Marathon to Milwaukee
by Gregg Paul/CHN Correspondent
GREEN BAY, Wis. The road to the Frozen Four is a long and arduous grind. Nearly 40 regular-season games, numerous long practices, and then the frantic pace of the playoffs. Mistakes will be magnified, and opportunities will be capitalized on.
It's the common goal among all college hockey teams. Yet the margin of error at this time of year is so small.
Two years ago, Wisconsin, in the beginning stages of its re-emergence on the national scene under Mike Eaves, just missed the Frozen Four, losing in overtime to Maine, 2-1. It was only fitting then, that to get this one, Wisconsin would have to endure a three-overtime marathon just to earn a spot in Milwaukee, against a battle-hardened Cornell program.
Ultimately, a game that was just eight minutes short of playing a double header, was finally decided on a Jack Skille one time blast, ending the scoreless marathon.
"I might be too tired to make an opening statement," Eaves said afterwards. "I think that was a college hockey game that everyone in the building will be talking about for a long time."
The decidedly pro-Wisconsin crowd was treated to 111 minutes of exciting, and mentally draining, playoff hockey. The game was the fifth longest in NCAA hockey history. The goal by Skille set off a wild celebration among the Badger faithful. The win by Wisconsin over a determined Cornell squad gave the Badgers their first birth in the Frozen Four since 1992.
"Any time you see 100 shots in a hockey game and goaltending of that caliber, and efforts by everyone on the ice ... when you play in a game like this, the will has to be bigger than the skill," said Eaves.
That was evident on the game-winning goal, when Badger defenseman Josh Engel boldly pinched in deep and outworked the Cornell defenseman behind the net before feeding Skille.
"I saw the puck being wrapped around and just driving towards the net and I called for the puck," said Skille. "Josh Engle, I guess he heard me and he just threw it out real quick where I was and I one timed it and was fortunate that it went in."
A humble response, yet in the next sentence Skille said, "We're going to the Frozen Four ... we're going to Milwaukee!"
Relief that the hard-fought game was over, as well as excitement of taking one step closer to the ultimate goal of winning the NCAA Championship.
"It's a shame that someone has to walk away from this game and not go on to Milwaukee," said Eaves, "because both teams definitely deserved to be there."
It was another crushing defeat for Cornell. Last season, the Big Red also lost the Regional final in overtime, also in a hostile arena against a WCHA foe. Last season it was Minnesota which defeated Cornell 2-1 in Mariucci Arena. This season, the Big Red did not look like it had the legs to make it this far, but once the NCAAs rolled around, the Big Red reacted as if it were second nature.
But scoring is rarely second nature for the Big Red, and on this night, both teams dealt with hot goalies. Brian Elliott turned away 40 shots for the Badgers in earning his third consecutive shutout, second in the NCAAs, while his counterpart David McKee was absolutely stellar in turning away 59 shots before allowing the game winner.
"A loss is a loss," said McKee, taking no solace in his terrific performance. "I threw the puck around the boards and thought our guys were going to get there, but I got it up off the ice a little too much and they picked it up and threw it in front. The guy got off a good shot, he one timed it and I didn't have time to react."
Of course, conditioning becomes a factor in these moments, something most teams spend a lot of time on these days.
"You got to tell yourself 'I'm not tired. I'm not tired,'" said Wisconsin captain Adam Burish. "It's easy to quit, but we're not quitting. You hang on as long as you can.
"It's a matter of who is going to get tired first."
While both teams would probably never admit it, the fatigue played a role. However in the long run, the team that wouldn't let fatigue keep them from their goal, is the one who is moving on to the next hurdle in the season long marathon.