You want madness? I’ll give you madness. How about not one, not two, but three no. 1 seeds in the NCAA’s field of hockey 16 falling to no. 4s before the tourney was 40 hours old this weekend? Or how about not one but two sweet 16 showdowns featuring tying goals scored with less than one second left in the game? Even better: Neither Billy Packer nor Dick Vitale was calling any of them.
All that college hockey produced before the weekend was half over was its most dramatic postseason in the history of the sport.
The fireworks started Friday afternoon in the East Regional — the very first game of the tourney. Fourth-seeded Air Force, whom I fancifully wrote of reaching the Frozen Four here last December, knocked off no.1-seeded Michigan 2-0. You could say that Michigan controlled play as a no. 1 seed should: they outshot the Falcons 16-3 in the first period, 11-5 in the second, and 16-5 in the third for a 43-13 mauling total on the shot counter. No matter. The Falcons had Andrew Volkening standing on his head in net. He started all 40 games Air Force had played through Friday — every single Falcons’ game this season — and boasted a 1.96 goals-against and a .920 save percentage. Heading into play on Saturday, Volkening, as Inside College Hockey noted, had not allowed a goal in his last three postseason games.
By the time most of us had arrived in the press box for Friday night’s Caps-Lightning tilt at Verizon Center a second no. 1 seed was falling. Miami took down Denver 4-2 in the West Regional. This is the fourth year in a row that a no. 1 has fallen to a 4 since college hockey went to its 16-team field in 2003 (Notre Dame beat New Hampshire last year; UMass knocked off Clarkson in 2007; Miami bested New Hampshire, also in 2007; and Holy Cross, in what remains as perhaps the biggest stunner in the tourney’s history, bettered Minnesota in 2006). But for the first time ever, three no. 1s would get knocked off in their first game, as on Saturday Bemidji State pasted Notre Dame 5-1. The Irish were never in the game.
It wasn’t just Cinderella upsets that made for so memorable a start to this year’s tourney. A series of heart-stopping, last-second equalizing scores also birthed bedlam on Regional ice sheets across the country. Out West, third-seeded Princeton held a 4-2 lead over no. 2 Minnesota-Duluth . . . with under a minute to play. With their goalie pulled, the Bulldogs’ Jack Connolly scored with 39 seconds left to make it 4-3 Princeton. Then, unbelievably, they put home the equalizer with eight-tenths of a second to go, Evan Oberg the mobbed hero. Duluth would score while a man up in overtime to prevail 5-4. The St. Paul Pioneer Press Saturday morning called it “one of the most astonishing comebacks in college hockey history.”
You think eight-tenths of a second is last-second dramatic? It’s an eternity compared to the dagger New Hampshire hurled at North Dakota’s net Saturday afternoon. Like Minnesota-Duluth, the Wildcats were trailing by two goals deep in the third period, 5-3. After making it 5-4 and pulling their goalie with 75 seconds to go, they faced elimination with just 5.9 seconds to go and a draw in the Fighting Sioux end. Barry Melrose was calling the game’s color for ESPN, and noted that 5.9 seconds somewhat of an eternity in such a situation.
I guess. The Wildcats needed just about all of it to send the game in OT. Thomas Fortney scored on a scramble in front of the Sioux net with an unimaginable one-tenth of a second to play. Joe Finley and his teammates never recovered. Less than a minute in OT UNH converted a beautiful, one-timer, cross-ice ender to author yet another stunner of an outcome on a drama-laden weekend.
The “dull” ending took place between third-seeded Cornell and no. 2 Northeastern Saturday. The Big Red scored that game winner with 18 seconds to go.