All We Could Ask For
Union, Minnesota Play Classic in Philadelphia
by Ryan Lambert/Columnist
PHILADELPHIA It's so rare that this happens.
This was a title game between the two unequivocal best teams in the country, unfettered by any issues that plagued the other teams in this field.
Boston College, for example, had some serious questions about scoring depth and perhaps goaltending, and those weren't exactly erased by what transpired in the semifinal a few days ago. North Dakota, likewise, was an iffy possession team that was anchored by strong defense but didn't exactly overwhelm offensively, and those issues too were on exhibit Thursday night.
The NCAA field's leftovers are essentially a laundry list of notably imperfect teams. Lowell's offense was only a little better than average, Quinnipiac had dubious goaltending, Notre Dame disappeared at times, Ferris State's possession numbers were deeply subpar, St. Cloud had little in the way of depth. The list goes on.
But then you get to these two teams playing Saturday night. Minnesota and Union may not be perfect, but by any reasonable metrics they are certainly the two closest teams to it in the country this season. Minnesota suffered no shocking upset losses all season, except with the understanding that nearly any team that beats them was lucky to have done so (the notable exception to this, of course, being Union). The Dutchmen might have taken it on the chin a few times, these instances at the start of the season – swept by Lake State? Really? – but the shaking loose from whatever restraints were holding them back came on the first day of November, when they handed it to Dartmouth. Since then, they've been nigh invincible, losing only three more games, and establishing themselves as the hottest team in the nation.
They are basically almost free of flaws, and consequently they are terribly similar. The goaltending is excellent. The defense is staunch. The offense is, or at least can be, explosive. The depth is there. The coaching is there. The highest winning percentages in the country, huge goal differentials, big save percentages, efficient and deadly offenses.
Really, it was only fitting that these two teams should arrive at this point, and face off for the national title. And so rare. It seems as though two No. 1 seeds never play for the national title. Let alone the two that are ranked first and second in the national polls (with the obvious caveat that polls are dumb and bad ways to judge anything at all ever). These are teams ranked first and third in the Pairwise coming in, and the team that was second was thoroughly pushed around – though not altogether dominated – by the three.
Because neither was perfect and neither was invincible, their games in this tournament were anything but predictable. Union more or less breezed through its regional but ran into difficulties against BC in terms of getting that first goal and then as the game wore on. Minnesota had trouble with North Dakota for the majority of the game, mostly because it couldn't find a way past Zane Gothberg until there was so title time left on the clock that the human eye had difficulty determining if there was any remaining at all.
How they arrive at that sameness, that success, is of course very different. Union does it through the defense and the rush. Minnesota through relentless cycling down low and its high-test forwards. Both are staunch defensively, at least by reputation.
But then there was the game itself. And what a game it was. A wilder first period likely could not be drawn up by the most creative of minds; ultra-active power plays, weird goals, beautiful goals, hard-working goals. In fact, that second Union goal was the product of not one, two, three, or even four shots on goal, but seven. Then they scored again 57 seconds later and took a lead for the first time, and then another 57 seconds after that one. During a span of 4:26, the Dutchmen went on a 13-0 run of shots on goal, scoring three times in 1:54 to take the game from 2-1 Minnesota to 4-2 Union. And those were only two of the three goals in the period scored less than a minute after another.
Logically, nothing could follow that opening 20 minutes, with its combined 35 shots on net, six goals, and 70 shot attempts. Seventy. It's like having the big, bloody shootout at the end of Scarface immediately after the opening credits, but then you still have to watch a whole movie after. It was exhausting in the very best way possible, unless, one supposes, you're a coach.
Except that Minnesota went out and scored on its second shot of the middle period, only 1:13 into it. And had six shots in less than five minutes. And so on. The game went on like this. Every shot, no matter how innocuous, elicited oohs and ahs from the crowd, because they'd seen so many seemingly harmless attempts result in goofy rebounds that wound up in the back of the net that they couldn't be begrudged their amazement when a shot zipped wide or got smothered. Every save was met with a disappointed or relieved collective sigh. Crazier things had happened, after all. Not only over the course of the season, but usually within the confines of the previous 10 shifts.
But things settled down, at long last. That's what all involved should have expected given the quality of coaching for both these teams. Calming words, extolling greater attention to detail, and yes, that well-known athletic ethos of doing what got you there, all brought the game to a manageable simmer from the frothing boil that threatened to push everything past the brink of recognizable championship-quality defense. Big saves, big chances, big stage. The teams, in the end, danced with who they came to the dance with, and that too guaranteed entertaining hockey. Just not of the delirious sort. Union added the insurance goals in the third to salt the game away. Fans seemed almost too tired to react the way they had a few hours earlier. They'd been through a lot.
The Dutchmen will take the conditions of the game, because they won. That was really all that mattered, wasn't it? No matter how perilous or needlessly eventful the climb, getting to the top of the mountain was worth it all.
The 18,742 fans in attendance had to feel the same way about the price of admission.