NCAA Preview: Brewing Up a Storm
Badgers Seek First Title Since 1990, in Home State
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
The state of Wisconsin is known for, among other things, its cheese, its beer, and its football team in Green Bay. But for this week, the only thing that matters in the Badger state is hockey.
When the Frozen Four kicks off in Milwaukee's Bradley Center on Thursday, the stands will undoubtedly be bleeding cardinal and white, with the majority of fans rooting for the hometown Wisconsin Badgers — the number one overall seed in the NCAA tournament — in their quest for their first national championship since 1990.
Mike Eaves, head coach of the Badgers, can't wait.
"To say that we're excited would be an understatement," said Eaves, also a Wisconsin alum. "I'm very pleased for our young men that we're getting a chance to play in Milwaukee."
The Badgers, who will be making their first Frozen Four appearance since 1992, have been treated well in their home state this season. Most notably, they defeated Ohio State in front of over 40,000 fans in the historic Frozen Tundra classic, held in Green Bay's famed Lambeau Field. And last weekend, Wisconsin won the Green Bay regional after first knocking off Bemidji State in the first round and then Cornell in an epic national quarterfinal game.
In fact, the game against Cornell was the fifth longest in college hockey history, and Wisconsin booked its ticket - bus ticket, that is - to Milwaukee when freshman Jack Skille scored the only goal of the game in the third overtime period.
Brian Elliott stopped 40 shots for Wisconsin, while Dave McKee stopped 59 in his final game for Cornell.
Even Boston College coach Jerry York, who coached Mike's sons, Ben and Patrick Eaves, during their college careers, took notice of the instant classic, saying, "All of us are big fans of college hockey, and Mike, you kept us on the edge of our chairs watching that game with Cornell. College hockey right now is at its finest moment."
"The game itself was most memorable," added Eaves. "It was amazing what an exciting game it was for a 0-0 game. Back and forth, great goaltending, and some real great efforts by individuals. The mood in the locker room in between the overtime periods seemed to get lighter and lighter as the game went on. There's not too much you can say to the players. It really comes down to will."
Despite the recent success, it hasn't been smooth sailing for the Badgers all year. After starting the season on fire, losing only two of its first 22 games, Wisconsin then suffered through a 3-7-1 slump in the middle of the season. The slump coincided with an injury to Elliott, but his return has fueled the Badgers' run to the Frozen Four.
Said Eaves, "We had our little dip earlier in the season, fought threw some things, but we're back playing, and kids are playing well at the right time."
And it's not just the men who have been playing well.
Last week, the Wisconsin women's team won the NCAA women's hockey championship, and now, the men will attempt to bring both titles to Madison. Standing in their way of a chance to play for the title is a Maine team that has won two national titles since Wisconsin's last Frozen Four appearance.
Still, the Badgers are confident that they'll be ready.
"We certainly know their style, having played them [in the NCAA tournament] just a couple years ago," recalled Eaves. "One of the reasons they're successful is because they play hard, and they have a great will. They also sprinkle in some pretty good players and some good goaltending. That's a pretty good equation for having a solid team."
Now, the Badgers head to Milwaukee to play in front of what will practically be a hometown crowd.
And as he tries to lead his alma mater to its first title in 16 years, Eaves made sure to note that the Badgers might be willing to pull out all the stops.
"As far as Milwaukee, we went up there every week to practice at the rink," deadpanned Eaves, "so that just in case this happened, we would have an advantage."
"No, I'm just kidding," he added, laughing. "I'm just throwing that out there to see if people are really listening."