ST. PAUL, MINN. -- For the second season in a row the Wisconsin men's hockey team will be playing for a postseason conference championship.
The Badgers received 24 saves from goaltender Joel Rumpel and two goals from Michael Mersch en route to a 2-1 victory over Penn State in a Big Ten hockey conference semifinal game in front of an announced crowd of 7,963 at the Xcel Energy Center on Friday afternoon.
The win was UW's seventh in a row at the Xcel Center, which includes a 3-0 mark last season at the WCHA Final Five. With the victory, Wisconsin earns a trip to the title game Saturday night vs. the winner of Friday night's match up between top-seeded Minnesota and Ohio State.
Mersch was a dominant force for the Badgers on Friday, leading all players in shots on goal with six, and notching two momentum-swinging goals that changed the outlook of the game.
"He came through tonight in a big way," Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves said.
Penn State head coach Guy Gadowsky wasn't surprised it was Mersch stepping up in a big spot for the Badgers.
"He's been great against us. That's not a surprise to us," Gadowsky said. "He's tough, big body to handle, he's great on the power play. But he's also a confidence guy, five-on-five, and tough to handle in the defensive zone.
"(Wisconsin) is a great team."
After a slow start in a scoreless first period, Penn State was the first team on the scoreboard when Curtis Loik lit the lamp on a 2-on-1 with Kenny Brooks just 55 seconds into the second stanza.
Mersch would step up huge on the following shift for the Badgers, however, notching his 21st goal of the season just 32 seconds after Loik gave PSU the 1-0 lead.
Linemate Jefferson Dahl was able to find Mersch streaking into the zone and Mersch cut hard to the PSU net, using his body as leverage on the Nittany Lions defense. PSU goaltedner Matthew Skoff stopped Mersch's initial try, but the senior winger stayed with his shot, knocking his own rebound across the line as he stumbled to the ice at the side of the cage.
"After we get scored on, we've been taught to line up for the draw right away and let them know we're coming for them," Mersch said. "So to get a goal on the shift after is huge.
"Jefferson (Dahl) made a good pass to me and I was able to drive the net and put it in."
The goal was huge, as it completely changed the moment of the contest after Penn State took the first lead of the game.
"It's a mindset that this group has that it's about responding, and that's the verbiage that's used on the bench by our team," Eaves said. "Let's respond, let's respond. And to be able to come back and do that, we're right back on top then -- we have the momentum.
"So, they pushed and we pushed back, and you get the momentum on our side."
Mersch would add his second of the game on the power play with just 11 seconds remaining in the period when he redirected a pass from Mark Zengerle past Skoff for the 2-1 lead. The goal was Mersch's 22nd of the season, which bumps the senior to seventh in the country in goals scored this season.
Wisconsin would take over in the third, controlling the pace while keeping territorial advantage nearly the entire period. When Penn State did get a break, Rumpel was square.
UW's dominance reached its pinnacle in the final few minutes of the contest, as the Badgers controlled the puck in the offensive zone for nearly the final two minutes, not allowing Penn State to pull Skoff for the extra attacker.
Skoff was brilliant for the Nittany Lions on Friday, stopping 32 Wisconsin shots. If not for his play, the Badgers could have easily cruised to a two or three goal victory.
Wisconsin will face the winner of Minnesota and Ohio State, the latter of which defeated Michigan State in a quarterfinal game on Thursday night. Gadowsky was very complimentary of what the Badgers bring to the table.
"I think what they do differently than other teams is they're just a very big-bodied, heavy team," Gadowsky said. "It's not that they buzz around you so much in our defensive zone, but they wear you down. They make plays but it's more heavy, tough.
"They're really hard to play against. They make you play a physical hockey game. I think that's what separates them."
Saturday's Big Ten Championship game will start at 7:00 p.m. CT, and will be broadcast live on the Big Ten Network.
For more hockey coverage, follow Andy on Twitter -- Follow @AndyJohnsonB5Q
You can also reach Andy via e-mail (AndyJohnsonB5Q@gmail.com)