March 24, 2006
NCAA Tournament

Midwest Regional Preview | Green Bay, Wis.

 NCAA
MIDWEST REGIONAL PREVIEW

Adam Burish and Wisconsin seek the school's first Frozen Four appearance in 14 years.

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NCAA MIDWEST REGIONAL
Resch Center
Saturday, March 25

2:30 ET: No. 1 Wisconsin vs. No. 4 Bemidji State

5:30 p.m. ET: No. 2 Cornell vs. No. 3 Colorado College

Sunday, March 26

5 p.m. ET: Regional Final

By Mike Eidelbes

HOT TOPIC

In the 30 NCAA Tournaments since the field expanded beyond its original four-team format, no school has ever won the national championship without crossing state lines. Wisconsin, the top overall seed in this year’s field, could change that. Two wins at the Midwest Regional in Green Bay this weekend and two more in Milwaukee, and Bucky’s Victory Tour ends with a parade down State Street in Madison in front of thousands of their closest friends.

History makes one wonder if it can happen, however. No, not the nugget mentioned above. I’m talking about the Badgers’ recent history, the one in which they’ve more or less folded in big games like a miser at a no-limit poker table.

The good news for Wisconsin is that the Midwest Regional’s other three teams have issues of their own. Not we-can’t-kill-penalties issues. More like time-to-visit-Dr.-Jennifer-Melfi issues. Second-seed Cornell has been average down the stretch – the Big Red is 5-4-1 in its last 10 games, a span that culminated with a 6-2 implosion against Harvard in last weekend’s ECACHL championship game in which goalie David McKee’s save percentage (.760) resembled Manny Ramirez’s fielding percentage. Then there’s Colorado College, 7-8-1 since Jan. 1 and a group that’s been in the collective fetal position since Wisconsin slapped them, 9-1, in Colorado Springs two months ago.

That leaves Bemidji State, whose issue is…well, we’re not sure what it is. The Beavers, who gave eventual champion Denver all it could handle in an NCAA first-round match last season, have won four in a row and six of their last eight and posted a 4-2-0 mark against WCHA opponents Minnesota Duluth, Minnesota State Mankato and North Dakota (the Badgers were 5-4-0 against those teams). Despite all that, few will give them a chance to win. Maybe the CHA champs have an inferiority complex.

So it’s one big dysfunctional regional in Green Bay. Someone will overcome its neuroses to advance to the Frozen Four.

BACK STORY

The last time Wisconsin visited Green Bay was in mid-February, when the Badgers were in the throes of a 1-5-0 stretch that coincided with a Brian Elliott leg injury that kept the Hobey Baker Award candidate out of the lineup for nearly a month. When they left town after beating Ohio State, 4-2, in front of 40,000 fans at Lambeau Field, the team appeared refreshed, rejuvenated and refocused on the task ahead. Indeed, other than a lost weekend in Mankato in late February, Wisconsin got off the schneid. And Elliott got his groove back – in his last six starts, he’s 5-1-0 with three shutouts. The lone loss was a 4-3 decision against North Dakota at last weekend’s WCHA Final Five.

While You're There

Visiting Green Bay and not taking a trip to Lambeau Field would be like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. Besides, it's right next to the Resch Center, so you don't really have an excuse. The facility was renovated a couple years ago, and among the additions was a beautiful atrium that houses the team's pro shop, a full-service restaurant (Curly's Pub) and the Packer Hall of Fame.

If you're up for a ridiculously good meal and don't mind overseeing the process yourself, head to the Prime Quarter, which is not far from the rink, either. Make your steak or seafood selection, then toss it on one of the Prime's giant hickory grills. Hockey and grilling meat – how could your day get any better?

How 'bout a cold beverage? The 50 Yard Line, which is also in the general vicinity of Lambeau/Resch, comes highly recommended by INCH senior writer and connoisseur of the finer things in life, Joe Gladziszewski. Hey, if Gladdy gives it a thumbs up, it's worth the trip.

ON A ROLL

Perhaps the guy with the most mojo heading into the weekend is Ryan Miller. No, not that Ryan Miller. The Ryan Miller referred to in this space is the Bemidji State forward who raised his offensive output right around the time the Beavers won six of their last eight games and stormed past Alabama-Huntsville and Niagara en route to the CHA tournament championship and the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament that goes along with it. Over the last eight matches, the 5-foot-8, 180-pound junior has six goals and five assists, boosting his overall production to 29 points and a team-high 17 goals. The Beavers need lamp-lighters like Miller at the top of their games – despite a balanced offensive attack in which 10 players have 20 or more points, only four skaters have reached double figures in goals

MR. CLUTCH

That’s Messrs. Clutch to you. Wisconsin’s top forward line of junior Robbie Earl, sophomore Joe Pavelski and senior Adam Burish has shouldered the bulk of the Badgers’ scoring load – nearly 40 percent of the team’s goals, for example – this season. What’s more, they’ve combined for exactly half of Bucky’s 26 game-winning goals, which shouldn’t come as a shock because a) when Wisconsin needs to make something happen, coach Mike Eaves rolls out that trio and b) the Badgers consistently find themselves in close games (three ties, 10 one-goal games and four two-goal games in which the final margin of victory was reached with an empty net goal).

It’s a line that thrives because of the uniqueness of each of its members. Pavelski, the centerman, is a playmaker who can also put the puck in the net. On the left wing, Earl is the flashiest of the three, capable of rink-long rushes and jaw-dropping dekes. Then there’s Burish, the team captain and a gritty, hard-nosed grinder on the right.

SOMETHING TO PROVE

Cornell goaltender Dave McKee insists that he’s fine. Statistics, however, would indicate otherwise. McKee, one of three finalists for the 2005 Hobey Baker Award, was 27-5-3 with a 1.24 goals against average and a .947 save percentage last season. This year, he’s 21-8-4 with a 2.16 GAA and a .904 save percentage, which ranks 48th out of 75 NCAA goaltenders eligible to be included in the national statistical ratings.

McKee’s shortcomings have been evident for most of the season. He gets into trouble when he loses sight of the puck, as he did against Harvard in the ECACHL championship game last weekend, and even when he makes saves, sometimes he's slow to react to rebounds. It's also important that he stays in the net; puck-handling isn't his strongest attribute.

ONE TO WATCH

Despite Colorado College’s struggles during the second half of the season, any team featuring the reigning Hobey Baker Award winner and one of three finalists for the honor last year has to be considered a threat to advance. But Marty Sertich and Brett Sterling can’t do it all themselves. Joey Crabb has had a terrific year (18 goals, 43 points) and blueliner Brian Salcido is a power-play demon, but the emergence of freshman center Chad Rau is a godsend for a team seeking offensive balance.

With 14 points (six goals, eight assists) over the last two months, Rau gives coach Scott Owens a multitude of options with his lines. The Eden Prairie, Minn., product, who primarily centers a line with wingers Jimmy Kilpatrick and James Brannigan, allows Owens to keep Sertich and Sterling together and Crabb, who does the bulk of his damage on the power play, anchors a line that usually features Trevor Frischmon at center.

SUNDAY STORYLINE

Perhaps more than any of the other three regionals, the Midwest appears to be Wisconsin's to lose, so long as they can give up their penchant for playing underwhelming hockey in big games. Whether that trend is due to the Badgers' inexperience in do-or-die situations or a reaction to Eaves' intensity, this regional appears to be tailor-made for the no. 1 seed to finally get over the hump.