For one swarming period last Friday night, the Colorado College hockey team looked every bit like one of the nation's best.
CC was playing Minnesota in the semifinals of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's Final Five, and the Tigers knew they were just one win away from wrapping up a No. 1 regional seed into the NCAA Tournament.
North Dakota had lost to Denver in the other semifinal, leaving a wide-open door for CC. All the Tigers had to do was outlast worn-down Minnesota, playing the equivalent of its sixth game in seven days (counting overtimes). And in that first period, CC showed the speed and aggressiveness that had produced the WCHA regular-season title, with 20 shots on goal.
But that period ended at 0-0, thanks largely to Gopher goaltender Alex Kangas. And less than a minute after the Tigers took a 1-0 lead early in the second period, they suffered a defensive lapse, and Minnesota scored to make it 1-1.
For some unknown reason, after allowing that uncharacteristic goal, CC never was the same again all weekend. Even in overtime, the exhausted Gophers were fresher and hungrier, attacking until they won, 2-1.
And in the Saturday consolation against North Dakota, with another chance to secure a No. 1 seed, the Tigers never regained their swagger and stumbled to a 4-2 loss.
Two defeats, and only two goals in the final 99 minutes of hockey.
That's not how to prove yourself worthy of a No. 1 seed. But still, CC lucked out when NCAA pairings came Sunday morning.
Yes, lucked out, even having to play defending national champion Michigan State in the first round Friday night at World Arena. Lucked out, even if it means facing New Hampshire on Saturday night if UNH gets past Notre Dame in the early Friday game for a berth in the Frozen Four.
CC lucked out by not being put in the same regional with league rivals North Dakota and Denver, both of whom looked superior to the Tigers last weekend. Yet the Fighting Sioux and Pioneers were both sent to the Midwest Regional at Madison, Wis., where DU has to face host Wisconsin in the opening round.
This doesn't mean the Tigers have it easy. Michigan State has a shrewd coach in Rick Comley and a goalie, Hobey Baker Award finalist Jeff Lerg, who had much to do with that NCAA title last year.
But after that Final Five flop, Colorado College probably has a better chance of recovering on its home ice against teams like Michigan State and New Hampshire (or Notre Dame). All four West Regional teams are coming into the NCAA having lost their last game, and all but New Hampshire have two-game losing streaks. Michigan State, for the record, lost its first-round conference playoff series at home to Northern Michigan.
Then again, if the Tigers play like they did against Minnesota and North Dakota, they can forget about taking advantage of being the regional host.
It's a great opportunity, and the bracket is as favorable as CC could have expected. Nobody is picking the Tigers, as analysts are divided between New Hampshire and Michigan State as the West winner.
Bits and pieces: As for Air Force, its draw against Miami (Ohio) in the Northeast Regional at Worcester, Mass., might seem ominous to many. But the Falcons are better off facing Miami than Michigan or North Dakota, and they didn't rate quite high enough to get New Hampshire. Something tells me Air Force could topple Miami. But then that would mean facing the Boston College-Minnesota winner, which might be a tougher challenge. ...
No matter what the computer said, it's just wrong that Wisconsin made the NCAA hockey field and Minnesota State-Mankato didn't. Mankato was fourth in the WCHA regular season, Wisconsin sixth. Wisconsin got swept in the first playoff round at St. Cloud, while Mankato lost that three-game marathon classic to Minnesota. ...
After the first weekend of basketball's March Madness, what struck me most was five horrible decisions by the NCAA selection committee: 1. Vanderbilt being a No. 4 seed, after struggling late in the season (and then losing badly to Siena); 2. Baylor even being in the tournament, one of the last at-large teams (and falling to Purdue); 3. Duke clearly over-seeded once again as a No. 2 (then nearly losing to Belmont before getting smoked by West Virginia); 4. Connecticut being a No. 4 seed (and losing in overtime to San Diego) while Big East rival Villanova was a No. 12 and is still alive; 5. Western Kentucky being an ignored No. 12 (before beating Drake and handling Siena).