MINNEAPOLIS -- It's been quite the first few months of the season for Mike Eaves Badger club. His top freshman gets suspended, two of his top forwards go down with injuries, his assistant coach abruptly resigns. Eaves at one point called it the "perfect storm."
Things got a even more dicey for his team Friday night on the road where they were taking on arch rival and third ranked Minnesota. Not just one top forward but two were ejected during separate plays in the game.
Sophomore Joseph LaBate was given the boot after he was called for checking from behind in the second period, and junior Tyler Barnes was sent to the dressing room six minutes into the third period after he was whistled for contact to the head.
Despite almost everything going against them, Wisconsin was able to go into Mariucci Arena and earn a gutty road tie against a talented Minnesota squad.
"We just seem to keep running into that 50 MPH head wind," Eaves said after the game. "We had that again tonight, we geared down, and we got it done."
Wisconsin was led behind the play of forward Michael Mersch who netted his team leading fifth and sixth goals of the season, and sophomore goaltender Landon Peterson who recorded a season high 41 saves.
Minnesota started the scoring in the first period when Wausau native Nate Condon made a pass from behind the net to a streaking Zach Budish in the slot. Minnesota's senior captain quickly wristed a shot over Peterson's blocker to give the Gophers a 1-0 lead.
Wisconsin was able to bounce back just 26 seconds later on a goal by Mersch. The junior winger took a feed from senior Derek Lee, and on his second attempt is able to roof a shot over the sprawling Adam Wilcox.
The Gophers were able to start the second period on the right foot on the man advantage.
After Frankie Simonelli was sent to the box for tripping, junior center Erik Haula was able to give the Gophers a 2-1 advantage. Haula circled out of the corner untouched and was able to wrist a laser past Peterson.
Once again Wisconsin was able to bounce back, and once again it was Mersch. The L.A. Kings draft pick found himself on the receiving end of a highlight reel pass from sophomore Jake McCabe.
McCabe picked up the puck to the left of Minnesota's net and in one motion spun around and heaved a backhand pass back-door to Mersch who was able to bang it into the back of the cage.
Minnesota's second goal came just 48 seconds into the second period, but Peterson was lights out the rest of the night. The Oregon, Wisc. native was the best player on either team Friday night, and kept the Badgers in the game despite lopsided shot totals.
It was just Peterson's second start of the season, and with his performance Friday night it won't be his last. Eaves talked about the decision to go with Peterson despite starter Joel Rumpel playing very well leading up to the weekend.
"(Peterson's) been good in practice," Eaves said. "It just felt like it might be a good thing to do for our club, give us a little different look."
The Badgers could certainly use any spark they can get at this point. One of those guys who seemed to light the torch for Wisconsin all night was Mersch, who has been on a scoring tear to start his junior season.
"He's playing his best hockey of his college career," Eaves said. "The big man is using his body, he was really strong on his stick, he protected the puck well. He got his fanny to the net."
Mersch noted after the game that he's trying to get himself into those dirty area's where goal scorers find a way to get open.
"Just working at trying to find myself in front of the net more," Mersch said. "Things are bouncing my way right now. I give a lot of credit to my line-mates as well."
It may only be a tie, but Friday night's result certainly feels like a win. After the game Peterson talked about the fight this group has in them.
"Everyone in that locker believes we're a resilient group," Peterson said. "We lost a couple guys during the game but we all stuck together as a team. It shows when you can battle that hard and come out with a point."
Wisconsin and Minnesota will be back at it again tomorrow at Mariucci Arena. Game time is 8 PM.
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