Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 15, 2012

Twin Doses Of Reality On A Frosty New England Night

The Verizon Wireless Arena in New Hampshire’s largest city seats just about 10,000 for a hockey game. Fewer than half that number of fans ventured out on a frigid Saturday night to take in the game between the men’s teams from Dartmouth College and the University of New Hampshire. It was a smaller crowd than usual for the annual faceoff of the state’s two Division I hockey schools. Perhaps it was the single-digit wind chill, or the fact that the UNH Wildcats are having something of an off year by their high standards. While Manchester is almost an hour west of the team’s Durham campus and home rink, UNH is always the home team for this game and the crowd is always heavily in favor of the skaters in the blue and white uniforms. Or perhaps the attendance had everything to do with the fact that most New England sports fans were focused on the proceedings at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough Saturday night. But while the Patriots playoff game against the Denver Broncos may have diminished the crowd on hand in Manchester, in the end the two contests played out in remarkably similar fashion; so it was fitting that they were played on the same evening.

Although Dartmouth came into the hockey game with a slightly better season record than UNH, the reality is that the Wildcats were the clear favorite. UNH is one of the ten teams in Hockey East, the powerhouse conference of collegiate hockey in the eastern United States. Among the other schools in Hockey East are Boston College, UMass Lowell, Boston University, Northeastern, and Merrimack. In this week’s computerized ranking of Division I teams, which factors both strength of schedule as well as results, those five squads rank 2nd, 9th, 11th, 12th, and 16th; and are the top five eastern programs in the rankings. Dartmouth is a member of ECAC Hockey, a conference made up of the six Ivy League schools with hockey programs and six other smaller independent colleges in the northeast and New York state. Long-time power Cornell, currently 17th in the computer rankings, is the top ECAC Hockey program. If UNH’s current ranking is an uncharacteristically low 34th that is still well ahead of Dartmouth’s rank of 44th.

UNH has also been one of the 16 teams chosen to participate in the NCAA’s post-season tournament to determine the Division I national champion for eleven straight years. That streak is in jeopardy this season, with the Wildcats fielding a young team that includes three sophomores as starting skaters and a freshman goalie. Yet if the Wildcats tournament streak should end this year, it likely won’t be long before they start another. As a perennial force in college hockey, UNH is generally able to recruit most of the top players who long-time Coach Dick Umile sets his sights on. Dartmouth, meanwhile, last made an appearance in the NCAA tournament in 1980.

Yet as much as UNH was the favorite on paper, the Big Green managed to stay competitive for a time, thanks largely to the tremendous goaltending of senior James Mello. Dartmouth even took the lead 8 ½ minutes into the game when sophomore Matt Linblad, last season’s Ivy League Rookie of the Year, wristed a shot over the shoulder of UNH goalie Casey DeSmith. But while the small contingent of Dartmouth fans responded with enthusiastic cheers, UNH’s dominance was already plain to see. The goal came on Dartmouth’s first shot of the game. A team that needs almost half a period to put a shot on net is not likely headed to victory.

By the end of the first period the score was knotted at 1-1, and UNH had outshot Dartmouth 17-3. In the second period the superior size, athleticism, and hockey skills of the UNH team finally took over. They stretched the lead to 3-1, and added a final tally in the third period. Senior forward Stevie Moses had a career night, scoring all four of the UNH goals. Were it not for Mello’s sturdy performance in goal the final score could have been far more lopsided. At times the Dartmouth skaters looked like they were playing pond hockey, where checking is prohibited. So thorough was UNH’s dominance that on Dartmouth power plays the short-handed Wildcats actually outshot the Big Green 3-1 and outscored them 1-0.

On the ride home most fans no doubt had their radios tuned to the play-by-play of the Divisional playoff game that began down in Foxborough about the time UNH was asserting itself on the ice in Manchester. Here too there was a clear favorite on paper. New England came into the game as the #1 seed in the AFC, while Denver had backed into the playoffs with an 8-8 record as the winner of the weak AFC West. But just as there were probably some Dartmouth fans who had fantasies of the little Ivy League team upending the cross-state power, so all week long there had been plenty of fans and pundits, caught up in the hype of Tebowmania, who had imagined that Tim Tebow would somehow carry the Broncos to a miraculous victory.

The football game also seemed competitive for a time. When the Broncos capitalized on an interception of a Tom Brady pass to score early in the second quarter, it was a one possession game at 14-7. But just as in the hockey game, the close score disguised a fundamental mismatch. But for the one drive covering a short field after the pick, the Tebow-led Broncos offense was sputtering. So it was that after what turned out to be the lone Denver touchdown of the night, the superior size, athleticism and football skills of the New England team, and especially of their quarterback, finally took over. By halftime the score was 35-7. Tom Brady completed five passes for touchdowns in the first half, while Tebow completed three passes. Period. With New England moving into scrimmage mode for much of the second half, the 45-10 final score was actually closer than the play on the field.

In fans’ fantasies and players’ dreams, underdogs like Dartmouth pull off shocking upsets against superior opponents like UNH; athletes manifestly lacking in fundamental skills like Tebow find a way to outduel All-Pro opponents like Brady. Every so often, against all odds, it even happens in real life. If it didn’t there would be no reason to play the games. But most times fantasies and dreams are just that; and the underdogs and the overrated learn that reality is as cold and as harsh as a frozen January night in New England.

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