MILWAUKEE — A risk-taking defenseman, an opportunistic forward, and 17,000-plus screaming fans clad in Badger red and white all spelled the formula for bringing the national championship back to Wisconsin.
Courtesy of a power-play goal with 9:32 remaining from the stick of defenseman Tom Gilbert, the Wisconsin Badgers captured their first national championship since 1990 and the sixth in school history, defeating Boston College, 2-1, Saturday night at the Bradley Center.
The winning goal came off a perfect tic-tac-toe passing play with a man-advantage in which Gilbert pinched from his position at the right point to the slot.
With no one standing between Gilbert and BC goaltender Cory Schneider, the defenseman ripped off a hard wrist shot about 18 inches off the ice that found space just above the right pad of the sophomore goaltender, sending one of the most raucous crowds in Frozen Four history into pandemonium.
“I’m an offensive defenseman,” said Gilbert when asked why he decided to take the chance and pinch on the play. “Coach gives me some leeway because I have the right judgment.”
“It comes down to trust,” said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves, who has now won the national title for Wisconsin as both a coach and player (1977). “You want good players to play to their strengths. One of Tom’s strengths is his offensive feel.”
Gilbert’s goal was the only power-play tally in the game. Wisconsin scored once in eight attempts, while Boston College was 0-for-4. It also completed a comeback for the Badgers, something that the team hasn’t necessarily been known for this year.
Wisconsin fell behind early in the game. Boston College, despite being dominated much of the first frame, got on the board first when fourth-line center Pat Gannon lifted a backhand shot over the left shoulder of Wisconsin netminder Brian Elliott (22 saves).
The goal quieted a Badger crowd that had been celebrating everything from hits to shots to saves from minute one. It could not, though, stop the Badgers from continuing to pressure Schneider (37 saves), who faced and stopped 17 shots in the opening period, the most in the opening period of a championship game since St. Lawrence put 20 shots on goal in 1988.
In the second, the offensive onslaught of Wisconsin finally paid off. Robbie Earl, who was named Most Outstanding Player of the Frozen Four, finished off an Adam Burish pass at the goalmouth just 1:17 into the frame to even the game.
The goal, said Earl, was a bit opportunistic, as just seconds earlier he was trying to leave the ice after being leveled at center ice by a Chris Collins hip check.
“I got upended in the neutral zone and hurt my shoulder a bit,” said Earl. “I was actually heading off to the bench and saw the puck turn over to Joe Pavelski, so I decided to take a chance and go to the net.”
“I think it was a situation where he was heading off and then realized he didn’t feel that bad and we were going on offense,” said Eaves of Earl’s decision. “He did the hard thing, though, and that’s go to the net.”
With Earl’s decision paying dividends, the game was knotted and the Wisconsin offense was ready to roll.
The only issue, though, was that Schneider stood in the way and was in the middle of one of the best performances of his career.
Minutes later, Schneider robbed both Pavelski from the left faceoff dot and Earl from the opposite side of the ice on the power play. Even when Schneider was beat by a Jack Skille shot with 3:20 left in the second, the crossbar was there to help him out.
BC coach Jerry York said that heading into the third period deadlocked at 1 actually played perfectly into his club’s game plan.
“We got just what we wanted here,” said York. “We had a 20-minute hockey game in a very tough place to play.”
That game plan, though, was ruined in the final 20 minutes. Wisconsin’s offense pushed even harder than the first two periods, outshooting BC, 11-4, in the closing period and 39-23 on the game.
It was that dominance that drew four Boston College penalties in the frame, and that led to Gilbert’s goal.
Still, even seeming down and out, the Eagles had their chance. Despite being unable to pull Schneider for an extra attacker until 25 seconds remained in regulation, the Eagles got two clean shots off, the second a Peter Harrold wrister with 1.8 seconds remaining that deflected off a stick in front of Elliott and struck the right post.
In fact, instant replay was used after the final buzzer to confirm that the puck had indeed hit the post and not gone in, delaying the Wisconsin celebration by a couple of minutes.
“Playing for the national championship with 10 seconds left, you’re going to throw the kitchen sink at them, and that’s what we did,” said Harrold.
The loss marks the end of a stellar run for the Eagles, a team that nearly didn’t even qualify for the national tournament. Still, there’s little consolation for the BC seniors who will end their career with two trips to the Frozen Four, yet no national title.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, was able not only to bring home a national title for the first time in 16 years, but to do it in front of a home crowd.
“It was truly amazing [playing in front of a home crowd],” said Eaves. “Our kids talked about it. They wanted to give the crowd a reason to cheer.”
With a national championship in hand, this Wisconsin crowd will have plenty of reason to cheer for quite a long time.