Thursday, April 9, 2009

Real Madness in March

It’s seems that the NCAA men’s basketball tournament has been getting some flack lately for having been a dud of a tournament. North Carolina’s blowout of Michigan State in the championship game probably didn’t help that. While the men’s basketball tournament has gone on with games on network television and under the scrutiny of ESPN and all of its empire, the NCAA men’s hockey tournament has gone fairly unnoticed to the mainstream media. Most of the game’s were on ESPNU, and the media giant and cable companies do not always get along when it comes to carriage rights for the channel.

That’s too bad, because this year’s tournament has been nothing short of incredible. We all know about what happened in Princeton’s first-round game with Minnesota-Duluth, but that was just the start of what was an unbelievable first weekend of the tournament.

The tournament started on Friday afternoon in Bridgeport when Air Force, a four-seed, knocked off Michigan, a one-seed, and probably the school with the richest college hockey history and tradition (with no offense to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Boston College or anyone else). Air Force was making its third-straight trip to the tournament and had dropped heartbreakers in each of the previous two years. The third time was a charm and despite being outshot 43-13, the Falcons moved on.

The second game to get going was the first game in Minneapolis between first-seed Denver and fourth-seed Miami. TigerBlog got to see this one in person and it was not close. Miami dominated from start to finish and advanced. Two games played, two of the top-four team ousted.

Game three takes place back in Bridgeport and pits Yale and Vermont in a match-up of former ECAC foes. Yale had a great season, winning the ECAC regular season and playoff championships and climbing all the way to being the fifth overall seed in the tournament. Vermont comes into the game after losing in the Hockey East quarterfinals and not even making it to Boston. So what happens, Vermont wins handily. Three games, three teams wearing dark jerseys advance.

The fourth game of the tournament takes us back to Minneapolis. We all know what happened. Two late goals by Duluth force overtime and the Bulldogs advance. Still stings a bit.

On to Saturday. Two Frozen Four berths are on the line and two regionals get underway.

The day starts in Manchester, N.H., with third-seeded New Hampshire facing second-seeded North Dakota. TigerBlog is tuned in to ESPN2 and the game is back-and-forth but when the Sioux score midway through the third to go up 5-3, TigerBlog thinks its over. But a UNH goal two minutes later, then the Wildcats tied it with .01 seconds left in regulation (we thought .08 seconds was bad), and it’s headed to overtime. UNH carries the momentum right into the overtime session and 45 seconds in it is over. The lower seed advances for the fourth time in five games.

Meanwhile Princeton’s ECAC brethren Cornell is facing Northeastern in another 2-3 game in Grand Rapids, Mich. Northeastern is leading throughout, but… here comes Cornell. The Big Red tie it with four minutes left and Evan Barlow wins it with 18 seconds left. Another low seed wins.

Back to Manchester for the nightcap, it’s Boston University, the top overall seed for the tournament and Ohio State. This one isn’t close, BU wins 8-3 and sends Ohio State home, interestingly enough, on the same airplane that Princeton flew home from Minnesota on earlier that day.

One more first-round game left on the docket in Grand Rapids between the tournament’s second-seed Notre Dame and the last team in the tournament, CHA-champion Bemidji State. Once again, it isn’t close, 5-1 Bemidji State. Talk about upsets, in a sense the Beavers were the 16th-ranked team in the field, but looking at RPI, the Beavers ranked 37th in the nation. Once again, another low seed moves on. Six of eight low seeds win in the first round.

The first Frozen Four bid was awarded in Minneapolis and went to Miami as the Redhawks defeated Duluth 2-1. It was an exciting game and Miami advances to its first Frozen Four. Interestingly, Miami, a four-seed that lost in its conference quarterfinals, advances to the Frozen Four. Last year, Miami was a one-seed and one of the top teams in the nation all year and didn’t make it the Frozen Four.

As the Miami game ends, the Vermont-Air Force game, also for a Frozen Four berth might be over. The teams are milling around as the referees are looking over the video replay of a shot that may have gone into the Air Force goal six minutes of game time ago. After an exhaustive replay, the game is over. Dan Lawson’s shot went through the Air Force net. The refs got it right, but the rule is that a play can not be ruled until the next whistle, which came six minutes later. Can you imagine the situation if Air Force had scored? TigerBlog once saw New Jersey Devils Ken Daneyko (36 goals in 1,283 NHL games) lose a goal this way.

So, Day 2 is down and two teams are on to D.C. Both teams lost in the quarterfinals of their conference tournaments at home, but are a win away from the National Championship game.

The opening weekend wraps on Sunday with two games and two more Frozen Four berths.

The first goes to BU. Not a surprise in that the tournament’s top seed advances, but BU gets a power-play goal with 15 seconds left in regulation to win 2-1. The second goes to Bemidji State. Cornell scores first, but Bemidji turns it on in the third and their Cinderella run continues on to Washington.

So, the Frozen Four is set and starts today. At 5 p.m., the first semifinal gets underway with Bemidji State facing Miami. It continues at 8:30 p.m., with Vermont and Boston University.

These games air on ESPN2, so hopefully those who were unable to watch the earlier rounds will be able to enjoy college hockey this weekend. Hopefully the tournament also continues at the pace and level that it did two weekends ago.

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