Elliott guiding UW toward hockey peak

Badgers have reached the most important part of their "mountain climb"

MILWAUKEE—The Wisconsin men's hockey team continues to climb the mountain.

At its peak height, Mount Everest is 29,035 feet tall. When ascending the Southeast Ridge of the mountain, it is the final portion of the climb which is the most grueling.

If you make it past the Cornice Traverse, the most exposed part of the climb, you arrive at the Hillary Step. A climber is only 285 feet from the top, but the Hillary Step is a daunting sight—a 40-foot tall rock ledge.

The Badgers have reached their Hillary Step.

UW fourth-year head coach Mike Eaves brought out the mountain-climb analogy early and often this season with his team as well as the media.

"[Before the season] a reporter asked me … ‘The regionals are in Green Bay and the Final is in Milwaukee, how's that sound?'" Eaves recalled. "I said that sounds really nice, and in the long haul, it was a topsy-turvy road."

His team was on a journey to the top of the mountain, and the Badgers started out at a rapid pace.

They cruised up the side of the mountain thanks to a group of experienced climbers—a senior class led by Adam Burish—and junior goaltender Brian Elliott, who undoubtedly played the role of sherpa. He jumped out of the gate, impressing the college hockey world.

The Badgers put the journey on cruise control until Elliott was hurt in mid-January. Wisconsin's sherpa had suddenly tumbled down the face of the mountain.

Freshman Shane Connelly was much less experience in traversing the rugged terrain, and even UW's experienced climbers could not pull the group through a particularly harsh stretch, as Denver and Minnesota loomed on the schedule.

The Badgers stalled, and perhaps even moved back down the mountain a ways, awaiting the re-arrival of Elliott, though questions loomed as to how soon he would be back and whether he would be at full strength.

"It was unrealistic to think he'd get back right away," Eaves said. "When he first went down, we knew it would be tough. We were as good as we were because of Brian."

He returned late in the year, though a bit rusty from his fall. However, after a few days of rough climbing, Elliott came back in prime form.

"At that point in our season, the whole team was struggling," Elliott said. "We hit a storm and we had to get back on track and right then we had to decide as a team where we wanted to go the rest of the season."

Now, after navigating what could have been the Badgers' Cornice Traverse with ease, Elliott is in peak condition—not to mention his playoff beard resembles that of a mountain man.

Elliott has not surrendered a goal in more than 252 consecutive minutes. The last time a puck got by him was March 17. If ever there was a time he could lead his team over the Hillary Step—the NCAA Frozen Four—that time is now.

"That's the hardest point and we're at that point right now," Elliott said. "We understand how hard it is to get there, but to get to the top is that much harder."

Standing in the way, as half of that Hillary Step, is Maine, and more specifically its 6-foot-7 freshman goalie Ben Bishop. Yes, he is young, but the giant between the pipes has looked anything but rookie-like.

He boasts a 21-7-2 record, a .908 save percentage, and a 2.22 goals against average—good for 12th in the nation.

It would be hard to imagine a battle like Badger fans saw less than two weeks ago against Cornell, but Bishop is no slouch—and even if he was, he would probably still stand six feet tall.

There is a matchup in the making—Ben Bishop, the Giant, against Brian Elliott, the Sherpa.

Earlier this week, Elliott was named Inside College Hockey's Goaltender of the Year and the first-team goaltender on USCHO.com's awards. He will find out if he won the Hobey Baker Award Friday night.

Remarkably, if you ask him, you would not think he has won anything yet.

"He doesn't care, that's the kid he is. You would never know that he has received all these honors," Burish said. "All he cares about is winning a national championship. He will never put himself ahead of the team."

"I don't even know how much [the awards] mean," Elliott said. "The awards are nice to get, but we're just focused on the game."

The similarities between Maine and Wisconsin do not stop in the crease. The two teams play the same style and statistically, the numbers do not get much closer.

Maine scores 3.44 goals per game, UW scores 3.37. The Black Bears give up 2.2, the Badgers 1.85. They have two of the best penalty kills in the country. Even in penalty minutes, there is less than a one-minute-per-game disparity.

"We're just going to focus on the stuff we do well," Gilbert said. "I know Maine is a mirror image of us. They play hard, they've got great defense and they've got great depth."

The state of Wisconsin could be in for another epic matchup, and who would expect anything less in the Frozen Four?

It is hard to believe that Elliott and his experienced climbers would do anything but reach the top, but the Hillary Step stands in the way.

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