STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Some with the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team weren’t sure how the players were going to respond from what might have been the lowest point of their season.
They were outworked and embarrassed in a six-goal loss to No. 19 Penn State on Friday, then had all of Saturday to stew on it before getting another chance to play.
As it turns out, the Badgers came back with one of their best nights of the season, boosted by scoring from an unexpected source.
Sophomore defenseman Josh Ess notched his first two-goal game in 66 contests, and the Badgers ruined the Nittany Lions’ senior night with a 7-3 victory at Pegula Ice Arena.
Captain Peter Tischke was one of those with the Badgers who was uncertain on what he would see Saturday.
“I was really impressed with how we responded tonight,” the senior defenseman said. “Right from the get-go, we played our game, played the way we needed to to get the results we wanted to.”
UW moved past Michigan State and out of last place in the Big Ten Conference standings, keeping alive faint hopes of a home-ice playoff spot going into the final weekend of the regular season.
It has been a pattern this season for the Badgers to turn up their game after a Friday loss.
“We competed,” UW coach Tony Granato said, addressing what changed from Friday. “We tried hard. That’s pretty much it.”
Ess provided the Badgers with their first lead of more than one goal in the past 12 games with a first-period score that made it 2-0, then made it a career night by hitting the net again in the middle frame for a 4-1 lead.
“It was a big bounce back from last night,” said Ess, who also had an assist for his first collegiate three-point game and was plus-3. “We didn’t play so hot last night and they ran over us. To come out like that and have the response that we did, it’s huge.”
The Badgers broke out of a scoring slump — they had notched two goals or fewer in their past seven contests — by registering more than five goals for the first time in 17 games. The previous time also was against Penn State, an 8-5 victory at the Kohl Center on Dec. 1.
Sophomore Linus Weissbach recorded his first three-point game in his collegiate career, putting the Badgers ahead 3-0 in the second period after assisting on first-period goals by Jack Gorniak and Ess.
“We got some early bounces in the game and got the momentum, and then we played off that,” Weissbach said.
Facing the most prolific offense in Division I men’s hockey, the Badgers were without two of their top six defensemen — Tyler Inamoto (hip) and K’Andre Miller (leg) — and third-line center Dominick Mersch (lower body). It was the first time this season all three UW scratches were because of injury.
Granato shuffled three of the four forward lines and two of the three defensive pairings in response, creating combinations that appeared together on the line chart for the first time this season.
The results were positive, especially with the line of Weissbach, Tarek Baker and Gorniak accounting for three goals and seven points.
UW also killed all four Penn State power plays, three of them in the first period as the Badgers built their momentum. They got six shot blocks — three by Tischke — and three saves by Daniel Lebedeff (38 saves overall) on the penalty kill in the opening 20 minutes.
“All of our penalty killers played really well,” Tischke said. “Daniel was really solid back there. I think that was a big momentum-gainer for us, killing off those three power plays. Eating pucks — just doing what we had to do to get the job done.”
The overall response was impressive, but the Badgers (11-16-5, 7-10-5-2 Big Ten) also had to quell Penn State surges throughout the game. After Adam Pilewicz scored to cut UW’s lead to 3-1 in the second, the Badgers got Ess’ goal off a Baker faceoff win and Baker’s short-handed, breakaway goal to open up the advantage.
After Chase Berger scored late in the second for the Nittany Lions (18-12-2, 10-11-1-1), Matthew Freytag put home a spectacular goal from his knees after Mick Messner won an offensive-zone draw.
“Tonight there were two teams,” Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky said. “One was really hungry to compete, and one wanted an easy game. When that happens, the result is what you get.”
Wisconsin 2 3 2 — 7
Penn State 0 2 1 — 3
First period: W — Gorniak 4 (Bunz, Weissbach), 8:57; Ess 2 (Weissbach), 19:32. Penalties: Ess, W, 1:06; Emberson, W, 6:26; Baker, W, 10:48; Pavlychev, P, 17:48; Kerr, P (major), 17:48; S. Dhooghe, W, 17:48; Malone, W, 17:48.
Second period: W — Weissbach 6 (Gorniak, Ess), 6:36. P — Pilewicz 2 (Limoges, Myllari), 11:06. W — Ess 3 (Baker), 16:56; Baker 6, 18:09 (sh). P — Berger 14 (Stevens, Kerr), 19:51. Penalties: Larsson, P, 6:46; Gober, P, 11:53; Freytag, W, 17:30.
Third period: W — Freytag 4 (Messner), 1:07. P — Biro 13 (Marsh), 13:30. W — Malone 8 (Ahcan, S. Dhooghe), 15:57 (en). Penalties: Stevens, P (major, game misconduct), 17:49.
Saves: W (Lebedeff 9-11-18) 38; P (Jones 12-13-0, Funkey x-x-11) 36. Power plays: W 0-for-4; P 0-for-4. Att. — 6,151.