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On Holy Cross and the Age of Parity

In hindsight, much has changed in the ten years since Holy Cross upset Minnesota. Upsets, for one.

Minnesota Athletics

In hindsight, it was the most important third place game played. No one won any titles when Minnesota and Wisconsin met at Xcel Energy Center with nothing on the line, but the way titles were won changed that day.

Coming back to play an afternoon third place game after losing an exciting 8-7 game to St. Cloud State at the 2006 WCHA Final Five the previous night, the Gophers fell again to Wisconsin.

At the time the stakes seemed low. So low that, outside of the NCHC, third place conference tournament games have been done away. Minnesota and Wisconsin were the top two teams in the Pairwise. With an NCAA Tournament berth and success was seemingly assured for both, the only thing on the line was which team earned the #1 overall seed.

In 2006, that did not seem like a big deal in a throwaway, forgotten game. Number 1 seeds were a perfect 12-0 in the three previous years that the tournament featured 16 teams.

Ten years later, a forgettable game led to one of the most memorable NCAA upsets, one that shows in highlight reels and helped usher in a decade of NCAA Tournament parity.

Holy Cross.

Those two words sum up a decade of joy, frustration, exacerbation when the Crusaders became the first #4 seed to beat a #1 when it defeated Minnesota in 2006.

The story is well-told by now (and for a more in-depth read about the context, read the companion piece by Chris Dilks). Atlantic Hockey autobid Holy Cross on March 24, 2006, 10 years to the day Mike Legg pulled off his lacrosse move against the Gophers, won 4-3 in overtime to defeat a team that entered the WCHA Final Five on a 20-1-1 run.

The Gophers were coming off of 2 titles and 3 Frozen Fours in 4 years. Phil Kessel was there. It was the WCHA at its highest, a year after 4 schools represented it in the Frozen Four. A divisive team, one of the only ones to garner a reaction among all college hockey fans, at its most divisive, and to add to the insanity, it came in Grand Forks in front of thousands cheering on the underdog.

It was the perfect upset at the perfect time.

In hindsight, the signs of change were there. #1 seeds had blown out the competition in the first year of an expanded tournament in 2003. Minnesota won its first round game 9-2 in a contest where Grant Potulny and Thomas Vanek made Mercyhurst look like the Washington Generals on ice skates instead of MAAC champs.

A year prior to Holy Cross, however, opposing fans nearly bought Maine sweaters to taunt. (There was a 5 year period where if you went on the road to see the Gophers you were guaranteed to see at least one Crusaders jersey and hear the OT goal call.)  #1 seed Minnesota needed overtime for Evan Kaufmann to score the game's only goal against Jimmy Howard and Maine.

The Gophers were not alone in going to OT to win that year. Eventual national champion Denver did too in the first round against CHA autobid Bemidji State. All four #1 seeds played one goal games in 2005.

To this day I wonder what the committee would have done if Minnesota had won that third place game. Would the Gophers be protected as the #1 overall seed and go to Green Bay to play #16 Bemidji State instead of a potential road QF match-up with North Dakota? Would attendance rule the day, keeping the eventual national champion Badgers inside Wisconsin?

One of the great unknown questions remains unknown, but in hindsight that would not have stopped the age of parity.

Someone was eventually going to fall to an automatic bid or #4 seed. To have it be Minnesota, the #2 overall (not #1 as many have said), in the way it did and where it did exemplified the possibility more than any other team could have done. No offense to a team like Cornell or Colorado College or Michigan State, but the initial upset would not have had the same impact that it did coming at the expense of the Gophers.

Ten years later, there is no such thing as a gimme NCAA Tournament game in single elimination.

The first post-Holy Cross upset tournament saw a slightly humbled Minnesota, this time actually the #1 overall seed, have to pull back their bleach blond playoff hair and come back from a 3-1 third period deficit against Atlantic Hockey autobid Air Force in Denver. CHA autobid Alabama-Huntsville took Notre Dame to double overtime before falling short while the other two #1 seeds lost to #4 seeds.

Two years later both one-bid conference autobids - Air Force and Bemidji State - upset Notre Dame and Michigan. Bemidji State made the Frozen Four, playing another #4 seed in Miami, and RIT joined the club as the Atlantic Hockey autobid in 2010.

Last season the Tigers became the first #16 team to defeat the #1 overall. (The 2009 games didn't feature a straight 1-16 bracket due to inter-conference matchups.) This year RIT is once again the Atlantic Hockey autobid and #16 seed.

In the nine tournaments since the first, and most memorable, #4 over #1 upset, fourth seeds are only 21-15 against the top seeds. As the number of elite players rises, the gap between the haves and have-nots has closed. Teams have more depth. There is a larger pool of players to choose from with teams having older and more experienced players versus young superstars evening out against one another.

In an age where more and more players are going from college to the NHL, the number of single elimination games is no longer a guarantee for the favorite. The NCAA Tournament is less about seed. Any team that has a chip has a chance.

Two of the last three NCAA champions (Yale in 2013, Providence 2015) won four straight games after getting into the tournament as the last at-large bid. The third (North Dakota 2014) made the Frozen Four and fell 0.6 seconds short of the championship game.

At this point few would be surprised to see Minnesota Duluth join the club in 2016. It would be more of an upset to see all four #1 seeds advance for the first time since 2005.

Since 2006, the stigma of being upset in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament has lessened. Minnesota State's rivals did not go out to buy RIT sweaters last season. The 2013 Bulldogs, as the #15 team, upsetting #2 overall Minnesota in overtime in the same style and fashion as the Crusaders, did not have the same effect. It is expected to see some good teams - and that Gopher team was the best since 2006 - have great regular seasons yet not make the Frozen Four.

That's where the mindset is in 2016. For better or worse, the big upset does not garner an astonished reaction these days. All sixteen teams enter this weekend's NCAA Tournament with an opportunity to win. The ten years since Holy Cross shocked the college hockey world with the upset all upsets still get judged has gone on to show an age of parity.

One overtime goal by Tyler McGregor straddles the line between eras in hindsight. With each passing year giving way to more upsets, the surprise of the first, done against a larger than life team, grows larger than life in its own way.

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Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter --