March 26, 2006
Midwest Regional | Final
Fourth on the Line Chart, Number One in Your Hearts
Among the unsung heroes in Sunday's marathon were the Badger fourth-liners

By Mike Eidelbes

Wisconsin 1, Cornell 0
Team Goal Str
Time Assists
First Period
No scoring

Second Period

No scoring
Third Period
No scoring
Overtime
No scoring
Second Overtime
No scoring
Third Overtime
1-WIS Jack Skille (13) EV
11:13 J. Engel
Goaltending
COR: David McKee, 111:13, 59 saves, 1GA
WIS: Brian Elliott, 111:13, 40 saves, 0 GA
Penalties: COR 7-14; WIS 3/6
Power Plays: COR 0-1; WIS 0-5
Attendance: 8,086
All-Regional Team

G: Brian Elliott, Wisconsin (MVP)
D: Tom Gilbert, Wisconsin
D: Jon Gleed, Cornell
F: Matt Moulson, Cornell
F: Joe Pavelski, Wisconsin
F: Jack Skille, Wisconsin

GREEN BAY, Wis. – How well did Wisconsin's fourth line play against Cornell in Sunday's Midwest Regional final?

Consider this – with 57 seconds left in the third period of a scoreless game and a faceoff to Big Red goaltender David McKee's left on the heels of a Badger power play in which they peppered the Cornell net, coach Mike Eaves summoned the trio of seniors Nick Licari and A.J. Degenhardt and junior Andy Brandt to take the draw. As if to confirm Eaves' confidence in them, Licari nearly scored off the faceoff.

"They were without a question our best line," Wisconsin captain Adam Burish said. "They brought energy when we needed it."

On its first shift of the first period, the unit jump-started the partisan Badger crowd by outworking and outhitting the Cornell top line of Matt Moulson, Byron Bitz and Mitch Carefoot. Mind you that the Big Red group's average size is 6-foot-2 and 212 pounds, while the Brandt, Licari and Degenhardt average 5-foot-10 and 184 pounds.

Near the end of that period, Degenhardt threw his body at Cornell defenseman Jon Gleed as he tried to lug the puck to neutral ice. Instead of maintaining possession, Gleed gave up the puck and tried to flatten Degenhardt. Brandt picked up the turnover and fed Licari, stationed inside the right faceoff circle, for a prime scoring chance that Big Red goalie David McKee stopped. In the second period, Licari responsible for two thundering hits behind the Cornell net – first pancaking Gleed, then steamrollling 6-foot-5, 225-pound defenseman Ryan O'Byrne, the biggest player on the Big Red roster.

"It's our role on the team," Licari said. "It's hard for us after so many shifts and so many periods, but it's something we need to do to keep our team going. If that's what it takes, that's what we've got to do."

Wisconsin celebrates in front of rowdy Badger fans and a dejected Cornell bench. (Photo by Larry Radloff; click for a larger image)

The fourth line did more than provide just instantaneous sparks for the Badgers. Their play allowed coach Mike Eaves to roll all of his forward units with regularity from the opening draw until freshman Jack Skille scored 11:13 into the third overtime to end the fifth-longest contest in college hockey history and the second-longest NCAA tournament match.

"We were itching to get back out there," Licari said. "Being on the fourth line, you obvioulsy don't get as much ice time as the first line. You want to do what you can."

At the post-game press conference, Burish noted that Licari shed tears of joy following the win.

"This is most likely my last hockey," Licari explained. "To win and go through basically two games that we played tonight is something special."

DAVE SAVES, EARNS RAVES

Despite a season's worth of objections from the Cornell camp, it's been abundantly clear that goaltender David McKee has struggled to match the performance he put together last year, when he was one of three finalists for the 2005 Hobey Baker Award.

That said, the junior from Irving, Texas, put together the most impressive performance of his Big Red career against Wisconsin Sunday. Constantly harrassed by the Badgers' swarming forwards, McKee made 59 saves. He was particularly impressive during a Wisconsin power play late in the third period during which he made a number of point-blank stops against the team's top unit of Burish, Robbie Earl and Joe Pavelski.

"He made some unbelievable saves," said McKee's counterpart, Badger netminder Brian Elliott. "I don't think he can be upset about how he performed."

What made McKee's effort even more notable was his play as the game progressed. While everyone else on the ice appeared to tire, McKee seemed to get stronger.

"It's going to take something like that, a broken play and a one-timer, to beat him," said Cornell coach Mike Schafer. "He's an excellent goaltender."

It may take a while for McKee to truly appreciate the magnitude of his play. When asked after the game if he could take any solace in his play, he quickly shot down any notion of a moral victory.

"We really wanted to move on and go to the Frozen Four," he said. "We're pretty bitter."

INCH's Three Stars of the Weekend

3. Tom Gilbert, Wisconsin
Running the point on the power play, thwarting opponents' man-advantage opportunities by patrolling the slot and using his long reach to poke pucks out of harm's way or flattening foes with a big hit, Gilbert cemented his status as one of the country's best defensemen.

2. David McKee, Cornell
He allowed two goals in the first period of the Big Red first-round contest against Colorado College and was virtually perfect the rest of the way.

