Minnesota plays Minnesota-Duluth in the Final Five play-in game tonight. It's not quite loser-goes-home, but it's almost loser-goes-home, so I'm going to make a ruling on this right now and say the loser of this game doesn't make the NCAA tournament.
All the numbers point to this being an epic struggle. Minnesota has the better offense, Duluth has the better defense. Duluth has better powerplay, Minnesota has a better penalty kill. The two teams were seperated by 2 points in the standings, and two goals in conference goal differential. Then again, I'm one of those people that believes with only 60 minutes to play with, those subtle differences aren't going to be the difference so much as who gets the better goaltending, who gets the right bounce, and who comes up with the little extra effort and jump.
These two teams played only twice during the regular season. Technically Minnesota won the season series after tying on Friday night and winning on Saturday night. But after going to the Friday night game, to say both teams were equal that night was a stretch. Duluth thoroughly dominated the game and Minnesota was let off the hook by one part Stalock Wanderlust and one part Thul Incompetence. Both factors are definitely in play tonight, but I'd be surprised if both struck against UMD tonight.
It's easy to root for Duluth tonight. It's always fun to see fresh blood in the NCAA tournament, and the Bulldogs are a nice renaissance story after a couple awful years. Nobody is rooting for Minnesota unless they are a life-long Gopher or hate puppies, because nobody wants to see them playing on their home ice in an NCAA regional. But I have a tough time shaking the feeling that Minnesota will find a way to win this game. They may have sleepwalked through the regular season, but when it comes down to crunch time, they've got the talent and experience that a team that gave up in January the past three years just doesn't have. Minnesota always seems to find a way to snake out of trouble, no matter how badly the rest of the world wants to watch them die. Stranger things have happened--I'll be watching Michigan in the NCAA basketball tournament tonight--but I think the Gophers end up pulling away late in this game.