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Monday, November 26, 2007

What, there's something else going on?

11/23/2007 - Michigan 3, Wisconsin 2 -12-1, 8-0 CCHA
11/24/2007 - Michigan 5, Minnesota 1 - 13-1, 8-0 CCHA

I hate Minnesota.

This is an unusual thing for anyone to hate. Minnesota is a nonentity in the big two collegiate sports. They haven't been to the Rose Bowl in 40 years. The only time their basketball program is any good is when they're cheating their asses off (ya, ya, glass houses, not relevant to the discussion). Maybe Wisconsin and Iowa have a real antipathy for the Gophers, but both rivalries seem built more on sweet trophies -- an axe and a pig -- than venom. Who doesn't want to win a huge ax? Or something called Floyd of Rosedale?

No, it's impossible to truly hate a school so limply sad that when you win the Big Ten at their stadium you can not only pull the goalposts down but haul them out onto the street. Outside of certain frigid enclaves, Minnesota is nothing.

But there is nothing that makes me want to throw a brick into a crowd of revelers than the goddamned Minnesota rouser. The reasons for this are obvious and obscure. The obvious bit:

eeeeeeeeyyyy... Gophers!

The obscure, at least in terms of national significance: the first Michigan hockey game I watched was the national semifinal my freshman year of college. Michigan torched UNH 4-0. Two days later, Josh Langfeld wandered out from behind the boards and sort of tossed a puck between Scott Clemmensen's pads and Michigan was national champions. My vague September desire to maybe get hockey tickets had been quickly forgotten in the rush of Charles Woodson and company's national championship thrust; suddenly the decision to not get tickets seemed dumb indeed.

I rectified that the next year just in time for Minnesota to embark on a scorched earth campaign against Michigan. Suffice it to say that before Saturday, Minnesota had won six straight against Michigan and nine of eleven, several of them humiliating blowouts.

In 2003, Michigan made the Frozen Four in Buffalo, there drawing Minnesota. Buffalo being a relatively short jaunt through Canada for Michiganders, we went. (Side note: Canadians are exceedingly accommodating when you tell them you're driving five hours to watch some hockey. If you ever find yourself forced into drug smuggling by some tragic turn of events, just tell the border guard you're watching your cousin play in Lethbridge.)

Minnesota was good. They're usually good, but this edition of the Gophers was a real Death Star of a team: the defending national champions, WCHA double winners, and the tournament's top seed overall. Minnesota's national title run the year before had gone through Michigan, a painful 3-2 loss that was not nearly as close as it had looked. Freshman Thomas Vanek, now a ridiculously overpaid Buffalo Sabre, had 60 points, and the rest of the team was fast and talented.

But Michigan had beaten them 3-1 in the Showcase earlier that year, and dominated the first period. Just crushed them. Jason Ryznar and Eric Nystrom were crushing guys along the boards. Minnesota could not get possession and only a parade of saves and missed opportunities kept the score relatively close. It was 1-0 after one. The second period was the exact opposite, with Minnesota dominating play, until Jed Ortmeyer, god bless him, popped in a second goal and the final five minutes were even. A late Minnesota goal gave the Gophers life, but down 2-1 against an opponent that had beaten them earlier in the year and clearly was giving them all they could handle is not a good spot.

So it was with some disbelief that I listened to a wide array of Gopher fans chatting about the game during the second intermission, every one of them blithely assured that Minnesota would come out and roll over Michigan in the third. I have been around my share of frustratingly overconfident opposing fans -- wooo Ohio State! -- but nothing compares to Minnesota fans in Buffalo that day.

The third period was tightly contested. Minnesota tied it at the other end, but Michigan controlled much of the period. Achingly, Nystrom or Ryznar or someone knocked a puck through the Gopher goalie only to see it waved off, as the whistle had gone. Ryznar had a golden opportunity at an open net that a defenseman hacked off the line. Halfway through the first overtime, Vanek wandered out from behind the net and swept the puck at Al Montoya and it went through his pads and all I could think was "that was soft." We had a hotel room in Niagara Falls for the next couple nights. We left the next day.

Michigan hasn't been to the Frozen Four since and has only intermittently looked like a threat. Every year, Michigan would play Minnesota in the Showcase and prove that it was not national title caliber, then a parade of CCHA teams would get hopes up only for them to be dashed when
the big boys came calling.

Last year, Michigan was obliterated by the Gophers. The upperclass-laden team was basically the same group of guys who limped into the 2006 tournament with zero chance and got blown out by North Dakota. When Michigan drew Minnesota and North Dakota, the season was over. Even though Minnesota managed to blow it against Holy Cross (ha!), the season was indeed over.

This year, Michigan beat Minnesota raw. The shot count didn't reflect it, but the final score did. It doesn't really matter that the Gophers look decidedly un-vintage so far this year at 7-6-1. Michigan and Minnesota have played six periods this year and Michigan has owned five of them. They are streaking towards a real #1-#2 matchup against Miami later this year, and the malaise of the last couple years is gone, replaced with a bunch of freshman who reveal delightful new abilities -- look! backchecking! -- every game.

Everyone was waiting before making a declaration. Are they? Yes. They're for real.