by Matthew Conyers/CHN Correspondent
MILWAUKEE After nearly six months of competition, Maine stands two victories away from the program's third National Championship and first since 1999.
For the Black Bears, who have had to overcome their fair share of adversity throughout the season, the achievement is not satisfactory enough. In their eyes, their mission is not complete. They have one more bit of business to attend too.
"Your ultimate goal when you play on any team is to win the championship," said senior Jon Jankus. "It's a good accomplishment getting to the Frozen Four but you can't be content with that. We got to go there and prove that we earned the right to be there."
Thursday, Maine will hope to inch one step closer this dream when they tango with Wisconsin in the NCAA Frozen Four in Milwaukee. The Black Bears take on the top-seeded Badgers in the second semifinal which begins at 8 p.m. If Maine wins they will move on to face off against the winner of the first semifinal between Boston College and North Dakota. The Eagles and Fight Sioux tussle at 3 p.m.
"This is it; I want to go out as champion," said senior forward and Bangor, Maine, native Derek Damon.
In order to earn their fifth trip to the title game and first since the 2004 1-0 championship-game loss to Denver, the Black Bears face another daunting task: disposing of the Badgers in their home state. The Bradley Center, site of Maine's first championship, resides just an hour away from Wisconsin's Madison campus. Maine head coach Tim Whitehead says this experience is nothing new for the Black Bears.
"We've been there before," said Whitehead. "But hey in 2004 we were able to beat BC in Boston and we played very well in the other games. We know it's possible though because we beat BC in Boston. That gives us some confidence."
The Black Bears have played in the home state of their postseason opponents for the past five years. Combined with the victory over Boston College in 2004, Maine has lost to Minnesota in 2002 and 2005 and Michigan in 2003.
"It's good; it's kind of an us-against-the-world mentality," said Jankus. "Any team loves that. And a lot of people love cheering for the underdog.
"Obviously it's nice to play in front of your home fans, but we can't make excuses this weekend."
Fourth-line forward Rob Bellamy said the location won't matter if the team sticks to their game plan.
"We just got to stick together as a team," said Bellamy. "It's going to be us against the building. It's happened to us a lot this year. It's just like going into UNH or something. I think we should be fine."
"At this point, the event is so huge that it doesn't matter where you play you are going to get pumped up," said forward Michel Leveille. "The positive on the side is that the place is going to be sold out and playing in front of a sell out is great."
Maine was granted the date with Wisconsin after an authoritative run through the NCAA East Regional, where it defeated Harvard and Michigan State. Highlighted by those victories, the Black Bears have gone 12-2-2 in their past 16 games.
"I think down the stretch here we have been playing our best hockey," said Maine forward Keith Johnson. "That's kind of a trademark for Maine hockey. That's what the tradition does here. We play our best down the stretch."
Continuing that impressive run will be imperative if the squad wishes to unseat the Tournament's No. 1 seed Wisconsin. The Badgers, who are composed of one of the deepest teams in the country, enter the contest coming off a triple overtime victory against Wisconsin, and a 4-0 shutout of Bemidji State.
"Yes, we are prepared for Wisconsin," said Whitehead. "We know some of their general tendencies. But you know they can make some adjustments like we might. So in the end the key is going to be who executes their systems the best and that is what we are putting the most emphasis on."
The Black Bear defense isn't too worried about Wisconsin's high powered offense.
"Every forward is the same. There is really not anyone who does anything extremely different from everyone else," said Bishop.
"It all comes down to a team defense," said assistant captain Steve Mullin. "It's not one line or one set of defense or Bishop in net that is going to shut them down. It's going to take a full team effort and everyone playing their best and being in position."
Wisconsin isn't too shabby in net either. The Badgers boast arguably one of the best netminders in the nation with Hobey Baker Finalist Brian Elliot. Elliot is 25-5-3 on the season and has a 1.55 goals against average.
"His numbers speak for themselves," said Damon. "He hasn't let up a goal in the NCAA tournament. So obviously we are going to have make sure we are creating a lot of traffic for him.
"He has really carried them a lot."
Bishop is equally excited to match up with Elliot, who he believes is one of the best goalies he will face next to Boston College's Cory Schneider.
"There is nothing more fun than that," said Bishop. "I love playing against those guys like Schneider and Fallon and all those great goaltenders. It's a lot of fun to play against those guys."
Bishop has a 21-7-2 record while posting a .908 save percentage and a 2.22 goals against average. "This is where the good players shine," said Bishop.
Teammates were quick to praise Bishop upon the mention of Elliott's accolades.
"If you get Bishop on his game I would take him over a lot of goaltenders," said Mullin.
"You know you can count on Ben back there," said Damon. "He's played well. He is definitely not playing like a freshman. That's what we need. We really need him to step up and make those big saves for us because in the NCAA tournament one bounce here or there could really cost you."
Leveille said Maine needs to remain relaxed.
"There's no heroes out there; there are no Lemieuxs or Gretzkys. We just want to be a bunch of kids playing on the ice," said Leveille. "Hopefully everyone is going to have fun."
Leveille went on to say several Black Bears from the past have been contacting the team to send words of encourage. He said that 2004 All American Colin Shields had just sent him an e-mail.
Like that 2004 squad, Whitehead feels there is something special about this group.
"This has been a special team and a special season for us," said Whitehead. "We've been through a lot. It started early when we lost Jimmy Howard to the pros three days before the first day of classes. We had some tough situations off the ice in the fall. A lot of injuries to key players in the spring. But the most important thing is that the guys stuck together through all that and found a way to keep improving despite some of those challenges. That is a great sign for a team. I am very proud of them and excited for them to have this opportunity to represent the school at the Frozen Four."
Thursday Maine will get the chance to show just how special they are.