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Hockey: Tough postseason format possible culprit behind upsets

Matt Gamber | Monday, March 30, 2009

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – If President Barack Obama had filled out a bracket for this NCAA Tournament, it’d be ugly.

In a year when chalk has prevailed on the hardwood, there was plenty of March Madness on the ice during the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Three of the four No. 1 seeds – Notre Dame, Michigan and Denver – lost to No. 4 seeds in the first round of regional play, and each did so by at least two goals.

Unlike in basketball, where a No. 1 seed has never failed to play at least two games, college hockey’s four best teams aren’t handed a “Get out of the first round free” card with their top seed. Whether it’s the nature of the game – a few fortunate bounces can change the game in a hurry – or the structure of the tournament – with only 16 teams, the entire field has a chance – No. 1 seeds are anything but invincible.

“It goes to show the parity in college, how close every team actually is,” Beavers goaltender Matt Dalton said. “The bounces one night can determine the game, and I think tonight is a good example of that.”

The Irish knew that heading in. Last year, Notre Dame advanced to the national title game as a No. 4 seed and the last at-large team selected for the dance. Two years ago, the top-seeded Irish needed two overtimes to escape a first-round upset before losing in the regional final.

All year, Notre Dame seemed destined for a return to the Frozen Four. Especially after the third-period magic against Michigan in last weekend’s CCHA final, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the Irish would be playing in Washington, D.C., on Easter weekend.

And they should have. Notre Dame was better than just about anybody all year, but Saturday, it wasn’t close.

You could say the Irish played down to Bemidji State, but that wouldn’t begin to tell the whole story. The Beavers have a proud hockey tradition, and while Saturday marked their first ever NCAA Tournament win, coach Tom Serratore’s club deserved it.

The Beavers outhustled, outmuscled and otherwise outclassed an Irish squad that had done the same to nearly every other opponent since October.

More surprising than the loss itself was the way the Irish fell.

They lost because of shaky goaltending, but senior Jordan Pearce had been one of the nation’s best and was perhaps the biggest key to his team’s success over the past two seasons.

They lost because of a lifeless power play, but Notre Dame’s man-up unit had been, statistically, tops in the country all year.

They lost because of sloppy defense, but the CCHA champions’ blue-liners had, as Irish coach Jeff Jackson said, their worst game all season.

Really, the Irish loss was a total team effort. Just as Notre Dame had used its depth to wear down less talented squads all year, all 19 players who took the ice with white jerseys on Saturday night played some role in the defeat.

It’s hard to imagine a Jackson team being outcoached in an elimination game, but the Irish boss took the blame in the postgame news conference.

“I knew that they were going to be a very tough opponent, and I obviously didn’t prepare our team well enough for them,” Jackson said.

It appeared to be less an issue of Notre Dame overlooking Bemidji State and more one of the Beavers not wanting to roll over for the nation’s No. 2 team.

“It can be a little bit intimidating,” Beavers forward Tyler Scofield said of playing a team like Notre Dame. “But we looked at it as a game we could win.”

And why not?

If this weekend proved anything, it’s that in college hockey, there are no upsets – just winners and losers, and on Saturday, Notre Dame was the latter.