Midwest Regional Preview | Green Bay, Wis.
By Mike Eidelbes
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.