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Thursday, March 23, 2006

...everything looks like a hammer, to invert a common aphorism. Tomorrow Michigan meets a hammer in Grand Forks; the day after they may or may not meet a second. This disorienting year has come to its final act, and it has all the horrific confusion and desperation of Requiem for a Dream: is Jennifer Connelly really rocking a double-headed dildo for coke? Is Michigan hockey really going into a first-round NCAA game hoping for a miracle?

Yes. Yes. The ultimate accomplishment of Requiem -- other than making me fear those who voluntarily purchase the DVD -- was to divorce the noun "Jennifer Connelly" and verb phrase "rocking a double headed dildo" from the exclamation "I'm there with bells on!" And so it is with the Season Year of Infinite Pain, the noun "Michigan hockey," and verb phrase "playing North Dakota in the NCAA tournament."

For the first time in memory, everyone from Red Berenson on down seems resigned to the fact that Michigan doesn't really have a chance. Sure, they could beat North Dakota. Hockey's a weird game sometimes. But beating North Dakota and Minnesota back-to-back is too tall a task for a team that can't go a weekend against Ferris State without blowing three points or crack 20 shots on goal against a resurgently repulsive Michigan State team of Masonic vintage.

Yes, this is the point at which I am contractually obligated to remind you that the last time Michigan entered the NCAA tournament as unthreateningly as this the year was 1998 and their second championship in three years was three weeks in the future. As Brendan Morrison accurately said in '97, sometimes the best team doesn't win. But the team with shaky goaltending, middling forwards, and spastic defensemen is not the presumptive favorite in their place.

Despite that, we're playing. Thus, a preview of the West regional, Wonk 360 style. Even if he's not saying anything about the NIT... though he is getting badgered about it(!). (Cough cough: keep it up (mailto)) :

#1 Minnesota

Pretournament book: Oh, yaaaah, der real good, donchaknow? Boy howdy.

Stars: Ugh. The top pick in this year's NHL draft is going to be either Minnesota's Phil Kessel, North Dakota's Jonathan Toews, or Minnesota recruit Erik Johnson. Kessel -- regarded by many to be the best American hockey prospect since Mike Modano -- has 50 points in 38 games this year... and Ryan Potulny outscored him by thirteen points.

Strengths: The country's top offense by a country mile. Though they're second in goals per game with 4.15, the top team -- Mercyhurst -- plays in the college hockey equivalent of the MAC. Michigan is the closest major conference team to the Gophers and they're a full half-goal back. The Gophers have the nation's top powerplay, best record, largest scoring margin, and smuggest, most punchable fans -- unfortunately, for good reason.

Weaknesses: Minnesota's scoring has been more concentrated than is usual. An excellent checking line that can neutralize the Potulny-Kessel combo would make Minnesota awfully uncomfortable. The crowd will be out for blood, too. If Yost could turn CC-Wayne State into a game... naw.

Probable Fate: Is there a God? Well... yes, but this year has proven he doesn't like me. So national champions.

#4 Holy Cross

Pretournament book: Atlantic Hockey's sacrificial lamb this year. They may put a scare into Minnesota, but this is Duke-Southern territory.

Stars: Haggis-loving Tyler McGregor is the nation's seventh-leading scorer.

Strengths: Given Bill Simmons' grating insistence on belittling college sports and hockey at every available opportunity, if he decides to show up at his alma mater's opening round game he'll probably enrage those around him to the point where a giant, game-cancelling brawl breaks out, spawning a Deadspin poll:
Who Would Win In A Fight?

A. Bill Simmons
B. The State of Minnesota
I'm going with A on the assumption that Sprewell has left the building.

Weaknesses: Likely to be shell-shocked by the talent on display. There's no one in Atlantic Hockey comparable to... well, half the Gopher roster.

Probable Fate: A dismissive mention in a Simmons mailbag.

#2 North Dakota

Pretournament book: The Sioux... er... Anonymous, Inoffensive Indigenous Peoples are one of the hottest teams in the country. They've won the WCHA tournament and find themselves playing at their home rink in front of what promises to be a rabid, Yost-ian crowd of partisans out for blood after the infamous 1998 North Dakota-Michigan game.

Stars: Multitudinous. As mentioned, Toews is a candidate for the #1 pick in the draft, and he's the team's fourth leading scorer. Travis Zajac, TJ Oshie, and Drew Stafford are all outstanding players and first-rounders themselves. The defense is young but immensely talented. Junior goaltender Jordan Parise has a .932 save percentage... and a 2.12 goals against average.

Strengths: Playing at home, which is three times the size of Yost and made entirely out of gold the Nazis stole during the war or something. Almost as much talent as Minnesota, playing better than them recently, and with a much better goalie. The best defensive team in this regional by a solid margin -- eighth in the country.

Weaknesses: Much like Michigan, North Dakota is a young team. Freshmen occupy large swathes of the top two lines and defense pairings. Stafford, who missed the last couple of weeks for the Sioux, is still listed as day-to-day. He'll play but may not be effective -- not that Stafford's absence prevented North Dakota from winning the WCHA tournament. Only 1-3 against Minnesota this year. Late-season run may be a mirage: three games against Mankato, two against Tech, one against SCSU. Only a win over Wisconsin stands out.

Probable Fate: Will play pretty even against the Gophers, but people make too much of the last few games of a season. Minnesota was 20-5-3 in the WCHA. North Dakota was 16-12. The Gophers are the superior team and should win the regional despite the partisan atmosphere.

#3 Michigan

Pretournament book: Talented but erratic, Michigan is young... and fairly stupid. There's no dominant player outside of defenseman Jack Johnson, who's prone to poor decisions and unnecessary penalties.

Stars: Lacking. The aforementioned Johnson was the third pick in last year's draft. TJ Hensick is a slick, diminutive center in the mold of Cammalleri and C0mrie before him but his game has not progressed this season -- stripped of now-Islander Jeff Tambellini, Hensick has taken the scoring burden on himself and not been as effective. Seniors Andrew Ebbett and Brandon Kaleniecki have been the most consistent Wolverines, but neither is the kind of player you have to gameplan against.

Strengths: Well... there is talent. Hensick, Cogliano, Kolarik, and Porter can all burn you given time and space. Jack Johnson really is that good when he's not trying to axe your head off.

Weaknesses: If you can forecheck you will be rewarded with copious turnovers. The goaltending has been good for a soft one a game. They don't have the cohesion to crack a well-constructed trap. They take dumb penalties. The defense is alarmingly porous at inopportune times -- even (and perhaps especially) the putative top pairing of Hunwick and Johnson. They're only playing five D.

Did I leave anything out?

Probable Fate: Ignominous defeat followed by many, many reassurances that everyone is returning. Two weeks before the season starts, the LA Kings are abducted by Hamas on an NHL publicity trip. Sean Avery gets everyone killed by saying something about camel jockeys. The entire Michigan team is signed to replace them.

The Prediction