Never in my life have I sat so still for so long. For nearly five hours I sat in my study silently, listening intently to one of the greatest college hockey games ever played.
As the game went on — and on and on — all my hopes, dreams, and most paralyzing fears rose and fell with the voice of Wisconsin Badgers play-by-play announcer Brian Posick and the nervous, infectious energy of color commentator — and former UW defenseman — Rob Andringa.
Even before its historic end, the game was a fitting conclusion to a weekend replete with joyous outcomes.
It all started on Friday night. I’ll admit I didn’t have the moxie to pick Minnesota’s stunning upset to Holy Cross in the annual USCHO tournament pool. But based on their last two performances — falling to a dedicated but far less talented St. Cloud team in overtime before being embarrassed by the Badgers to close out the WCHA Final Five — where they suffered from repeated defensive breakdowns, went long stretches with virtually no on-ice effort, and rarely played as a cohesive unit, they were definitely vulnerable.
Still, their shocking loss in the biggest upset in the history of NCAA hockey delighted me to no end.
As did other results that night. Boston University — slated for a title game matchup against Wisconsin in my bracket — made quick work of Nebraska-Omaha while Boston College shut out Miami, setting up yet another BU-BC showdown, the sixth of the season.
In the West region, after Minnesota’s loss, I was pulling for Michigan, but this was not a typical Wolverine team, one which without fail for the last decade played its best hockey in the postseason. Not surprisingly, the hometown Sioux dispatched them with ease, bringing the maize and blue’s most disappointing season in recent memory to a close. Before the Badgers took to the ice on Saturday afternoon, Michigan State shut out New Hampshire, 1-0, to advance to the regional final the next day.
Throughout all of these games, to an extent my loyalties were torn. Certainly, I wanted to impress my USCHO co-workers with my hockey knowledge — therefore I picked the games the way I thought they would go — but I also had my own, more personal interests to attend to. By this I mean, of course, what I thought best for the Badger hockey team.
And with the exception of North Dakota making the Frozen Four (a result I had hoped for had the Gophers beaten the Crusaders), the teams I wanted to advance did. More on that later.
So on Saturday afternoon there I sat, in the same desk chair that on the morrow I wouldn’t leave, barely moving except in the rarest of moments when overcome by an involuntary fidget. In the game’s opening moments, I audibly implored Wisconsin to not suffer the same fate as their foe to the north. I needn’t have worried.
After the clutch penalty kill of senior winger Ryan MacMurchy’s five minute major infraction for checking from behind and subsequent Joe Pavelski tally (the first of three on the day from the Wisconsin native), much of my nervous energy had abated. The impressive 4-0 smothering of Bemidji State — a team that only fell in the NCAAs to eventually champion Denver last season in overtime — had in fact much to do with their penultimate rival, Minnesota, falling the previous evening.
Of this loss — and the subsequent Badger victory — the irony is striking. To understand the full implications of this historic collapse, we must revisit that Minnesota-St. Cloud tilt referenced above.
If Minnesota wins that classic contest, the Gophers secure the number one seed in the overall tournament. Most likely, they still play in Grand Forks, but instead of taking the ice against Holy Cross, they do so against a tournament-tested, but less talented, Bemidji State squad. Even with the loss Friday night, a win against the Badgers on Saturday, would have secured the Gophers that prime position as the tournament’s top seed.
Thanks to Badger goaltender Brian Elliott’s second straight shutout of the maroon and gold, the Gophers fell again, thereby flipping the PairWise comparison with Wisconsin, and — thanks to bonus points earned by road wins at Michigan and Michigan State over Thanksgiving weekend — giving the Badgers the number one overall seed. On many levels, that third place game meant much more than the title tilt later that evening.
As if that weren’t enough, Minnesota’s stunning loss to Holy Cross gave the Badgers yet another boost, providing the clearest example of how no team is safe in the tournament, that every game — no matter talent, pedigree, or prestige — is settled on the ice.
More good news for Wisconsin arrived later on Saturday evening. Hoping for another Holy Cross win over a formidable WCHA school — let alone while playing a de facto road game — was too much for even the most optimistic fan to expect. But BC not just beating, but shellacking BU, was a welcome sight, given the torrid streak the Terriers were on and the impressive coherence with which they played in all three zones.
Add to that Maine’s convincing victory over Harvard (I thought Maine had a much better chance to beat MSU) and the impressive comeback of Cornell over Colorado College, and the bracket was shaping up perfectly. For with the way Wisconsin plays, one of relentless pressure in all three zones, smooth transitions, and suffocating defense, it benefits most from competing against teams unfamiliar with their style and the quickness for which plays need to be made. And in my experience you never want to take the ice against a team you’ve played before — especially a conference foe — in the NCAA tournament.
