Men's hockey: Self reflection

Wisconsin and Maine will match similar styles Thursday

MADISON — The University of Maine men's hockey team has employed a simple, effective formula to reach Thursday's Frozen Four matchup with top-ranked Wisconsin: skate hard and play smart, outworking your opponent in all three zones both mentally and physically. Add in excellent goaltending, and a championship-caliber team emerges.

This rudimentary description of the Black Bears (28-11-2) could also pass as an illustration of what has qualified the Badgers (28-10-3) for this week's trip to the Bradley Center in Milwaukee. The teams face off at 7 p.m. Thursday, two wins away from a national title.

"I think we're really similar teams actually," UW senior wing A.J. Degenhardt said. "I know they are good defensively like we are and they do have really good depth."

"They have four lines that they roll all game," Degenhardt said. "Just 1-2-3-4."

Badger coach Mike Eaves preaches "hard and smart" at a season's every turn. His team has adhered to that philosophy and its work ethic and depth—and All-American goalie Brian Elliott—have been its greatest assets.

Those attributes are evident in Maine as well. Eaves said that how hard the Black Bears play jumped out at him on video.

"That's at the very basis of all athletics is that when you play hard you give yourself a chance to win," Eaves said. "And if you don't play hard your chances of winning slip away."

The Black Bears, like the Badgers, roll four lines, and have received production up-and-down the lineup.

"I think it's going to be kind of playing like a mirror image again, kind of like Cornell was," Degenhardt said. UW qualified for the Frozen Four by winning the Midwest Regional two weekends ago in Ashwaubenon, surviving a triple-overtime battle of wills with Cornell, another team that matched its depth, grit and goaltending.

"We're just going to go out there with the same mentality and try to wear them down," Degenhardt said.

UW leads the nation defensively, allowing just 1.85 goals per game, and is 13th offensively (3.37). Elliott has a nation-leading 1.55 goals-against average and is riding a 252-minute, 49-second shutout streak.

Maine is fourth in the nation in scoring defense (2.20) and ninth in scoring offense (3.44). Freshman netminder Ben Bishop towers in the crease at 6-foot-7, 217 pounds and owns a 2.22 GAA.

The Black Bears have the third-best power play in the nation (22.5 percent) but have allowed 11 short-handed goals, the second-most in the country, and they must contend with a UW penalty kill that has not allowed a man-advantage goal in its past six games.

Like Wisconsin, Maine is a fast, physical team that prides itself on winning battles in the corners and along the boards. The Black Bears and Badgers may not have an overabundance of players with elite skill—in contrast to a team like Minnesota—but they possess a wealth of two-way players who can bury the puck or finish a check.

"They play tenacious, they play hard, they want to take time and space," Eaves said. "And by doing that they make it difficult to play against them."

Maine has 14 players with more than 10 points, and four with at least 35, led by senior wing Greg Moore's 44 (28 goals, 16 assists). Moore, one of seven NHL draft picks on Maine's roster (UW has 11), was the runner-up for Hockey East's best defensive forward honor.

His top-line teammates—left wing Josh Soares (15 goals, 25 assists for 40 points) and center Michel Léveillé (15-24-39)—are also talented all-around players. But Maine is at its best when all four lines and all three defensive pairs are providing productive shifts. And not just scoring goals, but wearing down an opponent through sheer force of effort.

"All their four lines and all six D are dangerous," UW wing Nick Licari said. "It's something that we have to be aware of."

Wisconsin also has 14 players with double-figure point tallies, led by center Joe Pavelski (23-30-53), wing Robbie Earl (21-25-46) and defenseman Tom Gilbert (11-19-30). But it is fourth-liners like Licari and Degenhardt, and budding goal scorers like freshman Jack Skille (13 goals), who have provided the necessary depth.

That depth will be put to the test Thursday, but it is a challenge the Badgers feel they have faced several times before, through the rigors of Western Collegiate Hockey Association play.

"A lot of the teams in our league actually have good depth so it's something that we're used to playing against," Licari said.

"We've visited this type of team," Eaves said. "We played Cornell, which plays a very tough, grinding, pressure game. So we faced it during the year and it will be a big test for us once again."

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