One Chance

One game.

Having a single game decide a championship is nothing new. Having a single game decide an NCAA tournament bid is also nothing new.

Having it happen in an otherwise-meaningless third-place game, a game in which one team has nothing to play for and the other, everything?

Now that’s a little more interesting.

The much-maligned WCHA third-place (not “consolation,” mind you) game once again carried NCAA tournament implications Saturday. With Colorado College ninth in the PairWise Rankings entering the afternoon, a loss by the Tigers would leave them vulnerable to upset champions in the CCHA and ECAC.

That vulnerability, though, can be traced all the way back to the start of the season.

One year ago, the Tigers reached the national quarterfinals after a fourth-place finish in the WCHA. After losing only Paul Manning, Justin Morrison and Mike Colgan as significant contributors, CC was the coaches’ pick to win the league this year.

Mark Cullen was the preseason pick for Player of the Year. Jeff Sanger was back in goal, and Rookie of the Year Peter Sejna was expected to improve on his already-impressive numbers. All the pieces appeared to be in place.

Then the Tigers actually hit the ice, and the bottom fell out immediately.

CC took two losses — one bad, one close — in Grand Forks to North Dakota, then lost two heartbreakers in a home-and-home with Denver before getting pasted by St. Cloud on a Friday night on the road.

In between, two nonconference wins over UMass-Amherst did little to ease the pain. Two and a half weeks into the season, the preseason favorites were suddenly 0-5 in conference play.

“The beginning of the year was a tough time for us,” said Mike Stuart. “That Monday after the fifth game, we just came back to work like we ordinarily would.

“We’ve had to work through adversity this year with this team.”

The turnaround was just as sudden. A five-game unbeaten streak followed — albeit most of it against the bottom half of the league — plus two nonleague wins against Clarkson.

Still, not everyone thought Colorado College could salvage the season. Five straight losses to start matters was just too much. But the Tigers went 16-5-2 in the WCHA after that point, getting back to fourth place for the second year in a row.

The Tigers followed that up by sweeping their first-round playoff series, then won two of three games at the Final Five. The third-place tilt, in particular, was a 60-minute gut check which CC simply would not lose even as St. Cloud increased the pressure late. Tired legs, nerves, one of the nation’s top offenses trying to rally: none of its was enough to keep the Tigers from the win.

“Nothing’s easy for us — ever since the 0-and-5 start and the high expectations,” said head coach Scott Owens. “It’s been a struggle right through the 41st game.”

For CC’s seniors, it is their last shot at the Frozen Four. The Tigers reached the NCAA quarterfinals in 1999, then lost a stunner, 4-3, to Michigan State when the Spartans scored two goals in the last two minutes of regulation.

“The game against Michigan State really hit us hard when we lost,” said Sanger. “You realize how close you were.”

“You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone,” agreed Chris Hartsburg, who scored the game winner Saturday. “You don’t know if you’re ever going to make it back again.”

Thanks to their win Saturday, the Tigers have a shot to do exactly that. Two games may now separate CC’s senior class from their goal: a return visit to the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, site of the 2002 Frozen Four.

“We really stressed that after the [semifinal loss to Denver], that we didn’t want our season to end,” said Hartsburg.

And it looks like it won’t.