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Monday, March 24, 2008

You blew it up, didn't you. The strange combination of events that would get Wisconsin into the tournament all transpired, and the Badgers actually bubbled their way up to a #3 seed. This left Michigan in an uncomfortable position. In the interregnum between the games finishing up and the bracket announcement, most prognosticators provided this:

1. Michigan
16. Air Force

8. St. Cloud
12. Wisconsin

Which is... bad? Good? Michigan would have the closest regional, be playing the lowest seed in the tournament and the hostile-venue factor is offset by the fact that 1) it got State -- the only team in the country with a winning record against Michigan -- the hell away from M and 2) Wisconsin is a thoroughly mediocre team that's below .500 for a reason. Saturday night I was wondering if I could call it a screwjob or not. I think I settled on "not."

It's all moot anyway, since the committee decided to protect Michigan like a downy soft child:

1. Michigan
15. Niagara

8. St. Cloud
9(t). Clarkson

Michigan State and Clarkson were tied in the PWR, so the committee thought it was okay to switch them and maybe get upwards of 60 people at the regional. So, the three other teams Michigan has to deal with are:

  • The CHA autobid team
  • The fifth-place WCHA team, one that's never won an NCAA tourney game, and
  • the ECAC champ.
Note that none of these teams are #$&*ing North Dakota. It's a really good draw.

Meanwhile, karma has decided it's time to collect on Michigan State's absurdly easy path to the Frozen Four last year. Despite being the #9 team in PWR and thus theoretically entitled to a winnable game against St. Cloud, State has to play the WCHA regular season champ at their rink, which happens to be at altitude. If they somehow beat CC (and since Matt "I think the 1995 New Jersey Devils are the pinnacle of hockey" Shegos isn't reffing, that's not likely) they get, in all probability, #*$@ing North Dakota. They're dead meat.

Tweak. So why is Wisconsin in? Because Minnesota State -- the WCHA team that finished ahead of UW in the regular season standings, has a better RPI than UW, and beat UW head-to-head -- lost comparisons with Princeton and Northern Michigan. MSU lost the Princeton comparison despite beating the Tigers head to head because they lost RPI by about a quarter-game and COP because they were 1-2 in two games against UNO and one against Yale. They lost the Northern comparison because their TUC record was about an eighth of a game worse than NMU's despite having a sizable RPI advantage.

Wisconsin was fortunate to not have these near-random occurrences befall them and will thus get to participate in the NCAA tournament over a team a half-dozen different metrics (winning percentage, conference standings, RPI, head-to-head, KRACH, and the PWR itself, which thunderously awards the WI-Mankato comparison to Mankato) declare is superior.

The result will be another round of BCS-esque tweaks that fight last year's war and lead to some other team suffering a similar fate, instead of a wholesale re-evaluation of the way the system works that injects a #$&*ing North Dakota Common Sense component into the system.

I don't mind the PWR as a public tool that significantly guides the committee's hand. If it is usually adhered to it provides a powerful check on the infamous "smoke filled rooms" that are commonly trotted forth as the nightmarish alternative to the current system. But it shouldn't override the aforementioned common sense when a clearly (if slightly) more accomplished team is sabotaged by stupid math.

Niagara. Is the first-round opponent, and though they're the CHA autobid and therefore generally considered dead meat, this is not going to be a walkover. Niagara's RPI is .5107, nearly identical to that of a Northern Michigan team that gave Michigan fits the second half of the season. Their non-Atlantic-Hockey nonconference schedule:

St. LawrenceT4-4

You know BG as a middling CCHA team and WMU as ridiculously awful at hockey. Merrimack is the WMU of Hockey East. Cornell is a slightly above average ECAC team; Quinnipac is a .500 ECAC team; St. Lawrence is a bad ECAC team.

Taken together, the results are about what you would see from a middle of the pack CCHA team. Niagara won't be a challenge on the level of Miami or Michigan State or any of the other teams that have shown the ability to really skate with Michigan, but Michigan can lose to Ferris or tie Northern or cough one up against Ohio State -- this is a real opponent.

Further caution in four bullets:
  • Niagara is a full-scholarship program with a dedicated hockey program. In their fourth year as a program they got an NCAA bid as an independent and beat 3-seed UNH in the opening round.*
  • That year they played Michigan, beating them once and suffering an OT loss with two seconds left.
  • The only time Michigan has run across an AH/CHA autobid in the tourney, Mercyhurst had a 3-2 third-period lead before Michigan finally put a couple goals past their red-hot goalie and won 4-3.
  • Holy Cross.
Not to be a downer; I just want to clarify that this is not the equivalent of a 1 versus a 16 in the basketball tourney. It's more like a 2-15 or a 3-14, where upsets aren't decidedly uncommon but not unheard of.

