Wisconsin has five seniors. And each one of them played a role in 51:13 of sudden death hockey, following the standard hour of regulation play that could be their last as Badgers any time they take the ice. If there was any time to leave a legacy, this would be it.
This group of seniors has been through a lot. Frankly, most of it has been positive in a relative sense. They have appeared in the NCAA Tournament three years running, have finished in the top three of the competitive WCHA in each of those campaigns, and capped it off with a long run atop the polls as the nation's top team this season. But one wrong move and all of that might have temporarily served as little consolation to a group committed to reaching the pinnacle in its sport.
Faced with that ultimatum — score first or go home forever — different players went about responding in their own way.
Adam Burish is a team captain. He is expected to be one of the guys to speak up and tell everyone how it is. His first line is supposed to set the tone and is most likely to win the game. Of course he knew what happened two years before in an overtime game that could have landed the Badgers in the Frozen Four. "We let it slip away," he said. That could not happen again.
But at the same time the Badgers needed to keep things loose. It was a balance in demeanor and a lesson in clear-headedness for the UW team, from top on down.
"It was loose, and as you go you get more loose, but at the same time every now and again, one of the older guys would step in and say, ‘Hey, it's in this room. We're not giving it up,'" Burish said.
Joining his captain was the sturdy anchor of the remarkably stingy Wisconsin defense, assistant captain Tom Gilbert. Earning regional first-team honors following another successful weekend on the blue line, Gilbert and his fellow defensemen did not allow a single goal. A lot of that is credit to the goaltending of Brian Elliott, but at the same time, for the number of minutes the Badgers played, Elliott faced a somewhat low total of shots. That was a credit to the Badgers, who were "like sandpaper along the wall," Elliott said.
But despite getting singled out by the media voters as a member of the all-regional team, Gilbert, another commanding team leader, made sure to stress the effort of everyone. "All 20 guys," he said. "Our character is unbelievable."
That win-as-a-team, lose-as-a-team concept was certainly most evident in the play of the Badgers' fourth line, which features two more seniors in Nick Licari and A.J. Degenhardt. Burish called them the reason Wisconsin was able to win the game, obviously crediting the goal that won it as well. He thought they would be the ones to score it.
"Coach has confidence in putting us out there and we're playing well," Licari said. "It definitely helps."
It more than helped on Sunday — it was vital. With guys like Robbie Earl being lifted to safety after losing control of his legs, the Badgers needed anyone they could possibly get on the ice to perform, and perform at a high level. The so-called "energy line" played remarkably well, racking up big hit after big hit and keeping the team fresh when fresh was a description over four hours expired.
"I looked at Nick Licari and he had a tear in his eye," said Burish, following the game. Tears were not the only things Licari left on the ice, but the win gives him and his seniors yet another chance to do more.
Which brings us to Ryan MacMurchy. In the Badgers' opening round game on Saturday, MacMurchy was whistled for a five-minute major and a game misconduct at 11:13 of the first period. Forced to watch what could have been his final game as a Badger from the locker room, the senior winger removed his jersey and just stared at the television, hoping for the victory that ultimately led to another the following evening, 11:13 into that third overtime period.
It was the five-minute penalty kill that fired up the Badgers against Bemidji State and jumpstarted their 4-0 victory.
MacMurchy was available for the full duration of Sunday's thriller, and there was no way he or any of his teammates wanted to be watching any more rounds on television.
"Just to think that the drastics that change from a win to a loss, what that would have been, is so surreal," Licari said. "So, I think everybody is pretty happy."
Of course, on the other side, Cornell captain Matt Moulson showed a glimpse of what it was like to end one's collegiate career on the Jack Skille goal, rather than extend it. A teary-eyed Moulson provided some sense of perspective, that as much as both sides can treasure the triple-overtime performance Sunday with few regrets, the finish will ultimately sting a bit for the Big Red.
But the Badgers have little time to think of that right now. Sunday night was a time for celebration, before the rigor of practice and preparation once again begins. It started the second that puck found the back of the net.
"I think I was the last one off the bench, because I didn't know what to do," Burish said. "I was lost. I went out there and jumped on top of the guys."
Elliott, who captured MVP honors for the Midwest Regional, said that what he will remember is looking in the eyes of those seniors and witnessing their joy and excitement in extending their careers. Obviously a loss would have hurt any of the Badgers, but Elliott realizes it is different for the players who are not lacing up their skates at Wisconsin for the final time.
"Up to this point, this is the neatest moment of my hockey career," Burish said. "This is the neatest game I've ever been a part of and the most special feeling I've had with those guys.
"There's more out there though. I can imagine how much sweeter it can get."
It is important to note that at the height of his jubilation Burish did not say that he couldn't imagine anything sweeter. Couldn't is still two games away.
Matt Lewis, a frequent contributor to Badger Nation, is the editor of creative sportswriting site TheHeptagon.com.