As my head hit the pillow early Sunday morning, only two games — Maine v. Michigan State and Cornell v. Wisconsin — remained to determine the Frozen Four field.
Sunday, March 26, 2006 is a date I will never forget. Cliché as that may sound, how else to sum up a day that begins with the underdog Maine Black Bears upsetting a white-hot — and heavily-favored — Michigan State squad and the Wisconsin Badgers winning the longest 1-0 game in NCAA tournament history.
If you’ve read my column before, you have heard my heartbreaking story of the day DirecTV died. Still in mourning and reluctant to scour the Internet for the closest sports bar to (unlikely) televise college hockey amid the final games of the Elite Eight, I decided to find my place of Zen. Never having looked for it before and not knowing where to begin, I ended up watching Ashley Judd ably play the doctor-heroine role in Kiss the Girls.
And then the puck dropped.
Listening to hockey on the radio is a special experience. With the explosion of college hockey, the availability to watch this most special of sports on TV has increased exponentially. From the days where the only games televised were tape delayed broadcasts of home games — contests I had usually already attended — to today where thanks to CSTV, ESPNU, and especially the Fox Sports Net franchise, fans of major college hockey programs rarely have to miss a game played in the contiguous United States.
Due to these mitigating factors, it had been quite some time since I had turned the dial to WIBA to listen to a Badger hockey game. So as I sat in that chair, trying to remember that Wisconsin was skating right to left across the dial, I focused intently on picturing the action, utilizing all I had learned about these players from watching more than one hundred of their games over the last three seasons.
Unlike with television, in radio announcers are your keyhole to the event: with average ones, you can barely make out shapes, occasionally discern hazy images; with great, time-tested veterans, the door is thrown wide open in a breathtaking tour de force. Thankfully, I was dealing with the latter.
And so, following excited inflections by Posick — Elliott’s great pad save on Byron Bitz in the second period, his game preserving effort on a 3-on-2 moments before Wisconsin scored the winning goal — or Andringa’s yelps of joy every time the diminutive and über-feisty Nick Licari threw thunderous checks into players nearly a foot taller and fifty pounds heavier, I would wait (none too patiently) for further explanations — more hues to define light and shadow, to fully embolden my vision of the actual reality.
Through a scoreless regulation and two exhilarating overtime periods, my nerves were shot, an entire twenty minutes of sudden-death hockey beyond frayed. And the image of Badger forward Robbie Earl — a man I dubbed ‘Magic’ after his first game of his freshman year for having the greatest pair of hands I’ve ever seen at Wisconsin — suffering such bad leg cramps that he had to repeatedly crawl to the bench after every shift, didn’t help.
So when Verona native Jack Skille — an immensely talented freshman who plays the game with an intensity so fearsome it is both intoxicating and a bit frightening — fired off a majestic one-timer off a backhanded pass from a pinching defenseman, I was stunned.
Not for who scored it — Skille was the most dominant skater for either team the entire game — but that it was finally over. Rather than jumping out of my chair (my legs undoubtedly atrophied, it’s unclear whether such a sudden motion would have been advisable, let alone possible), I waited, desperately trying to stymie a large grin, smother the impetuous but much needed urge to whoop with unadulterated bliss.
I had to be sure.
Moments later, with the high-pitched voice of Rob Andringa now clearly filled with euphoria, my own personal celebration began. The sudden shouting after hours of dead quiet giving her great pause — was it wonderful news or the worst possible kind? — my girlfriend, watching The West Wing in the living room, waited urgently for another sound — a firmer rejoinder — before entering the study to join in a raucous celebration 14 years (for her nearly a decade less, but agonizing nonetheless for the years’ affect on me) in the making.
And then, again, I wept.
For those perceptive readers who think this duct-triggered display of emotion an often occurrence, let me put you at ease. Only in moments like these — or (recent) days of dread when my whole existence is shattered — is such a reaction possible.
Yet the joyous tides did not stop there; again from the north came welcome news. Ryan Potulny, whose exploits in the first of Minnesota’s games, conjured images of Thomas Vanek and a rich man’s Johnny Pohl, decided to take his gaudy statistics and abject lack of defensive prowess to the most appropriate of places: the NHL.
His signing with the Philadelphia Flyers, a boon in itself, undoubtedly made linemate Danny Irmen’s decision to renounce his final year of eligibility to sign with the Wild easier. With those two gone, fellow forward Phil Kessel shouldn’t be too far behind.
On that day as well the Hobey “Hat Trick” was announced. Splendidly, it included Elliott — scoreless streak now at more than 252 minutes and counting — but not Potulny.
Yet again, it was a great day for hockey.
Nothing, though, could top the Sunday gone by for that moniker. That was the greatest of days, as it saw both the Badger women beat the Gophers in Minneapolis to win their first NCAA title and their male counterparts advance to the Frozen Four in Milwaukee.
