MILWAUKEE — Any victory in a Frozen Four is something special, but Wisconsin’s 5-2 win over Maine in the second semifinal of the 2006 Frozen Four might just be extra-special.
In a battle of special teams, Wisconsin scored both with the man-advantage and on the shorthand and killed all seven of Maine’s power plays to advance to the national championship game. The Badgers will face Boston College in Saturday night’s final.
Both teams entered the game with impressive special team statistics, Maine boasting the top penalty kill in the nation and the third-best power play, and with Wisconsin’s penalty kill ranking third nationally.
Thursday, though, the Badgers’ ability to execute on both sides of the special-teams conflict was the difference.
“Special teams are always important,” said Maine head coach Tim Whitehead. “They’re probably the reason that we got here in the first place, so it’s kind of ironic the way things went.”
“We wanted to take away their space when there are loose pucks,” said Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves of his club’s penalty kill. “But your best penalty-killer is your goaltender and most of the time Brian [Elliott] made big saves.”
Elliott, a finalist in the Hobey “Hat Trick,” indeed was spectacular. Facing 34 Black Bear shots, he allowed only two goals, one of which deflected off a defender’s skate.
“He lives for [the tough saves],” said Eaves. “He doesn’t even give up on a puck in practice, so if you make those tough saves in practice, you’ll make them when you’re in the games.”
The atmosphere for Thursday second semifinal was, simply put, electric. With the games in the Badgers’ home state of Wisconsin, most of the 17,691 in attendance were clad in Badger red and cheering loudly for their home team. It was an atmosphere that Eaves himself never expected, as he acknowledged Wednesday.
Still, when any Wisconsin goal went in the net, the building exploded.
“It’s an emotional lift,” said Badgers captain Adam Burish. “People ask us if it’s an added pressure? It’s not pressure, it’s just exciting. There were times that nothing would be going on in the game and all of a sudden the crowd starts cheering to give us a big lift.”
The opening period saw the squads feel one another out, with Wisconsin holding a slight 9-8 advantage in shots. The teams ended up even on the scoreboard thanks to two pucks bouncing off defensemen and into their own nets.
Wisconsin was the first beneficiary. As the Black Bear defense broke down inside the zone, Burish’s airborne centering pass to Robbie Earl bounced off the hip of Maine’s Travis Wight and past goaltender Ben Bishop (34 saves) at 10:11 to ignite the capacity crowd and give Wisconsin a 1-0 lead.
Maine evened the game when a Michel Leveille shot hit the skate of Wisconsin’s Matt Olinger and bounded through the legs of Elliott at 17:37 evening the game through one.
The Leveille goal was the first allowed by Elliott in 270 minutes, 26 seconds.
Early in the second, Wisconsin regained the lead, this time scoring shorthanded. Ross Carlson broke out of the zone with speed, made a nifty move around Leveille, then set and fired a blast that beat Bishop along the ice at 4:18.
Maine had its chance to even the game shorthanded when Greg Moore broke in on a two-on-one at 8:08. When Elliott made the save, the Badgers headed the other way on their own odd-man rush, and extended the lead eight seconds later.
Earl’s snap shot from the right faceoff dot beat Bishop far-side over the blocker to give the Badgers a 3-1 lead.
The Black Bears began the third by killing a two-man advantage and then focused on pulling closer. Leveille nearly did that at the eight-minute mark when he was all alone in the slot. Elliott, though, looked plenty calm, stopping the shot without a rebound.
At 11:29, though, Maine drew within a goal. Mike Lundin buried a drop pass from Steve Mullin, firing the shot to the top right corner to pull within one at 3-2.
Less than a minute later, the Badgers responded. Ben Street’s third swipe at a shot in close went high over a fallen Bishop to give the Badgers a 4-2 lead.
Maine would take its chances, pulling Bishop for the extra attacker with 2:30 remaining. But when Earl fired the puck into the open net with 1:44 left, the celebration had begun and Wisconsin was on its way to the title game.
The loss, just the second in the last 19 games for the Black Bears, finishes their season at 28-12-2. At least for the moment, it also leaves a bitter taste in their mouths.
“It’s a tough game to finish when you don’t win your last game,” said Whitehead. “But we left it all out there and I’m proud of the guys.”
Wisconsin reaches the title game for the seventh time in school history but first since 1992, a tournament appearance that was later vacated. The Badgers will face Boston College, a 6-5 winner over North Dakota in Thursday’s first semifinal.
Those two clubs have met just twice in NCAA tournament play. Wisconsin defeated BC, 2-1, in 1990 on the way to its last national title, while BC beat the Badgers in the most recent contest, winning 4-1 in 2000.
It will also set up an interesting matchup of father versus son in the title game. Both of Eaves’ two sons, Ben and Patrick, are alums of the Boston College program. Ben, nursing a season-ending knee injury from the Pittsburgh Penguins, has served much of this season as a volunteer assistant with the Eagles.
The elder Eaves, though, says there’s no animosity building with the title game in sight.
“I have no mixed feelings at all playing BC,” said Eaves. “On Saturday night there will be one winner, and that will be college hockey.”