April 2, 2009 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Through the Looking Glass

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

PICTORIAL: NCAA East - Vermont (see full pictorial)

Head coach Kevin Sneddon celebrates after Vermont won the East Regional.

Vermont defeated Air Force, 3-2, in overtime to win the East Regional and make the Frozen Four for the first time since 1996. The winning goal came in OT, after a lengthy video review of a play that happened a few minutes before the whistle.(photos: Paige Ozaroski)

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Just a week ago, I wrote that the conference tournament Saturday was perhaps the best night in college hockey history. Amazing finish after amazing finish, and huge outbursts from the likes of Boston University and Notre Dame to overcome deficits. Five of the 10 games that Saturday had extra attacker goals to tie it, and two of those then had proceeding game winners in regulation.

But we may have to rethink this "greatest weekend ever" thing, after just one week. What further superlative can be used to describe what went on in the NCAAs this past weekend?

Chalk it up to parity, to fate and fortune, to the stars being aligned in such a way. Heck, blame it on global warming. Whatever the case may be, Regional weekend of NCAA tournament play went beyond superlatives, and was filled with mind-bending drama piled on top of delirious drama.

Every year, we think we've witnessed some series of special moments that this tournament brings, something new and noteworthy for the ages. Every year, we are not disappointed.

But this year, this tournament takes the cake.

Bracket buster? You haven't even heard of bracket buster until you try this tournament on for size.

We literally ran out of ways to describe what was going on. If Friday's Minnesota-Duluth rally was a "miracle," then what the heck do you call New Hampshire's on Saturday? If Air Force's win was a stunning upset, then what was Bemidji State's run?

But, since we're a publication that writes, let's review the weekend that was, and hope that, in summary, it starts to make some sense.

So it begins ...

Friday afternoon — The weekend begins innocently enough, with a game between Air Force and mighty Michigan. By 4 p.m., we can already tell something is amiss — Air Force is winning. OK, we've seen this before. Didn't the Falcons have a 3-1 lead on Minnesota with eight minutes left and lose the game? Didn't they take Miami to OT last year? But as Andrew Volkening kept making save after save, something seemed different here. The last five minutes were startlingly anti-climactic. Michigan delivered no great closing deluge on Air Force, going away kinda quietly, actually. Air Force wins 2-0.

Friday evening Miami shuts down Denver, and rolls to a 4-2 win. No major dramatics here, just another No. 4 seed taking down a No. 1 seed. A No. 4 seed that didn't play the weekend before, having lost its conference tournament quarterfinal series — starting a trend. In fact, the Bridgeport late game winner, Vermont, had the same path. It took down Yale, 4-1, as the hometown Bulldogs could never muster anything close to what it did in rolling to an ECAC title. No dramatics, just two more lower seeds winning. Our headline at that point, "Now We've Got Bedlam," a reference to Al Michaels' call in the aftermath of Mike Eruzione's game-winning goal against the Soviets in 1980.

Friday night — The ECAC, forever in search of respect, had three deserving Ivy League teams in the tournament, with good chances to make noise. Yale and Princeton were making their third NCAA appearances each, and the only win among them was a consolation game victory in 1952. But Princeton appeared to be changing that, up 4-2 with a minute remaining against Minnesota-Duluth, against a goalie, Alex Stalock, that had only allowed one goal in three games at the high-powered Final Five. Take that. But that turned into one of the most crushing defeats — or amazing wins — you will ever see. UMD scored a power-play goal with 39 second left. Still, Princeton had a neutral zone draw with 12 seconds left. Then, with four seconds left, goalie Zane Kalemba gloved a dump in. Instead of freezing it, he tried to dump the puck behind the net. But UMD pounced, threw it to the circle, where it was wristed in with 0.8 remaining. UMD scored another PPG in OT. Our headline "Miracle in Minnesota." Little did we know.

On a personal note, I've been somewhat close to the Princeton program since 1993. Without a TV feed in Bridgeport, I listened to a friend give me description of the closing minute over cell phone. The end of regulation was like a kick in the gut — six times. It reminded me of the only other game that seemed worse — the 1999 ECAC semifinal. Princeton trailed Clarkson 4-0 in the third, rallied to make it 5-3, then eventually tied with 50 seconds left ... only to have Willie Mitchell score on a 90-foot slapper with two seconds left. I didn't think anything could feel worse than that. This was right there, especially given the stakes.

As Joe Marsh said last weekend, after his St. Lawrence team blew a game in the last minute to Yale, in similarly epic fashion, "Sports is cruel, but that's also what makes it exciting." Truer words have never been spoken. The monumental highs and lows, with fortunes changing on a dime. For every dramatic, thrilling, miraculous win — there is a gut-wrenching, punch-to-the-stomach, loss. For UMD fans, obviously this was a continuation of their elation from the Final Five just a week earlier.

