Karma sucks. Just weeks after making my humbling and historic 2,118 mile trek from the Beanpot to the Frozen Tundra Classic and back to the Beanpot, those same college hockey gods that I praised so effusively in this very spot 26 days ago, have now smote me with the most galling and painful of plagues.
Ironically, it all started with a selfless act. For a fan of college hockey, moving from a hotbed like The Hub to one utterly devoid of intercollegiate ice competition was tough to swallow. But I made this move willingly, excited to experience again the peculiar combination of energy, power, and self-importance that make the District of Columbia a fascinating place to live and work.
What I did against my better inclination — at least my initial hockey impulse — was to pass on my annual pilgrimage to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s Final Five. From a relationship standpoint, the decision was a no-brainer; my girlfriend was set to start her new job, a real breakthrough opportunity, that following Monday, March 20.
That choice was also made exponentially easier knowing that within my grasp, at the touch of my fingers, I had at hand the greatest of inventions: DIRECTV.
Superior to digital cable in so many ways — including cost — this celestial orb made my staying at our new home much more agreeable. It would also allow me an opportunity to watch the first couple rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament, a most unusual of occurrences given my perpetual presence at the Final Five.
So I was set, my itinerary finalized. For four days, covering two different sports — hoops beginning around noon Thursday until seven on Sunday, and hockey from the WCHA play-in game through Selection Sunday, covering in that span all four major conference tourneys — from my locale below the Mason-Dixon line, I could live out a splendid existence.
And then on a startlingly sunny Saturday my world was shattered. Certainly, my landlord assured me, having DIRECTV would not be a problem. I own the condo he told me nonchalantly; I can do what I want. Oh how I wish that were true.
To be fair, our place is new, has never been lived in, and apparently the two directions it faces — it’s a corner unit — had never been ascertained. As it turns out, neither of those directions was southwest.
When the DIRECTV man, a kindly older gent with a slow gait and calm demeanor, arrived with the sun now descending in the west, a feeling of unprovoked uneasiness began to envelop me.
In an attempt to squash this most uncomfortable of inklings, I decided to meet him outside. As it turned out, this decision simply accelerated the inevitable rather than postponing any debilitating news I might shortly hear.
Fancy cable equipment in tow, this man surely must be looking at a different condo unit than the one I was pointing to. That one, right there on the corner, I repeat. Appearing not to hear me, he intoned gravely: do you have a balcony?
Now I was definitely worried.
Stealing a glimpse of his specially designed DIRECTV-GPS reader whose display encapsulated all my worst fears as I answered his balcony quandary in the negative, I nonetheless insisted he come up to our fourth floor loft to install my dish I knew he could not, knowing that never again would it provide the sustenance I needed to thrive.
He did. I wept.
I’m not one to complain (really!) but why this timing could not have been worse, why this cut above all went so deep, was that for the first time since 2000 — for the first time since the Final Five moved to the exquisite Excel Energy Center in St. Paul — my Wisconsin Badgers were guaranteed two games, beginning with their first trip to the semis since Steve Reinprecht still skated for the cardinal and white.
So there I sat. Helpless. Contemplating my return to a form of cable whose channel lineup never even considered including ESPNU — let alone CSTV — I silently cursed the hockey gods.
Five days had now passed. And with three first round upsets, the WCHA play-in game had become less interesting to me, Minnesota-Duluth and St. Cloud taking the stage from perennial national powerhouses — and reigning Frozen Four participants — North Dakota and Colorado College.
When in attendance at that tournament, my initial act upon entering the arena is to purchase the commemorative program, restraining my urge and inclination to open it until seated in my club level seats, soda and hot dogs in hand. The reason for my excitement — and unusual discretion — as that inside that magazine are the spoils, summarized on one page, for all those who fought so hard during the conference campaign.
Instead of learning about these accolades from the program, though, I found out the shocking news from the WCHA website. Not since the announcement of the Hobey Baker Award in 2000 has there been such an egregious act committed. Surely there was a mistake.
After all, if voting for the top goaltender in the nation’s premier conference, which of these two netminders would you choose?
Goalie A with a 12-12-2 record, 2.09 goals against average and .926 save percentage or Goalie B whose stat line read: 15-3-3, 1.84, and .930?
