All season long, people have been making comparisons between this year’s Michigan hockey team and the 1997-98 squad which made a miraculous run to the national title.
In fairness, the parallels are hard not to see. The 1997 team featured a massive freshman class stepping in for an equally massive departed senior class, which is what happened this year. With so many new players, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the ’97 squad had an up-and-down season (although that appears to have become the trend for Michigan hockey in recent years). One week the Wolverines would look like world-beaters, and the next week they’d get swept by some CCHA bottom-feeder. The same type of thing happened this year.
Maybe the most glaring similarity between the two seasons, something that had to have fans of this year’s team salivating, was the location of the NCAA West Regional. Since college hockey thrives on such a niche market, it is common for the NCAA to place the West Regional on a campus and then to place that school’s team in the regional (the East Regional is almost annually played in Worcester, Mass., since half of the eastern teams seem to be from Massachusetts). This practice ensures good turnout at the games, which means that the NCAA can hope to at least break even.
In 1998, Michigan entered the NCAAs as an underdog and was seeded third in the West. But, the Wolverines got to host the West Regional at Yost Ice Arena, and the home-ice advantage was almost solely responsible for the Wolverines’ come-from-behind win over No. 2 seed North Dakota in the quarterfinals. If that game had been played anywhere else in America, the Fighting Sioux, who got a bye in the first round, would have crushed Michigan – which had to beat Princeton in the first round – but the raucous crowd at Yost enabled the Wolverines to come back from a two-goal deficit in the third period for perhaps the greatest win Michigan has ever had at Yost.
This year, the West Regional is returning to Yost, and Michigan is the fourth seed. Again, the Wolverines are an underdog, but since they’re playing at Yost, it’s only natural to expect them to continue the eerie similarities to 1998 and advance to the Frozen Four, right?
Unfortunately, it’s not going to be that easy for Michigan. As a matter of fact, I don’t think the Wolverines have any shot at making the Frozen Four.
This isn’t Michigan’s fault, mind you. One would think that sweeping the CCHA regular season and tournament titles would get you some respect from the NCAA selection committee, but the Wolverines were hit with a double-whammy yesterday when the brackets were announced. First, Michigan found out that it was seeded fourth, which meant two things – the Wolverines wouldn’t have a first-round bye, and they would miss the chance to play sixth-seeded Colorado College, which is the “weakest” team in the West Regional.
Instead, Michigan drew No. 5 seed St. Cloud State. The Huskies were ranked in the top five for most of the season, and they have a huge chip on their shoulders from last year’s West Regional, when Michigan shocked St. Cloud 3-2 to advance to the Frozen Four.
The second piece of bad news for Michigan deals with the NCAA’s new ‘regionalization’ plan (what is it with the NCAA’s stupid regionalization plans?). To make a long story short, the NCAA decided to keep all of the eastern teams in the East Region and the western teams in the West Region, which means that the West Region is absurdly stacked. The WCHA is easily the best conference in college hockey, and all four WCHA teams – Denver, Minnesota, St. Cloud and Colorado College – are joining Michigan and Michigan State at Yost.
As I mentioned earlier, Michigan got to play sixth-seeded Princeton in the first round in 1998. This year’s St. Cloud team is so much better than the ’98 Princeton team that it’s not even funny. Michigan is going to have to scratch and claw just to escape the first round this year, and if it does, it has to come back the next night – when the Wolverines will probably be exhausted – and somehow beat top-ranked Denver. Not very likely, to say the least.
There is a small chance that Michigan could pull off the unthinkable and win two games in two nights against teams that powerful. This is where the Yost crowd will have to come up huge – when the old barn is rocking, the Wolverines can do just about anything. Plus, the synergy between 1997-98 and this season has been so great that it’s easy to think something miraculous will happen this weekend.
But, it doesn’t look good for Michigan. Barring quite a miracle, it looks like the endless parallels to the magical 1997-98 season will finally be put to rest.
Arun Gopal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org