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Some of these UMD Bulldogs will go on to play pro hockey, maybe in the NHL. Others won’t, and may go on into other endeavors. But nobody on this year’s Bulldog team will forget the tumultuous night of the NCHC playoff finals, when their hopes of making this weekend’s NCAA regionals went from solid, to precarious, to hopeless...and suddenly to ecstatic.
The drama began to unfold when UMD went to Saint Paul to play Denver in the NCHC semifinals, while top-seeded St. Cloud State faced North Dakota in the first semifinal. Goilng in, the Bulldogs looked solid, although the NCAA’s Pairwise computer system for final selections has a history of being eccentric at the finish.
UMD won the NCHC title over St. Cloud State a year ago, but advanced through the NCAA regional to reach the Frozen Four, where the Bulldogs lost a close battle against league rival Denver in the final. Coming to Xcel Center after sweeping Western Michigan in the league quarterfinals, the question was whether UMD would win the playoff, not fall out of the top 16.
Actually, the magic number to be safe in the Pairwise is 12, I figure. That leaves room for a couple of upsets in other conference playoffs, where an unranked team could win the automatic berth and bump out whatever team might be ranked 14 or 15 or 16.
The Bulldogs played Denver tough, as they always do, but came out on the short end in the semifinals. It was 3-1 after an empty-net goal, but Denver clamped down on the Dogs to remain undefeated against them in what is now five games this season.
Scoring star Henrik Bergstron put Denver up 1-0 in the first period on a power play. But UMD’s brilliant freshman defenseman/scoring leader tied it with a power-play missile himself at 1:37 of the second period. UMD sophomore goaltender Hunter Shepard came up with a lbig save at 4:22, lbut in the scramble in front, Colin Staub got to the rebound and knocked it in for a 2-1 Denver lead.
UMD outshot the Pioneers 16-4 in that second period, but couldn’t catch a break when an attempted scoring rush seemed to work out, but a late — very late — whistle for an offside was blown just as the puck went into the goal and it had to be waved off.
That break evened out in the third period when Staub tried to score again. This time his rebound on a shot from the left edge popped up to the right, and Troy Terry, the swift Denver winger who starred for Team USA in the recent Olympics, took a letter-high swing and knocked the puck in for an apparent 3-1 lead. An official, right on top of the play, immediately waved off the goal, presumably for being hit with a high stick. High, in hockey, is 4 feet, the height of the crossbar, which makes it easy to judge. So it stayed 2-1, while a pretty conclusive photo (accompanying this story) is too late to provide evidence to the contrary.
Turned out, Adam Plant fired a 90-footer into the open net with 49 seconds remaining and Denver had knocked off UMD 3-1.
That left UMD to take on a desperate North Dakota outfit in Saturday’s third-place game, with UMD still standing 12th in the Pairwise, just a notch ahead of No. 13 Minnesota, which hasn’t played for three weeks after being uncermoniously swept by Penn State in the Big Ten quarterfinal series. North Dakota figured to have to win to sneak past the Gophers. That’s when the fun began.
North Dakota did whip UMD, 4-1, but didn’t rise above Minnesota. UMD,, however, dropped behind Minnesota in the Pairwise calclulation, trailing by .0003 of a Pairwise point. That report came in late afternoon, after the UMD loss, but before the final six conference playoff championship games. The Minneaplis Star Tribune took the unusual plunge of saying Minnesota was a virtual lock to make it, barely pointing out that the only possible way the Gophers could miss was that if all six championship games went a certain way.
Denver had to kncck off top-seeded St. Cloud State in the NCHC, Princeton would have to upset top-seeded Clarkson in the ECAC final, Boston University would have to upset favored Providence in the Hockey East final, Notre Dame would have to beat Ohio State for the Big Ten playoff title, Michigan Tech would have to beat Northern Michigan in the WCHA final, and Air Force Academy would have to beat Robert Morris in the Atlantic Hockey final.
I went to bed feeling bad for the Bulldogs, who had worked so hard and were going to miss the NCAA field only by a weird computerized deal. Just then, I got a message from a friend who said the Gophers were out, and he wondered if it might affect coach Don Lucia’s decision to remain. Immediately, I checked out my favorite Pairwise computation, which showed the astounding information.
Indeed, Denver beat St. Cloud 4-1, Princeton beat Clarkson 2-1 in overtime, Notre Dame came back to beat Ohio State 3-2 in overtime, BU beat Providence 2-0, Michigan Tech beat Northern Michigan 2-0, and Air Force beat Robert Morris 5-1.
All six games had gone precisely how they had to go for UMD, and if any one of them went wrong, Minnesota would have advanced as the final at large team. But those six verdicts meant that in the final computation, Minnesota remained at its Pairwise status of .5403, but UMD’s recalculation moved the Bulldogs to .5404. So the Bulldogs beat out the Gophers for the final NCAA spot by one-10,000th of a Pairwise point!
That sends UMD to Sioux Falls, S.D., for the West Regional, where the Bulldogs face Minnesota State-Mankato at 7 on Friday night, after the first game, pitting St. Cloud State against Air Force. Winners play for a Frozen Four berth on Saturday. The West winner will meet the Midwest winner in the Frozen Four semifinals at Xcel Center. The Midwest is at Allentown, Pa., with Ohio State facing Princeton in the first semifinal, and lDenver takilng on Penn State in the second, also on Friday-Saturday.
Out East, the games are Saturday-Sunday. The Northeast Regional in Worcester, Mass., has Cornell taking on BU, and Michigan facing Northeastern. In the East Regional at Bridgeport, Conn., Notre Dame faced Michigan Tech, and Providence meets Clarkson.
Something has to be done about that Pairwise rating system. Those of us who have been watching the NCHC battles all season know for certain that it is the toughest, most competitive league in college hockey. But somehow, the Pairwise computers have calculated that the Big Ten — the Big Ten! — is the strongest league. That is, if you examine the selections. There are three NCHC teams in the 16-team tournament -- Denver, St. Cloud State, and UMD. The only conference with more than three is, gasp, the Big Ten, with four entries — Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan.
On top of that, the selection committee juggled things around just a bit. UMD, we’ve heard,, was headed for one of the Eastern regionals uintil being switched. So with three of Minnesota’s five Division 1 teams in the tournament, all three are at Sioux Falls. Doesn’t seem fair, because only one can survive.
Maybe the Bulldogs will beat Mankato and then also beat the St. Cloud-Air Force winner, and go on to the Frozen Four. Maybe they win the Frozen Four to claim their second NCAA title. But no matter how far they go, these Bulldogs will never forget their busride home from Saint Paul, and the moment they learned that they had managed, incredibly, to see justice served — thanks to that flakey Pairwise computer.