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College Hockey:
Balance Of Power

“Hey, buddy, you’re outta here!”

ECAC partisans were dying to say that after Saturday’s Michigan-Colgate clash. Passions run high in any postseason, but even more so in this CCHA-ECAC tilt. Michigan coach Red Berenson and his colleague at Michigan State, Ron Mason, created a stir this past week, complaining about their seeding in the NCAA tournament. The two teams, the only ones selected from the CCHA, both received No. 5 seeds, the Wolverines in the East and the Spartans in the West.

“When Niagara and Quinnipiac finish ahead of Michigan and Michigan State, something needs to be redefined,” said MSU coach Ron Mason. “There has to be something in the numbers that better recognizes strength of schedule, that recognizes league strength.”

Niagara and Quinnipiac, however, amount to nothing more than a red herring. Everyone acknowledges that the five criteria used don’t collectively handle college hockey’s “expansion” teams well at all. As a result, the NCAA selection committee reserved the right to factor in the strength of two new conferences, the MAAC and CHA, in awarding bids. They did exactly that by denying Quinnipiac’s quest and dropping Niagara to a No. 6 West seed. When both teams were re-routed to below the two CCHA entrants, they became irrelevant to its seeding complaints.

The facts are that even after Niagara and Quinnipiac were dropped, Michigan was only the number 10 team in the Pairwise Rankings, and Michigan State was ninth. Hence the No. 5 seeds hardly seemed inappropriate.

The committee probably figured that if it walks like a duck (a five seed) and quacks like a duck (a five seed), it’s probably a duck (a five seed).

Of course, Michigan would have received not only a higher position, but a bye if it had combined its regular-season championship with a win in the CCHA tourney. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, they lost in the semifinal game to Nebraska-Omaha, a team that finished 16-19-7.

And Michigan State’s performance all season long left it vulnerable to no bid at all if it had lost to Nebraska-Omaha and if Rensselaer had defeated St. Lawrence in the ECAC final.

Yet the kvetching over the number-five bids escalated.

“It’s hard to imagine that a team that did not finish in first place or took a conference title finished ahead of Michigan and Michigan State,” said Berenson. “The thing that seemed to kill us this year was our Pairwise.”

The latter is certainly true. The Pairwise placed the Wolverines as a five seed. However, Michigan and Michigan State’s rankings in the RPI as well as in the USCHO poll were little better. In the RPI, the two teams flip-flopped their relative positions, but remained ninth and tenth. And if the numbers lied, the poll placed them at eight (MSU) and nine (UM).

Everything except the league itself pointed to nothing more than a down year for the CCHA. A down year for a league used to placing powerhouses in high seedings, but a down year nonetheless.

“Our bottom teams were good,” said Berenson. “We lost games to Bowling Green, Ferris State, Alaska-Fairbanks, Omaha — all good teams.”

Well, maybe. The harsh reality, though, is that seven of the CCHA’s 12 teams finished the season with losing records.

“They [the NCAA] may have to reconsider the formula,” said Berenson.

Of course, there were no requests to reconsider the formula last year when the CCHA received four bids to the tournament. Nor were there complaints about Michigan’s seeding when it took number-one or -two seeds, and therefore byes, for six straight years from 1992-97.

But then again, Michigan got its byes those years the old-fashioned way. It earned them.

This year, the CCHA seemed to be asking for special dispensation. The numbers and the polls don’t say that we’re that strong, but we’re sure that we are. Because we always have been, we must be once again this year.

Well, maybe.

So what did all this have to do with the ECAC? A CCHA press release played up the league’s undeniable past successes and then listed conference records in the NCAA tournament since 1988 and 1992. Since the league only ranked third among the four major conferences in the first list and second in the other one, the primary point — nudge, nudge, wink, wink — seemed to be to highlight the ECAC’s poor record.

“We have won in the past,” said Mason, referring to the league as a whole. “Teams in our league have won on a national level.”

Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink.

This was then taken to more inflammatory levels in this week’s USCHO CCHA column, which used the the word “embarrassing” and finished by questioning why the ECAC continues to have two automatic bids.

How’s that for a slap?

All of which caught the attention of ECAC observers and raised the ante in the Colgate-Michigan game. So when Boston College, the number-four West seed, bounced Michigan State and then the Red Raiders rallied to send their game against Michigan into overtime, ECAC Nation held its collective breath.

And when the puck went into the Wolverine net and the red light went on four minutes into OT, they broke into euphoria.

For a very short time.

Referee Jim Fitzgerald waved the goal off, contending that he had blown the whistle before it went in. Fitzgerald did not have to go to video replay and chose not to, despite Colgate requests. One media member who did see the replay contended that the puck was in by a foot and the whistle wasn’t heard until after the puck crossed the line.

When Michigan’s Geoff Koch scored at 12:44, ECAC fans were denied the opportunity to say to the CCHA, “Hey, buddy, you’re outta here!”

Even so, there was at least some consolation that some respect might be en route.

“A lot of people probably were wondering who we were and how we got here,” said Colgate coach Don Vaughan. “I think we proved that we deserved to be part of this tournament. I couldn’t be prouder of our team.

“We’re often defending ourselves, but if you take the top four teams in all the conferences, I don’t think there’s a lot of difference between those teams. We didn’t really focus on it much this week in practice.

“I think the guys are aware that [the disrespect] is out there, but our focus, like most of the teams in our conference, tends to be on what we’re doing at the time and trying to play our game. Go out and do the best you can and let the dust settle where it may at the end of the night. I thought we proved tonight that we can skate alongside anybody.”

As for Berenson, he reiterated his contention that teams finishing first in the regular season or tournament should be ranked higher, and then added, “I think from year to year there are a lot of coaches who feel that we should tweak the criteria. Not to give anyone an advantage, but certainly not to handicap anyone.”

The Maine Black Bears, a team which earned a bye and number-one seeding, waits in the wings for Michigan.

And ECAC Nation waits for one more day, hoping to say, “Hey, buddy, you’re outta here!”

A dream deferred.


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