Men's hockey: "A test of our heart"

Badgers survive grueling triple-overtime affair to earn a trip to the Frozen Four

ASHWAUBENON, Wis. — Wisconsin's players refer to it as "organ donating." That all-out, body-sacrificing defense that led to a shutout in the NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional was on extended display in Sunday night's 1-0 triple-overtime thriller over Cornell.

Robbie Earl was donating on both ends of the ice. The junior forward had begun to cramp up so bad that he needed to crawl along the boards to his bench to literally get lifted up and carried to safety. Earl donated his legs, be they appendages and not organs.

He still went back on the ice after that, in equal pain each time he wrapped up a short burst of a shift. There were times when he did not think he would be able to go, but he was massaged, stretched, hydrated, and sent back into the second-longest game in the history of the tournament.

"That was the longest game that I can remember," said senior Adam Burish, of any contest he has been involved in. "You look over on the bench and guys are just dragging, and Robbie can't even get off the ice. Guys are picking him off the ice every shift.

"It makes it that much sweeter. It makes it that much more special for all the guys."

The Badgers were certainly in good spirits, loosening up more and more as the overtimes dragged on. Guys were making jokes in the locker room and teasing each other. Head coach Mike Eaves was trying to remind them of some other classic overtime playoff games in hockey history, with the hope that they might learn something. Players were laughing on the bench while the puck was in play. But all that still does not mean that 111 minutes and 13 seconds of hockey fails to take its toll on a player.

"It's tough," senior forward Nick Licari said. "It's going to come. Fatigue is going to happen. Your legs are burning."

In Earl's case, he said he owed it to both himself and his teammates to be out there. "You only get this chance once," he said, referring to the Badgers now stamped ticket to the Frozen Four just a couple of hours down the highway—at Milwaukee's Brady Center—from their regional victory at the Resch Center. "I wanted to be a champion," he added.

"The guys fed off that." The entire game had been a stalemate. Wisconsin had the puck in Cornell's end more often and outshot them 60-40, but both goaltenders swapped season-preserving save after season-preserving save. Each side had its scoring chances, but the Badgers stayed patient and played wonderfully sound defense in not allowing the Big Red to get an odd-man rush or many open looks at the net. By the time a broken play and a perfect pass by Josh Engel set up the biggest goal of freshman Jack Skille's career, those bodies had to be getting as fundamentally tired as they were sound.

Both Skille and the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, Brian Elliott, stressed the Badgers' conditioning from day one as a credit to their success Sunday night. Burish said that Eaves was reliving some of the players' more arduous workouts from all the way back in his freshman year. And while Burish said they had a good laugh over it and joked about Eaves being crazy, it showed that championship-caliber teams certainly do not just become that way by their work during the regular season but in their preparation for it. Both teams did a good job of keeping up the intensity and coming out after each intermission with a bounce in their step.

"After that third period, it was a stalemate," senior defenseman Tom Gilbert said. "There were a couple of opportunities on both sides. You knew that from here on out people were going to be tiring, there were going to be less opportunities. Fortunately for us, we just kept pushing."

Burish compared the game to an informal contest the Badgers do at the beginning of the season in which they set the treadmill to 10 miles per hour at a 10 percent incline. They keep running until they can physically go no more and have no choice but stop. "Who's going to get tired first?" he asked rhetorically. "Who's going to get off that treadmill?"

Cornell did not exactly jump off the treadmill as much as the Badgers made sure to stay on it. Big Red senior captain Matt Maulson said that fatigue did not necessarily set in, despite the broken down play once the 4-on-4 opportunity arose. "I thought our guys had a lot of jump in the third overtime," he said.

But the bananas and Gatorade between sets were not enough for Cornell. The Big Red were only one shot on the opposite side from what the Badger players now consider the apex of their hockey careers to-date. Both teams left it out on the ice, as Big Red coach Mike Schafer said following the game that his players should have no regrets about the way they played.

Wisconsin will certainly not look back on Sunday with anything but joy and amazement at playing in a game that Eaves said people will be talking about for a long time.

"It just gets to the point where it's just kind of like ‘is this ever going to end'?" Licari smiled. "And you just get caught in the moment, and you just really enjoy it and you realize it's a classic — an instant classic kind of thing. So it was definitely draining, and we pulled together as a unit of 20 and got it done."

With everything on the line, the entire team from first line to fourth certainly gave all they had for what Burish will remember as almost two full games in one. Whatever the Badgers were donating, it was enough to propel them to their first Frozen Four since 1992. Maybe it was organs after all.

"You can't even explain it," Licari said. "It was just a test of our heart."

Matt Lewis, a frequent contributor to Badger Nation, is the editor of creative sportswriting site TheHeptagon.com.


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