Best ... Weekend ... Ever
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Are you as tired as I am hearing about how great this past weekend's college basketball regional finals were? Yeah, three games went to overtime; yeah, maybe it was the best weekend ever of college basketball. But you know what? This was also the best weekend of college hockey ever. Yes, you heard that right. The ... Best ... Ever.
This, despite the fact that the end result was the WCHA tournament redux (no offense to the WCHA, really, but variety is the spice of life). This despite the fact that all the teams I was rooting for (and I make no apologies) lost.
(Here's the last time I proclaimed a weekend the best ever. It was close, but this had higher stakes)
There's another thing I'm tired of. I'm tired of hearing from fans of every team in every corner of the country who take every thing that's written personally. So let's clear this up: If someone makes a comment, even if it sounds mildly critical, it doesn't mean we "have it in for" your favorite team; it doesn't mean we're "out to get you."
In fact, I can pretty much safely say there are no college hockey programs I despise or even dislike. Lots of times there's praise, sometimes there's a little criticism. Sometimes it's not really even criticism, just an observation that people take as criticism. For some reason, there are folks who can't separate statements of opinion from personal vindiction.
If I say that I believe NCAA games should be played on 200x85 ice, it doesn't mean that I have a personal vendetta against the University of Minnesota (see below). One thing has nothing to do with the other. If I say that the committee may have wanted to consider making Cornell a No. 1 seed, it doesn't mean I have an issue with the superior greatness that is the WCHA. If I say that Harvard's defense has to play better than it has in the past, especially because it's on a big ice sheet, it's doesn't mean I "have it in for" Harvard players or the program or anything remotely close.
And if I say that I support KRACH and/or defend the placement of Cornell in the West Regional, it doesn't mean that I have it "in for" the ECAC (a thought that would be comical to anyone who knows me, but that is indicative of the ludicrous e-mail that I get).
Any rooting interest I have usually comes down to one thing: Rooting for the little guy. I like variety, I like to spread the wealth, I like to see good people at small programs get rewarded for their efforts; I think variety is great for this sport and would hate to see it dwindle.
This is where my interests lie. It's a positive towards those interests, not a negative towards the converse.
This is why I lament the all-WCHA final. Not because I have any problem whatsoever with the WCHA or any of the schools in the Frozen Four. In fact, I have an enormous amount of respect for George Gwozdecky and his program and all the great character players on that Denver team; and for Don Lucia and the job he's done with Minnesota since he arrived; and for Scott Owens and what's done at a small school following in Lucia's footsteps.
I pulled for the other schools because they were the underdogs, because I like to see things spread around, because the more all the schools can taste success the better off the entire sport will be.
I hope everyone can understand the distinction.
Now, of course, that this field is set, I will re-focus on the great hockey to be played, and tip my hat to all the fine people at these fine institutions. And I will be rooting for Colorado College ... because it hasn't won since 1957.
So I come back to my earlier comment ... that this was the best weekend of college hockey ever played. And again, I say that despite the fact that in 11 of the 12 games, the team I was pulling for lost. So it must have been pretty good.
Twelve games, nine decided by one goal (not including Denver's empty netter on Sunday), four in overtime. All four No. 4 seeds lost agonizing one-goal games to the No. 1 seeds, two of those coming in overtime.
The competition was tremendous, a testament, most of all, to the great coaching and great programs throughout college hockey right now.
Things kicked off Friday, with the Mercyhurst-Boston College game. No matter what the shots say, Mercyhurst put up a heckuva fight. The Lakers had two breakaways in the third period, and hit the post twice in a one-goal loss. It's easy to say in retrospect, but that game had horrific warning signs for the Eagles.
Still, you figured, like Denver, BC would shake off the first-round scare and come to play on Saturday. But North Dakota blitzed the Eagles, worse than it blitzed BU the night before.
