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Michael Farber
April 17, 2006
Behind the play of its dominating goalie--and in front of a raucous Milwaukee crowd--Wisconsin edged Boston College for the NCAA championship
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April 17, 2006

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Behind the play of its dominating goalie--and in front of a raucous Milwaukee crowd--Wisconsin edged Boston College for the NCAA championship

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Wisconsin goalie Brian Elliott could not hear the puck strike the post as his team clung to a one-goal lead with a second and a half left in the NCAA championship final. But having mastered the mathematical discipline of Badgers goaltending, which covers more angles than Euclid did, Elliott knew he had the short side of his net blanketed. Even if he couldn't thrust his left pad far enough to reach Boston College defenseman Peter Harrold's desperation shot through a thicket of players, Elliott reasoned, there was a strong probability that the puck would hit the far post. Clank. "The posts are your best friends," Elliott said later, trotting out the hoariest clich� to match the hairiest clich�: the playoff beards that the Badgers had grown. Elliott was correct, of course, but he was fortunate to have more than 17,000 other best friends at the raucous Bradley Center in Milwaukee as Wisconsin won its sixth NCAA hockey title, 2--1, by the hair of its chinny chin chin.

The Badgers did not need the home ice advantage; they probably would have defeated BC if they had played on a pond in Murmansk. But their winning margin was surprisingly slim considering their superb squad, their light travel requirements and the most vocal fans in college hockey--a perfect storm that might have overwhelmed the 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 versus the Cheesehead Universe. Among the coterie of Eagles fans amid the sea of joyously chanting Badgers faithful, someone held a sign that read, GO HOME, WISCONSIN. Maybe Boston College was in over its head (and when your energy line is centered by 5'4" freshman Nathan Gerbe, you're in over your head a lot).

While a 35-vehicle escort met the team bus about 20 miles from Madison late Saturday night to help celebrate, the Badgers did not seem like people who would paint their town even redder. They are more earth-tone guys, all taupe and lustrous oak. BC coach Jerry York praised Wisconsin as "very thorough," an apt phrase for a relentless team that rolled four lines and forechecked with conviction. The Badgers pounded the Eagles, forcing them into 10 penalties and a dependence on goalie Cory Schneider, the Team USA netminder in the world juniors, who kept BC competitive with 37 saves, including 14 on power plays. Boston College, which can dazzle with its skill in transition, was bullied, not surprising since it's the youngest team in NCAA hockey and surely the smallest. The Eagles officially averaged 5'10" and iced only five skaters who were 6 feet or taller. Take away 6'7" center Brian Boyle and factor in the seven freshmen in the BC lineup, and you had a squad that might have had trouble getting on all the rides at Disney World.

Ultimately Team Lilliput could not find a way past the Badgers' preternaturally poised gatekeeper, Elliott, a Hobey Baker finalist and the leading goaltender in college hockey. The studious junior from Newmarket, Ont., a ninth-round draft choice of the Ottawa Senators in 2003, stopped 266 of 275 shots in his final 10 games, which included a scoreless stretch of nearly 270 minutes and the triple overtime shutout against Cornell that put the Badgers in the Frozen Four. "He's chill," said left winger Ross Carlson. "He's really a level-headed guy for how good he is."

The only time Elliott's teammates recall his going off the deep end was at Halloween, when he joined the revelers on State Street in Madison dressed in a snorkeling mask and flippers. Usually Elliott is deep into his books (he's a business major with a 3.13 GPA) or deep into his crease, which is where Bill Howard wants him.

Howard, a contrarian, has been the Badgers' goalies coach for 35 years. He has no patience for the butterfly style--he disdainfully refers to it as "the V"--or for goaltenders who flop too much. He wants his goalies not to square themselves to the shooter but to play parallel to the goal line and make saves with one knee down, which, Howard says, results in wider deflections and thus superior rebound control.

The 6'3", 187-pound Elliott has proved to be a willing student, revising the geometry of his game, resisting the temptation to challenge shooters, slowing down. He was efficient in the Badgers' 5--2 win over Maine in the semis, getting hit only by pucks he couldn't see. Against the Eagles, the one goal Elliott let through was a spectacular backhander by fourth-liner Pat Gannon that zoomed over the goalie's glove midway through the first period to give Boston College a 1--0 lead.

But the Badgers wouldn't cede control. Tournament MVP Robbie Earl tied the score in the second period, gathering himself after a big open-ice hit, taking two strides to the bench and then changing his mind and rocketing to the net, where he converted a pass from Adam Burish. Then midway through the third period defenseman Tom Gilbert slipped into the high slot and fired a shot for the winner. In the stands anxiety gave way to sheer tumult.

Ah, the American college hockey championship. As the Badgers might say, Don't leave home without it.

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