MILWAUKEE — Sitting in his locker after facing down a swarm of television cameras, Brian Elliott got his first chance to stop and think since capturing the national title. But just then his Badger goaltending mentor, assistant Bill Howard, walked in carrying a massive bag of ice, and with both hands balanced it atop the Badger goaltender as the two laughed together.
After all, Elliott has been standing on his head all season. It was no different on Saturday night as the junior Hobey Baker finalist led the way in the Badgers’ sixth national championship. And once senior defenseman Tom Gilbert had given UW the lead with a little over half a period to play, it was up to Elliott and the defense to make it stick – and they did.
“I looked at the clock and there was 10:28 left, and in that amount of time to play for the national championship and you have the lead, you can’t let anybody take that away from you,” Elliott said.
The Badgers excel with late leads in their strong defensive system, but of course this was a game in which they knew their opponent would give every last drop of energy to tie things up. To maintain consistency, the Badgers needed to make sure to stay calm despite watching the clock count down to a national title. And while the defense needed to be strong, the team knew it could not be complacent down the stretch.
“It was tense but at the same time the older guys were saying, ‘Hey, let’s not sit back. Let’s keep going here.’” senior captain Adam Burish said. “Because against a team like that, you sit back and they’re going to tear you apart. You kind of try to keep the young guys relaxed too.”
The Badgers certainly accomplished those goals, despite how some players admitted afterwards that it racked their nerves down the stretch. Freshman forward Ben Street, who scored a key goal in Thursday’s semi-final, was in a tough position coming onto the ice in the first period with a puck squirting past him on a play that ultimately led to BC’s lone goal. So once Gilbert scored the eventual title-winner, he was one of many at least a bit relieved faced with those final 10 minutes to play.
“When we scored that goal it’s so nice to have that cushion,” Street said. “It could have gone either way – they were pushing. I think it really gave us the kick we needed for the last 10 minutes.”
Of course even with that small cushion, the Badgers still needed to keep some of the most skilled offensive players in the nation from evening the score. To be so close and yet one shot away from having that lead evaporate, Gilbert said that time seemed to almost stop.
“You sit there and 10 minutes takes about three hours,” Gilbert said. “You’re just thinking, ‘just shoot the puck down and keep playing as hard as you can and keep going to the outside.’ Our philosophy was to keep playing hard.”
Eventually that clock whittled down to the last couple of minutes and the already raucous Bradley Center crowd rose to its feet to help sway the “battle of wills” that the Badgers talked about in the locker room during their second intermission. Drawing a penalty with under four minutes to play certainly helped Wisconsin’s cause, as did limiting the time in which BC goaltender Cory Schneider could finally leave the ice to bring on an extra man.
During all of that, Elliott literally had no idea what was going on around him. All he knew was that the horn had not sounded yet and he still had plenty of work to do – something completely evident after a shot by senior defenseman Peter Harrold hit the far post with under two seconds remaining.
“I was so focused I didn’t even know everybody was on their feet,” Elliott said. “Somebody told me that they were up but I didn’t even know that. I didn’t even know how much time was left on the clock. I was just so focused and I knew when I heard that buzzer I could barely hear it.”
The rest of the Badgers certainly knew how much time was remaining. Once
the final minutes arrived, Burish said he could taste the national championship, be it just out of reach. His fellow seniors Gilbert and Ryan MacMurchy were confident that with their defensive system it would come down to willpower and hard work, and that if Wisconsin excelled at both, the Badgers would likely survive. They did, but that of course did not ease tensions, as Burish also admitted.
“You can’t lie, those last three minutes you’re just biting your nails and you’re grabbing the guy next to you,” Burish said. “As soon as you see the last 10 seconds counting down you start looking for someone to hug.”
Luckily for the Badgers, not everybody began hugging in those final 10 seconds, as a span of bodies diving and pucks flying nearly landed the two teams in overtime. But after what may have been the most stressful countdown of any of their lives, finally the storybook plan and the storybook season have the ending the team hoped for all along.
Finally with some room to breathe, Ross Carlson sat back with an unlit victory cigar in his mouth just as Burish grabbed the stereo system remote and turned up the music to blast throughout the locker room.
Time is up, but the party has just begun.
Matt Lewis, a frequent contributor to Badger Nation, is the editor of creative sportswriting site TheHeptagon.com.