Friday, April 08, 2011

Can't Keep A Good Game Down

Despite the best effort of the souless ninnies who run the NCAA, a good time was still to be had at the Frozen Four yesterday in St. Paul. We’re inveighed here in the past on the ridiculous NCAA rules that prohibit the serving of alcohol at their tournament events. But, as veteran Frozen Four attendee James from Folsom noted yesterday, the NCAA’s effort to take all the air out events go far behind their ban on beer. It’s almost as if they intentionally seek to create as sterile and uninteresting environment as possible. They drape and cover everything in the arena to ensure that there’s no chance your eyes come across anything not directly related to the event. They don’t allow the Wild to have their Hockey Lodge open to ensure there is no competition to their officially licensed NCAA souvenir tables. Instead of using the scoreboard to entertain fans during stops, they mostly show boring NCAA promotional videos. Or lists of Minnesota celebrities, the only two I noted being Loni Anderson and Garrison Keillor. Other than the team’s bands, little music is heard. Many pro sports overdue the amped up music of course, but would it be that bad to play a couple of tunes?

And they don’t allow you to reenter once you leave the arena. So once you’re in for the first game, you’re there for the next seven hours. You want to grab a bit to eat? Concession stands. You want a beer between games? You can hit one of the many local watering holes around the X, but then you’re watching game two on the television because you aren’t getting back in. This policy means that when the first game started between UMD and Notre Dame, there were fast swaths of empty seats in the Michigan and to a lesser extent North Dakota sections. You can’t really blame the fans with a stake in game two for not wanting to stuck inside the arena for any longer than they had to.

But in spite of the fussy busybodies at the NCAA, it was still an enjoyable experience to catch the two games yesterday. The fun started before the puck even dropped between the Bulldogs and Irish. Minnesota Governor and former Yale goalie (it’s all starting to make sense now) Mark Dayton was given the honor of pronouncing what has been become the traditional Xcel Energy “Let’s play hockey!” opening line. The cameras cut to Dayton up in the rafters as he was handed a mike. You could tell that he was saying something, but no one in the crowd could hear it because the mike was apparently not turned on. After an awkward pause, the cameras caught Dayton with the befuddled, deer in the headlights look that we’ve all become so familiar with. Yup, that’s our governor all right.

Those who did file in late missed a fast start. The Irish scored less than in a minute in on a shaky goal for the Duluth net minder. But the Dogs answered back rather quickly to knot the game at one. At which point the shots on goals were also one for each time. Eventually, both goalies did make a few saves, but the scoring continued apace throughout the period. Notre Dame again took the lead off a fortuitous bounce off the end boards. UMD again responded to tie it and then went ahead before the horn sounded. Even though the Irish had an advantage in shots, it was pretty clear that Duluth was the better team and carried most of the play.

That pattern continued in the second, as the Dogs were faster and sharper than the Irish. They tried to get too cute by making one pass to many or else could have built up even a bigger cushion. As it was, they scored once in the second to take what looked like a safe 4-2 lead into the third. And for the first half of the period it appeared that it would be. The Dogs were playing a much more conservative game, but it didn’t seem the Irish had the energy to mount a comeback. When UMD went on the power play, it seemed like an opportunity for them to put the nail in the coffin. And then a funny thing happened. Notre Dame scored a shorthanded goal (another soft one) and suddenly all bets were off. The Irish players and their fans were full of life and UMD looked dog tired (sorry). What had looked like an easy walk to Saturday’s championship game became a nail biter for Bulldog fans. Despite a couple of close calls, they did manage to hold Notre Dame off and came away with a 4-3 win.

Sometimes shots on goal tells an accurate tale of the game. In this case, the final numbers were misleading. Even though Notre Dame had a significant edge in shots, UMD had the upper hand in play for most of the game.

The second contest between North Dakota and Michigan was a different game compared to the opener and you could feel that even before it started. The large contingent of Sioux fans at the game brought a new level of energy into the building and there was a palpable buzz of tension in the air. The Sioux fans were primed and ready to erupt when there high flying offense finally broke through against the diminutive Wolverine keeper. Thanks to his stellar play between the pipes that eruption never took place. I definitely underestimated Michigan heading into the tourney. They’re faster than I thought. They play better defense than I thought. And their goalie has played a lot better than I thought he would.

This time around, the shots of goal were a more accurate barometer of the play on the ice. The first period was pretty even with a slight edge to the Sioux. They had some opportunities, but didn’t seem to be as focused as I would have expected. Michigan netted the only goal of the period off a rebound. With North Dakota’s firepower, I’m sure few of us thought it would be enough to hold up. The Sioux picked up their pace in the second and really started to take control of the game. But every time it looked like they were about to light the lamp, Michigan’s Hunwick would close the door. His stop on Genoway happened right in front of us and I think it was the save of the game. North Dakota didn’t help their cause by missing the net several times when they good opportunities and generally running a pathetic power play.

After dominating the third period yet failing to score, the Sioux went a man up with about seven or eight minutes to play. The NoDak fans sensed that this was it. They would get one here and maybe another in regulation or worst case go to overtime. But with everything on the line and a golden chance to tie the game the Sioux special teams sputtered. I’m not sure how much this should be credited to Michigan, but for whatever reason North Dakota couldn’t get the power play going. They actually played better once the Wolverines were back at full strength. After pulling their goalie, the Sioux again brought the pressure and made Hunwick work for his shutout. But when Michigan found the empty net with thirty seconds left, it was all over. Another tough tournament loss for the Sioux.

The last NCAA title for North Dakota was in 2000. Since then, they’ve had plenty of talented teams that had excellent regular seasons only to fall short in the NCAA tournament. Have they become the Gophers of the Eighties and Nineties? Until they prove they can again win the big games, that’s a millstone they’ll be carrying.

The championship matchup is an intriguing one. Michigan has nine NCAA hockey titles (although only two in the last forty-six years). Minnesota Duluth has appeared in one championship game losing to Bowling Green in 1984 in fourteen overtimes. I won’t be attending Saturday’s game, but I will be pulling hard for the Bulldogs to win as I imagine most WCHA fans will. One thing that was interesting to note yesterday was the while Gopher, Sioux, and Badger fans all appeared to support UMD in the first game, a number of Gopher fans were openly cheering for Michigan in the second. And no Michigan fans were cheering for Notre Dame in the opener. I guess that CCHA blood isn’t so thick after all.

The coming Big 10 hockey conference will likely cause dilemmas in future settings. Will I really have to stand up for Michigan and their God awful maze and blue helmets out of fidelity to the conference? Somehow I just don’t see it happening. Go Dogs.