Saturday afternoon — What possibly could this new day bring? How about trying this on for size: Fresh off the UMD thriller the night before, New Hampshire did them one better. Scoring with 0.8 seconds left? Ha, mere child's play. New Hampshire scored with 0.1 seconds left to force overtime, then won it early, leaving North Dakota dazed and confused. "The Miracles Continue," we wrote, and to that point, the only higher seed to win in five games was the result of UMD's miracle. Meanwhile, Cornell was down 2-0 to Northeastern in the Midwest Regional. But, the Big Red laugh at such things. If you were thinking straight at all at that point, you'd have concluded that Cornell was inevitably going to win that game. 1) Northeastern has had a propensity for losing leads late in big games; 2) Cornell went down 2-0 in each of its last two first-round games (2005, 2006) only to win both (over OSU and CC); 3) This was the wacky 2009 NCAA tournament. Lo and behold, Cornell rallied, tied the game with four minutes left, and won it with 17 seconds remaining — the third game out of six to see a key goal in the closing 20 seconds, and the fifth lower seed out of six to win.

Saturday evening Boston University restored some sanity to the tournament, winning 8-3. BOR-ING! Out West, Miami was taking out Minnesota-Duluth, 2-1, in a game that certainly had drama to the very end, if not a last-second goal. Like Notre Dame last year, Miami came from a No. 4 seed to win the West Region.

Saturday night — The fun really begins. As the Vermont-Air Force East Regional final was turning itself into an epic, the word began to trickle in from Grand Rapids. Bemidji State up 1-0, Bemidji up 2-0, Bemidji up 3-0. What the heck? A CHA team had won before, nine years ago. A CHA team like Alabama-Huntsville extended Notre Dame to OT in 2007, Bemidji State to Denver in 2005. Atlantic Hockey teams have lost close games before too. But this spanking by Bemidji over Notre Dame? As John McEnroe would say, "You can't be serious." The weekend before, Notre Dame was down 2-0 to Michigan, then blitzed the Wolverines for five straight goals en route to the CCHA tournament championship. We kept waiting for a similar outburst. It never happened. It got to 4-1, but then 5-1. Game over. Shocked, stunned, mouths agape — we watched the rest of Air Force-Vermont. All that happened there was, Air Force tied it midway through the third, and the game went to double OT. As if things weren't crazy enough already, the first OT ended with a video review of a play, while Air Force was already off the ice and in the locker room. Could you imagine if the game ended with Air Force already gone? That's like, crazy, ain't it? Ha, but wait. Turns out that play was a no-goal. But in the second OT, Vermont had another play reviewed. Thing is, no one but some people on the ice knew which one. Two minutes prior to the whistle blowing, some people thought they might have seen the net move, but didn't think more of it as play continued. So when the refs stopped play after a goalmouth scramble, it was assumed that play was being reviewed. But that wasn't close to a goal. However, as the delay stretched over 10 minutes, the wonder of modern technology kicked in — suddenly, people throughout the arena, including media, were getting alerted by friends via text message that the goal being reviewed was actually from two minutes prior to the stoppage. Wow! That actually has a chance. You thought the end of the first OT was goofy. It was a weird way to end things, but so long as the call was right, that's what was most important. No one's fault that it happened the way it happened. And indeed it was a goal. Bedlam. Again. Our headline: "Wow. Just ... Wow!" How else to describe all we'd seen this weekend?

Sunday afternoon — Still getting over the buzz of the tournament's first 10 games, Boston University and New Hampshire added to the drama with yet another late goal. BU scored on a power play in the closing minute of regulation, to win 2-1. Considering all else that had gone on, it practically seemed anti-climactic. But hardly.

Sunday night — BU's win was a pre-cursor to the late game. Cornell wasn't expected, realistically, to contend for the Frozen Four this season. But after Mike Schafer extended his NCAA First Round record to 6-1 on Saturday, and Bemidji knocked off daunting Notre Dame, forgive the Big Red and their fans from getting wildly optimistic for having a Frozen Four fall right in their lap. Cornell might not have had its strongest NCAA team this year, but Bemidji was not just a 16 seed, but ranked 37th in KRACH. One upset, fine — but two? And Bemidji got the lead against Notre Dame — but against the Big Red, Cornell scored first, midway through the second period. Cornell was doing everything it wanted to do — playing a textbook game. BSU coach Tom Serratore admitted to being concerned at that point, because his team couldn't generate anything whatsoever. But out of the blue, here came the Beavers. One goal, two goals, three goals. Cornell seemed out of sorts, the energy was gone. Bemidji was able to generate speed off the rush, pin Cornell in deep. Cornell had chances, fought back, but couldn't score. Game over. 4-1.

In the end, Bemidji State — 37th in KRACH — actually rolled to the two easiest wins of any team in the tournament, scoring nine goals against two of the best defensive teams in the nation.

And so it goes ...

In retrospect, maybe we should have known this was coming. The tournament started strangely before it even began. For the first time since 1968, neither Minnesota, Wisconsin, Boston College, Michigan State or Colorado College made the NCAA tournament. That's crazy enough. Then, in the first round, all-time powers Michigan and Denver went down, as No. 1 seeds, along with Notre Dame.

So the final eight included four teams that had won a combined two NCAA games previously in their history, and three other teams that had been to the Frozen Four a combined twice in the last 12 years (Cornell, Minnesota-Duluth and BU — only BU hadn't, and it was the one that made it). That leaves New Hampshire, which has had success, but never won a national title.

Among the Frozen Four teams, only BU has had any NCAA success to speak of prior to last weekend, and its last championship was 14 years ago.

Bemidji State — the only team in the Frozen Four that will not start a freshman goalie — is now the "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" of this Frozen Four. The Beavers winning a national championship has the same odds as fighting corruption in Washington, but Jimmy Stewart got it done.

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