutral site games in Green Bay against Northern Michigan.