CCHA Playoffs: Championships CCHA Playoffs: Championships by Paula C. Weston
The states of Michigan and Ohio are equally represented in this year’s CCHA Championship Tournament. It’s no surprise that Michigan, Michigan State, and Miami advanced to the semifinals, but Bowling Green had to win two on the road to earn the right to travel north of the border. In the first semifinal game of the CCHA Championship Tournament, the Bowling Green Falcons take on the defending NCAA National Champion University of Michigan Wolverines. "It’s supposed to be this way," says Bowling Green head coach Buddy Powers. "It’s not supposed to get easier." The Falcons ended their regular season with a 10-12-5 record in the CCHA, and a 15-15-5 record overall. Last weekend, the Falcons upset the Lake Superior State Lakers, sweeping the series in two games, remaining undefeated against the Lakers in five matchups this season. But Lake Superior is not Michigan. "I think in contrast to Buddy’s team," says Michigan head coach Red Berenson, "our early-season projections were pretty much fulfilled." Pretty much. With just three losses all season, 21 CCHA wins, and 32 victories overall, the Wolverines were without question the best college hockey team in the country. The two teams meeting in the late semifinal game were responsible for all three of the losses Michigan suffered this season. In its final game of the regular season, Miami beat Michigan 4-2. The victory propelled Miami into the playoffs, where the team-soon-to-be-formerly-known-as-the-Redskins swept Ohio State. Miami meets a tough Michigan State team that faced more than a few highs and lows during the season. The Spartans won their season series against Michigan, but lost games against Notre Dame, Alaska-Fairbanks, and the season series against Ohio State. "We’re going down [to Detroit] with the idea in mind that we’re capable of winning," says Michigan State head coach Ron Mason. His sentiments are, doubtless, echoed by Red Berenson, Buddy Powers, and Mark Mazzoleni.
Bowling Green (15-17-5, 10-12-5 CCHA) vs. Michigan (32-3-4, 21-3-3 CCHA) Friday, 5 p.m. ET, Joe Louis Arena, Detroit, MI "If you advance, you play the tougher teams." Those words, spoken by Bowling Green head coach Buddy Powers, were never truer than in the context of this first-round game at The Joe. The Falcons began their season brilliantly, winning their first six games, including two conference road games at Lake Superior. Beginning with their seventh game of the season, though, the Falcons spiraled downward in the standings and struggled with injury after injury. Since going 2-10-2 in November and December, the Falcons have had 9-5-3 in 1997. Two of those ties came against teams playing this weekend in Detroit — Michigan State and Miami, but one of the ties during the bleak months came against Michigan. "That was so long ago," says Powers. Now, Bowling Green’s reward for resiliency is a first-round game with a team many expect to repeat as national champions. "The bottom line is that in this league, anyone who was thinking of any kind of success was going to have to go through Michigan," says Powers. "It’s a one-game showdown. We’ve had excellent leadership from our seniors. The team as a whole played well." Powers knows how the Wolverines are able to turn up their play a notch when they have to come from behind or break a tie. Michigan has done that against many teams this season, including the Falcons. "That’s the thing we have to overcome, or negate, or whatever," says Powers. "We have to contain them when they just decide that they’re taking over the game. "We’ll have to play the game out the best we can. The guys have got to play. Our job is to try to knock them off." That won’t be easy. Aside from a phenomenal record, phenomenal talent, and phenomenal playoff experience, the Wolverines like Joe Louis Arena, which seems to return the feeling. Michigan’s overall record at the Joe is 44-18-1, including the last nine Great Lakes Invitational titles. Their record in the GLI is 25-10-1. In addition, the Wolverines are 7-3 in regular season games at Joe Louis (all but one against Michigan State), and there they are 7-5 in CCHA playoff games, 2-0 in NCAA Tournament games, and 1-0 in regular season non-conference games. And, remember, Detroit is a brief bus ride away from where a few thousand screaming Michigan fans root for their team on home ice. Michigan defeated Alaska-Fairbanks in the first round of the playoffs in two games, by a combined score of 19-1. "The games were not as tough as they typically might be," says Michigan head coach Red Berenson. "That could certainly get us into a state of overconfidence. I hope that doesn’t happen." Overconfidence — combined with a flawless game from a very talented Bowling Green team — is probably the only thing that can bring down this particular Wolverine squad. The Wolverines have played so well this season that merely trailing Miami at home brought a flurry of questions from reporters after the game. This is a team that hasn’t had much experience losing. "We’ve been a team that’s gone through the season with a few losses, but we look forward to the playoffs," says Berenson, sounding as though those few losses are puzzles the team has yet to figure out. "I think the team hasn’t had much of that [having to come from behind] this year, yet we have survived some games where we came back to