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The further you travel into college sports playoffs, the greater the emotional stakes. It is why we watch, for the unscripted human drama playing before us.
Saturday night’s WCHA championship game between challenger Bowling Green and regular-season champ Minnesota State was hockey’s version of Masterpiece Theater: a thrilling overtime triumph for the home team, and a terrible, heart-wrenching loss for the visitors who honored the sport with their gutty effort. Yet there was a reprieve for the loser this night. Bowling Green, which nearly silenced a standing-room crowd for over 58 minutes before having the Jeff Sauer trophy ripped from its grasp, learned that it had finally earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament after a 29-year absence. It was a small consolation.
“We lost our poise and our focus,” said defeated coach Chris Bergeron. “It falls on me.”
Yet it was his Falcons who were the superior team for the vast majority of the game, stifled the WCHA’s highest scoring team, a perfect four-for-four killing the Mavs potent power play.
“This one was hard,” said Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings during the raucous on-ice party. “They owned us for the majority of the game.”
But it was the bleached blond boys from Mankato who were dancing on the ice, while Bergeron shuffled across 85 feet of ice to the vanquished locker room, spirit seemingly broken.
“The responsibility is mine,” said the crestfallen coach. “The momentum hurt us; it’s tough to simulate on a daily basis.”
Sailing along with a 2-0 lead, the Falcons had owned the momentum, until a goalmouth skirmish separated Ryan Bednard from his stick. For the first time in more than 58 minutes, Bowling Green’s heroic goaltender was vulnerable, and the opportunistic Jake Jaremko pounced for the Mavs. From that point on, bedlam reigned in Mankato’s Verizon Center.
The well-lubricated crowd, unable to express themselves for over two hours, never stopped roaring from that point on. Forty-eight seconds later, Mavs sophomore defenseman Connor Mackey found the twine from 50 feet to tie the game, and the party raged on as the Falcons got wobbly.
The overtime intermission was a blur, Bowling Green had lost its way, and Mavs captain Nick Rivera did his version of the Leo Sayer hit “Alone Again, Naturally,” and buried the overtime dagger, leaving the Falcons naked, stoned and stabbed.
It had taken just over three minutes of playing time for Bowling Green’s world to turn from utter dominance to unimaginable grief. The thing about playoff sports is that it’s not a zero-sum game: the victor’s joy is never as intense as the grief of the losers. And based on the delirium of the Mavericks’ trophy party that raged on the Verizon Center ice, the pathos crammed into the tiny visiting locker room was incalculable.
The Chris Bergeron era at Bowling Green had been to a painstaking nine-year push to the NCAA Tournament, the promised land of 16 elite teams. Due to Boston College’s loss 1,000 miles away, Bowling Green learned that it had finally scaled that seemingly insurmountable height, and it didn’t come close to softening the blow.
The men in orange were deeply scarred by this awful loss, and in sports, that can be a good thing. A devastating near miss is often ballast for next season’s motivation. Professional hockey teams win their Stanley Cups by paying hard-earned dues, just like Bowling Green did on Saturday, painful losses that spur dedication.
Well, unlike NCAA hockey’s basketball cousins, the teams vanquished in the round of 32 sometimes get a reprieve. While Central Florida experienced a similar fate in its hoops playoff loss to Duke on Sunday, the Knights must go home.
Bowling Green, on the other hand, lives to play another day. Both teams from Saturday’s epic clash in Mankato move on to the NCAA round of 16: Minnesota State flies east to play Providence, while Bowling Green gets a puncher’s chance against Duluth at the NCAA Midwest regional. Instead of a six-month offseason to get back on skates to begin the revenge process, it’s a mere six days, with every team member intact. There was no solace for the Falcons on Saturday, but there was hope.
“There’s another championship at stake,” said junior Freddy LeTourneau, who is earning the moniker “Mr. March” for Bowling Green this spring. “That’s our next goal, winning the next game. We got to turn the page.”
Author Tim Rappleye just released his latest book: Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review (Mission Point Press, 2018). He can be reached on Twitter @TeeRaps.