Thursday, March 24, 2016

Ten Years After Holy Cross, the NCAA Tournament Yields No True Upsets Anymore

WORCESTER, Mass. -- When you look at the history of the NCAA Hockey Tournament, things changed on March 24, 2006, ten years ago to this day.

It wasn't a moment that Minnesota Gopher fans want to remember, but it might be one of the more significant happenings in the history of college hockey.

(Justin Holl's buzzer-beater against North Dakota in 2014 is also significant, guys, so don't think we're trying to make you feel bad here.)

It was that night at Ralph Engelstad Arena that Holy Cross became the first No. 4 regional seed to beat a No. 1 since the tournament went from 12 teams to 16 (and from two six-team regionals to four four-team regionals) in 2003. The Crusaders' run ended the next night at the hands of regional host North Dakota, but that's not why this is significant.

Holy Cross' win, while maybe not directly starting the storm, led us to a sea change in the college hockey world that makes us look differently on this tournament than we ever have before.

Since that fateful Tyler McGregor shot eluded Kellen Briggs and sent all those North Dakota fans in attendance into delirium, No. 4 regional seeds have made quite the impact on the tournament.

(By the way, Brad Schlossman has a great story up on the Holy Cross win, which is arguably the most memorable moment to date at The Ralph. Talked to McGregor and some others on the impact of the win.)

In the nine tournaments since 2006, No. 4 regional seeds are 15-21 in opening round games against No. 1 seeds, with at least one team winning at least one game every year. In 2008, Notre Dame became the first No. 4 seed to reach a Frozen Four, falling to Boston College in the championship game. At least one fourth seed has reached the Frozen Four in six of the last eight years (2009 and 2013 each had two). Four have played for national championships.

Oh, and two of the last three national champions (Yale in 2013 and Providence last year) were No. 4 regional seeds.

"It's the parity across college hockey," Providence coach Nate Leaman said. "To say that someone's a one seed or a four seed, when there's tens or thousandths of a point on the RPI that separates them, there's not a lot. Teams are good. These are one-game scenarios.

"There are no one-seeds and four-seeds anymore."

There's no question that the gap between No. 1 and No. 16 is as small as it's ever been. Part of it is structure. It used to be that college hockey was helter-skelter and there was a lot more free-wheeling in the game. Just like every other level, structure has taken over the game. Everyone has video. There are no secrets. And everyone is getting good players.

Not everyone has the depth that a team like Providence can brag about, but the gap between the top lines on most teams has shrunk considerably over the years. Now, you look at RIT's top line, for example, and you see dangerous players that have to be accounted for. And it seems all teams good enough to get here have good goaltending nowadays.

"Parity," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. "You look at the last four or five years, all the first time (NCAA champions). It's made college hockey a lot better. There are no easy games in college hockey at any point of the year. It's hard sometimes as a coach. I think it's been great for our game."

"You might perceive some upsets," legendary Boston College coach Jerry York said, "but just like basketball, it's about who is the best team on that particular night. In hockey, there's not a wide disparity between the leagues now. Even the bottom parts of leagues are strong now.

"I think the field is very balanced. I think it's a lot closer from the really top end teams and what is generally considered 16 and below."

And it all started with plucky Holy Cross, one of those teams out of a one-bid league that had to win its conference tournament to get in. Minnesota, meanwhile, eased its way through a WCHA championship while posting 25 regular-season wins. After sweeping Alaska Anchorage in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, the Gophers were stunned at the Final Five, losing a crazy 8-7 overtime game to St. Cloud State in the semifinals before losing to Wisconsin 4-0 in the third-place game.

Despite those upsets, the Gophers were comfortably a No. 1 regional seed, second overall, and were placed in the closest regional to them, which was in Grand Forks. In North Dakota's building, the home of Minnesota's biggest rival.

We didn't know it at the time, but Minnesota was in a bad spot, and Holy Cross took full advantage.

I can't give the Crusaders all the credit. There had been close 1 vs 4 games prior, and there had been one-bid league champions making things very interesting against high-seeded teams. But Holy Cross was the first to get over the hump, and they've had a lot of company in that winner's circle since.

However, as the folks at BCInterruption have noted, there is a trend with the high seed teams that do survive the opening weekend muckedy muck: They're all close to home.

Since 2008, top regional seeds that are playing in-state are 11-1 in their regional games. Those that travel to their regional by bus are 17-3. The top seeds that fly to their regional site are just 7-13 (hi, North Dakota!).

It shouldn't matter, because the vast majority of teams are located within a two-hour flight of their regional (UMD flew two hours to Worcester for this round, going straight out of Duluth via a charter flight). But clearly it makes a difference.

(The same story shows No. 4 seeds are 16-19 when flying, versus 5-2 when playing in state, in case you were curious.)

Not making any predictions on this matchup, by the way. I have no idea how it will play out on Friday. What I do know is that both teams played well down the stretch. Providence won ten straight after an uneven 6-5-1 run from Christmas through a 3-1 loss to New Hampshire on Jan. 30. UMD won seven straight to shake off an 11-14-5 record and wiggle into the NCAA field as an at-large team.

And if UMD wins, it won't be a tremendous upset. Ten years ago, we would have looked at it differently. But Holy Cross vs Minnesota in Grand Forks changed that.

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