Wisconsin goalieBrian Elliott could not hear the puck strike the post as his team clung to aone-goal lead with a second and a half left in the NCAA championship final. Buthaving mastered the mathematical discipline of Badgers goaltending, whichcovers more angles than Euclid did, Elliott knew he had the short side of hisnet blanketed. Even if he couldn't thrust his left pad far enough to reachBoston College defenseman Peter Harrold's desperation shot through a thicket ofplayers, Elliott reasoned, there was a strong probability that the puck wouldhit the far post. Clank. "The posts are your best friends," Elliottsaid later, trotting out the hoariest cliché to match the hairiest cliché: theplayoff beards that the Badgers had grown. Elliott was correct, of course, buthe was fortunate to have more than 17,000 other best friends at the raucousBradley Center in Milwaukee as Wisconsin won its sixth NCAA hockey title, 2--1,by the hair of its chinny chin chin.
The Badgers didnot need the home ice advantage; they probably would have defeated BC if theyhad played on a pond in Murmansk. But their winning margin was surprisinglyslim considering their superb squad, their light travel requirements and themost vocal fans in college hockey--a perfect storm that might have overwhelmedthe Eagles if they weren't the feistiest team in the country. In the regionals,Wisconsin had to journey a mere 135 miles from its Madison campus to Green Bay.For the Frozen Four, the Badgers' bus ride to downtown Milwaukee was 78 miles.College kids have driven that far for decent Chinese takeout.
Boston College,meanwhile, had to endure a 1,000-mile flight, and in the final it was BC versusthe Cheesehead Universe. Among the coterie of Eagles fans amid the sea ofjoyously chanting Badgers faithful, someone held a sign that read, GO HOME,WISCONSIN. Maybe Boston College was in over its head (and when your energy lineis centered by 5'4" freshman Nathan Gerbe, you're in over your head alot).
While a 35-vehicleescort met the team bus about 20 miles from Madison late Saturday night to helpcelebrate, the Badgers did not seem like people who would paint their town evenredder. They are more earth-tone guys, all taupe and lustrous oak. BC coachJerry York praised Wisconsin as "very thorough," an apt phrase for arelentless team that rolled four lines and forechecked with conviction. TheBadgers pounded the Eagles, forcing them into 10 penalties and a dependence ongoalie Cory Schneider, the Team USA netminder in the world juniors, who kept BCcompetitive with 37 saves, including 14 on power plays. Boston College, whichcan dazzle with its skill in transition, was bullied, not surprising since it'sthe youngest team in NCAA hockey and surely the smallest. The Eagles officiallyaveraged 5'10" and iced only five skaters who were 6 feet or taller. Takeaway 6'7" center Brian Boyle and factor in the seven freshmen in the BClineup, and you had a squad that might have had trouble getting on all therides at Disney World.
Ultimately TeamLilliput could not find a way past the Badgers' preternaturally poisedgatekeeper, Elliott, a Hobey Baker finalist and the leading goaltender incollege hockey. The studious junior from Newmarket, Ont., a ninth-round draftchoice of the Ottawa Senators in 2003, stopped 266 of 275 shots in his final 10games, which included a scoreless stretch of nearly 270 minutes and the tripleovertime shutout against Cornell that put the Badgers in the Frozen Four."He's chill," said left winger Ross Carlson. "He's really alevel-headed guy for how good he is."
The only timeElliott's teammates recall his going off the deep end was at Halloween, when hejoined the revelers on State Street in Madison dressed in a snorkeling mask andflippers. Usually Elliott is deep into his books (he's a business major with a3.13 GPA) or deep into his crease, which is where Bill Howard wants him.
Howard, acontrarian, has been the Badgers' goalies coach for 35 years. He has nopatience for the butterfly style--he disdainfully refers to it as "theV"--or for goaltenders who flop too much. He wants his goalies not tosquare themselves to the shooter but to play parallel to the goal line and makesaves with one knee down, which, Howard says, results in wider deflections andthus superior rebound control.
The 6'3",187-pound Elliott has proved to be a willing student, revising the geometry ofhis game, resisting the temptation to challenge shooters, slowing down. He wasefficient in the Badgers' 5--2 win over Maine in the semis, getting hit only bypucks he couldn't see. Against the Eagles, the one goal Elliott let through wasa spectacular backhander by fourth-liner Pat Gannon that zoomed over thegoalie's glove midway through the first period to give Boston College a 1--0lead.
But the Badgerswouldn't cede control. Tournament MVP Robbie Earl tied the score in the secondperiod, gathering himself after a big open-ice hit, taking two strides to thebench and then changing his mind and rocketing to the net, where he converted apass from Adam Burish. Then midway through the third period defenseman TomGilbert slipped into the high slot and fired a shot for the winner. In thestands anxiety gave way to sheer tumult.
Ah, the Americancollege hockey championship. As the Badgers might say, Don't leave home withoutit.
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