The Early Bird Catches the Title

Since the NCAA Division III tournament returned to single elimination in the semifinals and finals in 1991, the team that has won the early semifinal game on Friday has gone on to take the championship, played on Saturday night, nine of 12 times.

Coincidence? Or does that three to four hours of additional rest really help?

Norwich coach Mike McShane thinks so. Whenever given the opportunity in the postseason, he has elected to play the early game. That’s allowed in the ECAC East tournament, but not in the NCAAs. Norwich will face off on home ice against St. Norbert on Friday in the second game, scheduled to start at 7 p.m. Of course, that time could be pushed back if the first semifinal goes into a lengthy overtime.

St. Norbert head coach Tim Coghlin doesn’t want to play in the second game either, according to sources. Coghlin, en route to [nl]Vermont, was unavailable for comment.

“Let’s just say that we both would have preferred to play the early game,” said McShane. “But we were told we cannot. I think as the number-one seed, St. Norbert should have been given the choice.”

In the past, the highest seed in the tournament was supposed to play the late game as a way to make sure their fans were rewarded by having the game in prime-time, when more could attend. When the top seed was not the host school or playing the host school, as was the case in 1992 and 2000, the host played the early game and the top seed got the late game.

In 2000, after host Wisconsin-Superior lost to Norwich in the early semifinal, most of the fans went home, leaving a sparse crowd to watch the game between Plattsburgh and top-seeded St. Thomas.

“When Superior lost in the early game, there were only 100 people in the stands for the late game,” said Plattsburgh coach Bob Emery, who chairs the NCAA Division III Men’s Hockey Committee. “It’s all about an atmosphere, having an exciting atmosphere for the athletes to play in.”

So a rule was added after the 2000 tournament that requires the host school to play in the late game regardless of its seed. This year, Norwich is seeded number two in the East, and will face St. Norbert, number one in the West. The early game will have Oswego, the top seed in the East, against East third seed Middlebury.

“If the home team plays in the late game, you get more people at the early game too,” said Emery. “Look at the Beanpot. When the first game starts there might not be a lot of people there, but they come in as the game goes on and by the third period (of the first game) the place is rocking.”

In the 11 times since 1991 that the semifinals and finals have been held on campus (the 1993 championships were played at a neutral site), the home team has won just three times: Plattsburgh in 1992, and Middlebury in 1995 and 1997.

But playing the late game has not always contributed to the home team’s woes. In six of the eight times that the home team did not win the title, it lost in the semifinals. Only Wisconsin-Superior in 1994 and RIT in 2001 won the late semifinal game on home ice and lost in the finals.

Home-ice jinx aside, nine of 12 victories for the team playing the early game is quite a trend. Is fatigue a factor? I have attended four of the last five finals have not noticed a difference in energy levels between the teams, even as the game wore on. For example, Norwich clearly dominated Wisconsin-Superior for significant stretches in last season’s championship game, outshooting the Yellowjackets 28-19.

But the coaches are obviously more in tune with their players, and neither Coghlin or McShane wanted to play at 7 on Friday. The Norwich coach had a simple, albeit more expensive, solution.

“We should play the semifinals on Friday and then have the finals on Sunday afternoon,” said McShane. “That would be the fairest thing to do.”