Not Rusty, Just Ready

Posted by: realet

You probably wouldn’t believe it if I said that I practically predicted that the Frozen Four would turn out this way, but I did. I only wish that I had actually predicted it.

Shortly after the NCAA tournament field was announced, I mentioned to Adam Wodon that there were more than a handful of teams that had been idle during conference championship weekend, having crashed out of their conference tournaments a week early. This year, a full quarter  of the field did not have a game in the week before the NCAA tournament began thanks to tournament losses: Vermont, New Hampshire, Miami, and Ohio State. Adam then casually added Bemidji State to the list, although their week off came after the early CHA championship tilt.

I probably wouldn’t have noticed or even cared if not for a piece I wrote in this space two years ago following yet another first round exit by St. Cloud State, this time to a Maine squad that had concluded its regular season and Hockey East tournament by losing four consecutive games to UMass, getting a week off between the Hockey East quarterfinals. Head coach Bob Motzko later pondered on his radio show about the significance of having a week off.

It happened again to the Huskies last year, when they were knocked off by Clarkson – who had been upset in the ECAC quarterfinals by Colgate.

This year, three of those five teams advanced to the Frozen Four, and a fourth, New Hampshire, got an opening round victory and very nearly made it four for Frozen Four.

This isn’t even the first time Miami has earned an NCAA win following an idle week – in 2007, while Maine was resurrecting a dismal end to their season with a trip to St. Louis, the Redhawks squeezed into the NCAA tournament and upset New Hampshire in Manchester for their first ever victory in the national tournament.

Is it fair? Motzko asked an open-ended question on that show, pondering whether the NCAA ought to require that teams advance through the first round of their tournament to be eligible for an at-large bid. Such a rule in place this season would have left those four teams home and been a benefit to Wisconsin, Minnesota, Boston College, and St. Lawrence. Think last weekend would have shaped up differently?

Did Vermont, Miami, and Bemidji State have an advantage in having a week off? Possibly. I suppose it depends, in the Catamounts’ and Redhawks’ case, on what’s important. Was a league title important to them or not?

I drew a comparison today between college hockey and European soccer (hang on a second, trust me on this one). For those unfamiliar with international club soccer, teams have multiple competitions that they engage in during the year – usually, a domestic league, a domestic cup tournament, and for the very best, the continental championship tournament. In this sense, you could compare the regular season conference games to the domestic leagues, the conference tournaments to the domestic cups, and the national tournament to the Champions League. In Europe, it’s a bit different as all three competitions typically take place simultaneously throughout the year, but you still see that teams sacrifice positions and success in one or more of these competitions in order to find greater success in another.

Perhaps the same holds true in college hockey. Would a team sacrifice standing in the league in order to get a better draw for the playoffs? It’d be hard, but I’ll bet they would if they could. Would a team that expects a bid to the NCAA tournament hold something in reserve during the conference championships? Perhaps.

Whatever the answer, that advantage is now gone at this stage – all four teams will have had roughly the same amount of time to prepare for battle, and rest assured, the cream will rise. I’m not going to make any predictions, really, but if you needed much more indication that this may be Boston University’s tournament to lose, consider that they had to beat two well rested teams to reach the Frozen Four – and were the only team in the bracket able to do it at all.

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