Haven’t we been here before?
That might be what the Maine hockey team will be thinking tonight as they take on Wisconsin in the semifinals of the Frozen Four at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee.
The Black Bears also hope to use it to their advantage.
Maine not only plays in the Frozen Four for the second time in three years, but will also be doing it in hostile territory. None of that is anything new for the Black Bears.
“We know what that’s all about — playing an NCAA opponent in their home state,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “Guys know what they’re up against. They know what to expect. They also understand that we can be successful in that venue. We beat Boston College in Boston in 2004 in the Frozen Four.”
This will be the fifth straight year that Maine plays an NCAA game with a home-ice disadvantage. Last year, it was at Minnesota. The year before it was B.C. in Boston and Michigan in Michigan prior to that. So an arena full of Badger fans isn’t so daunting.
“We’re just going out there, us against the world — us against Wisconsin,” said senior forward Derek Damon. “They’re going to have a big crowd, but it’s something we’re going to have to use to our advantage and try to keep them quiet as long as we can.”
Wisconsin won its regional in Green Bay and now has the chance to win the National Championship in front of a local crowd.
It’s an opportunity not lost on the Badgers. Wisconsin hasn’t played a game at the Bradley Center, but expects the kind of following it had in Green Bay, and at Lambeau Field in an outdoor game with Ohio State that drew over 41,000. The Badgers also sold out their 15,237 Kohl Center several times.
“To say we’re excited would be an understatement,” said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves. “To go up and play in front of our huge crowd in Green Bay was very special for us, and the (overtime win over Cornell) was very special for us. We feel very fortunate that we’re able to play in Milwaukee.”
The Badgers are making their first Frozen Four appearance in 14 years. So the Black Bears have an edge in that kind of experience.
“That definitely helps,” said Whitehead. “Any experience you can gain in a national setting, particularly in the Frozen Four, is going to help you next time you’re there. It doesn’t guarantee you a win, but it’s going to guarantee you more of a comfort level.”
Wisconsin (28-10-3) is ranked first in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll and second in the US College Hockey online poll. Maine (28-11-2) is ranked fourth and 10th, respectively. The Badgers’ 1.85 goals against per game is the best in the nation.
“We’re playing well right now,” said Eaves. “We had a little dip in the middle of the season, but they’ve come back at the right time.”
The Badgers have balance up front with sophomore Joe Pavelski (23 goals and 30 assists), junior Robbie Earl (21-25) and seniors Tom Gilbert (11-19) and Adam Burish (8-21).
Brian Elliott has a 1.55 goals against in net and a .938 save percentage, both of which lead the nation. The Hobey Baker finalist has a record of 25-5-3.
“He’s been the backbone of this team,” said Eaves. “When you have a good solid hockey team, it always starts between the pipes. When we lost him for awhile, it hurt, but we’re back to where we were before he got hurt.”
Maine beat Wisconsin 2-1 in overtime in Albany in 2004.
“I think it’s going to be a lot like that regional game two years ago,” said Maine captain Greg Moore, who played for Eaves on the U.S. National Team Development Program’s Under-18 squad. “It was a close one-goal game. I think there will be a lot of defense played. It’s going to be a grind right to the finish.”
The Black Bears had success in their regional by being aggressive offensively, creating traffic in front of the goal and controlling the neutral zone. Maine’s defense did a fine job limiting what opponents could generate for chances and managed to get ahead early and dictate its style for much of the game.
“We know if we play like we did in Albany, we’re going to be in good shape no matter what,” said junior forward Josh Soares. “We know nothing is guaranteed at this point, but we know if we play the way we did in the regionals, we’re going to put up a great fight.”