MADISON — If Wisconsin was forgetting what it was missing without Nic Kerdiles in its starting lineup, the sophomore forward ringing the right post was a fitting way to signal his return.
It also served notice that the Big Ten title race has tightened up considerably in a little over 24 hours.
"This is the border battle and you want to get every sweep opportunity you can," said Kerdiles, as his first goal since Dec. 13 propelled No. 12 Wisconsin to its second straight 2-1 victory over No. 1 Minnesota in front of 15,359 fans at the Kohl Center. "It was really good for our confidence … Obviously for the standings, it's good."
After being 10 points down entering the weekend, Wisconsin (16-8-2, 7-4-1-0 Big Ten) now finds itself four points back with eight games left after registering its first sweep of Minnesota (19-4-5, 8-2-2-0) since 2009 and the first at home since 1999, Don Lucia's first season as head coach.
"When you sweep the No. 1 team in the nation, it puts a statement out there," said Kerdiles.
Missing three games because of the World Junior Championship, Kerdiles injured his shoulder in the first period of his first game back, causing him to miss the next three conference series. He traveled last weekend to Michigan, but the coaching staff opted to rest him for the stretch run, when UW plays three of its final four series on the road.
The extra recovery time proved useful, as Kerdiles was physical throughout the series and scored the winner off the right post at 4:33 of the third period.
He also was the key figure in Wisconsin's first goal, making a diving pass through two defensemen to freshman winger and Minnesota native Grant Besse for the game's opening goal with 19.7 seconds remaining in the period.
"He's a thoroughbred," said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves of Kerdiles. "He can go. He's got a great work capacity as an athlete. He hasn't played in four weeks and he logged a lot of minutes … He adds a lot to our team."
Kerdiles' goal validated the yeoman effort from Wisconsin's defensive corps, especially when it lost a key cog with 31 minutes remaining.
Eaves has said that junior Jake McCabe is irreplaceable, so it was a defining moment when one of Wisconsin's grittiest defenders was shown the gate with a five-minute major and a game misconduct for contact to the head following a vicious hit on top-line center Kyle Rau.
Three minutes later, winger Seth Ambroz tied the score with his 12th goal of the year on a rebound to knot the score at one.
Instead of buckling, Wisconsin bowed up by blocking 21 shots, winning more battles than the series opener and getting what Eaves called "the best college game" out of sophomore Kevin Schulze all season.
"Everyone stepped up back there," said Badgers' senior defenseman Frankie Simonelli. "We had guys playing big minutes that they aren't used to. They did a hell of a job back there."
Added Eaves: "With (McCabe) out of the lineup, we had good growth and found a way to win the game."
The Gophers outshot Wisconsin for the second straight night, but haven't broken free from their scoring funk. After scoring 12 goals in a three-game stretch, the Gophers have five goals in their last four games, running into a pair of hot goaltenders in Joel Rumpel and Michigan State's Jake Hildebrand.
"That's all part of it," said Lucia. "It's not easy going on the road. Wisconsin has lost two games in this building all season long. They've played well. They've played confident at home. This weekend was good for us from the standpoint of a difficult environment, hard-fought games. Weekends like this make you better."
A night after turning away 31 of 32 shots, Rumpel was superb once again in his 28-save performance. That included a toe save early in the third period and a denying a couple high-grade scoring chances, like Connor Reilly's snipe from the left circle with less than six minutes remaining.
According to Besse, Rumpel was simply "phenomenal."
"You can just look at the stats," said Besse. "He our backstop back there and a big reason we came out of here with six points."