ALBANY, N.Y.—Wisconsin qualified for Saturday night's East Regional Final with top-seeded Maine by winning a battle of inches over No. 2 Ohio State Friday night. The Final, though, became the third-seeded Badgers' final game of the season as they missed the Frozen Four by mere inches, falling to the Black Bears 2-1 in one of the Badgers' best games all season.
Just like Friday it took overtime to decide a winner, but for the first time this season Wisconsin (22-13-8) was on the losing side of an overtime battle.
"They put their hearts on their sleeves and they wore them out there. They played to win," Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said of his players. "Isn't it a paradox of life that last night we were all smiles and tonight we are on the other end of the spectrum? But I think we can hold our heads high and move on."
Three minutes and 27 seconds into overtime Maine freshman Mike Hamilton scored the game-winning goal in a 2-1 victory that sends the Black Bears to Boston for a national semifinal April 8. Maine (32-7-3) will next face the winner of Northeast Regional Final, which pits Boston College against Michigan Sunday afternoon.
"It was another crazy one, but it was a good team effort and we are pleased to be going to the Fleet Center," Maine coach John Markell said.
Hamilton skated in and around Wisconsin freshman defenseman Ryan Suter to reach the crease area to the left of Badger junior goalie Bernd Bruckler's left side. Bruckler made the initial stop but the puck remained loose in the crease as multiple players on either side sped toward the goal. Video replay was inconclusive, but it appeared the puck straddled the line and then disappeared into the front corner of the net. The officials reviewed the play and Hamilton was credited with the goal. Sticks belonging to Maine sophomore forward Jon Jankus and Wisconsin senior defenseman Andy Wozniewski were in the vicinity and may have redirected the puck across the goal line.
"It was a broken play and I drove to the net and Jankus went to the net hard and we just chipped it in there to get it over the line," Hamilton said.
"I made the initial save and the rebound trickled to the right and just barely crossed the line," Bruckler said. "I saw the puck fine, it just took a funny bounce. It's one bounce that went their way."
One way or another, whether the puck just slid in or a streaking Jankus knocked Wozniewski into it, the puck crossed the line signaling the end to a great turnaround season for the Badgers.
"There were so many people down there I couldn't tell what happened," Wozniewski said.
"Going into overtime we thought we had a pretty good chance to win," Wisconsin senior defenseman Dan Boeser said. "It wasn't a very good goal that they scored either. It would have made it easier if they had scored on a clean, legit goal."
Wisconsin fell to 5-1-8 in overtime games this season.
After a 6-2 defeat at the hands of Maine in Wisconsin's second game of the season, the 2-1 overtime loss shows how far the team has come. Furthermore, the fact that the Badgers were down 1-0 less than two minutes into the game and battled back is a testament to the heart and will the team has put on display throughout the season.
"We gave ourselves a chance to win. It just didn't work out this time," Eaves said. "We were ten games under .500 last year, so it would have been reasonable to get back to .500, but then we finished 10 games above. As the season went along we forged ourselves into a good team and expectations changed and the reason that these young men are disappointed is because of that."
At 1:32 of the opening period, Maine senior forward Colin Shields ripped a shot from the right circle through Wisconsin freshman defenseman Matt Olinger's legs and over Bruckler's glove to give Maine the early 1-0 lead.
"I (saw) it really late and I'd like to have that one back, but I had to refocus," Bruckler said.
The two teams battled back and forth throughout the period and Wisconsin, obviously the more defensive of the two teams, held the Black Bears to just seven shots in the period.
Wisconsin almost tied the game 15 seconds into the second period when Adam Burish skated in all alone, but Maine sophomore goaltender Jimmy Howard made the save to preserve the Black Bears' lead.
The middle of the second period was marred by penalties, but neither team could capitalize on its power play opportunities.
With less than three minutes left in the second period, though, Rene Bourque pounced on a rebound to tie the game at 1-1.
Each team tallied 12 shots in the third period but could not solve the opposing netminder. The Badgers also killed off their 11th straight power play of the weekend in the final period of regulation.
Only 3:27 into a frenetic overtime, however, Hamilton sent Maine to the Frozen Four.
Suter smashed his stick on the ice in frustration after allowing Hamilton to get past him for the season-ending goal. He did not speak to the media after the game.
Bruckler could not believe what had happened. He made 26 saves Saturday night, 54 in two games at Pepsi Arena, and was named the East Regional's Most Outstanding Player, but that did not matter to him.
"It's an empty feeling right now," Bruckler said. "In our locker room there are heads hanging. (The award) doesn't mean much at this point,"
On the opposite end of the rink, Howard celebrated after bouncing back from Friday's performance, in which he gave up four goals.
"I'm so proud of Jimmy and the way he bounced back tonight," Markell said. "The difference was we protected him tonight."
Boeser remained on the ice until all of his teammates and coaches had left.
"It was my last college game," he said. "I was just trying to take everything in and stay out there as long as possible."
Bourque was down on one knee until he had to get up to shake hands. Wozniewski still had tears in his eyes 30 minutes after the game had ended. It was clear that the Badgers left everything they had on the Pepsi Arena ice this weekend.
"We battled our way through the overtime game (Friday) night and we battled our way to 1-1 and all the way to overtime against the best team in the country," Wozniewski said.
"We worked hard all season long all the way down to the final minute," Boeser said. "We were a goal away from going to the Frozen Four, what more could you ask for?"