College hockey has seen its share of more memorable games; it’s seen its share of more important games, too, in the grand scheme of things.
But it has never seen anything with quite the scope of Sunday, March 11, 2001, the day that four epic series converged to cap off an unforgettable weekend.
Of the six series (out of 19) that went to a deciding third game, four finished in overtime, and a fifth — UMass-Lowell’s win Saturday against New Hampshire — was decided with under two minutes remaining in regulation. Only North Dakota’s comeback from a Game 1 loss lacked any real drama.
That left us with four series for the ages, ones that were already filled with great moments before Sunday ever rolled around.
With both teams knowing they needed a tournament championship for an NCAA berth, Northern Michigan and Western Michigan joined the party by going to overtime in Game 3. Calling this series “wide-open” would be an understatement, but it was definitely wild.
In Game 1, the Wildcats rallied to tie in the third period, before winning on Fred Mattersdorfer’s OT goal. But Western Michigan, a team that started out like a house of fire this season, streaking near the top of the polls before falling back hard in the second half, refused to just quietly let its season end.
Down 1-0 after the first period of Game 2, the Broncos unloaded for five second-period goals to take a 5-4 lead. The lead went to 7-4 early in the third before the Wildcats exploded, tying the game with three straight of their own. But freshman Jeff Campbell extended the season with a late goal, adding an empty-netter for a 9-7 win.
That set up yet another free-for-all on Sunday.
The Broncos picked up where they left off, scoring three first-period goals. It looked like WMU had been reborn. But not so fast. Northern Michigan chipped away, and early in the third period, tied the game, 4-4. Ryan Riipi wound up scoring the game-winner for Northern Michigan, needing a mere 11:40 of OT time.
Down the road, in a place called The Bullpen, a new rivalry was being born, with USCHO calling the series between Nebraska-Omaha and Ohio State a classic after just seeing Game 1. In that game, the teams exchanged rallies, with the Mavericks re-tying it late in regulation, only to see Ohio State win in … you got it … overtime.
Game 2 was a one-goal win for the home team, setting up Game 3 — a double overtime game that was one for the ages in CCHA history.
Nebraska-Omaha has come a long way in a short time, as a program starting from scratch three years ago. Last season, it turned in an upset in the first round and made it to the CCHA final before losing. This year, the Mavericks had a solid regular season, and earned the right to host a first-round series. But now, they were the favorites that an underdog was looking to knock off.
UNO may have been slow to respond to the favorite role, but by the third period of Game 3, it didn’t matter. The Mavericks tied the game early in the third, 2-2, then took a lead with just 1:35 left on a goal by Billy Pugliese. But this wasn’t the kind of series that would just go away, and Ohio State’s Paul Caponigri re-tied the game 30 seconds later.
Pugliesi ended it 7:31 into the second overtime. It was the sixth and final overtime game of the weekend in the CCHA.
“This has been a long weekend,” said Nebraska-Omaha head coach Mike Kemp. “Friday night overtime loss, last night tight game all the way down to the nubbins, and tonight was a real emotional roller coaster with us scoring a goal with not too much left on the clock and them coming back 30 seconds later to tie it up.”
But it was only the second-longest game of the night.
Head East to Rhode Island, where Providence and Boston University were meeting. The Friars had a strong regular season and were in position for an NCAA berth. BU had a down regular season, and were just looking to play spoiler while holding out hope of a magical run at the FleetCenter.
Game 1 went handily to Providence, and the series didn’t show any signs of joining the ranks of classic. But, in Game 2, BU showed Terrier pride and survived with a tight 2-1 win.
Unsure of what to expect in Game 3, the Friars came out firing. In the end, they would outshoot BU, 52-27, for the game. But, for now, they could only trade goals with Jack Parker’s team. Providence never trailed, but never led for long either.
Somehow, BU kept finding ways to hang in the game. Mike Pandolfo scored shorthanded early in the second period to tie it, 1-1. Providence would get its own shorthanded goal later in the period, but then was called for another penalty, creating a 5-on-3 that BU capitalized on to tie it again. The Friars scored a late second-period goal, only to see the Terriers get yet another shorthanded score early in the third.
Providence was left wondering how it could put away the Terriers, a team it was much better than during the regular season. The Friars seemed to be battling mystique, and not just this BU team.
Finally, the Friars were better than BU’s mystique, and Marc Suderman ended the longest game in Hockey East history — and eighth-longest of all-time (see all-time list of longest games) — at 16:26 of the second overtime.
“It was a real physical weekend for us, but I loved how we competed,” BU coach Jack Parker said. “I loved what we did after we lost the first game, how we came back and played as hard as we did in the next two. I also loved how our goaltender [Sean Fields] played: That’s real bright promise for next year. He played with such poise over the last two nights.”
But, alas, such figures are nothing to Clarkson and Vermont. BU-Providence might have played the longest game of the night, but they didn’t play the longest game of the weekend.
Until two years ago, the ECAC played a first-to-three points series. Games 1 and 2 of a series would play a regular 5-minute overtime, and be recorded as a tie if there was no winner. Clarkson’s season would have been over one day earlier if that was still the case.
In the ECAC, where, top to bottom, things are tighter than in any other conference, Vermont defeating Clarkson in a game wouldn’t necessarily be that stunning. Vermont was 5-0 at one point this season, and, while the Cats did slip dramatically in the second half of the season, they did lose five overtime games.
Still, Clarkson was on a classic end-of-the-season run, had smoked the Cats in Burlington, Vt., on the last weekend of the regular season, and were in perfect position for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, something that didn’t seem possible just a couple of weeks earlier.
All the Golden Knights had to do was not slip up, in a building where they had never lost a playoff game in 17 tries.
But, slip up they did, losing Game 1 when Vermont rallied in the third period.
Saturday, again Clarkson couldn’t hold the lead, but with the Knights on the brink, they pulled out a win with seven seconds left in the second OT. It was a game that would go down as the fifth longest in NCAA history, and the longest in this maelstrom of epic games on the weekend. It also catapulted Clarkson right back into at-large-berth territory.
Until Sunday, that is.
No one believed Vermont could do it again, but it did, rallying to tie it late, against the odds. As regulation time ticked away, it seemed inevitable that this game would join the ranks of what had now become Super Sunday in college hockey. Yes, it was on to overtime.
This time, the Catamounts actually won an overtime game. Sure, it only took a measly nine minutes before Patrick Sharp ended it, but it was remarkable that it happened at all. With everything conceivable stacked against the Cats, they advanced to Lake Placid — something they didn’t even do in 1997, the senior year for the famous Martin St. Louis-Eric Perrin-Tim Thomas troika.
Vermont became just the second No. 10 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed in a best-of-three in NCAA history, joining the 1994 Michigan Tech Huskies, which knocked off Colorado College in the WCHA.
In no small bit of irony, CC didn’t make the NCAA tournament that year, prompting the so-called “Colorado College rule,” adding an automatic berth for a conference’s regular-season champion as well as the tournament champion. However, that rule was done away with this year, and thus Clarkson has been all but eliminated from NCAA tournament consideration.
And so it goes in college hockey.
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who will win and who will fall?
I don’t know, but this past weekend was the best of all.