The high-flying Tigers have surged onto the scene this year after only five years as a Division I program, and they are ready to keep the surprises coming when they hit Ford Field for the Frozen Four in Detroit.
After a season of hard work, perseverance and grueling tests, the top four teams in the country are set to battle for the coveted national title. Two wins is all it will take for the next champion to be crowned. It’s anyone’s game now, and this year, it could be RIT's.
RIT continues to shock the college hockey world by earning its way into this final week of play. Tigers head coach Wayne Wilson says much of the reason his team is riding a perfect 6-0 postseason record and a 12-game winning streak — in which it has outscored opponents 53-16 — is simply because nobody expected the Tigers to make it this far. They haven’t been burdened by the same pressures that accompany the teams expected to win; they’re just playing the game.
“The expectations of winning it all aren’t there, [and] I haven’t felt — and the players haven’t felt — any pressure at all,” said Wilson. “I can honestly say that we are just enjoying this and we’re just looking forward to the next game. It’s been a really fun experience and a very unique experience because I don’t think a lot of teams would be reacting this way. It’s been a very mature and workmanlike approach.”
The Tigers should not be taken lightly by any opponent. Momentum is on their side after not only earning their program’s highest national ranking of No. 9, but also after eliminating two of the most feared teams in the league, taking down Denver 2-1 and then Hockey East powerhouse UNH 6-2 in the Eastern regional finals.
Wisconsin is trying to ignore the distractions surrounding the tournament’s Cinderella story. Badgers head coach Mike Eaves is focused on sticking to the same disciplined style that’s brought them success all season.
“The biggest thing is to just play," Eaves said. "There’s no need to think too much. We know our systems, we know what we need to do as a group of people, and we just go and play and if you do that, then you give yourself the best chance to be successful.”
Wisconsin returns to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2006, the same year it captured its last title. The Badgers' emergence back onto the final scene has largely been due to the experience of a veteran squad and the breakout season of Blake Geoffrion.
Geoffrion decided to forgo an early entrance into the pros, which looks to be a rewarding move, as he stands to become the first Badger to win the Hobey Baker award as well as guide his team to a seventh national title. This Hobey hat trick finalist carried the team on his back with 11 points in six postseason games, and his 27 goals lead the Badgers and are second in the nation overall.
Eaves couldn’t be happier for his top gun as he prepares to make the eventual leap to the NHL — but he's glad it happened later rather than sooner.
“I think he’s got a lot better road to the NHL this year because he came back and has got this huge reservoir of confidence right now," Eaves said. "All those things, he’s got in spades now."
Wisconsin will rely on his leadership when it faces RIT because extending its season one more game won’t be easy. The Badgers plan to stick with the same game plan that has worked for them up to this point, which is to lead a simplistic, well-balanced attack.
“It’s still about us doing the things we want to do and playing to our strengths," Eaves said. "The emphasis will be on what we need to do."
The Tigers face a different challenge: not letting the excitement of their remarkable season go to their heads.
“We know this is nice, but we’ve got to make sure we’re ready and not think we’re better than what we are, because we’re not," Wilson said. "We’ll be as good as our effort and we can challenge, but if we start thinking we’re real good, we’ll become a very average team quickly."
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