A sign in the student section said it best: “Back in the Nic of time.” In his first series back after missing six games and part of another, Wisconsin men’s hockey sophomore forward Nic Kerdiles returned to the lineup just in time for a highly anticipated home series with No. 1 Minnesota. And what a return it was. With a game-winning goal and the primary assist on the other, Kerdiles propelled the Badgers to another 2-1 win Friday night and an enormous series sweep over the top-ranked Gophers, who had a 14-game unbeaten streak heading into the series.
“The best way to describe him, he’s a thoroughbred,” Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves said of Kerdiles. “He can go. He’s got a great work capacity as an athlete.
“He hasn’t played in four weeks and he logged a lot of minutes and there was times that I thought ‘He can hardly get off the ice,’ but he recovered and he was able to get out there. And you can see how dynamic he is. His ability to get from point A to point B, his understanding of the game, and his skill set. He adds a lot to our team.”
Not only was it the exact same final score, but through the game’s first two periods, the back-and-forth action resembled much of what took place Thursday evening at the Kohl Center.
Wisconsin (16-8-2 overall, 7-4-1-0 with 22 points in Big Ten play) opened the scoring with only 20 seconds left in the first period on a great effort by Kerdiles. After falling down in the slot and losing possession, Kerdiles, using a sweeping motion of his stick, somehow managed to brush a pass over to Grant Besse, who was left unattended at the right side of the net. Besse, a freshman from the suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul, promptly fired a wrister over the right shoulder of Minnesota goaltender Adam Wilcox (25 saves) to give the Badgers a 1-0 advantage going into the first break.
Unlike Thursday, Wisconsin stuck right with the Gophers (19-3-5, 8-1-2-0 with 26 points), and held them off the scoreboard for the first half of the game. But a key exchange and costly penalty by the Badgers let the Gophers back in the game.
Coming into the Badgers’ zone alongside the right wing boards with just under 11 minutes to play in the second period, Minnesota’s Kyle Rau jetted over the blue line with a head of steam. However, Wisconsin defenseman Jake McCabe was right there to meet Rau and steamrolled him to the ice, making most of the contact with Rau’s upper body and head. The hit led to a skirmish between the two teams and eventually a five-minute major and game misconduct to McCabe for contact to the head, forcing him to sit in the locker room for the rest of the night.
Minnesota received two penalties for roughing on the whistle, causing the game to be played four-on-four for two minutes before the Gophers went on the power play.
On that ensuing man advantage the Gophers’ Seth Ambroz shoved a rebound past Badgers’ netminder Joel Rumpel to bring the score even at one at the 12:03 mark of the second. The goal marked the first time in 22 penalty kills that Wisconsin yielded a power-play goal.
Even after giving up the game-tying goal and missing one of their most important for the rest of the night, the Badgers defensive corps regrouped led by sophomore Kevin Schultze, who ended up getting rewarded with the game puck by his teammates and coaches.
“We had guys playing big minutes that they’re not used to and they did a hell of a job back there. One guy that really stepped up tonight was Kevin Shulze,” defenseman and team captain Frankie Simonelli said. “Just like [Eaves] said in the locker room, I think that was the best I’ve seen him play since he’s been here. He’s not the biggest guy out there, but I don’t think he lost one battle all night and that’s just awesome.”
Once again like Thursday, neither team scored in the remainder of the second period, and the curtain opened on the third and final period with the score deadlocked.
Enter Kerdiles. Just over four minutes into the third period, Besse worked the puck off the left half boards to Kerdiles in the middle of the slot. Kerdiles gained control of the puck, flipped around and blazed a wrister on the net that went flying past Wilcox as the sellout crowd of 15,359 erupted into pandemonium.
Rumpel made Kerdiles’ goal stand up as the game-winner with his play over the final 15 minutes and change in the final frame, making the big saves when the Badgers’ needed him most and recording 28 saves total to improve to 13-3-1 on the year.
Minnesota made a last-ditch effort by pulling Wilcox with just over a minute left, but the Badgers cleared it out of the zone multiple times and forced the Gophers to ice the puck with only seconds remaining. The final 1.7 seconds ticked off the clock following a faceoff in the Wisconsin offensive zone as the horn sounded and the sellout crowd reached a fever pitch.
Not only did the win help Wisconsin move within four points of Minnesota for first place, but it also helped the Badgers develop more fully as they battled for their first series sweep of a No. 1-ranked team in almost exactly 10 years when they swept North Dakota Feb. 6-7, 2004.
“They’ve always had good teams. It’s a tough task,” Eaves said of sweeping Minnesota, which the Badgers haven’t done at home since 1999. “Winning this series helps us grow to be the team that we want to be at the end of the year. If we want to be a team that’s contending for something then we need to win series like this, so it was good growth for us this weekend.”