Wednesday, April 10, 2013

EZAC!

So there it was, Easter night, and suddenly it dawned on me.

The national championship game could be a rematch of the ECAC consolation game.

Yeah. We're not in Kansas anymore, are we?

A couple of times this season, I've pooh-poohed some of the more excited suggestions about what the ECAC could accomplish on the national level. So far, I've been proven about right - three NCAA bids was about what I expected. So what is it to say that the ECAC now has two teams in the Frozen Four for the first time since 1983, and just a year removed from ending a nine-year drought without even a single team in the ultimate event of the college hockey season?

Some would say it was nothing but luck. Those people will point to the fact that Yale essentially backed into the tournament after failing miserably in Atlantic City (scoring a grand total of zero goals in two games), that Union could well have been out of the NCAAs themselves if they hadn't won the ECAC title (probably true), and that Quinnipiac had a lousy February and (of course) was never a deserving #1.

Ask Minnesota, North Dakota, and Boston College about what kind of year the ECAC had. Those three powerhouse programs can boast a single split regular-season title (the Gophers, with St. Cloud State earning the #1 seed in the conference tournament) between them while two ECAC teams do battle in Pittsburgh for the opportunity to claim the league's first national championship since 1989.

While I was trying to calm down the overly optimistic expectations of four or five bids, I also pointed to the upward trend the league has been experiencing in the last couple of years as a legitimate source of optimism, and this is certainly another sign of growth. In 2011, we saw the league picking up three bids for the first time in several years. In 2012, it was a Frozen Four berth. Now, it's both, plus an extra spot in the Frozen Four.

Now, we don't need to have Quinnipiac and Yale win tomorrow to make this a successful season for the league, and there are plenty of additional steps that need to be taken before we can really pound our chests. And, as I also brought up earlier this season, the ECAC is set to pretty much overtake the "new" WCHA starting next season in terms of stature.

So, what are the chances of an ECAC champion this weekend? I'd go with... fair. It sounds pessimistic to say that with half the teams being from the ECAC, but it's about as far as I'd be willing to go. UMass-Lowell, on their current seven-game win streak, has given up either one goal or none at all in six of those games. That's a defense that's dialed in. St. Cloud State played exceptionally well in the WCHA, and settled for a #4 seed based almost entirely upon non-conference stumbles against UNH, RPI, and Northern Michigan, plus a loss to Wisconsin in the WCHA tournament. They're good.

That's not to say that Yale and Quinnipiac don't have things going for them as well. The Bobcats may be as dialed in on offense as UML is on defense, and a matchup between the Q and the River Hawks could be very exciting - as could the actual Yale-UML matchup provided that the Bulldogs get the offense they had in Grand Rapids rather than the one they had in Atlantic City.

Overall, though? This is a weekend to enjoy if you're a college hockey fan. It's the Frozen Four, of course, and that's cause every year. But this year? It's an even bigger celebration of what makes college hockey special. It's borne out of Union beating Boston College and St. Cloud State beating Notre Dame. Name another sport where that result would be even remotely possible.

When the casual college sports fan looks at the Frozen Four and says "who the hell are these guys?", you can take pride when you say - these are four damn good college hockey teams, and they proved it.

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