The Gophers' road back to the Frozen Four begins in Grand Rapids, MI with a game against Yale. Looming on Saturday is a tilt against arch-rival UND, a game that could have waited for the Frozen Four, but because the selection committee hates the WCHA, if it happens it'll be in the regional final for the second year in a row. If you would, allow me to get this off my chest and we'll move on- the whole NCAA tourney selection thing is an absolute joke. First of all, the Pairwise rewards teams like UND's first round opponent Niagra for playing nobody's all season, and hurts teams in real conferences who actually dare to play a decent non-con schedule. Niagra finished 10th in the Pairwise despite the fact they not only didn't beat a single school all season ranked any higher than 17th (that would be college hockey power Robert Morris), but they didn't PLAY a single school ranked higher than 17th all season!?! And as WCHB's Chris Dilks points out, they were just 1-3-3 out of conference with that loan win coming against Clarkson. Oh, and they couldn't even win their crappy conference tournament, losing three of their last five games coming in, yet this, ladies and gents, is apparently the 10th best team in the country. I have zero doubts the Whioux will skate them off the rink on the way to the regional final.
Which brings us to the fact UND is in this regional at all, or that it's being played in Grand Rapids. Why even bother with seeding if the committee is putting matchups together based almost entirely on trying to maximize attendance? I understand the NCAA does this to a certain extent in basketball, but they found a better system by putting teams in pods closer to home for the first and second round without jeopardizing the seeding. Granted, if it wasn't UND in the West bracket it would have likely been Boston College, so either way there was the potential of playing one heck of a great team as the 2 seed. Still, as Brian Favat at BC Interruption said when the brackets were announced, it feels a lot more like a regional tournament than a national one. If Committee Chair Tom Nevala and the people making the decision really want a great atmosphere as they claim, there are two very simple soltions: keep the regional sites in cities where the "big" schools are (St Paul, Detroit and Boston hosting a regional every single damn year) or just have the top seed host. While upsets DO happen like what we saw with the Final Five last week, generally the top seeds usually win their opener which would guarantee great attendance for two of the three regional games. If a smaller school like Quinnipiac got a top seed (their arena seats barely more than 3K) then just have the games in the nearest city with better capacity (in this case Hartford- BRING BACK THE WHALE!).
Hockey is a great game, and as a college hockey fan I have zero problems admitting it's a niche and regional sport. The NCAA tourney for hockey shouldn't be treated like basketball because it's not basketball, and that's ok. It doesn't make the game any less enjoyable for me. If the Committee is as worried as they seem to be about maximizing attendance, then change the way the tournament is done. If not, then seed it like they're supposed to. Oh, and regardless, there has to be a better way for picking teams than the Pairwise which rewards the Niagra's of the world.
On to the task at hand, which is the Gophers and a run to the Frozen Four. Minnesota has been arguably the best team all season, with the nation's best offense and power play that's backed by strong and talented D and goaltending. They have a two-time national champion-winning coach, and as good a group of assistants as you'll find. It's a team that doesn't have a weakness, save one, per Chris Dilks:
If the Gophers have one weakness, it has been an inability to put together a solid effort for two consecutive nights, something that could haunt them in a one-and-done tournament format.
Any Gopher fan that has followed the team this season are nodding their heads right now. It's that maddeningly inconsistent effort we've seen week in and week out without knowing which team is going to show up from game to game. The Minnesota club that beat BC, Notre Dame and North Dakota as part of a six game winning streak earlier this season can win the whole thing. The club that showed up in body only in last week's loss to CC most certainly will not. And even IF the Gophers come out and take care of business against Yale on Friday, there's no guarantee we'll get the same effort in the next game. For a team that seems to turn their intensity and effort on and off like a switch, it's definitely concerning as we begin the lose-and-go-home portion of the season. Don't be fooled by their seed, as Yale is no slouch and has played and beaten some quality opponents (like both Denver and CC in their home rinks), and they'll be a tough out. But Minnesota is better in every facet and this is absolutely a game Minnesota should win, which should set up one of the biggest games in the history of the Minnesota/UND rivalry.
There's not much more to say, really. This is the most talented team Minnesota has had in a long time, and they stand to lose a good chunk of it to the pros after the season, so the time to win the school's sixth national title is right here and right now. It starts Friday afternoon in Grand Rapids, and while I'm very excited the tourney is here, I'm nervous to see which Gopher team shows up. Puck drop is at 1pm and the West Regional Final is Saturday at 3pm CDT, with both games on ESPNU.