Rival Wisconsin once again matches Gophers

MINNEAPOLIS — Sometimes clichés are used for a reason.

Earlier this week, several members of the University of Minnesota men’s hockey team talked about how records are thrown out the window whenever the Gophers and Wisconsin Badgers face off against each other.

It sounds formulaic, sure, but it often holds true. No matter how each team has fared prior to the border battle series, games between Minnesota and Wisconsin always seem to be close.

Such was the case Friday, as the one-win Badgers and the No. 3 Gophers skated to a 2-all tie at Mariucci Arena. It didn’t matter that Wisconsin was without its top player in Mark Zengerle, or that Minnesota had won seven straight games at home dating back to last year.

The cliché held true once again.

“That’s been proven over the years,” said Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves. “I think you can go back and (records don’t) really matter. That’s what makes these games fun.”

A year ago, Minnesota and Wisconsin split their four games, with each team winning once at home and once on the road. The Gophers went on to advance to the NCAA Frozen Four, while the Badgers struggled to a 17-18-2 overall record.

Wisconsin has gotten off to a slow start so far in the 2012-13 season, losing Zengerle last weekend to a broken finger. Earlier in the year, UW’s top freshman, Nic Kerdiles, was suspended 10 games for NCAA violations regarding his amateur status. The Badgers’ lone win this year came on the road at No. 14 Minnesota-Duluth, where Wisconsin also tied the Bulldogs to take three points.

The Badgers have also had two bye weeks so far this season, meaning they had played just six regulation games. By comparison, the Gophers had played nine.

“They had good jump. They hadn’t played in a couple weeks,” Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said of the Badgers. “You knew they were going to be excited to play, and they were.”

The Gophers scored early in Friday’s series opener and looked poised to prove early on why they’re the third-ranked team in the nation. But just 26 seconds after Zach Budish put Minnesota on the board, Wisconsin responded with a goal from junior winger Michael Mersch.

Minnesota regained the lead just 48 seconds into the second period on a power play goal by Erik Haula that once again fired up the home crowd of 10,079. But just like it did after the Gophers’ first goal, Wisconsin responded not long after. Less than five minutes after Haula’s sixth goal of the season, Mersch took a centering pass from a spinning Jake McCabe and beat Gophers goalie Adam Wilcox to even the game at 2-2.

The Gophers certainly had their chances Friday night. Wisconsin committed a pair of five-minute major penalties to give Minnesota two extended power plays. But the Gophers came up empty each time, a disappointment for a team that came into the weekend with the best power play in the WCHA.

“We’ve got to capitalize on those opportunities,” Budish said. “Give Wisconsin credit. They blocked some shots and they have a good penalty kill. We’ve got to bury some of our chances. We had a couple that I think we left out there.”

Minnesota couldn’t beat Wisconsin sophomore goalie Landon Peterson to score the go-ahead goal, and the Gophers had to settle for their second tie of the season. Peterson stopped 41 of the 43 shots Minnesota fired at him. The Gophers also had several shots that didn’t count on the stat sheet, including several shots off the pipes and a few others that went just wide of net.

Many Gophers players would likely list the University of North Dakota as Minnesota’s top rival, but Wisconsin certainly ranks up there. As it has been for years, this rivalry always brings out the best in both teams. Neither team has swept a two-game series since 2008-09, when the Badgers won both games at Mariucci Arena.

That streak will live on after Friday’s tie as neither team has a chance for the sweep in Saturday night’s finale. Regardless, there’s little question that fans from both sides will be in for yet another good game between these two rivals.

“Since I’ve been here, neither team has swept the other,” said Budish, a redshirt junior. “It’s always a tight match, no matter how the teams are playing coming into the weekend. They lose their best player last series and they bounce back and find a way to get a tie even though they had two five-minute majors. You’ve got to give them some credit.”

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