MINNEAPOLIS — All the adversity the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team has endured during the first six weeks of the season came in handy Friday night.
Minus an assistant coach who abruptly resigned to follow his heart and with their top scorer on the sidelines with an injury, the Badgers proceeded to take a couple more body blows during their Western Collegiate Hockey Association series opener with third-ranked Minnesota.
But that intense exposure to adversity provided a psychological road map to a gutty, satisfying 2-2 overtime draw before an announced crowd of 10,079 at Mariucci Arena.
“We just seem to keep running into the 50 mile-per-hour head wind,” UW coach Mike Eaves said.
Facing the most explosive power play in the WCHA with a penalty-killing unit that’s mainly struggled this season, the Badgers found a way to survive two 5-minute sequences while short-handed. The major penalties took two top-line wingers — sophomore Joseph LaBate and junior Tyler Barnes — out of a lineup that was already missing junior center Mark Zengerle (broken finger).
But thanks to a brilliant 41-save effort from sophomore goaltender Landon Peterson and a clutch two-goal showing from junior left winger Michael Mersch, UW (1-4-2 overall, 1-2-2 in league play) carved out an uplifting outcome.
Peterson, making just his second start of the season, acknowledged having the best outing of his 15-game career. He got the word Thursday that he would start and not fellow sophomore Joel Rumpel.
“Overall I feel like I played pretty well,” Peterson said.
The same goes for Mersch, who leads the Badgers with six goals and now has six conversions in nine career meetings with the Gophers (6-2-2, 3-2-2).
“He’s playing his best hockey of his college career,” Eaves said of Mersch.
The work of Peterson, Mersch and the penalty-killers was some salve to the wounds of losing assistant coach Bill Butters, who surprised everyone on the team last week by resigning to return to the ministry, and Zengerle, who’s projected to be out four to six weeks.
“Having Mark out was a little scary because he’s such an offensive threat,” Mersch said. “But we’re just battling through it.”
It’s unusual to see a UW line stay on the ice after it allows a goal, but that’s what happened in the first period and redemption was the end result.
The Gophers took the initial lead at 3 minutes, 49 seconds when left winger Nate Condon, from Wausau, made a nice play to outmaneuver senior defenseman John Ramage for possession in the right corner. Condon then fed right winger Zach Budish, who beat Peterson with a wrist shot from the near circle.
The Badgers got it back on the ensuing shift at 4:15 when Mersch finished off a passing sequence with senior center Derek Lee and freshman left winger Morgan Zulinick. Goaltender Adam Wilcox (22 saves) made the initial stop on Mersch, but couldn’t deny the rebound from near the left hash.
UW had two divergent moments on special teams in the second. The early one hurt. The latter was a thing of guts and beauty.
The Gophers regained the lead on the power play at 48 seconds when center Erick Haula was allowed to zoom out of the right corner unimpeded to the slot where his open wrist shot beat Peterson.
Mersch answered at 5:06 off a feed from sophomore defenseman Jake McCabe. Mersch was wide open at the right post when McCabe hit him with a blind, behind-the-back pass from the left circle.
“Good things happen when you’re around the net,” Mersch said.
A chance for Minnesota and its lethal power play — a 28.6 percent conversion rate — to break the game open instead turned into a boost for the Badgers when they killed off a major penalty to LaBate for checking Haula from behind.
Peterson had five of his 19 second-period saves in the sequence, which included a lengthy, exhausting tour by Ramage, senior left winger Ryan Little and junior defenseman Joe Faust.
UW had to reprise that effort in the third when Barnes drew a major and 10-minute misconduct for checking left winger Tom Serratore in the head.
“It’s not the most glorifying job out there, but it is rewarding,” Little said.
“Those were awesome,” Peterson said of the penalty-killing sequences. “They team played well in front of me and I responded also.”
Asked if he thought the major penalties were warranted, Eaves responded by saying he’d asked to speak with Greg Shepherd, the WCHA supervisor of officials. They did meet in a nearby hallway for roughly 5 minutes, Eaves’ exasperated voice easy to hear.
Minnesota coach Don Lucia said UW did a good job keeping rebounds to a minimum and by packing things in around Peterson.
“We had, obviously, zone time and we’ve got to find a way to thread a puck through,” he said. “I think we can do a better job trying to take away the goaltender’s eyes and find a way to get a puck through.”
Wisconsin 1 1 0 0 — 2
Minnesota 1 1 0 0 — 2
First period: M — Budish 2 (Condon, Haula), 3:49. W — Mersch 5 (Lee, Zulinick), 4:15. Penalties: Serratore, M, 12:14; Helgeson, M, 14:12; Meuer, W (double minor), 14:12; Rau, M, 16:13; Helgeson, M, 19:28; S. Little, W, 19:28.
Second period: M — Haula 6 (Budish, Schmidt), :48 (pp). W — Mersch 6 (McCabe, Lee), 5:06. Penalties: Simonelli, W, :37; Lee, W, 7:19; LaBate, W (5-minute major, 10-minute game misconduct, checking from behind; served by Navin), 13:22.
Third period: Penalties: Alt, M, 5:36; Barnes, W (5-minute major, 10-minute misconduct, contact to the head; served by Navin), 6:11.
Overtime: No scoring or penalties.
Saves: W (Peterson 8-19-12-2) 41; M (Wilcox 8-8-6-2) 24.
Power play: W 0-for-3; M 1-for-5. Att. — 10,079.