Tuesday, April 11, 2006

These Badger Fans Are Crazy

My Day At The Frozen Finals

In case you can't read the bottom:
3) Phil Kessel (Minnesota) at home watching on TV!!!!
Priceless!

If there is a better college sport to watch than college hockey, I haven't found it. Yes, football is fun, basketball makes your heart beat a little faster, and women's gymnastics is, well, women's gymnastics (special thanks to Doug at Hey Jenny Slater for opening my eyes to the glory of the Gym Dawgs). But for an in game experience, nothing tops college hockey. So, this past weekend perhaps by providence, I headed up to Milwaukee, camera in hand for a day of Brewers baseball and an evening of College Hockey.

This year I was lucky enough to have my one of my old buddies call me up and say "I've got your ticket for the hockey finals in Milwaukee." No "Hey" or "How's it going?". And frankly its all he had to say. Marshall's a pro and college hockey database with legs. Back in the day we used to head over to the Michigan hockey games to scream things we'd never say anywhere other than Yost. It seemed to carry over. So, during that short phone call a month ago I knew this would be a good time.

Even though Michigan laid an egg in the first round, I have to admit I was still pretty excited about the match up in the finals. Wisconsin, consensus #1 in the land, against my sister-in-law's Boston College Eagles, the team I had the pleasure of seeing earlier this year in Boston. The perfect system played by a system team versus raw skill and speed. On top of that, it was going to be played in front of 20,000 rabid Wisconsin fans in Milwaukee.

In case you haven't gathered by the photo at the header, Wisconsin fans don't like anyone playing their team. However, they really don't like Minnesota. At all. Its not the "ha ha, you go to State" kind of half-ass-we-really-don't-care-about-you ribbing we give the Spartans. No. This is flat out I will punch you in the ovaries hate. Just look at the header. That kid couldn't have been more than 12. They start 'em young. Hating the Gophers is almost as much of a pastime in Wisconsin as drinking beer and making cheese.

Need proof? While heading out the door on Saturday morning I put on the my Boston College Hockey t-shirt, and then threw on my big-ass, white Michigan Block M hockey jersey. Marshall showed up in his blue version of the same jersey. Several of the Badger faithful took some umbrage to our attire. Our response was simple, "Gophers suck." Then we were one with Badger Nation. By simply saying those words, all was forgiven in their eyes, because we, at least on a surface level, shared one of their passions.

Another passion is wearing candy-stripe red and white overalls. I can't explain this.
And to think my wife questioned my attire when I went to the game in a Michigan jersey.

After 3 hours of Brewer Baseball at beautiful Miller Park, we headed to downtown Milwaukee to meet up with some friends who happened to be Badger fans. Both did undergrad at UW. And both were dressed in Badger red. Thankfully, they were not dressed like the King, above.

The bar we met at was packed. (With dudes. The only women there were the servers and bartenders. If there is a fault with following college hockey, it is that women do not care about it.) However, much to our surprise, the Hobey Baker award was present and on display at the bar.

While we were pretty excited to see it, the good people of Wisconsin realizing the Hobey was not staying in state, constructed another trophy to hand out which was much, much better.

I'll say this for the Cheeseheads, they love their Red Bull and vodkas.

After a couple of beers, we headed over to the Bradley Center for the 6 pm puck drop. Ticket in hand, I happily marched through the gates. Again, it was a sea of red. While I'm sure there were Eagles fans in attendance, they were hard to spot.

Our seats couldn't have been better. Even though we were in the 400 level, the sight lines were perfect and we sat just to the right of the Wisconsin goal line. Both bands were playing. It was kind of a Hockeyaplooza. As you looked around you could see jerseys of teams who didn't quite make it. We had seven North Dakota fans sitting directly behind us. Further up there were a handful of Minnesota fans. Across the aisle were a really nice elderly couple in Michigan garb. Jerseys and all.

That's the thing about going to college hockey. If you're there for the finals, chances are you're a real hockey fan. It's not like the basketball or football championships, where the only pre-requisites to get in is a checkbook and a tie. No. To be at these games you had to a fan of the sport. That's one of the things that makes it special.