Hypothetical second-round opponents. Those unfamiliar with college hockey might look at the second-round matchup, which features conference champ and 21-12-4 Clarkson as the lower seed against fifth-place and 19-15-5 St. Cloud State, and go "huh"?
Well, unlike college football, college hockey has a clear conference pecking order with the WCHA on top, HE and the CCHA fighting it out for second -- this year it's advantage CCHA -- and the ECAC existing as a clear fourth, halfway between the power conferences and Atlantic Hockey. The last ECAC national champion was RPI in 1985. The last time an ECAC team reached the final was Colgate in 1990. Since 2000 only two ECAC teams have reached the Frozen Four. And so on. With all due respect to the league, the vagaries of the PWR are such that drawing an ECAC team is almost always the best possible scenario given your seeding.

Meanwhile, Michigan and St. Cloud have a brief, awesome history. Yost Ice Arena hosted back-to-back regionals in 2002 and 2003; in 2002 Michigan drew St. Cloud in the first round. The teams were not strangers. The year before Michigan had beaten St. Cloud in Grand Rapids. In the process, Michigan's fanbase irritated one of the Huskies' skating cheerleaders, -- no, like, seriously, this is apparently a common occupation for annoying girls in Minnesota -- causing her to offer this quote to the St. Cloud Times:
"The University of Michigan fans are like combining (North Dakota) Sioux fans and Minnesota Gophers fans," said McGannon, a cheerleader for the Huskies. "They're horrible people. It's like they've never seen hockey cheerleaders.

"Their band was obnoxious, horrible, not very welcoming at all. Now it's going to be on their home ice and they'll be worse."
The Daily ellipsed out everything between "Michigan" and "they're horrible people," and it was on. St. Cloud brought their skating cheerleaders and skating mascot. The student section brought dollar bills. Anyone who was there for the Friday UNO game, when one... uh... prominent UNO supporter's low-cut tan top was a focal point of misogyny and hilarity has experienced about 10% of the "Molly" barrage.

So we've got this: a home regionals game at Yost where everyone is already bonkers. We've added in skating cheerleaders, one of whom has specifically called out the Michigan fans. Now everyone is mocking and holding dollar bills up and chanting and a skating mascot is added to the equation. A skating mascot who, during Michigan's introductions, spends the time skating across the red line and pointing threateningly at various Michigan players. Planet-sized defenseman Mike Komsiarek (then the #6 pick in the draft, now the NHL's toughest player and good "friend" of Elisha Cuthbert) slashes the stick out of the mascot's hands. Cheers all around. The national anthem manages to get itself played without incident. It's about time for a game, yesno?

Issue: at this point both locker rooms at Yost are on the same side of the ice. To exit the arena, the skating cheerleaders and mascot have to pass through the hockey team, currently doing the skate-around thing they do before gathering around the goal to say some sort of team-building thing like "DOMINATE" or "VICTORY" or "PAPAYAS". The cheerleaders exit safely, but the mascot...

I don't know. Maybe he's dating Molly. Maybe the slash was just too much for the already-fragile dignity of a guy in a furry costume. Maybe he was driven mad by the noise and the crowd and thought "what the hell, I'm in a mask." His thought processes will forever remain mysterious. The result? Not so much.

...the mascot gets behind the Michigan goal, then trips whoever happened to be skating by. It wasn't Komisarek. Mistake. The entire team leaps into action, grabbing him and throwing him to the ground just outside the rink. Various members of the team leap onto him, throwing padded punches at a fuzzy costume. The crowd erupts. It is, without question, the best lead-in to a hockey game that has ever occurred anywhere. Michigan wins, 5-3, and the next night Ortmeyer passes to Nystrom who passes back to Ortmeyer and Michigan beats #1 seed Denver and it's on to the Frozen Four.

So we've either got an ECAC team or St. Cloud in the second round. w00t.

Sparty, no! One brief slice of life from the Joe this weekend: after the first period on Friday a friend and I move down into the tony seats in the Miami section. A middle-aged guy in a Michigan State hat sits a row in front of us and a bit to our right. As the teams come out for the second period we are privileged to overhear this conversation:

Companion: I, uh... I don't think they're the Huskies.
[Sparty checks the program.]

The guy did appear to clap with genuine enthusiasm when Red Berenson was announced as CCHA coach of the year, so he wasn't all bad. Anyway, if Michigan gets to play St. Cloud in the second round and there's a random State fan screaming "GOOOOOO WILDCATS," that's probably the dude.