Perhaps it was Chris Sarandon who said it best, as Prince Humperdink in “The Princess Bride.”
“There was a mighty duel. They ranged all over. They were both masters.”
With top seed Michigan and homestanding Yale both eliminated on the first day of the 2009 NCAA East Regional, it would have been understandable had Saturday’s championship game between Air Force and Vermont been played in front of a modest crowd, composed mostly of hardcore Vermont fans, and the friends and family of the Air Force players, despite the sellout that was announced on Thursday afternoon.
Instead, however, a largely unaffiliated crowd turned out to the Arena at Harbor Yard on Saturday night, filling the arena beyond reasonable expectations.
They were rewarded with one of the wilder games in what’s already been an utterly unpredictable NCAA tournament, as Vermont and Air Force threw everything they had at one another for more than an hour and a half (not to mention another few minutes that history will say never happened).
That they got one of the strangest — and, for everyone not wearing green and gold, most anticlimactic — endings in tournament history doesn’t change that.
That the Catamounts won, 3-2, and will go on to the Frozen Four in Washington, D.C., deserves to be acknowledged, and the players who made it happen deserve to be lauded for their efforts.
However, the mix of relief, respect, and pure exhaustion mixed in with the standard postgame cocktail of elation and disappointment is proof that what took place in Bridgeport on Saturday night goes beyond Vermont’s first trip to the Frozen Four since 1996 or an ending so convoluted — at least in the arena, where no one had any idea what was being reviewed due to NCAA regulations — that it required a two-part printed statement from referee Marco Hunt.
“First and foremost, obviously, a great college hockey game,” Vermont head coach Kevin Sneddon said, with language he regularly uses but rarely so appropriately as on this night. “Air Force had a tremendous season and their student-athletes played their hearts out tonight and deserve a tremendous amount of credit.”
“I thought that the fans here were treated to an outstanding hockey game,” said Air Force head coach Frank Serratore. “This game was one of those games, truly, where you hate to see somebody lose because both teams played so hard.”
Indeed, a day after both the Catamounts and Falcons scored two of the biggest wins in their programs’ respective histories, there was no sign of hangover from either team. Air Force showed no ill effects at having had to hold off a furious Michigan onslaught for 60 minutes, outshooting the opposition from Hockey East throughout regulation and taking a 1-0 lead to the locker room at the second intermission.
The Catamounts, meanwhile, got solid chances of their own, to the point where they started to wonder what they might have to do to get a puck past All-Tournament goaltender Andrew Volkening.
“I don’t know if our guys thought about it,” Sneddon said, “but I thought, in the early parts of the game, the first two periods, we couldn’t buy anything. There were rebounds there, but their defensemen and their back pressure from their forwards were preventing us from getting to those rebounds. It was frustrating for our guys.”
Then, of course, the Catamounts did get a goal, from Josh Burrows, and another, from Dan Lawson, taking a lead on Air Force for the first time since Sacred Heart led two weeks ago in the second game of an Atlantic Hockey quarterfinal series.
However, before anyone could start to wonder whether midnight had finally come for the “Cinderella” Falcons, Sean Bertsch tied it up off of a bounce that had to be seen to be believed, and overtime ensued.
There were more near misses in overtime, including another review at the end of the first extra session that kept the Catamounts on the ice, waiting to see if they might get the win. Then, even when the Catamounts got the decisive goal — off the stick of Regional Most Outstanding Player Lawson — it took a while before it was actually awarded, thanks to the continuation of play and the marathon-length video review.
“John Micheletto — the associate coach — and I were the ones kind of screaming to the referees,” Sneddon said. “I saw Danny take the shot, and I saw the back of the net move on the other side, and the puck kind of took a weird bounce after that.
“I said, ‘That was kind of weird.’ It was a long time waiting, just hoping that they would at least go to review, and the referees obviously took their time.”
Still, even in defeat, Serratore was determined not to let the oddball ending overshadow the greatness of the game that was played.
“I think you need to get off the play,” the Falcons’ bench boss told the assembled media after answering several questions about it. “It happened, and I’m confident the officials made the right call, and Vermont won. They’ll go on and represent this region well at the Frozen Four.”
Indeed, on April 9, the Catamounts will face either New Hampshire or Boston University in the Frozen Four, making their first appearance since the 1995-96 team led by Martin St. Louis, Eric Perrin and Tim Thomas went to Cincinnati, and a nine-year-old Peter Lenes got out of school to watch the Catamounts take on Colorado College.
“It was great as a fan,” Catamount alternate captain Lenes said, “so to participate is a great feeling.”
However, on this night in Bridgeport, the journey deserves much more attention than the destination.