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With Frozen Four in Milwaukee, it's good to be Badgers

March 30, 2006

By Jason Wilde

Special to CBS SportsLine.com




MILWAUKEE -- No, Maine won't have the home-ice advantage that top-seeded Wisconsin will enjoy April 6 at the NCAA Frozen Four.


The Black Bears' road trip will be considerably longer than the Badgers' 78-mile bus ride down Interstate 94. Maine won't know the downtown Milwaukee hotspots, or that Major Goolsby's has the best burger and fries around.



Big-picture view: Badgers (in white) will be tough when the Frozen Four comes to Milwaukee. (AP)

When the Bears look up into the Bradley Center stands, they'll find their fans clad in their light blue and navy -- but engulfed in a sea of cardinal-and-white Wisconsin supporters.


But don't think for a moment that the Black Bears (28-11-2) won't be ready when they face the Badgers (28-10-3) in the national semifinals, with a title-game berth against either Boston College (25-12-3) or North Dakota (29-15-1) on the line.


Maine won its first NCAA title right here in 1993, when the Frozen Four made its debut and the Paul Kariya-led Black Bears capped one of the most dominating seasons in college hockey history (42-1-2). Maine also knows Wisconsin well, having beaten UW in the NCAA quarterfinals two years ago.


But most important: Maine has played NCAA Tournament opponents in their own backyards each of the past five postseasons, facing distinct road disadvantages against Minnesota, Michigan, Boston University and Minnesota again in the last four tourneys.


"We're very used to it. This is the fifth straight year," said Black Bears coach Tim Whitehead, whose team advanced to its third Frozen Four in five years by beating Michigan State 5-4 in Albany, N.Y. "Our guys won't be fazed by it. We understand it's going to be a very tough challenge for us. But it will be a great environment to play in.


"I'm sure it will be packed to the rafters. If we had met Cornell, we wouldn't have that type of atmosphere. This will guarantee a very special moment, and I hope we rise to the challenge."


It certainly will be a challenge, and not just because of the location. While Wisconsin could win the title without having to leave the state -- UW reached Milwaukee by beating Cornell 1-0 in an incredible triple-overtime thriller in Green Bay, two hours north of Milwaukee -- the Badgers' chances for a sixth NCAA title would be strong no matter where they were playing.


Why? Because they come in riding the tournament's hottest goaltender, junior Brian Elliott, who hasn't allowed a goal in a mind-bending 252 minutes, 49 seconds.



Who will win the Frozen Four?



North Dakota

Boston College




Elliott, a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, leads the nation in winning percentage (25-5-3, .803), goals-against average (1.55) and save percentage (.938). He has held opponents to two goals or fewer 27 times in 33 games this season.


After opening the season 18-2-2, Elliott missed eight games because of a left knee injury, then returned and struggled in games against Michigan Tech and Minnesota State-Mankato as UW was mired in a 3-7-1 stretch.


But in his last three games, Elliott has been astonishing. He blanked Minnesota 4-0 on March 18, then shut out Bemidji State 4-0 and Cornell 1-0 in the Midwest Region. It's the first time a UW goalie has posted three consecutive shutouts.


"It's pretty incredible what he's doing," UW left winger Nick Licari said of Elliott, who was named the region's Most Outstanding Player.


And while much is being made of Wisconsin's home-ice advantage, there is also a pressure that comes along with it -- not that UW coach Mike Eaves is concerned about how his players will handle it.


"They know the kind of raucous atmosphere they're in for," said Eaves, whose team is making its first Frozen Four appearance in 14 years. "They've faced it all year, so I don't think there's much preparation we need to do with them."


Meanwhile, although Boston College and North Dakota might seem to be fighting on the undercard, their semifinal figures to be more than just "the other game." They'll be meeting in the Frozen Four for the third time in the past six years.


The programs have a combined nine NCAA titles and met in the 2000 and 2001 championship games. North Dakota won its seventh title in 2000, while BC won its second in 2001.


