The opening round of the "Border Battle" with the Wisconsin Badgers belongs to Minnesota.
The Gophers took three of a possible four points this weekend against their WCHA rival thanks to a hard-fought 3-1 win Saturday night in front of a lively crowd at a jam-packed Mariucci Arena.
Hard-hitting fourth-liner Tom Serratore scored the winning goal 5 minutes, 59 seconds into the third period for the third-ranked Gophers (7-2-2, 4-2-2 conference). It was Serratore's seventh goal in 76 career games.
"It was a very good college hockey game," coach Don Lucia said. "It was a great to see a guy that doesn't score a lot score a big goal."
Nick Bjugstad had the first goal and an assist, Kyle Rau added an empty-netter and freshman Adam Wilcox improved to 6-1-2 with 16 saves after giving up only two goals in a tie Friday.
The intense, physical affair had the student section buzzing. There were hard hits, lots of scrums, 10 roughing penalties and plenty of action.
"We needed this. It was an emotional one for us," Wilcox said. "The crowd's huge. They were in it the whole game."
Added Serratore, "It's not hard to get up for games like these [against] your big-time rivals."
Luckily, the two schools face off twice more this season -- once in Madison on Feb. 15 and then in Chicago at Soldier Field in the Hockey City Classic on Feb. 17.
The Gophers broke a 1-1 tie in the third period after leading scorer Erik Haula took Zach Budish's pass near center ice, skated toward the blue line and dodged a John Ramage check like a bullfighter does a bull.
With the crowd still gasping at Haula's move, Serratore, who had come off the bench, used a defenseman as a screen and whistled a beauty from the top of the left circle by Badgers goalie Joel Rumpel.
"My brain kind of went blank after," Serratore said. "The atmosphere was so loud and the guys started jumping on me. Great feeling."
Wilcox wasn't tested much, but he made some memorable, clutch saves. One came soon after Serratore's goal when he gloved down Sean Little's point-blank try. But the game's turning point may have come at the end of a second-period Badgers power play.
After Seth Helgeson gambled to clear the zone but couldn't, Wilcox faced a 3-on-1 with the puck on the stick of Michael Mersch, who scored twice Friday and has six of Wisconsin's 14 goals this season.
Wilcox came to the top of his crease and robbed Mersch with his glove. Instants later, Bjugstad found a loose puck in the neutral zone, raced into the Badgers' end and put every ounce of his strength into a shot that blew by Rumpel to tie the score 1-1.
"Most goalies, when they're young especially, they're going to drop and they get beat up top," Lucia said. "[Wilcox] just stands his ground and throws that glove up there and snatches it away."
Wilcox had no chance on the only goal he allowed -- a 2-on-1 shorty by Ryan Little. Bjugstad was relieved by his tying goal. Lucia says Bjugstad has been squeezing his stick lately, and Saturday, Bjugstad missed the net four times in the first two periods and admitted he's been getting down on himself.
"My eyes got pretty big when I saw the puck," said Bjugstad, who has six goals to share the team lead with Haula. "Then a 2-on-1, and just let her rip."
Five players sign
Last week, five players signed national letters of intent to play for the Gophers: Taylor Cammarata (Waterloo, USHL), Hudson Fasching (USA Under-18), Gabe Guertler (Fargo, USHL), Vinni Lettieri (Lincoln, USHL) and Lou Nanne (Penticton, BCHL).