March 27, 2006

The Badger State Blues

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All it takes is one bounce, one save, one opportunity – a split-second between jubilation and dismay.

Last night, that split second came in the form of Jack Skille’s game-winning goal in the third overtime, giving top-seeded Wisconsin a 1-0 win in the NCAA tournament’s Midwest Regional final over second-seeded Cornell (22-9-4). This goal booked the Badgers’ ticket to the Frozen Four in front of a raucous, predominately pro-Wisconsin crowd at the Resch Center in Green Bay, Wisc.

“I might be too tired to make an opening statement,” said Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves. “I think that was a college hockey game that everyone in the building will be talking about for a long time.”

After playing for 111 minutes and 13 seconds, Skille finally broke the deadlock when he hit a blistering one-timer from the high slot off a pass from Josh Engel past out-of-position junior goaltender David McKee and just inside the right post. As Wisconsin jumped on its hero by the Red bench, Cornell players looked on in shock, facing the reality that for the second season in a row, it was just a single overtime goal away from reaching the Frozen Four. Just a year ago at the same stage in the tournament, a Minnesota extra time game-winner sent the Red back to Ithaca with the same unwanted memories.

“I saw the puck being wrapped around and just driving towards the net and I called for the puck,” Skille said. “Josh Engle, I guess he heard me and he just threw it out real quick where I was and I one timed it and was fortunate that it went in.”

“I threw the puck around the boards [before the goal] and thought our guys were going to get there, but I got it up off the ice a little too much and they picked it up and threw it in front,” McKee said. “The guy got off a good shot, he one timed it and I didn’t have time to react.”

It would be an understatement to call last night’s game a classic, with both teams almost a mirror image of each other with their physical styles focused on dominating along the boards and in each other’s offensive zones working hard to the bitter end. Last year’s Hobey Baker Hat Trick finalist McKee, who was embattled by some critics earlier this season for a seemingly slow start, was unbelievable all night long, making a career-high 59 saves. His counterpart Brian Elliott was equally impressive, recording 40 stops in the win.

“When was the last time you’ve seen 100 shots and goaltending of that caliber,” Eaves said. “I said to [Cornell head coach Mike Schafer ’86] after the game, ‘It’s a shame that someone had to walk away from this game not going on to Milwaukee, because both teams definitely deserve to be there.'”

The game was the longest scoreless encounter in NCAA tournament history and was the second-longest game ever in the competition. However, if it wasn’t for McKee and Elliott, these records would surely have not been set.

At the end of the third period with 3:02 remaining, the Badgers could have swiped the game on its fifth power play of the night after sophomore Topher Scott was penalized for holding. However, McKee blocked shots from Andrew Jourdey, Tom Gilbert and Jeff Likens and made the stop of the night when he made an acrobatic kick save to knock away a close-range Robbie Earl one-timer. Later, in the first overtime, McKee knocked away a backhand from Skille before stopping Earl on the doorstep in the first and second extra periods.

Similarly, Elliott, who has now gone 252 minutes and 49 seconds without conceding a goal and was named the regional’s MVP, played a major hand in destroying the Red’s dreams with a number of huge stops in extra time. In the third overtime, Elliott made a spectacular post-to-post save on Scott, before blocking senior captain and leading scorer Matt Moulson twice in front of the crease to give his team a chance to win.

In the final overtime period, Cornell and Wisconsin both had chances which were rejected by the metalwork. Less than seven minutes into the frame, junior defenseman Dan Glover took a shot from the left point that banged off the crossbar after Elliott partially deflected it. Less than four minutes later, Skille had another golden opportunity for the Badgers when he wrapped around a shot from McKee’s right that beat the goaltender, but slammed off the post. Skille, who was Wisconsin’s most dangerous player during the extra periods, almost send the Red packing when he dinged a shot off the crossbar less than two minutes into the first overtime.

In between the spectacular goaltending was gritty and physical play on both sides. At the beginning of the game, it seemed as if Wisconsin’s speed, skill and strength combined with the Red’s seeming lack of focus coming out of the gate would push the Badgers to the win. However, Cornell’s defense, led by McKee, weathered the storm during the first period, and its penalty kill, which had conceded seven goals in its last 13 chances, predominately shut down the Wisconsin power play.

Throughout the encounter, which started at 5:00 p.m. EST and ended four hours and 40 minutes later, clear-cut chances were hard to come by, with both squads being forced to take shots from the perimeter since closer range shots were often times well-defended by the opposing team.

Cornell had its best chance in regular time less than two minutes into the second period. Junior Mitch Carefoot skated the puck down the left wing and took a shot from the faceoff circle that Elliott saved. Carefoot’s classmate Byron Bitz got a stick on the rebound from outside the crease, but Elliott stretched out, and kicked it away with his pad to keep the game scoreless.

In the third period, the energy picked up to another level and both sides had opportunities to draw first blood. Ben Street took a shot from the right faceoff circle that McKee saved and subsequently fell on.

Cornell had a pair of opportunities when Moulson, who along with senior defenseman Jon Gleed was named to the Midwest Regional All-Tournament team, had his attempt from the slot pushed away from Elliott. With 11:35 left in regular time, senior Daniel Pegoraro wound up from a pass by classmate Cam Abbott and shot it high from the left side of goal. Later, with freshman Evan Barlow in the box for charging at the 11:21 mark, McKee was forced to make a pair of close range stops on Street.

After McKee helped keep the game tied after the third period, Wisconsin took control during the first overtime. Cornell, which only two weeks ago played a pair of double-overtime games at Lynah Rink in an ECACHL tournament quarterfinal series win over Clarkson, appeared to be a step slower than its WCHA foe.

“You got to tell yourself ‘I’m not tired. I’m not tired,'” said Wisconsin captain Adam Burish. “It’s easy to quit, but we’re not quitting. You hang on as long as you can.”

However, as the pace understandably slowed as the battle went on, Cornell grew stronger on both ends of the ice during the second and third overtimes. Cornell out-shot Wisconsin, 8-6, in the second overtime, and the defensive unit held strong, led by Gleed, who stopped a Badger 2-on-1 break by blocking a cross ice pass with his body. Players on both teams were visibly tired and stretching out to prevent cramping. In Earl’s case, the cramps were so bad that at the end of one shift late in the game, he crawled back to his bench because he could not get on his skates.

It was a game which neither side deserved to lose, but something had to give. At the 10:48 mark, freshman Tyler Mugford and Badger Davis Drewiske were given matching penalties for roughing, reducing play to 4-on-4. With more open ice to work with, just 25 seconds later, Skille landed the final blow, and the Red, which had been toeing that line between jubilation and dismay for so long, was forced to watch another unwanted, familiar split-second moment turn hope into heartbreak.

“That’s one of the most exciting … games that hockey has seen,” Schafer said. “It’s tough to explain in words how proud I am of our guys. I asked them not to have any regrets and they don’t.”

Archived article by Brian Tsao
Sun Senior Writer