Sunday, March 18, 2012

NCAA seeding shows how far Hockey East has come


by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

Exactly 12 years ago today, the University of Maine beat Boston College in the Hockey East Finals by a 2-1 count. The game-winning goal was scored by future Flyer Niko Dimitrakos, with less than 10 seconds remaining in regulation.

It set up a unique set of circumstances for the NCAA selection committee. At the time there were only 12 slots available, six each in the East and West regions. Conference playoff title winners then, as now, were given automatic bids.

Maine, the playoff winner, finished fourth in the regular-season standings. New Hampshire, which lost in the semis, finished second. BC, which made the finals, was third and Boston University, another semifinal loser, won the regular-season crown.

Hockey East was not yet a full-on power conference like the CCHA or WCHA, whose top team -- North Dakota -- was the #1 school in the country and won it all three years prior. BU had won the title in '95 against Maine then lost to UND in '97, while BC lost to Michigan in '98 and Maine topped UNH in the '99 championship.

But history still belonged to the behemoths like North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Denver, Michigan State et al. Even the ECAC was given stature based on its Ivy League pedigree. For roughly 13 hours, the fate of an entire region hung in the balance before that year's selection show got underway the next afternoon.

On that Sunday, a door was opened, as the committee voted to include all four Hockey East schools within the tournament -- a first for a league which only came into existence 16 years before.

The Eagles went the furthest, losing in the title game to North Dakota. Shawn Walsh's Black Bears made it to the national semis before being shut out by the Sioux. The Terriers sent Rick DiPietro on his way to the NHL with a multiple-overtime loss in a regional final against St. Lawrence. Poor Wildcats, they were dispatched in an opening-game upset by Niagara.

From there, the story of Hockey East has largely been written.

BC has won three national championships and appeared in two more title games; BU finally won again in 2009; UNH finished second to Minnesota in 2003, and Maine was a bridesmaid in '02 against Minnesota and '04 against Denver.

Flash forward to 2012.

Boston College is the hottest team in the nation, having won 15 games in a row through its 4-1 decision over Maine on Saturday night. It finished as the #1 team in D-I hockey and was rewarded accordingly with the top seed in the Northeast Region in Worcester, opening up NCAA play on Saturday afternoon.

Maine (#11 in the country) drew a 3-seed in the Northeast, while BU (#5) earned a 3-seed in the West. Surprising UMass-Lowell (#10 overall) enters the Frozen Four as a 3-seed in the East. This grouping makes it possible for one conference in the northernmost quadrant of the US to have an impact on the final four, much like the Big East did in the 1985 men's basketball tournament.

Check out the full bracket here, and for the full work-up, check out this page.

There are no more perennially weak clubs in Hockey East, the way there once was a decade ago when only nine member schools participated and the likes of UMass-Amherst and Merrimack were traditional doormats. That will make the selection of schools from there even more difficult year to year with the specter of quick turnarounds, despite the fact that there are 16 teams in the tournament now and five conferences with automatic bids.

A one-third ratio in 2000 was phenomenal. A one-quarter ratio this year just shows how consistently good Hockey East schools have performed in this period, and how much respect the conference has retained over the years.

With the inclusion of Vermont, every team in the conference has tasted some form of prolonged postseason play, be it in-conference or on the national stage. The impending inclusion of Notre Dame in 2013 will add another layer of luster to a grouping among the giants.

With the college landscape about to be radically altered after next season, Hockey East appears to be the only conference that will be strengthened rather than blown up, weakened, or treading water.

To think it could have been much, much different if not for the wisdom of the men behind the curtain.
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