MILWAUKEE — No one in the Maine camp is unaware of the task that lies ahead as the Black Bears face off against Wisconsin on what will feel like enemy ice.
Maine, though, is no stranger to playing big games as a “road” team on allegedly “neutral” ice. In fact, this is the fifth year in a row Maine has played an NCAA tournament game against an opponent in its home state.
That streak began with the ultimate of “road” tournament games when Minnesota defeated the Black Bears, 4-3 in overtime, at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. The following year it was a 2-1 loss for Maine to Michigan in Ann Arbor. Maine’s only win in this streak came in 2004 when it beat Boston College, 2-1, in the national semifinal at the FleetCenter in Boston. And, of course, Minnesota once again did in the Black Bears in last year’s regional opener, 1-0 in overtime, in Minneapolis.
Judging by the 1-3 record, one might not believe that Maine has the confidence and experience to play in such a contest. Don’t tell that to this year’s club, though.
“We have a history of playing the home team in the NCAA tournament,” said captain Greg Moore. “We’re fine with that and we’re excited for the atmosphere and the opportunity it’s going to bring to the game tomorrow night.”
Many wanted to talk on Wednesday about the pressure that Wisconsin might have in playing in front of its home crowd. Maine head coach Tim Whitehead, though, understands that the Badgers might feel the need to win, particularly having not been to a Frozen Four since 1992 (which was later vacated), but hopes that his own team will feel some pressure to execute as well.
“We set our expectations really high for ourselves,” said Whitehead. “So no one is going to put more pressure on us than we put on ourselves.
“We came here to do something special and we’re excited to have that opportunity. We understand the challenge and we know there’s going to be a big home ice advantage [for Wisconsin] but at the same time, that’s why we play the game — to see what’s going to happen.”
Wisconsin, and particularly the Bradley Center, is a special place for Maine, having captured the school’s first national championship in the city and building in 1993. But for no one is America’s Dairyland as special as Maine assistant Grant Standbrook.
The legendary Maine assistant spent 12 seasons in the Badger State as a assistant coach under former Wisconsin head coach Bob Johnson, helping lead the Badgers to national championships in 1977, 1981 and 1983.
Maine, though, stole Standbrook away from Wisconsin in 1988, a move that has been paying dividends for the Black Bears for nearly two decades.
“Grant is a special guy,” said Whitehead. “His impact on the Wisconsin program was quite significant and he’s had the exact same type of impact on our program since [coming to Maine]. He’s been successful wherever he’s been.”
When Standbrook steps behind the Maine bench on Thursday it will be his 14th time coaching in the Frozen Four, five coming with the Badgers and nine with the Black Bears.
“It’s not an accident,” said Whitehead. “You don’t get in [to the Frozen Four] so many times by mistake.
“He’s been a great teacher first and foremost. He seems like he has an endless supply of those little thoughts about the game.”
Take Up The Whole Net, Why Don’t You?
If you haven’t heard about Maine goaltender Ben Bishop by now, you’ve likely at least seen him. Heck, at 6-foot-7, it’s impossible to miss him.
Bishop, a rookie for the Black Bears, was instrumental down the stretch in even qualifying Maine for the NCAA tournament. But long before he was leading the Black Bears’ tourney run, he was taking cardiac monitors off of fans across the entire state of Maine, all of whom had been worrying day in night after Jimmy Howard’s departure for the NHL late last summer.
On Wednesday, the question arose of the fact that Maine will go with a freshman goaltender in net, but Whitehead is absolutely confident about his ability to handle the game well, even playing in front of what will be 10,000-plus Wisconsin fans.
“It would be nice to have Ben Bishop in this situation as a junior or a senior,” said Whitehead with a chuckle. “But you have to start somewhere.
“It was very encouraging with how he played in the regional as well as the Hockey East Tournament. He played very well there, and he’s played well in every situation he’s faced this season, playing with a lot of confidence.”