Saturday, March 24, 2012

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: Now, You See Why I Give Everyone A Shot

WORCESTER, Mass. -- I get crap every year, it seems, for not wanting to make any predictions on the NCAA Tournament.

Now you see why.

16 teams make this tournament. Any damn one of them could hoist the trophy in Tampa, and they all have a shot until someone eliminates them.

It sounds like cliche-ish coach speak, and it might be, but it's also absolutely, positively true. 100 percent true.

Proven again Friday, when two lower-seeded teams -- including one that blew a 3-0 lead and took a five-minute major penalty that spilled into overtime -- won games on a scintillating night of action to open the tournament.

Seeds don't matter. "Skill level" doesn't matter.

I went on a Twitter rant earlier this week, talking about how this is NOT the best way to decide the best team in college hockey. In reality, this isn't even a way to decide something like that.

That doesn't mean it's not a great tournament.

Reality is that tournaments don't decide the best team, because the best team rarely wins, especially when it's "win or go home." Other sports try, by conducting best-of-five or best-of-seven series, but even those samples are often too small to do anything but muddy the water.

Over the course of the college hockey regular season, there's no question -- no doubt whatsoever -- that Michigan was a better team than Cornell. More wins. Better power ratings. Better strength of schedule. Head to head, no one would have argued when comparing the two teams.

Of course, none of that matters now, because Cornell beat Michigan 3-2 in overtime in Green Bay Friday night. It's Cornell that moves on, and Michigan -- a team many expected to get back to Tampa and take another shot at its tenth national title -- is left to pick up the pieces.

You just want to give the big trophy to the best team over the course of an entire season? Talk to European soccer leagues. As an example, the Barclays Premier League -- regarded as the best of its kind in the world -- has 20 teams. Over the course of a 38-game campaign, each team plays everyone else in the league twice, once home and once away. Three points for a win, one for a draw, and at the end, the team with the most points is the champion.

It's fair. Complete round robin. No unbalanced schedule.

And if you want to just figure out the best team, it's about the only way.

Tournaments are about generating drama (well, revenue, too). They're about generating excitement. And they're about the fact that your particular group of teams is too big to have a fully balanced schedule, where you just give the title to the top record.

This is what's so wrong about college football, which tries to have it both ways. By not instituting a full-on playoff, one of the big talking points from the BCS hacks is that the regular season -- where the top teams rarely play head-to-head -- matters. But how can you say the regular season matters when the national championship game pitted two teams that had already played each other, and the team that lost the regular-season meeting at home ended up dominating in the "playoff" game?

In college hockey and other sports with a playoff system, the regular season matters. But for most of the 16 teams in the NCAA Tournament, the regular season was nothing but preparation for the NCAAs. You can try to get hot at the right time, and you can try to play your "best hockey" heading into the tournament, but games like Friday in Green Bay blow those theories out of the water.

Cornell was not hot, and Cornell was not playing its best entering the tournament. What mattered most was just getting into the tournament. Same for Ferris State, which beat Denver 2-1 in Green Bay Friday. The Bulldogs hadn't played for two weeks, because as the top seed in the CCHA tournament, they lost at home to Bowling Green in a best-of-three quarterfinal series. Denver, meanwhile, played very well at the WCHA Final Five last weekend, beating Michigan Tech and UMD in overtime (UMD in two overtimes, actually) before falling to North Dakota in the title game.

UMass-Lowell was similar, as the RiverHawks lost to Providence in three games in the Hockey East quarterfinals, took a weekend off, and ended up beating Miami in overtime in the East Regional Friday.

Every time you have a theory about how this all works, something happens to destroy it.

Makes me think more and more about what UMD coach Scott Sandelin said Friday. In talking about tournament experience, he mentioned that one of the things he's learned is to let his players enjoy these moments. It's hard to argue with that notion, because no matter how well you think you've prepared your team for it, there's just no guarantee that the moment will last.


Just another NCAA Tournament lid-lifter, eh? In the East, we're guaranteed to have a team in the Frozen Four for the first time ever, as UMass-Lowell will play Union for a spot in Tampa. Union's 3-1 win over Michigan State was the school's first NCAA Tournament win ever. Those teams meet Saturday at 5:30pm.

The other regional final Saturday pits Cornell against Ferris State in the Midwest. The ECAC hasn't placed two teams in the Frozen Four since 1996. Cornell in 2003 was the last to make it. The CCHA, meanwhile, started with five teams and is down to two (Ferris State and Western Michigan).

The Northeast Regional and West Regional semifinals are Saturday, with title games set for Sunday.


The usual keys apply for UMD and Maine on Saturday. The Bulldogs need to avoid the little mistakes that can turn into big problems. Against Denver, those mistakes ended up in the back of UMD's net. A bad dump-in turned into DU's first goal. A blue-line turnover led to a Jason Zucker breakaway goal. The inability to clear the puck from the defensive zone led to the double-overtime winner.

UMD played great outside of those mistakes, and it needs to continue that thread against Maine. Get pucks to the net. Get bodies to the net. Pressure the Black Bears defense and get in goalie Dan Sullivan's kitchen.

At the other end, protect the goalie. Play a simple game with chips out of the zone if there is nothing else available. Don't get bottled up because of silly turnovers or poor puck support.

Even doing all the right things guarantees you nothing, but at least there are no regrets for UMD if it plays its best game and is still beaten.


Our coverage from DCU Center in Worcester starts at 6pm, with faceoff at 6:30pm. IF Boston College and Air Force play overtime in the opening game, it's unlikely that the UMD game will start on time. There must be 50 minutes between games, so as long as that first game ends by 5:40, UMD will start as scheduled.

You can hear the game on 94X -- 94.1 FM in town, and 104.3 FM everywhere else -- and along the Bulldog Sports Radio Network, which includes KQ 105.5 (Grand Rapids area) and KQ 106.7 (Babbitt/Ely). On the internet, we have two streams of the game. One at The other stream can be accessed here. If you can get that stream from wherever you are, we ask that you do so. The stream is capped at 200 listeners, so the more people that listen to the other stream -- which has an unlimited audience -- the better. That will allow people who are on the go to use the Red Rock Radio app to listen to the game.

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