by Matt Williams/CHN Correspondent
MILWAUKEE MILWAUKEE - In the week leading up to the Frozen Four, to a man, every Maine and Wisconsin player talked about doing something "special."
Appropriately, it was the Badgers' stellar play on special teams that propelled them to a 5-2 victory over the Black Bears and their first national championship game since 1992.
Maine, one of the strongest power play teams in the country, went 0-for-7 with the man advantage as Wisconsin continued an amazing streak of not allowing a goal with a man down in the postseason. Going back to the WCHA tournament, the Badgers' penalty kill is a perfect 32-for-32.
"Specialty teams are so huge in college hockey. Our forwards are doing an awesome job on the penalty kill, throwing a monkey wrench into their breakout. It's huge," said Badger defenseman Tom Gilbert.
Wisconsin hasn't given up a power-play goal in over a month, going all the way back to their regular-season finale on March 4, a 3-1 win over St. Cloud State.
Maine's power play was off balance throughout the night. Wisconsin never allowed them to establish a rhythm or a flow, and scarcely conceded as much as letting the Black Bears set up in the offensive zone.
"They held the neutral zone so we had a tough time carrying the puck into the zone," explained Maine captain Greg Moore. "We had to dump it in, and they were anticipating that and beating us to the puck."
Then when the Bears were able to get some semblance of flow on the power play, Wisconsin took away the points and perhaps Maine's most dangerous weapon, Michel Leveille.
"They pressured pretty good up high and took Levs' shot away there," said Maine forward Keith Johnson.
Of course, having a Hobey Baker finalist between the pipes never hurts the penalty kill, and Brian Elliott was more than up to the task for Wisconsin. The junior standout frustrated the Black Bears with 33 saves, including 19 in the second period.
"Sometimes the best penalty killer is your goaltender and Brian was that a couple of times tonight," said Badgers coach Mike Eaves. "They way he practices, it's all a dress rehearsal for him. He has that desire where he doesn't want to give up anything in practice and it translates to the game."
"We definitely had our chances, but Elliott's a good goalie and he made big stops," Johnson said. "You've got to give credit to Wisconsin, they prepared well for us."
The Badgers added salt to the Black Bears' special teams wounds with Ross Carlson's shorthanded tally that broke a 1-1 tie early in the second period. Carlson manufactured the opportunity by snatching the puck from Leveille at the point, and then making a nifty move around Maine defenseman Bret Tyler and firing it home between the legs of goalie Ben Bishop.
"It meant a lot for our team to get that shorthanded goal and just keep rolling," Carlson said.
For Maine, the power play was a double-edged sword all year. The 21.9 percent efficiency was drastically improved from a dismal 16 percent the last two seasons, but much of the increase came from using four forwards on the top two units. That led to 12 shorthanded goals allowed on the year, the second most in the nation.
"[Special teams] is probably the only reason we're here, able to get to the Frozen Four," said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. "We lived on the edge on the power play. We gave our guys the freedom to make plays under pressure and it sometimes it bites us."
Bite them it did, as shorthanded goals were the difference in two of Maine's most important games of the season: the loss to Wisconsin and a defeat at the hands of Boston College in the Hockey East semi-finals last month.
Robbie Earl completed Wisconsin's special teams hat trick with a power play goal just a few minutes after Carlson's shorthanded score. Though the Badgers were only 1-6 on the night, Earl's 22nd of the season made it 3-1 parked momentum on Wisconsin's side for good.
The Badger's outdid the Black Bears with a perfect penalty kill and shorthanded and power play goals. At the end of the night, it was that very special play on special teams that gave Wisconsin the chance to do something even more special Saturday night in the national championship.