While A’s numbers are certainly stellar, B has more wins, one quarter of the losses, more ties, a much lower GAA and even a higher save percentage. Wonder then, that netminder A — Bobby Goepfert of St. Cloud — was First Team All-WCHA and goalie B, Brian Elliot of Wisconsin, was relegated to the second squad.
I first heard rumblings of the top spot being up-for-grabs on the last weekend of the regular season, when some voters were apparently not yet convinced of Brian Elliot’s conference supremacy, due principally — presumably — to his three sub par outings when coming back too early from a knee injury that forced him to miss eight games.
Yet he responded to the worst (and last) of the outings — being pulled in Mankato — that very weekend by shutting out St. Cloud — and Bobby Goepfert — before allowing just a sole tally in his final regular season league game. Apparently for some, his overall pre-injury numbers — 18-2-2, 1.40 GAA, and .944, four conference defensive player of the week awards and the Hockey Commissioners’ Association National Player of the Month last November — were almost completely forgotten.
So it goes. But if indeed it were all to be decided on this one weekend, in a head-to-head match-up, shouldn’t the goalie who plays the best, or barring determination of an often subjective finding, the one who wins the games (and plays well), be deserving of the top spot in the league?
Wisconsin won both games, the finale by shutout, and while Goepfert was good (0-2, 4 goals against, 48 saves), Elliot was better (2-0, 1, 64). These two wins gave Elliot a 3-0-1 record against the St. Cloud goalie. So good was Elliot that the league again crowned him Red Baron Pizza WCHA Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts.
If perhaps you think I’m bias due to my allegiances to my alma mater and am pointing out only relevant stats, here are the only two others that could have made a difference: overall team performance and the tough-to-quantity importance to team quotient.
Wisconsin finished tied for the second in the WCHA; freshman Goepfert carried a young St. Cloud team to an impressive finish, but one nonetheless in the league’s lower division. And did that mean Goepfert really mean more to his team?
Lest we forget, although a junior, this was Brian Elliot’s first season as a starter — the first time he played in Grand Forks or at Mariucci — and when he went down with his knee injury, the Badgers were sent into a downward spiral from which they have now just fully recovered.
Only when he came back — and again was at full health — did the entire team once again start playing at the level they had when they were the number one team — twice by unanimity — in the country for seven straight weeks. I am still at a loss to discern what the voters could have been thinking when all the numbers — everyone, no matter how minute — favor Elliot.
This perplexing quandary was made all the more stark when but moments after the WCHA awards wrapped up, Brian Elliot poignantly was the sole goaltender chosen as a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.
After a long, anguished night, the next day, Yahoo! radio provided me a bit of a reprieve. Allowing you to tune in to your local announcers — in my case, Brian Posick and the ebullient former Badgers defenseman Rob Andringa — is a special treat.
Such a relief of hearing a game I could have attended live was short lived, though, as despite taking an early 2-0 lead on the Fighting Sioux, the Badgers failed to close out the first period strong — or start the second period with requisite intensity — and before not-too-long, their two goal lead was a one tally deficit. A clearly motivated UND squad eventually prevailed, 4-3, quelling a fervent Wisconsin rally in the waning moments.
Of course, anyone in attendance at this Final Five may remember who won the tournament title (UND), but they never will forget the second semi-final.
After taking in the opening of the lovely Natalie Portman’s latest vehicle, V for Vendetta, I noticed a had received a trio of excited text messages reading ‘Upset!?’, ‘Briggs pulled. 5-2 SCSU midway’, and ‘6-4, 5 min left second’ in a startling 22 minute time frame from a good friend — and current caretaker of my Saturday night season tickets — back home in Madison.
The update continued on the car ride home. At 22.12 EST: ‘Hat trick Potulny, 6-5.’ Back at the condo, I again forced to watch hoops instead of hockey, at 22.44, ‘6-5, 9 left.’ But 18 real-time minutes later, simply this: ‘Tie game.’
Ryan Potulny’s fourth goal, an extra attacker tally, was the breaking point. Texting would no longer be sufficient.
Thirteen minutes after Minnesota had crawled all the way back, my phone rang. My friend called to report that the ‘most exciting college hockey game he had ever seen’ had just gone into overtime.