A month ago, North Dakota was in danger of not making the NCAAs. But it's a testament to Dave Hakstol, in his first year as a head coach, in turning things around. Not that the Sioux were ever that terrible, just not quite up to Sioux standards. So many long-time assistants take over and struggle in the shadows of the great ex-head coach. But, even with knowing how good the WCHA was this year, North Dakota's dismantling of two Hockey East powers was stunning.
As the Mercyhurst game was happening, CC was having trouble with Colgate. Just as they did the week before in the ECAC tournament, the Raiders showed tremendous character coming back from two goals down in the third to tie. But that's when Brett Sterling scored the backbreaker late.
And that really summarized a lot of these close losses by the lower seeds. Tremendous heart and character, and in many cases a bit of a surprising amount of skill too. But there was always that one sniper that they don't have, coming to the forefront for the favorite, burying the underdog after a tantalizing game.
CC carried that over to the next night, becoming the first team since 1987 to rally from down 3-0 to Michigan and win. It was sweet revenge for a 2003 NCAA tournament loss to the Wolverines.
The West is well-chronicled — two agonizing losses by teams with great goaltending and defenses, Maine and Cornell — or two clutch wins by the Gophers, depending on how you look at it.
Cornell played its system to a 'T,' the only difference being that, on the big ice, it took longer to wear down the opponent. First, Cornell had to catch the Gophers. The Big Red almost had to wait until Minnesota wore themselves out, zipping around the ice. It's not like the Gophers really had many odd-man chances. No doubt the Gophers dominated play, but they didn't have many scary chances.
So when it came to the end of the third and overtime, Cornell basically had the Gophers right where they wanted them. They staved off the onslaught, on the road, and were beginning to dominate the boards and puck possession. But like all these other games, the higher seed had the one sniper play to end it.
If I had one wish, it was that Cornell took it to Minnesota earlier on. I realize it's easier said than done, but since the Big Red weren't able to establish the wall early, why not try to exploit the big ice for their own purposes — show people they have some skill too? Take the Minnesota 'D' to the outside and go to the net more, instead of carrying it into the corners and trying to dig, dig, dig with no hope of anything happening. Works well on the smaller ice during the season, because you can generate offense off the boards. But when you're now eight feet farther away, it's harder. I thought there were opportunties to try to take the 'D' wide that Cornell missed.
Of course, what the heck do I know? Hard to criticize when the Big Red were 1-1 on the road and basically dominating in overtime. Cornell pretty much couldn't ask for anything more than that. So take my comments for what they're worth.
Then we have the Northeast, where I was stationed.
This time of year is for players like Kevin Ulanski. One of the three rag-tag walk-on senior Denver captains, he played this past weekend with a broken kneecap, after taking four games off following the injury. All he did was score two goals, including the OT game winner, against Bemidji State on Saturday. Last year, Denver's Connor James played with a broken leg. He taped it together, and the Denver senior was an instrumental part of the title run.
This year's Denver team is so much different than last year's, even though most of the players are the same. Part of that is because George Gwozdecky brought in a great freshman class that is also very big. Geoff Paukovich is huge. The other freshmen are almost as big. But another reason for the difference is the senior leadership, led by captain Matt Laatsch. He is so clearly more serious-minded about his duties than his predecessor, and the tone of the team follows suit.
Gwozdecky said last year's captains, led by warrior defenseman Ryan Caldwell, was loosey-goosey, which may have hurt the team's consistency, but helped them overcome the odds in the NCAA tournament. This year's group, Gwozdecky said, is more serious, which helped the consistency during the regular season. I worried, at times, this weekend, however, whether that approach would, by contrast, then undermine the Pioneers in the postseason. They didn't seem to be having a lot of fun dealing with Bemidji State, especially in overtime. Gwozdecky had to remind his troops to "have fun out there, boys. This is what this is all about."
Caldwell, by the way, was in attendance for Sunday's final, sitting with ex-Denver goalie Wade Dubielewicz and ex-New Hampshire forward Colin Hemmingway, brother of Brett, who was playing in the game against Denver.
