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Tigers pass another (n)ice test


Only 13 seconds after the opening faceoff, the puck was in the net, Wisconsin's forever-boisterous fans were screaming, and Colorado College's players were skating around aimlessly, shaking their heads in frustration and hoping instant replay would allow them another chance to begin this important game on the right note.

It didn't, as the batted-in goal was allowed for a 1-0 Wisconsin lead, and the crowd thundered again. Everyone in red sensed an enjoyable evening for their beloved Badgers, who were hungry to start 2008 with at least a split against CC's fourth-ranked Tigers.

That was the scene early Saturday night at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wis., which suddenly turned into one of those pivotal nights that define the best teams during any long, grueling season.

For CC, losing this game would've been no sin whatsoever, after having won the series opener Friday night with an impressive 2-0 shutout by freshman goaltender Richard Bachman. Also, the first-place Tigers were skating without one of their standouts, Billy Sweatt, who was playing with Team USA at the world junior tournament in Europe.

But the Tigers stopped sulking and went back to work, plugging away on both ends of the ice, while Bachman quickly regrouped. They made it through the first period with that same 1-0 deficit, and the score hadn't changed by the second intermission, either.

It had been 0-0 after two periods on Friday, after which CC put on an increasingly typical display of superior conditioning in the final 20 minutes. But surely, No. 13 Wisconsin would have a physical and emotional reserve to escape the weekend with an equalizing win.

Instead, the Tigers once again looked like potential champions at some level, anyway with another dominating third period. Five minutes in, they made it 1-1 on a beautiful, shorthanded, unassisted goal by junior center Chad Rau, who is on the verge of deserving strong All-American consideration. Shorthanded goals don't happen that often at the top level of college hockey, yet Rau made it happen both nights in Madison.

From that moment, CC was in full command. Bachman made some big saves under pressure, senior forward Scott McCulloch scored the game-winner with 5:17 remaining, and an empty-net clincher wrapped up the 3-1 victory.

Just as noticeable as the final score was a single line on the stat sheet: During that decisive final period, the Tigers outshot the Badgers by an overwhelming 16-3.

Something else: This was CC's first sweep at Madison since December 1995, back when the Badgers played at the old Dane County Coliseum. And that series 12 years ago helped another special CC team develop its confidence and identity the Tigers of 1995-96 charged to the regular-season league title and made the NCAA Frozen Four at Cincinnati, where they came within a shot off the post of beating mighty Michigan before losing the national-title game in overtime, 3-2.

(Just for the record, guess what team ranks No. 1 in the latest national polls? Michigan, of course.)

These Tigers still have a long way to go inside the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, especially with the University of Denver still keeping pace. DU, which was off last weekend but held onto its No. 3 ranking, hosts Wisconsin this Friday and Saturday. Meanwhile, the Tigers are at home against Alaska-Anchorage, for one of those series in which a good team has to avoid any kind of letdown. So far, head coach Scott Owens has done one of his best jobs, not overreacting to the success. He'd be the first to remind everyone how good last year's team looked after sweeping Wisconsin in early February before going 2-7-2 after that, skidding all the way to 18-17-4.

But at 13-3 in the WCHA, 14-6 overall, the Tigers are moving closer, with each positive weekend as another stepping stone, toward guaranteeing themselves a spot in the 16-team NCAA national bracket. That means so much more with CC hosting the West Regional on the World Arena ice in late March. It's been said before, but just to reiterate, the NCAA always keeps its promise to put regional host teams (that qualify for the tournament, of course) on their home ice for the weekend that determines the Frozen Four semifinalists who will play April 10-12 at Denver's Pepsi Center.

One last point: Many CC followers have been grousing about the strange schedule that kept the Tigers away from home for more than a month, from Thanksgiving to now. It was unusual, to say the least, but after making it through that stretch at 6-3, CC can settle back into a more familiar routine.

Here's the Tigers' agenda the rest of the way until the NCAAs: Jan. 18, Bemidji State; Jan. 19, Air Force; Jan. 25-26, at Michigan Tech; Feb. 1-2, Clarkson; Feb. 8-9, St. Cloud; Feb. 15-16, open; Feb. 22-23, at Minnesota-Duluth; Feb. 29-March 1, Mankato; March 7, at Denver; March 8, Denver; March 14-16, WCHA first round; March 20-22, WCHA Final Five.

It's not yet an extraordinary season for CC. But going into the second weekend of January, it has more and more of a chance to become just that.

Final look: Springs' top 2007 sports stories

Mike Moran, communications director of the Colorado Springs Sports Corp., assembled this sampling of the city's top 2007 sports accomplishments:

Air Force football returns to prominence with a 9-4 campaign, second-place Mountain West finish and bowl game against California.

AFA basketball coach Jeff Bzdelik guides Falcons to 26-9 and a semifinal loss to Clemson in the NIT at New York, then resigns to become Colorado's head coach.

The 2007 State Games of America attract a record 10,803 athletes from 47 states, including 6,550 from Colorado. A record 10,007 jam the opening ceremony at World Arena.

USA Boxing selects Colorado Springs as home of the U.S. boxing team as it prepares for the 2008 Olympics.

Air Force hockey makes the NCAA Tournament, where the Falcons lose a 4-3 heartbreaker to Minnesota.

The Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame's class of 2007 includes Olympic swimming champion Amy Van Dyken, Air Force football's Brock Strom, hockey coaching legend Bob Johnson, former Sky Sox star and Rockies' hitting coach Alan Cockrell, volleyball All-American Anita Moss and the 1956 Colorado Springs High state champion football team.

Japan's Nobuhiro Tajima breaks the all-time record at the Pikes Peak Hill Climb with a time of 10:01.41. Leonard Vahsholtz wins his 18th title in the Open Division.

Colorado College has a football All-American, tight end Nolan Swett, after a 4-6 season.

Sky Sox set a franchise attendance mark of 274,408 fans in 66 openings. Then 18 Sky Sox alumni finish the season with the parent Rockies as they reach the World Series.

UCCS men's basketball resurges under new coach Russ Caton with a 16-12 record. UCCS women's volleyball makes the NCAA Division II tourney with a 20-12 mark.

Art Berglund, former Broadmoor World Arena manager and administrator for USA Hockey, is selected for induction into the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame.

Cheyenne Mountain wins the state 4A girls soccer title and the boys and girls 4A tennis state titles.

Colorado Springs Christian School wins the 3A volleyball state title, its fourth straight.

Falcon High makes the 3A football state title game before losing to Berthoud and finishing 13-1.

Hot tickets The way Colorado College is playing, fans should buy NCAA West Regional seats now (call 576-2626).
See the headline? Bill Stewart, ex-Air Force defensive line coach (1990-94), is West Virginia's new head coach.
No patience Broncos dump defensive coordinator Jim Bates, who was a one-year disaster.
Countdown Just a month until pitchers and catchers report for spring training.

Ralph's picks
Winding down in the NFL playoffs:
Against the spread
Seattle (taking 8) at Green Bay
Jacksonville (taking 12) at New England
Indianapolis (giving 8) vs. San Diego
New York Giants (taking 7) at Dallas
Predicted scores
Seattle, 27-24
New England, 31-23
Indianapolis, 30-20
Dallas, 20-16

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