April 5, 2006 PRINT Bookmark and Share

On the Fly: Down the Stretch

by Mike Machnik/CHN Senior Editor

As the season winds up this week, we take a look at a player who might be getting overlooked for the Hobey Baker Award, how "home" teams have done in the Frozen Four, and some notable upsets in NCAA tournament play in the wake of Holy Cross stunning Minnesota two weeks ago.

Chris Collins for Hobey

Why not? Amidst a lot of media attention for the other two members of the Hobey Hat Trick, Denver defenseman Matt Carle and Wisconsin goaltender Brian Elliott, Chris Collins of Boston College seems to be getting the short end of the stick, no pun intended.

It is interesting that all three positions are represented by the three finalists (or is that "final finalists") — and it makes a comparison among the three a little tougher than usual. There's no question that all three players were among the very best nationally at their positions this season, and very likely each was the best.

So why Collins? Well, the first thing that jumps out at you are the numbers and honors. 31 goals (second nationally) and 60 points (third). Hockey East Player of the Year and likely First Team All-American. The majority of BC's offense came from Collins' line this season after the departure of players like Patrick Eaves and Ryan Shannon left Eagle fans wondering if the team would have enough horses to make a run at anything, let alone a title.

Heading into this season, BC lost four of its top five scorers, with junior Brian Boyle as the only returning player to have ever scored in double digits in goals — aside from Collins' 11 goals as a rookie.

All Collins did was put the Eagles on his back and carry them to a No. 1 ranking part of the year and a first-place standing in Hockey East until the final day of the season, when BC was eclipsed by Boston University for the top spot.

And make no mistake about it, putting them on his back is exactly what he did. Collins had 18 multiple-point games, including nine multiple-goal games and two hat tricks. He seemed to come up with the big goal — or goals — virtually all season long. With BC on the verge of going down one game to none against Vermont in the Hockey East quarterfinals, Collins tied the game with a goal in the final minute. BC would win in overtime and clinch the next night, with Collins scoring two and setting up another to give the Eagles a lead they would not relinquish.

With Collins nursing a painful hip pointer suffered the following week in practice, BC still made it to the Hockey East championship game but fell to BU in overtime.

Would a healthy Collins have made a difference? Maybe, maybe not, but partly because of him, BC lived to fight another day in the NCAA tournament — and would exact its revenge on the Terriers a week later. Even though he still wasn't 100%, Collins played a key in that win, pressuring the BU defense into a bad giveaway early on that resulted in Boyle's unassisted goal — unassisted except for the fact that Collins' intense forecheck caused the mistake that led to the goal. It was a textbook example of the kind of play that doesn't show up on the scoresheet but helps you win games. The kind of play Collins has made all year long.

Along the same lines, his strong play enabled the Eagles to completely shut down the Terriers' top line and power play. Collins was known primarily as a defensive asset before this season, helping make the BC penalty kill (five shorthanded goals in '05-'06) and team defense one of the best perennially. His coach, Jerry York, knew he could count on Collins to do the job defensively. What no one knew was that this year, he would blossom the way he did offensively and become not only a complete player, but possibly the best two-way player in the country.

And he did it while helping captain a BC team that was the youngest team in Division I. This was a team that needed leadership and direction, and Collins gave them that on and off the ice. "Strength of character", as it says in the selection criteria for the Hobey, and contributing "to the integrity of the team". There's no question he ranks right up there in the so-called intangibles.

Every way you look at it, Collins embodies the spirit of the Hobey Baker Award, and he clearly deserves his spot in the final three. Conventional wisdom has it going to Carle or Elliott — and they are certainly worthy recipients, too. But conventional wisdom has been wrong before. So don't be surprised if it's Collins who is called up to the stage Friday night in Milwaukee.

Home Sweet Home

With this season's Frozen Four taking place in Milwaukee and hometown Wisconsin advancing to the Beer City in search of its first NCAA title since 1990, it's no surprise many like the Badgers to beat Maine and then either BC or North Dakota.

But does having the finals in your backyard give you that big of an edge? Not really, if the last 20 years are any indication.

In 2004 (Boston), both Maine and BC failed in their quest, as Denver took home its first of two straight titles.

North Dakota won in 2000, edging Maine and BC in Providence. Michigan knocked off New Hampshire and BC in Boston in 1998. Minnesota fell in the semifinals to BU in 1994 and in the final to Harvard in 1989, both in St. Paul. St. Lawrence lost to Lake Superior in Lake Placid in 1988. Michigan State lost to North Dakota in Detroit in 1987. Harvard lost to MSU in Providence in 1986.

But 2003 saw Minnesota squeak past Michigan and Maine in St. Paul. And BU collected the trophy in Providence in 1995 — against Maine.

Using an admittedly loose definition of "backyard", that means teams with that going for them have failed to win the whole enchilada in 12 out of 14 tries since 1986. That's not a good trend if you're a Badger fan — and it's reason for hope if you're an Eagle, Black Bear or Sioux fan.

Biggest Upset Ever

Holy Cross's shocking 4-3 overtime win over No. 1 seed Minnesota was certainly the biggest upset in the short history of the 16-team NCAA tournament. Was it the biggest ever?

It's always tough when you talk about "ever", but there are really only three wins in the last 20 years or so that the Crusaders' win can be compared with.

One was Niagara's first-round win over New Hampshire in 2000. Niagara qualified for the tournament with an at-large bid — they were a member of College Hockey America, but the league didn't have an automatic bid yet. However, Niagara certainly wasn't an unknown that year. The Purple Eagles entered the tournament with 29 wins, including decisions over BU and Cornell, and the year before they had won at Michigan and over Ohio State.

Another was Merrimack's first-round win over Beanpot and Hockey East Northeastern in 1988. It was the first year of the expanded 12-team tournament, and terms of the expansion required the selection committee to include the top Independent team. The Warriors won 32 games — most against Division II opponents — but did beat NCAA teams Lowell and NU. In fact, their mid-season win over NU was reason to believe they could pull the upset in the NCAAs. Plus, although the Huskies had upset Maine in the Hockey East final, it was not a strong year for the league with perennial powers BC and BU decimated by graduation and losses to the U.S. Olympic Team — probably the most talented non-NHL U.S. team ever, but that's another story.

It was really the way Merrimack won that was the surprise, dropping the first game and then falling behind 8-3 in total goals midway through the second game before scoring seven unanswered to shock the Huskies. The Warriors' 4-3 win the next week at Lake Superior in Game One of their series was probably a bigger upset, as the Lakers had the best home record in the nation. But it would be overlooked when LSSU won the series the next night and went on to claim its first title in Lake Placid.

The other major upset came from another Independent team, Alaska-Anchorage, which won back-to-back games at BC in 1991, the last year of the best-of-three series before the switch to regional play. UAA came in barely over .500, while BC was the regular season Hockey East champ and had 27 wins. BC had been upset by eighth place Northeastern in the league quarterfinals, but the extra week off only appeared to mean more rest for the Eagles as they chomped at the bit to bounce back. No one thought UAA had a chance.

This is the only win that seems comparable to what Holy Cross did. BC was stacked, with a number of players who would go on to the NHL. They were the first-place team in a very strong year for Hockey East, which would see BU and Maine go to the NCAA semifinals (both lost to champ Northern Michigan, Maine in the semifinal and BU in a triple overtime 8-7 final). And to get by them, UAA had to pull not one but two major upsets on the road. They did that, just 24 hours apart.

Because of that, the nod here goes to UAA, but Holy Cross is a close second. And either way, the Crusaders' win was certainly one of the more memorable ones in tournament history, one we'll be talking about for years to come.

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