The game itself was great. Halfway through the first BC scored on what can only be described as the ultimate grinder play. Dan Betram of BC came from out of nowhere to beat two UW defenders to the puck on the right side of the boards, flung it out in front of the net past another Badger defenseman, to find a covered Pat Gannon who chipped a wobbling puck backhander past Wisconsin Goalie Brian Elliot. Elliot was outstanding the entire night, and it took a perfect/lucky shot to beat him. 1-0 BC.

Even though they trailed, Wisconsin controlled the tempo of the game. Every time BC looked to run, Wisconsin stepped up, stripped the puck and took it the other way. Most of the First Period was played in the Eagles end, with Wisconsin out shooting BC 17-9.

BC came out stronger in Second, but to no avail. Wisconsin did an excellent job of limiting BC's scoring chances and kept most of the Eagles' shots and traffic to the outside. Elliot was only forced to make one or two tough saves the entire period. One thing I never gave UW enough credit for was their speed. It really surprised me. I was sure that BC's young legs would cause problems for the Badgers. Nope. The Badger defense stayed stride for stride will BC's lead sniper Chris Collins. They played near flawless defense (minus their first period let up).

To BC's credit, their defense was just as good. Most of the Badger's chances were from the outside. While Cory Schneider was forced to make a few more saves and face a few more legit scoring chances, its wasn't really until the third period that the Badger's onslaut really got to them. Much like BC's first goal, the Badgers jumped onto the scored board with a flat out hustle play. Robbie Earl after getting absolutely flattened at center ice, got up in obvious pain, trailed a two-on-two into the Eagle's end, and snuck around the BC defense to take a perfect pass Adam Burish and deposit it and himself into the back of the BC net. The goal seemed to wake BC, as they controlled the physical aspect of the period. Several huge hits on Badger forwards and the occasional running of a defenseman put the Badgers on notice BC would not go down quietly.

Even so, the fact that BC concentrated on the physical game more than their fun-and-gun attack, showed us that UW had successfully dictated the style of play and taken BC out of its game plan.

After the Second Period I decided to take a look around the arena. One of the great things about the finals are the banners they hang to mark the event. One of them was Michigan's.

Sweet.

Happy in the knowledge that North Dokota still needed two titles to equal Michigan, and that even with a victory Wisconsin needed three more to equal us, I returned to my seat for the final period.

From the start Wisconsin controlled the third period. They dumped and chased. They pounded on BC's defenseman. They crashed the net. BC looked as though it was lost. Finally, BC was forced to haul down one of the Badger forwards in front of the net, and Wisconsin went on the power play. Up until this point both power plays had been inept. In fact the Badgers had better chances on the kill than up a man. The same could be said of BC. Both kills had looked good till that point. Then in a moment of BC confusion, the Badgers pounced. Sneaking in from the point, Defenseman Tom Gilbert took great pass from Joe Pavelski, skated in between the hash marks and beat Schneider low stickside to give UW the lead.

On the goal it was obvious that BC's forwards failed to communicate on their coverage and blew an assignment. It was weird. That powerplay was the first time BC had decided to press the Badgers on the kill. BC's forwards were over-aggressive on the boards toward the lower end of the faceoff circles. They were caught deep, out of position, and it ended up costing them.

After the Badger's goal, there were only 9 minutes left in the period and BC still couldn't get anything going. It's important to point out the the Eagles played 7 freshman. Four of whom logged significant ice time as defensemen. And as it came down to crunch time you could tell. Passes weren't as crisp or on target. Then with less than four minutes left, BC took a boarding call. You could see the wind leave the sails. Even so, they hung tough, killing off the penalty with under 2 to go.

What followed could only be described as a mad scramble. BC spent those two minutes trying to gain the zone. In it would go, then out again. Then with four seconds left desperately churning on the boards the puck sailed out to one of BC's freshman defensemen, pressing on the left side of the boards, who flung it desperately on net.

As the puck left his stick there were two ticks left on the clock. The Badger fans were already beginning to celebrate because nothing was going BC's way. Somehow the puck made it through the traffic. It sailed low and fast and on target. It beat Elliot who appeared to be screened cleanly.

It didn't beat the right post. A millimeter or two to the left, the puck bounces off the post and into the net. With about 1.4 seconds left on the clock the puck slammed off the post and rebounded straight out into the crowd of players in front. None of the BC players parked in front even saw it lying there. Then the horn sounded and Wisconsin had won the championship.

A great game. A great day.

More tomorrow.

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