The difference between conference tournaments and the NCAA Tournament is, in general, familiarity.
By the time two teams reach a conference final together, they’ve already played a couple of times. They have a lot of common opponents, they’re easy to scout as a result, and conference playoff games often come down to finding an extra edge as a result. Unlike the national tournament, where teams hope to match strength with strength and teams are unfamiliar with each other.
Here are a couple of thoughts from the weekend of conference finals, and the upcoming week of NCAA action.
1. Extra Hockey Valley
For much of the season, Penn State’s rise, fall and rebound in the rankings has been a major part of the college hockey story. The young program, in only its fifth NCAA season, made noise early on in the year with an absurd record and a shoot-first style of hockey that led to some incredibly interesting box scores.
Yet, through December when they had the best record in the country, the attitude of many college hockey fans was that Penn State was punching above their weight; that the Nittany Lions were masking their flaws behind a strange style of play and an easy early schedule.
When the eventual stepbacks came, Penn State’s lack of age began to show. The question became whether Hockey Valley, as they brand themselves during the winter, could really hold on to make the NCAA field. Even as they established themselves as formidable during the Big Ten schedule, the image was burned in everybody’s mind that Penn State’s early start was a mirage and they could not compete when the games got tough.
An interesting counterpoint to that was posed this weekend. Pennsylvania State University’s still-brand-new hockey team, from Thursday through Saturday, played 13 periods of hockey. The first three against the team that had beaten them twice the previous weekend, then five against the top team in their conference, and five more against another Big Ten team that finished ahead of the Nittany Lions in the conference standings.
In three days, Penn State played three tough teams, and a combined four overtimes. They lost three leads, but zero games. In a turn of events few expected, they were even out-shot in the Big Ten final, and not by a small margin. Wisconsin took 17 more shots than Penn State on Saturday night.
Yet Penn State emerged with the Big Ten title, and the honor of being the last college hockey team to win a game at Joe Louis Arena. The young program is off to Cincinnati and the NCAA Tournament bid many thought they couldn’t achieve.
2. Hawk-ey East
Boston University and Boston College can fight all they want over Commonwealth Avenue, as far as Norm Bazin is concerned, so long as they recognize that Causeway Street belongs to his River Hawks these days.
UMass Lowell handily dispatched Notre Dame on Friday evening to book their fifth straight trip to the Hockey East final, just two short of a record of seven set in the early days of the conference. By all accounts, with the rising tide of more and more talent coming into college hockey, what Lowell has done should be tougher every year, yet this weekend they took the Hockey East tournament title for the third time in five years.
The weekend was not without close games in Boston, though. The Boston College-Boston University fracas ended in an actual fist fight. With under 10 seconds remaining, BC’s Ryan Fitzpatrick took a faceoff in his own end, fell over the puck, struggled to get up while the puck remained under him, and that was how it ended as BC eliminated the Terriers in a 3-2 win. The ending was, to say the least, dissatisfying to a number of BU players, which caused tempers to flare. It took quite a bit of time after the game to sort out the penalties, but rest assured the word misconduct was used a number of times.
That ending obscured a fantastic finish, where a 3-0 BC lead with three minutes remaining was whittled down to 3-2 in the final minute. Boston College’s Joe Woll was the difference, stopping 42 shots.
In the final however, it was Lowell who had the late lead, and Boston College that had to come rallying back. BC scored with 2:45 remaining in the game to narrow Lowell’s lead to one, but the difference in the game came down to two things:
- Tyler Wall made 38 saves for the River Hawks.
- The crossbar behind him made one in the last minute.
That goalie, and that crossbar, held off a furious Eagles finish to give Lowell their third Hockey East title.
3. More brackets
On Sunday, with all conference tournaments concluded, the NCAA Tournament has been selected and set. In setting the field, the selection committee reminded us that seeding doesn’t always count for much in this particular bracket. Consider the top seeds in each region.
Denver is playing in Cincinnati. As the top overall seed, they have the most comfortable neutral site, but all three other teams in the region are located much closer to Cincinnati.
Minnesota-Duluth is playing in Fargo. On the surface that seems like a reasonable place to put a team as highly regarded as the Bulldogs. If they reach the second round they may have to face North Dakota within the state of North Dakota. That seems like much less of a reward.
Harvard will have a nice and easy trip to nearby Providence, a fine neutral site for the Crimson. Problem is, they’ll be facing Providence College, who can walk to the venue from campus.
Minnesota travels to Manchester, N.H., where a possible second-round matchup includes nearly UMass Lowell, who just proved over the weekend that their fans can make a half hour drive without incident.
This is a brutal bracket for a lot of teams, and all four top seeds are among them. The selection committee seems to be calling for upsets this year, and at the end of the week it will be time to see if the teams meet the challenge.