Monday, March 30, 2009

This Year, The Skate Fits

This was easily the wildest weekend in NCAA hockey tournament action that I can ever recall. Three number one seeds were knocked off by four seeds in the regionals. Two of those four seeds went on to reach the Frozen Four and the other lost in two overtimes to a three seed. The only top seed who took care of business and punched their ticket to D.C. was Boston University and even they required a goal with fifteen seconds left in regulation to get past New Hampshire.

Needless to say such unexpected outcomes played havoc with my predictions as they did with nearly everyone else's. I went 4-4 in the opening games and 1-3 in the next round. Which is pretty dismal. Currently, I'm in 8th place in the pool I'm in. If BU wins the championship I can finish third, but no higher.

A third place finish brings me no solace as I enter these pools to win and put my hockey cred on the line in doing so. However, what does bring me solace is seeing how my good friend The Nihilist In Golf Pants has fared. The Nihilist is a Notre Dame apologist alum, whose confidence--bordering on cockiness--in the Irish hockey squad had him laying plans for a championship celebration before the tourney's first puck had even been dropped.

So there was definitely an element of schadenfreude when Notre Dame was dispatched with extreme prejudice by unheralded Bemidji State in the opening round. That joy was only magnified when I checked the predictions standings in the pool that we both participated in today and found the NIGP firmly ensconced in last place in the standings. Not only in last place, but in last place with all of ONE point and no hope of picking up any more. In fact, in he only managed to pick ONE game correctly of the opening eight. A toddler picking teams based on his favorite color could have done better than that. A blind-folded monkey throwing darts could have done better. Heck, even a college puck neophyte like Learned Foot could have done better than that.

Since I've often written about the prominence of the WCHA in college hockey in the past, it's only fair that I note that the balance of power seems to have shifted. This is the first Frozen Four since 1999 with no representation from the WCHA. This officially spells an end to a period of dominance that now appears to have lasted from 2000-2006. During that time, WCHA teams won six of seven national championships (in 2001 UND lost to BC in the title game in OT) and in 2005 all four teams at the Frozen Four were from the conference.

I knew the league was down this year, but didn't realize just how much weak it was really was. North Dakota getting beat wasn't a surprise and even if they hadn't blown the game against New Hampshire, they would have been hard-pressed to knock off BU. But with Denver and UMD both playing in the Minneapolis regional as the top two seeds, I would have thought one of those two squads would have advanced.

It still remains an open question of where the power in college hockey has shifted to. Prior to this weekend, I would have said East to both the CCHA and Hockey East. While Hockey East has two schools in this year's Frozen Four (BU & Vermont) and the CCHA one (Miami), I now wonder if what we're seeing isn't as much a shift from one conference to another as much as it a diffusion of power among the schools. The traditional power houses seem to have been significantly impacted by the growing trend of top players leaving school early for the pros. This has allowed some of the other schools to become relatively stronger by keeping and developing their players and it seems like the gap between the best and the rest has narrowed to the point where any team from any conference can compete.

We saw that this weekend with the success of teams like Bemidji State (CHA) and Air Force (Atlantic) from conferences that you don't usually hear from and teams from prominent conferences like Vermont (Hockey East) and Miami (CCHA) that you don't usually find in the NCAA tourney mix. It makes me wonder if college hockey going through a phase somewhat similar to what college basketball went through some years ago, where some of the traditional power house teams struggled to adapt to the era of star players leaving early. If you look at what's happened of late in college hoops, these top teams seem to have recovered and once again established their place at the top. While you still may get a surprise with a team like George Mason a few years ago, the teams appearing in the Final Four are mostly from the schools with a strong basketball history.

Given my position as a Gopher fan, this is a pattern that I'd like to see repeated in college hockey. Sooner rather than later. Especially since the 2011 Frozen Four will be hosted in Saint Paul. Until then, I'll have to be content to cheer on the scrappy Bemidji State Beavers when they take the ice against Miami in a national semi on April 9th. They aren't a WCHA team, but after this weekend they more than ever deserve to be one.

UPDATE: Darren Everson in the WSJ on Why You Should Have Watched Hockey:

If only Jim Valvano had coached college hockey. Then the phrase "survive and advance" -- which the late North Carolina State basketball coach used to describe college basketball's grueling tournament -- would be where it truly belongs.

There is arguably no major event in sports more chaotic than the Division I hockey tournament. By its nature, hockey is more capricious than basketball and football, since one player (the goalie) can have an outsized impact -- for better or worse -- on a single game's outcome.

Baseball is similar, because of the pitcher's influence. But unlike baseball's double-elimination College World Series, the college hockey tournament is a one-and-done event, like basketball.

Result: Three of the four No. 1 seeds in this year's tournament didn't even survive their first games over the weekend. Michigan fell to Air Force, 2-0, due almost entirely to the play of Falcons goaltender Andrew Volkening (Michigan took 43 shots to Air Force's 13); Denver lost to Miami University, 4-2; and Notre Dame was buried by Bemidji State, 5-1.

Denver's loss and even Michigan's actually weren't that shocking -- Air Force, which subsequently was eliminated Saturday by Vermont, came within an eyelash of first-round upsets the previous two years -- but Notre Dame's defeat was the equivalent of Radford dismissing North Carolina by double digits.

Notre Dame, which led the nation in winning percentage and goals-against average, was facing the country's 37th-best team, according to the Ratings Percentage Index ranking system. There are only 58 teams in Division I. But Notre Dame goalie Jordan Pearce got rattled early, giving up the opening goal after a strange bounce off the boards, and the chaos was underway.

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