I loved Gabe Gauthier's story. Asked to name one thing people might not know about him, he said "I sweat a lot." He then went on to say that he used to get physically ill before games. He said it happened until he was age 14, and that he even still gets some butterflies. But clearly, he's overcome all that, turning in clutch performance after clutch performance, including his hat trick in the regional final.
It's also amazing how effective a defensive player Gauthier is. His offense suffers slightly, and maybe he loses a little 5-on-5 ice time if forced to kill a lot of penalties, but you'd be hard-pressed to find many better two-way players in college hockey. Two that quickly come to mind are Patrick Eaves and Jeff Tambellini. I'm sure there's others.
It was the first time I ever met Bemidji coach Tom Serratore, and you could not help but come away impressed with his demeanor, attitude, and all-around spirit. He wasn't afraid and his team wasn't afraid, and they very, very easily could've beaten Denver in that first-round game.
Finally, one last word about the WCHA Tournament — er Frozen Four. The four best teams made it. Case closed. All the lamenting in the world isn't going to change that. Those who think it's annoying are just going to have to live with it. I've been saying all year that I genuinely believed the KRACH ratings were correct, and that the WCHA was really, truly THAT good. So there it is.
As I alluded to earlier, I received all sorts of hate mail from Minnesota this past week for suggesting that NCAA tournament games should not be played on Olympic-sized ice. The mail ranged from coherent and friendly bantering, to those who might need a saliva test.
So let's re-clarify for those reading-comprehension-challenged among us ...
This opinion does not mean that I "have it in for" the WCHA or the University of Minnesota.
Almost 50 of the 58 schools playing D-I hockey have NHL-sized ice surfaces. A couple go to 90 feet wide. It's well known that going down to a smaller sheet is easier than going up. So if that many teams play on the small ice, it's clearly a disadvantage. Whereas if it goes the other way, it's much less of a disadvantage (if at all), and only for eight teams.
I understand why regionals are still held at home locations, but having to play on the big ice is a double whammy to the opponent.
I also realize that this is asking a lot, but I believe the goal should be to play all NCAA games on 200x85.
Now ... among the mail I received, a few were along these lines: "Wodon, you moron, don't you actually read the NCAA rule book? It says that games, when possible, should be played on a 200x100 sheet."
My reaction, initially, was "no freakin' way." This is not possible. I've been talking to coaches and commissioners for years, and they are in agreement, across the board, that Olympic-sized ice is no longer anyone's preference. All the new arenas in recent years have been NHL-sized, or like BU's Agganis Arena, at 200x90.
So, in Worcester, I spoke to Frank Cole, the NCAA's Director of Officiating. I said, "Frank, I'm getting swamped with hate mail from Minnesota. They say that there's a preference in the rule book for 200x100." Frank says he doesn't think so. He says there's no mandate one way or another. But he tells me he'll go get the book, just to check.
He leaves, he comes back, and ... Lo and behold, there it is.
At which point Cole immediately makes a notation in his copy of the rule book to make sure they get rid of that passage ASAP. "Blame Joe," Cole says. He's referring to Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna, standing about a hundred feet down the hall. Bertagna is the former rules committee chair.
So I say to Joe, "Joe, haven't you been telling me for years that coaches now prefer the smaller sheet?" He says, "Yeah," reiterating it all. And I say, "Well, the rule book says otherwise. You guys are killing me, hanging me out to dry with all these Minnesota fans."
And Joe makes a similar mental note: This will be changed in Naples.
And just to answer all your questions: No, I don't believe the game is better on larger ice. I think you can have an exciting, open game on a NHL-sized sheet. The plodding nature of NHL games has little to do with the size of the ice sheet. The reason Minnesota, CC and New Hampshire games are exciting, is because those teams have good players. Minnesota, CC and UNH are still exciting on smaller sheets. The small sheet forces the play quicker, and emphasizes the forecheck, which I like.