Although BC coach Jerry York, whose team was ranked No. 1 in the nation in mid-January before a skid, admitted his team isn't as strong as in recent years, "it's a team that's playing very, very well now, and that makes us a little bit dangerous club going into the Frozen Four."


The Eagles and Black Bears will be looking to snap the dominance of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, which has won the last four national championships and had all four Frozen Four teams in last year's tournament.

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Guest irishrick

Boston College (25-12-3)


Chris Collins (Getty Images)

Coach: Jerry York


Road to Milwaukee: Won the Northeast Region, beating Miami of Ohio (5-0) and Boston University (5-0) in Worcester, Mass.


Scouting report: Cliché as it sounds, the Eagles are playing well at both ends of the ice and are riding a wave of momentum after drilling archrival BU, which won the Hockey East regular-season title and beat BC in the conference tournament. BC is 5-1 in its past six games and has allowed just seven goals during that span.


Senior forward Chris Collins, one of the three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, was the Hockey East player of the year with 31 goals and 30 assists in 40 games.



North Dakota (29-15-1)


Travis Zajac (Getty Images)

Coach: Dave Hakstol


Road to Milwaukee: Won the West Region, beating Michigan (5-1) and Holy Cross (5-2) in Grand Forks, N.D.


Scouting report: In late January, St. Cloud State swept the Sioux in Grand Forks, dropping them fell to 7-8 and into the bottom half of the WCHA standings. But since then, UND is 11-3 and has won a season-best six in a row, including a victory over Wisconsin in the WCHA Final Five semifinals and St. Cloud in the title game.


The last time the Frozen Four was in Milwaukee, in 1997, the Sioux won the national title. Nine years later, the threesome of Drew Stafford (24 goals, 23 assists, 47 points), T.J. Oshie (24-21-45 and Travis Zajac (17-27-44) have led the Sioux back.



Wisconsin (28-10-3)


Brian Elliott (AP)

Coach: Mike Eaves


Road to Milwaukee: Won the Midwest Region, beating Bemidji State (4-0) and Cornell (1-0 in triple overtime) in Green Bay, Wis.


Scouting report: The No. 1 overall seed in the tournament and the only top seed to make it through its region, the Badgers have been awesome in their past eight games after a midseason swoon. Their only loss in that span was a 4-3 defeat at the hands of the Sioux in the WCHA Tournament, and goaltender Brian Elliott has five shutouts among the other seven games. Offensively, sophomore Joe Pavelski (23 goals, 30 assists, 53 points) and Robbie Earl (21-25-46) have led the way.



Maine (28-11-2)


Ben Bishop (AP)

Coach: Tim Whitehead


Road to Milwaukee: Won the East Region, beating Harvard (6-1) and Michigan State (5-4) in Albany, N.Y.


Scouting report: The Black Bears are led by right winger Greg Moore (28 goals, 16 assists, 44 points), who Whitehead credits for leading the team's turnaround after it fell to 7-7 in Hockey East play and 14-9 overall on Jan. 20.


"At that point, it looked like it might be slipping away, and we just kept chipping away one week at a time," Whitehead said. "Before you know it, we were on a real good run down the stretch."


Since then, Maine is 14-2-2, with one of those losses coming to Boston College. Just as Wisconsin has ridden Elliott, the Black Bears have benefited from the emergence of freshman goaltender Ben Bishop, who is 21-7-2 with a 2.22 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage.




Before the event was moved to the Kohl Center in Madison three years ago, Wisconsin played host to an annual post-Christmas holiday tournament at the Bradley Center called the Badger Hockey Showdown. Only a handful of players who've played in Milwaukee remain on the roster, but the home-ice advantage has little to do with the ice itself. Instead, it's the red-and-white faithful who will make the difference.


The "home" team -- with the hot goaltender -- is the safe bet in what we predict will be an all-WCHA final. Wisconsin 4, North Dakota 2.

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