Even more poignantly, the last play of the UW-Cornell game — the classic final scene — was orchestrated and acted with two characters rich in intrigue.
The man who started the play — a quick, defiant, and risky decision to pinch in from center ice in a four-on-four situation — was Josh Engel, the nominal seventh defenseman for most of Wisconsin’s season.
Thrust into the lineup with an injury to Joe Piskula — when injured, the team’s top plus/minus player — Engel played nervous and seemed a bit wary on Saturday. On Sunday, though, he played superbly, thanks in no small part to the calming influences of both assistant coach and 1990 National Champion winning defenseman Mark Osiecki and blue line partner, All-American Tom Gilbert.
The play, a perfect-pinch-virtually-no-look-backhand-cross-ice-pass-for-a-frozen-four-clinching-one-timer, will forever be enshrined in Badger lore.
Skille, the recipient, had even more reason for gratification. For it was he, the longtime teammate, linemate, and bitter rival of Phil Kessel (both hail from the same home town outside of Madison), who was a key factor — many believe the lynchpin — in Kessel becoming the first player ever from Wisconsin to play for the Gophers.
His early commitment to the Badgers — and, importantly, their grueling off-season conditioning, rigorous in-season practices, and defensive predilections — gave Wisconsin little chance of landing the highly sought after Kessel. And that his heroics came two short days after Kessel’s lackluster performance against Holy Cross, made it all the more sweet for Badger fans everywhere.
On a more macro level, the Frozen Four bracket as constituted gives Wisconsin the unique opportunity to settle old scores, make right frustrating and debilitating wrongs that ended past seasons in heartbreak.
In 2000, Wisconsin took the number one seed and nation’s leading scorer to Minneapolis, having to win only one game to go to college hockey’s Promised Land. Dubious bracketing — they had to the face the winner of college hockey powerhouses Michigan State and Boston College — and an abject lack of momentum proved their death knell. The 4-1 BC victory ended their season and cost Steve Reinprecht the Hobey Baker.
2004, though, was a different story entirely.
Mike Eaves second season behind the bench was one of both apprehension and hope. The latter came from his first campaign, a 13 win season, including only seven conference victories, the lowest total in the history of Wisconsin hockey.
The best recruiting class in the nation — headlined by defensemen Ryan Suter and Jeff Likens, forwards Robbie Earl, Jake Dowell, and Andrew Joudrey, and netminder Brian Elliott — sought to change all that. Though their third-place conference finish (up from eighth a year ago) turned some heads, their shocking loss to Alaska-Anchorage in the first round of the WCHA tournament caused even more to be scratched.
To their credit, they parlayed that extra rest into an eerily familiar 1-0 overtime victory over Ohio State, before losing 2-1 on a fluke overtime goal in Albany to Maine.
With the Black Bears as their semi-final opponent and the possibility of playing BC for the national title — or, barring that, the hated Sioux — in Milwaukee, their own backyard, the table has been set for a sumptuous feast not tasted here since 1990.
As rightfully eulogized as that run is — it included a stirring 2-1 victory over BC in the semis before hammering Colgate, 7-3, to win the title — what makes this trip to the Frozen Four so important is the closure it brings for many for what took place two years later.
History will recollect a 5-3 Lake Superior State victory over Wisconsin in the 1992 title game. For any who watched or attended the contest, though, such a summation is wholly simplistic. In firm control of the game until a bevy of unctuous — a couple that belied any sort of explanation whatever — penalties gave the Lakers what seemed to be a permanent advantage. A couple of power play goals later, the memory of Jason Zent’s hat trick and the sixth-seeded Badgers becoming the lowest seed to ever reach the national title game, were almost immediately lost to posterity,
Now, with the Wisconsin women now national champions and their top player, Sara Bauer, recognized as the country’s best, how will the men fare?
Beginning anon, these three days will not only define the legacy of five seniors — captain Adam Burish, Gilbert, MacMurchy, Licari, and fellow grinder A.J. Degenhardt — who suffered through that brutal freshman year, but that of Hobey finalist Elliott and his teammates who are desperately seeking the first title of the Eaves era.
The intricate puzzle laid out before the season’s opening faceoff is now nearly complete. But three pieces remain. For Wisconsin the mission is clear. But for a team who for three seasons, on the biggest of stages, has failed, their play today in the opening stanza of the national semis will be telling. If they come out hard, play their systems, and take it to the Black Bears with requisite intensity, they will prevail.
On Saturday night as well. No matter whom they face in the championship game, if Wisconsin plays its game, with its emotion, at its frenetic pace, they will take away from Milwaukee what many in the Badgers locker room already believe to be theirs. The national championship, certainly, but also of equal import — especially for the seniors — validation.