Top-seeded Wisconsin has high expectations

MILWAUKEE -- Only four hockey teams will take the ice Thursday at the Bradley Center, but there is a fifth contingent whose presence might end up having the greatest impact on the 2006 Frozen Four.

And it might have the most to lose.

Badger Nation will be out in full force before, during and after Wisconsin skates against Maine in the second national semifinal (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2).

The Badgers come in as the tournament's top overall seed, and they're the only No. 1 seed to advance out of the regional round.

Gone are Minnesota, Boston University and Michigan State.

In their place are No. 7 North Dakota and No. 11 Boston College, which skate in the first game (3 p.m. ET, ESPN2), and the No. 12 Black Bears.

Make no mistake, based on the expectations of the seedings and of the home-state fans, this is the Badgers' tournament to lose.

The good news for the UW faithful is that Mike Eaves' club has answered every big challenge placed in front of it this year.

The Badgers handled the pressure of playing in the first game on the hallowed grounds of Lambeau Field at the Frozen Tundra Classic in February with a 4-2 win over Ohio State.

They survived and advanced out of their "home" regional at Green Bay's Resch Center -- a 1-0 triple overtime win over Cornell.

Up next is the burden of satisfying demanding followers and trying to achieve the ultimate college hockey championship.

"I don't think there's much more preparation we can give them," Eaves said.
"They know what they're going to be in for. They've played in front of 41,000 this year, so going to Bradley Center and playing in front of a packed house, there's not much difference there.

"And most of our home games this past year were sold out, so they know the kind of raucous atmosphere they're in for, and they've faced it all year."

But this time, the stakes are so much higher.

Wisconsin hasn't been in the Frozen Four since 1992, and it hasn't won it all since 1990. Since then, the other three teams here have each made multiple appearances on this stage and have each skated off with a title.

If the Badgers are going to put a bow on a storybook season, they will need junior goaltender Brian Elliott to continue his play of late.

The Hobey Baker Hat Trick finalist, who comes in with a 25-5-3 record and a nation's-best 1.55 goals-against average and .938 save percentage, is riding a 252:15 scoreless streak.

Not that there isn't firepower in front of him, but as Elliott goes, so goes Wisconsin.

"Brian Elliott has been the backbone of this team," Eaves said. "Whenever you're going to have a good hockey team, it starts between the pipes and then you build your way out. He's given our defense confidence and our forwards confidence, and we've fed off that.

"When we lost him for a while, we had to adjust. But he was able to get back in time to get his game back and we're at the point we were before Brian got hurt."

Before Elliott was sidelined in January with a leg injury he suffered in practice, Wisconsin was the No. 1 team in the nation with no sign of letting up. But the Badgers went 3-5 without Elliott, then struggled a bit when he returned.

Wisconsin has two 20-goal scorers: Joe Pavelski (23-30-53) and the electrifying Robbie Earl (21-25-46). And talk about pressure. Senior captain Adam Burish (8-21-29) has one member of his family who already won a national title this year. Sister Nikki was captain of the UW women's hockey team that won the Frozen Four, topping Minnesota on March 26 for the title.

Wisconsin's opponent Thursday night is Maine, a club that is no stranger to the spotlight or hostile environments.

The Black Bears won the East Regional and are making their third Frozen Four appearance in five years. They haven't won the title since 1999, but they have played regionals in partisan venues such as Mariucci Arena and Yost Ice Arena against the host school in recent years.

And Maine also faced Minnesota in the 2002 title game -- a 3-2 overtime loss -- at St. Paul in front of a decidedly pro-Gophers crowd.

"Our guys aren't really fazed by it," Maine coach Tim Whitehead said. "They understand the challenge because it has been very tough for us. But the one thing it guarantees is you're going to have a great environment to play in. This is going to be a very special moment, and hopefully we can rise to the challenge.

"We've been in a lot of big venues, so I think our guys will be fine. But when you're out there with the whole building against you, it does help a lot with us having some juniors and seniors that have experienced that and know you can get through that and have some success."

One player for Maine who hasn't experienced this stage is freshman goaltender Ben Bishop. Last year, he was playing junior hockey for the NAHL's Texas Tornado, and he was expected to come in this year and learn the ropes from returning senior starter Jimmy Howard.

Only Howard signed a deal with the Detroit Red Wings organization shortly after the NHL labor stoppage was settled this past summer, leaving the 6-foot-7 netminder to learn in the line of fire.

"[Ben] found out three days before he was coming to school that he was going to be the guy, and that's a lot different than being someone's understudy," Whitehead said. "He's had some ups and downs this year, but he's found a way to fight through and play even better the next weekend. As far as mentally, that was a very tough challenge for any goalie, and I thought he handled it with so much ease. He has a quiet confidence, and the players respect him so much."

Bishop comes in at 21-7-2 with a 2.22 GAA and a .908 save percentage. The veteran leadership that Whitehead counts on comes from senior captain Greg Moore (28-16-44), junior Josh Soares (15-25-40), and seniors Michel Leveille (15-24-39) and Derek Damon (15-20-35).

Whichever team survives the prime-time game will have to face the winner of the afternoon's Fighting Sioux-Eagles matchup Saturday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).

North Dakota, which lost in last year's title game to Denver, comes in as the West Regional champ. The Sioux lost several key players to graduation and early departures and weren't necessarily expected to challenge for a title this year.

But one key returnee was junior goaltender Jordan Parise (24-8-1, 2.08, .933).

"Jordan has been the rock of our team from the beginning of the year," North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol said. "Right now, there's a fairly solid group playing in front of him, but there were times early this year that that wasn't the case. Jordan has elevated his game toward the second half of the year, as he has done before.

"He's a leader for us in the locker room, and he carries that out on to the ice with him. I believe our guys play a little extra hard with him in the net."

The Sioux boast three 20-goal scorers: junior Drew Stafford (24-23-47) and freshmen T.J. Oshie (24-21-45) and Jonathan Toews (21-17-38).

In a four-team field that's highlighted by good goaltending -- no surprise this time of year -- Boston College brings to the table sophomore Cory Schneider (23-12-2, 2.03, .930), who started for Team USA at this year's World Junior Championship in Vancouver.

As good as Schneider has been, the Eagles graduated 10 seniors and lost Patrick Eaves to the Ottawa Senators, so the expectations weren't quite Wisconsin-like coming into the season.

BC relies on Hobey Baker Hat Trick finalist Chris Collins (31-29-60) and junior Brian Boyle (22-30-52) for most of its offense.

"Starting the year, I wasn't quite sure," BC coach Jerry York said. "We were breaking in four freshman defensemen, and you're never quite sure how they're going to react during the course of the year. As the year went on, I thought we had a little better team than I envisioned.

"But when we hit that late slide, and we really needed to get back on the tracks, all of sudden, we just caught fire. It's probably not the best team I've had recently, but it's a team that's playing very well right now, and that makes us a dangerous club."

Almost as dangerous as a city full of rabid Badgers fans.

David Albright is the senior coordinator for college sports at ESPN.com. He can be reached at david.albright@espn3.com.