Wisconsin's regular season Big Ten championship hopes live on for at least one more week.
Needing a victory to stay alive in the conference race, the Badgers picked up a huge one on the road, defeating Penn State, 3-2 in an overtime thriller Saturday night in Happy Valley.
With just 20 seconds remaining in the extra session, UW senior Mark Zengerle was able to send the Badgers back to Madison with a sweep on a beautiful give-and-go play with linemate Nic Kerdiles.
Zengerle entered the zone down the right half-boards with the puck and slowed things down in typical Zengerle fashion to let Kerdiles join the rush. Zengerle flipped a pass over to Kerdiles, who waited out the lone Penn State defender long enough to allow Zengerle a wide open angle on the back door.
Kerdiles then sauced a pass back to Zengerle who did the rest, pumping a shot past Nittany Lions' goaltender Matthew Skoff for the game winner in front of 5,829 fans at Pegula Ice Arena.
Zengerle and Kerdiles were Wisconsin's top two skaters all weekend long, each notching two goals and four assists on the weekend.
"We know where (each other) is going to be on the ice and that's why we're so effective getting the puck to each other and creating chances," Kerdiles said after the game.
Since the pair was reunited on a line along with Tyler Barnes for the Feb. 6-7 series vs. top-ranked Minnesota, the Badgers are 7-1.
"They have something special together in terms of chemistry," UW head coach Mike Eaves said.
The Badgers didn't get the start they were looking for in the series finale, allowing Penn State to dominate the first period.
"I will take some of the blame for (the start)," Eaves said. "One of the biggest parts of the game is what happens before the game. We make the analogy that you have to build your campfire before you come to the rink. Then you throw a match in it, and then you play. Well, Penn State had a bonfire going and we had a little camp fire. They came out and they just beat our fannies left and right, won races, bloodied us up.
"They clearly had done a better job of preparation."
Luckily, Wisconsin has Joel Rumpel between the pipes, as the junior goaltender kept UW in the contest early, stopping multiple point-blank range chances in the opening frame.
"Without (Rumpel) in the net, (we don't win)," Eaves said. "He received our game puck. He gave us a chance to get our feet underneath us and figure things out and get ourselves going."
Keegan Meuer gave the Badgers a 1-0 lead 9:01 into the first period on his third goal of the season. Sophomore defenseman Eddie Wittchow entered the offensive zone and left a drop pass for Meuer, who immediately whistled a wrist-shot past Skoff through a screen for the first period lead.
Penn State would bounce back with a goal from Casey Bailey on the power play just one minute later, but 15 first period saves from Rumpel kept the score tied at one heading into the first intermission.
Wisconsin would take a 2-1 lead on a short-handed goal from Kerdiles late in the second period on a highlight-reel play.
Zengerle picked off a pass and found Kerdiles alone out front, and the sophomore winger was able to dangle the puck between his legs while flipping the puck top-shelf past Skoff for the 2-1 advantage.
"Honestly, it was a last second thing," Kerdiles said. "Puck kind of rolled up (on my stick), I brought it to my far side, I saw the goalie out of the corner of my eye move over, so I just kind of slid it through my legs and then put it (in the net). Luckily it went in."
"Takes a lot of moxie to do that," Eaves said.
The Nittany Lions would force overtime late in the third period on a fluke goal. PSU winger Kenny Brooks flung a puck towards the Wisconsin net that caromed off the skate of UW defenseman Jake McCabe and past Rumpel to send the game to overtime.
The Badgers would go on to dominate the extra session, which culminated in Zengerle's game winning goal 4:39 into the extra session.
Credit must be given to Penn State, who out-played Wisconsin most of the night. Rumpel was huge for the Badgers, stopping 41 shots from the Nittany Lions in the series finale.
With the win, Wisconsin earns a first round bye in the Big Ten Tournament in two weeks at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. The Badgers will play the early game at 2:00 on Friday, with Minnesota playing at 7:00.
Thanks to Ohio State taking the extra point from the Gophers with a shootout win on Saturday, the Badgers are just five points back from Minnesota with one weekend left to play. Wisconsin travels to East Lansing next weekend to face Michigan State, while the Gophers travel to face Michigan.