ST. PAUL, Minn. - Wisconsin didn't need to win this to keep playing. Trophies are always nice to take home, though. The Badgers were after a top seed, too.
Mark Zengerle's rebound goal in overtime lifted Wisconsin to a 5-4 victory over Ohio State on Saturday night in the inaugural Big Ten hockey championship game, earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament after falling behind 2-0 early and 4-2 late.
"These are good lessons to put in their hip pocket as we continue to go into next weekend, because the games are all going to be pretty much similar to this," Badgers coach Mike Eaves said.
Nic Kerdiles had three assists on that fabulous first line for the Badgers (24-10-2), who won for the 10th time in 12 games. This one required a serious rally.
They trailed 4-2 with 6:52 remaining after Tanner Fritz scored for the Buckeyes, but Ohio State's defence and goalie Christian Frey faltered at the wrong time. Jefferson Dahl answered with a goal for Wisconsin just 20 seconds later to trim the deficit back to one.
"The rest of the game there, we were buzzing," Zengerle said.
Then 28 seconds after that, Tyler Barnes knocked one in to tie it with 6:04 remaining. Buckeyes coach Steve Rohlik, the captain for the Badgers in 1990 when they won the NCAA championship, called timeout.
"It was definitely heartbreaking. It was definitely a shock. But it's part of the game. It happens," Buckeyes captain Curtis Gedig said. "You've just got to step back and prepare yourself for the next shift."
The crowd, generously counted at more than 10,000, was mostly Badgers backers. They came to life after those rapid-fire goals, and the ensuing singing and chanting came with extra oomph, sounding at least a little more like a Saturday night at the Kohl Center than a neutral site in another state with the arena more than half empty.
The Badgers put themselves in prime position for one of the four top seeds in the NCAA tournament was at stake by securing consecutive conference tournament titles for the first time since 1982 and 1983 in the WCHA.
Minnesota, which lost 3-1 to Ohio State in the semifinals on Friday night, was safely in the 16-team field, too. But the only chance the Buckeyes (18-14-5) had was forcing their way in, after finishing fourth in the six-team league.
Ryan Dzingel, the conference's leading scorer and one of 10 candidates for the Hobey Baker award, and Nick Oddo scored in the first period to give the Buckeyes a 2-0 lead with less than 9 minutes elapsed.
Defenceman Jake McCabe scored with a power-play slap shot with 23 seconds left in the opening frame to put the Badgers on the board. Morgan Zulinick, with the Badgers again on the man advantage, tied it in the second period.
Defenceman Clark Cristofofoli's backhander, his first college goal, gave the Buckeyes a 3-2 edge they carried for more than 20 minutes after that. But they didn't hold it.
"Right now hurts, but to get the experience that our guys got that are coming back is priceless," Rohlik said.
The tournament will return to Xcel Energy Center, where the Minnesota Wild play, in 2016. Joe Louis Arena, the home of the Detroit Red Wings, will host in 2015 and 2017.