After the upsets reached a head with a national power (Duke) narrowly beating the little engine that could (Butler) in Indianapolis, better known as a championship match-up nobody in their right mind predicted, the focused shifted to the Frozen Four and the fresh-in-the-mind match-up of tradition vs. nonentity.
Wisconsin is no stranger to the NCAA postseason – entering the weekend second all-time with a .750 Frozen Four winning percentage (15-5-0 - but their opponent, RIT, was a relatively unknown hockey power from west New York making its first semifinal appearance on the Division 1 level.
That's right RIT; the Rochester Institute of Technology has made it to the Frozen Four, a "Cinderella" story of a school with just under 17,000 undergrads that has no scholarship players, no NHL Draft picks and no former players in the school's 48-year history ever play in the NHL.
"If people want to call us an underdog, we can accept that," senior defenseman Dan Ringwald said Wednesday. "I was watching the NCAA Basketball Tournament and one of the coaches mentioned how you don't let other people set expectations for ourselves and that's where we're at. If people want to say stuff about us, that's fine but we have our own expectations and everyone in our room is confident."
The majority of the pundits had Wisconsin as the favorite to advance to Saturday's national championship – which they respond to with an 8-1 victory that showcased the separation between the physical Western Collegiate Hockey Association and an Atlantic Hockey Conference that had never sent a team to the Frozen Four.
But for a UW team captained by seven seniors that had felt the anguish of narrowly missing the Frozen Four two years ago and missed the NCAA Tournament by .0002 points last season, the Badgers knew better to believe that any game is a given victory.
"We worked hard to get here, but at this point it doesn't really matter," said senior tri-captain Ben Street. "Both teams are 0-0. Those guys (were) just as ready as we (were) and that's what motivated us. They want to get to the championship game and we do, too."
RIT proved that point to onlookers and bracketologists alike, beating WCHA regular season champion Denver and Hockey East regular season champion New Hampshire for the school's first two post season victories and the right to be one of the final four teams standing.
"We've been waiting these past two weeks … to showcase our skills" sophomore center Cameron Burt said. "I don't think the (final) score is a reflection of how we can play and what we did all year. We won a lot of hockey games to get here."
RIT has talent and it comes in the form of its defenseman. Although Wisconsin is credited for its solid defense core consisting of top-10 Hobey Baker finalist Brendan Smith, tri-captain Ryan McDonagh and two others drafted in the first two rounds of the NHL early entry draft, RIT entered the weekend tops in the nation in scoring defense, averaging 3.15 points per game (.13 more than the Badgers did).
"It's interesting because in watching video I thought RIT was one of the best teams I had seen in their defensive zone coverage," Wisconsin Coach Mike Eaves said. "We focused on our ability to be intelligent having the puck in their zone."
That game plan led to the Tigers playing most of the game on the defensive and on the penalty kill, especially when the size and strength of Wisconsin led to seven power plays for Wisconsin, five in the second period alone that caused sustain pressure on RIT's defense, forcing them to stay defensive rather than offensive.
"I think one of our strengths again is our D-corps and how much depth we have back there on the blue line," senior tri-captain Blake Geoffrion said. "Those guys, they pressure quick, they get turnovers and get the puck to us … They did a great job as always back there."
Smith was the perfect example of Geoffrion's analysis of forcing turnovers and creating options for the goal scorers, as he accumulated five assists (tying the school's Frozen Four record) and was a key factor in UW peppered RIT goalie Jared DeMichiel with 33 shots before he exited late in the third period.
"It was too tough for us to come back from that (offense) tonight," DeMichiel said.
For the first time in the five years after Eaves won his first national championship as a coach, he has a hockey team comprised of upperclassmen that have been in pressure situations before.
"They know how to handle themselves," he boasted. "I think this group has – because of its being an upperclassmen team has the ability to enjoy the moment and get back to the task at hand. And I think that's one of the guys' strengths is being able to do that."
A simple statement, but the main reason the RIT Cinderella story ended so harshly.
"They had an answer for everything," RIT Coach Wayne Wilson. "They were physically, I thought, stronger and quicker and really answered anything that we were trying to generate. We had a tough time generating anything in the second period, in particular. And it just seemed like we had no chance of getting anything going."