MILWAUKEE — To call it a great day for hockey would be understatement. Instead, it was the greatest day for Wisconsin hockey in 16 years Saturday, as the Badgers won their first NCAA national championship since 1990 with a 2-1 victory over Boston College.
The proverbial journey up the mountain culminated in reaching the highest peak, just two weeks after the UW women’s team garnered the same honor.
“It’s nice for our program … and the state of Wisconsin to be back here,” senior defenseman Tom Gilbert said. “It’s something we worked for all year.”
“To go out as winners is an unbelievable feeling,” senior forward Nick Licari said. “It’s something that us seniors will all remember forever and as a group of 20, we are bonded for life.”
Gilbert stepped up and buried the game-winning goal at 9:32 of the third period, sending the mostly-home crowd at the Bradley Center here into a frenzy, and the Badgers held off a late surge to hang on for the victory.
“It’s hard to put into terms the spectrum of the journey that we’ve had,” UW head coach Mike Eaves said. “These young men stayed with it … and it was quite a shot by Tom [Gilbert] and a great setup by his teammates.”
Gilbert scored on what turned out to be a designed play, one which he had failed to convert on twice earlier in the game. The play called for him to jump up into the offensive zone at the top of the slot.
The first time he passed the puck off, the second time his shot failed to find the back of the net. The third time was the charm.
“I was thinking to myself I’m not going to strike out,” Gilbert said.
The senior assistant captain came through with the biggest shot of his career. Sophomore forward Joe Pavelski found him with a perfect pass and Gilbert fired the puck through traffic, over BC goalie Cory Schneider’s right shoulder and into the back of the net.
“In the third period we threw up an interchange at them and they didn’t know what to do,” Pavelski said. “I kind of gave a look to (junior forward Robbie) Earl, they both kind of collapsed and Tom was just sitting there. I just zipped the pass to him.”
“Joe Pavelski made a great pass,” Gilbert said. “I knew that puck was going to go in. I can’t describe how I feel.”
The goal brought crowd to a level that had not yet been seen over the course of the weekend, but one that continued over the final 10 minutes.
All the momentum was in the Badgers’ favor until the final 30 seconds of play, when BC pulled its goalie for an extra attacker. The Badgers kept the puck deep in the zone and it looked like the Eagles would not get a shot off.
Instead, Peter Harrold ripped a shot through traffic the clanged off the far post with 1.7 seconds remaining. The Eagles could not get to the puck before the horn sounded and the celebration began.
“You heard three, two, one and then all of a sudden it couldn’t come fast enough, just like the rest of the game,” Pavelski said. “It was just a shot, you saw it get tipped, and you’re just like ‘Oh please.’”
The Badgers dug themselves a hole in the first period thanks to a broken play and turnover deep in their own defensive zone, but quickly knotted the game 1-1 just 1:17 into the second frame.
Senior captain Adam Burish found Earl with a perfect centering pass which Earl was able to hammer in the back door. The junior had been hit hard in the neutral zone just moments before and had considered heading to the bench before changing his mind.
“I decided to take a chance,” Earl said. “I went to the net and it was a great pass from Adam Burish.”
It was Earl’s team-leading 24th tally of the season and third of the weekend. He went on to win the award for Most Outstanding Player of the Frozen Four.
But it seemed fitting that it was the senior, Gilbert, and the Badger defense which came through for UW.
Gilbert scored the first goal of the season during his freshman campaign, one that Badger fans probably do not want to remember at this point. And again it was Gilbert who was there to end his career in dream-like fashion.
“I was talking to the rest of the team and I was saying ‘I scored the first goal of our freshman year and I’ll probably score the last one,’” Gilbert said. “It worked out that I did. I’ll never forget this.”
And it was his defense, along with another impressive outing from goalie Brian Elliott that paved the way for Wisconsin. The Badgers held Boston College to just 23 shots overall, and just four in the third period.
Even more impressive, not only did the Badger penalty kill extend its successful kill streak to a perferct 36 straight in the postseason, it kept the Eagles from even landing a shot on goal on four power plays.
“It starts with your goaltender, obviously,” assistant coach Mark Osiecki said. “But our guys worked so hard in front of him that you can’t be more proud of them.”
Two nights ago Eaves said that the recipe for success was solid efforts from his goalie, his special teams and his top players. He got that prescription again Saturday.
This time it meant a national championship.
It’s been a great year for hockey.
Box score (pdf)