Fortunately for the University of Wisconsin men's hockey team, it was Cornell that made the slip.
In what will go down as one of the greatest hockey games in NCAA history, freshman Jack Skille broke the scoreless tie at 11:13 of the third overtime to lift UW over Cornell 1-0 to win the Midwest Regional at the Resch Center here and qualify the Badgers for their first Frozen Four since 1992. The Badgers will face Maine on Thursday, April 6, at 6 p.m. Central.
It was also clear that if Wisconsin was going to advance to the national semifinals, one of its key role players would have to step up and make a play. Few would have guessed that player to be sophomore Josh Engel.
After stopping an initial UW shot, Cornell goalie David McKee cleared the puck along the left boards, where he thought one of his defensemen was positioned. Along the boards, however, was Badger blue-liner Engel, who intercepted the puck and found freshman Jack Skille breaking towards the net. Engel laid a perfect backhand to Skille, who beat McKee on the 100th shot of the game and ignited the Wisconsin celebration.
"It was a line change and I saw the puck being wrapped around [the goal]," Skille said. "I was driving toward that net and I called for the puck from Josh Engel and I guess he heard me and threw it right to where I was. I one-timed it and I was fortunate enough for it to go in."
"I just heard him last second and saw him," Engel said. "I wasn't really thinking and I just backhanded it to [Skille]. I wasn't going to go that way and then I decided to go that way last second and that's when I heard him. It was just relief [when that puck went in]. That game is going to go down in history."
At the beginning of the contest, the game played like a script for a National Lampoon movie that pitted the Midwestern jock against the Ivy League nerd, as the Badgers flustered Cornell with their hard-hitting style. Wisconsin dictated the play throughout the first period, constantly slamming Cornell players into the boards and winning the battles for loose pucks.
Even when Wisconsin went down a man at 6:24 in the first period, the Badgers never lost composure, controlling most of the two-minute penalty kill in the Cornell zone and not allowing the Big Red to get a shot off. Still, Wisconsin was unable to score in the opening session.
The second period proved to be just the opposite of the first with Wisconsin unable to do anything on the man advantage. Wisconsin went on the power play twice during the second period and only managed one shot on McKee. The period ended with Wisconsin losing whatever momentum it had going into the third.
Wisconsin's best scoring chances in the third came as the clock was winding down under two minutes. On the power play, Wisconsin threw seven shots at McKee in just more than 63 seconds. But McKee was able to maintain his poise and stonewalled Wisconsin as the two teams headed into the overtime parade.
The story of the game was the length of the contest — which lasted four hours and 40 minutes in real time and was the second longest game in NCAA tournament history — by way of the phenomenal play from the goaltenders on both sides. McKee has been an X-factor for the Big Red his whole career, ranking in the top five among the goaltenders in Cornell's 106-year history. It was tonight that McKee had one of the best performances for any goaltender in the tournament's history, stopping 59 shots before Skille scored the game winner.
However, the kudos from tonight went to Brian Elliott, who has been on a hot streak the likes of which the Wisconsin hockey program has never seen before. In stopping 40 shots, Elliott runs his scoreless streak to three games, the first time any UW netminder has recorded three straight shutouts in a season. For his play, Elliott was named the Midwest Regional's most valuable player. He has not allowed a goal in 252:18.
"[Tonight was a] head-to-head goalie exhibition that may never be matched again," head coach Mike Eaves said. "It's just one of the moments when Brian is playing well and the people in front of him are playing terrific. [They're] playing their part to cut down a number of scoring chances and doing their part on the offensive end as well. Very rare, but it's a good time of year to get those things going for you."
"That was a college hockey game that everyone in the building will talk about for a long time," Eaves added. "What was the last time you seen 100 shots in a hockey game and goaltending of that caliber? When you play in a game like this, the will is greater than skill. The will of both teams to win the game tonight was tremendous to watch."
Although pleased with his play, Elliott gives a lot of credit to his defensemen for putting themselves on the line for his benefit.
"The guys in front of me have been unreal lately," Elliott said. "They're blocking a ton of shots, or ‘organ donating' is what we call it in the locker room. Everybody is playing all-out and you can't say enough about the guys in front of you. … It was exciting and one of my favorite games I have played in."
Not only was it a special night for the Wisconsin team has a whole, it was a special night for the Badger seniors, especially for Adam Burish and his family. Just a few hours earlier, Adam's sister Nikki won her first national championship as the Wisconsin women beat Minnesota to climb to the top of that hockey mountain. For older brother Adam, it was a proud moment for him as a player and as a sibling.
"Once coach got done addressing us, I went and got my cell phone real quick and called my sister," Burish said. "I couldn't even hear she was yelling so loud. What a special day for us. One thing my dad said was that you can't let your sister win a national championship and you guys not do it. You'll never hear the end of that. I guess we have some work left to do."