1. Joe Pavelski, Wisconsin
It's hard to omit Brian Elliott from this list because he made a number of tough saves in the two games in Green Bay, but Pavelski and really set the tone for the weekend with his penalty killing and offensive prowess against Bemidji State, and his physical play and excellent work on faceoffs. His game is not unlike that of former Michigan State star and current NHLer Rod Brind'Amour.

SEEN AND HEARD AT THE RESCH CENTER

• Wisconsin forward Robbie Earl was plagued by leg cramps in the third overtime of Sunday's game, but kept on taking regular – though drastically abbreviated – shifts. At one point, Earl was so tight that his teammates had to lift him onto the bench. A couple Badgers helped him skate onto the ice for the post-game celebration, evoking memories of an exhausted Kellen Winslow being dragged off the field after his San Diego Chargers beat Miami in an epic double-overtime AFC playoff game 25 years ago.

"At one point," said Earl, who kept his shifts to 30 seconds or less in the third OT, "I just stood in front of the net because I couldn't move. It was a total lock of my leg."

• Remember in late February, when people were wondering whether Elliott had lost his edge after missing a month with a leg injury and looking downright miserable in two losses at Minnesota State Mankato? Don't look now, but Elliott – the greatest Wisconsin goalie from Newmarket, Ontario, since Curtis Joseph – has posted three straight shutouts, the first Badger backstop to accomplish that feat. He'll enter the Frozen Four with a shutout streak of 241:36. Elliott was quick to credit his teammates for their role in the run, as he should. Wisconsin's shot-blocking and ability to quickly clear rebounds and limit opponents to one chance played a huge part in the win over Cornell.

"'Organ donor'...'Organ donating' is what we call it in the locker room," Elliott said, struggling to spit out the term 'organ donation'.

"Well, I'm obviously not the one saying it," Elliott added, drawing a roar from the media members assembled for the post-game press conference.

 

Adam Burish could bring the family a second national title in two weeks. (Photo by Larry Radloff)

• With Sunday's game taking place in Green Bay, it's no surprise that the weekend's loudest cheers were reserved for Wisconsin, the regional's de facto home team. But one of the most enthusiastic ovations came when public address announcer Mitch Lake relayed the news that the Badgers defeated Minnesota to win the school's first NCAA women's hockey title. Adam Burish's sister, Nikki, is a member of the Badgers' women's team.

"Once coach got done addressing us, I called my sister right away," said Burish. "My dad said, 'You can't let your sister win a national championship and not win one yourself.'"

• One of the best sights of the entire weekend was that of a young Badger fan, no more than 3-years old, on the Resch Center concourse. Like most Wisconsin supporters, he was wearing a red shirt and jeans, but what set him apart was the pair of shiny black hockey gloves he had on his hands.

• When two red-and-white clad institutions face each other, picking out fans wearing other sweaters becomes easy. Among the notables spotted at the Resch Center Sunday were a pair of Original Six no. 7's – a Blackhawks Chris Chelios jersey and a Red Wings Ted Lindsay sweater. Hats off, too, to the individuals wearing jerseys representing the Minnesota North Stars, the Ontario Hockey League's Ottawa 67's and the Fort Wayne Komets, a former member of the defunct IHL and now part of the United Hockey League. The best sweater, however, belonged to the fan seated behind the Badger penalty box who was clad in a Michigan Tech jersey featuring the name and number of former Husky and current Vancouver Canuck pest Jarkko Ruutu.

PLUSSES AND MINUSES

It should come as no surprise to anyone who's been around college hockey for any period of time, but Michigan Tech did a terrific job of hosting the Midwest Regional. If there were any snafus at the Resch Center, they were undetectable.

The rest of the ECACHL will be pleased to learn that Wisconsin fired the first salvo at the notoriously chirpy Cornell fans midway through the first period when the Badger fans seated near the Big Red students taunted them with a loud "HAR-vard REE-jects!!!" CLAP-CLAP-clap-clap-clap cheer.

Ice conditions at the Resch Center were less than perfect, to put it nicely. Teams reported that the playing surface was extremely chippy following Friday's practice, but was better for yesterday's games – the Badgers' Adam Burish compared it to outdoor ice. For the final, the sheet was soft and looked more like a sno-cone as the game progressed, and a number of guys lost their edges. Bouncing pucks were also a problem.

Let's see...Cornell and Wisconsin have two of college hockey's most energetic fan bases and best bands. So how did fans in the Resch Center spend the first intermission? Why, sitting in silence for 10 of the 15 minutes as they were treated to a third helping of a video spotlighting this year's Hobey Baker Award candidates and two NCAA public service announcements. Do we complain about this every year? Yes. Will we ever stop? Probably not, because the vibrancy and passion of a college hockey crowd is one of the reasons coming to the rink is so much fun.

WHAT'S NEXT

Wisconsin will head down the road to Milwaukee as a solid favorite entering the Frozen Four. The Badgers earned that status in part because of proximity, but mostly due to their overall strength – they are the only No. 1 seed to advance to the semifinals.

Once there, they will meet another traditional power in Maine that resembles the Badgers in many ways. Both teams have had success thanks to winning battles for the puck in all areas of the ice, timely goals from some high-end snipers and outstanding goaltending.

Cornell, meanwhile, heads into the offseason facing the graduation of captain Matt Moulson and, it seems likely, the departure of goaltender Dave McKee to the pros. On a team that isn’t built around star power, however, you would expect that Mike Schafer would keep the Big Red among the ECACHL’s elite even without those two.