Knowing where his loyalties lie and admittedly jealous that not only could not be there I could not even watch it on television, I countered by evoking images of the two most exciting games either of us had ever seen live, those of the back-to-back overtime wins (on identical David Hukalo goals) by Wisconsin over North Dakota in 2000.
Yes, he said, better.
When the final text message of the night arrived at 23.35 — ‘Huskies win’ — I was both happy and sad. The Gophers had lost. But I had not seen it.
Thankfully, things began to get better as the sun rose on our second Saturday in our new place. It had been a week since that gentile man had torn my heart out. I was healing. Slowly.
So I again turned to Yahoo! to listen to Wisconsin play Minnesota in a game many thought would take place five hours later in the day. For those who thought that the game was meaningless — and judging by the Jeremiads offered up by the Gopher radio announcers from the opening face-off to the final whistle, those clad in maroon and gold definitely did — were sorely mistaken.
Wisconsin out hustled, out shot, and out played Minnesota en route to a 4-0 shellacking — one which flipped their PairWise comparison, giving Wisconsin the top seed in the national tournament.
This was important for a multitude of reasons, most crucially because it secured the Badgers a regional date in nearby Green Bay. More subtly, though, it allowed them to avoid the most daunting of duels: potentially playing North Dakota in its own building before having to play the winner of a loaded bracket, including the hottest team in the country: top-ranked Boston University.
With the Frozen Four in Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s win over Minnesota — Elliot’s shutout streak of the Gophers now currently 124 minutes — finalized the blueprint laid out by Mike Eaves and team captains in August. To win their sixth national title, and first since 1990, they would not have to leave Wisconsin.
Later that evening, with all the championship games in the books, Jayson Moy’s projected NCAA bracket — a welcome and sage addition to his addicting weekly bracketology — confirmed my suspicions about the road to Milwaukee.
Carefully climbing back on my well-worn soapbox, if any lessons can be learned from both the WCHA voting and previous Hobey Baker Awards — namely Boston College’s Mike Mottau winning the award based solely on this team’s regional final victory over Wisconsin’s Steve Reinprecht, the nation’s leading scorer on the country’s number one team — let it be that voting too early is never a good idea.
To me, the three finalists, the aptly-named Hobey Hat Trick, are clear. Boston College’s senior winger Chris Collins, Minnesota’s junior forward Ryan Potulny, and Wisconsin’s Brian Elliot are the only players deserving. I say this knowing that the best player all year has arguably been Denver’s defenseman Matt Carle.
But with making the Frozen Four no longer a prerequisite — Colorado College’s Peter Sejna won it in 2003, hopefully finally putting to rest the inane Mottau precedent — I doubt very seriously that a player, even one as great as Carle, whose team does not even qualify for the NCAA tournament, could ever win the award.
Of those two, it should come down to Potulny and Elliot. After Potulny’s four goal, five point performance against St. Cloud in that sterling semi, I would give it to him. But the next day Elliot pitched his second straight (and sixth overall) shutout against the nation’s top team, pushing his record against the Gophers to 3-0, with a 1.00 GAA and .969 save percentage. Of the three goals on 96 shots Elliot has given up, one went to Potulny.
Both players’ numbers — 38 goals, 25 assists, 63 points and 23-5-3, 1.70, and .933 — are superb and worthy of college hockey’s top honor. But instead of anointing the best player now, before he and his team have competed on the game’s ultimate stage, I hope the voters wait to judge them on their performance during the regionals as well as the season at-large. Only then will a true picture of this season’s best player clearly emerge.
As for this weekend’s games, I trust Yahoo! will carry me through, although I’m still hoping that some place around here carries ESPNU. If not, I’ll just have to envision the moment I’ve been waiting 14 years for: the chance to once again see the Badgers in the Frozen Four.
If they do indeed make it, all will be forgotten, simply frozen water under the bridge.
Thanks to the fastidious employees of the United States Postal Service, my tickets to that premier event were forwarded here to D.C. from Boston. Currently, they sit on my desk, unopened.
When Wisconsin confirms its reservations, I’ll check my sight lines. Until then, I’m focused solely on doing good deeds for all who warrant them.
I’ve found this arduous process rewarding certainly, but also necessary to recapture that elusive ingredient so necessary to happiness, success, and being able to watch live college hockey: karma.