tie or to win. Our team expects to win, as all good teams should." Berenson has the grace to at least acknowledge the level of competition at this year’s tournament. "We realize that there are at least three other teams in the league who, on any given night, can play as well as we can." Many fans are hoping for an all-Michigan championship game. The Spartans were the only team this season to take a series from Michigan, and they won one of those games at Joe Louis. "Those were games [Michigan losses to MSU] where the goalies were a factor," says Berenson. "In those games, we were either not taking advantage of our chances, or we were not getting a lot of chances…. I think you see that in the games against Michigan State." Of course, talk of a Michigan-MSU matchup is a little premature. "Right now," says Berenson, "we’re not worried about Michigan State, because we don’t know if we’re going to play them. "Our team would like to play Michigan State because that would mean we’re in the final game, and that would be a challenge." Michigan will have to work to beat Bowling Green, but the Wolverines should advance to that final. Whether Berenson and the Wolverines get the much-anticipated battle with Michigan State is another story. PICK: Michigan 5-2 Michigan State (22-11-4, 16-7-4 CCHA) vs. Miami (27-10-1, 19-7-1 CCHA) Friday, 8:30 p.m. ET, Joe Louis Arena, Detroit, MI This playoff game is a hockey lover’s dream. Miami’s story-book season has been good for college hockey fans in general, as well as Miami fans. A team that no one expected to excel, in a little town in the southwest corner of Ohio — Ohio! — has emerged as a solid contender for the CCHA title. It took this Miami team many games to earn the national respect it deserves. "Our team has probably been one that’s very happy with what’s transpired this year," says Miami head coach Mark Mazzoleni. "Never once did we lose more than two consecutive games, and (those were) on the road. "Watching our team, we’ve played on a pretty consistent level of emotion our whole year. We haven’t had a lot of highs and a lot of lows." In answer to those people who think that this Miami team is a fluke, Mazzoleni says, "I think our ranking is deserved." Although Miami is, in Mazzoleni’s terms, a "relatively young team," the team has been able to build a sense of unity that has been able to sustain through a tough season. "One thing that has helped us this year is balance," says Mazzoleni. Mazzoleni also points to the leadership of senior forwards Barry Schutte and Tom White. "They have really been behind what we as a coaching staff have wanted to do this year." Miami has benefitted from outstanding play from several other players, including soph sensation Randy Robitaille — who reached his 100th career point in a Miami uniform in the second playoff game against Ohio State. "Randy has been as good a forward as I’ve ever seen in college hockey," says Mazzoleni. Robitaille is so good, so explosive, that other Miami players are often overshadowed. "Danny [Boyle] is a dynamic offensive defenseman who creates opportunities. Trevor Prior has been solid." Miami’s improvement in recent years can be linked, in part, to recruiting. "I think one thing that we’ve done over the last couple of years is that we’ve increased our skill level," says Mazzoleni. It’s hard to argue with a man whose team includes not only Robitaille, Boyle, and Prior, but Tim Leahy, Adan Copeland, Marc Tropper, Adam Lord, and such outstanding freshmen as Josh Mizerek. Michigan State assistant coach Tom Newton believes in Miami’s talent. "They’re an excellent hockey team. They have great balance," says Newton. "They’re a high-energy team, and they pursue the puck at every zone." The Spartans are another team that has had to fight for a little respect this season. Early on, fans expressed displeasure with the play of Spartan goaltender Chad Alban, who nonetheless proved to everyone by the end of the year that he’s one of the best. With more than 2,000 minutes in net for Michigan State, Alban’s record of 22-9-4 is nothing to sneeze at. His overall GAA is 2.64, and his save percentage hovers just beneath .900 "Early in the year, he wasn’t getting breaks around the net," says Michigan State head coach Ron Mason. "Any goaltender knows the bounces have to go your way. We stayed right with him, because he still played very well with the puck and the stick. Eventually your luck changes a little bit. He hasn’t changed anything that he’s done, but over a long season, goaltenders are going to go through spells. In the last little while, he’s playing with great skill." The Spartans also lost to teams fans and critics thought they should have beaten — Notre Dame, Ohio State, Alaska-Fairbanks. But the regular season is over, and no one knows better than Mason that the only thing that counts right now is the game at hand. "I think our team is as good mentally as it can be," says Mason. He calls the hard-played games last weekend against Western Michigan "good preparation for us." This pairing is all the more exciting because Michigan State took the season series from Miami. Mazzoleni says he knows how the Spartans got the better of his team twice this season. "In the games against State," says Mazzoleni, "we turned the puck over 44 times. That’s the most number of odd-man rushes we’ve given up this year. "Another big key for us against State is our goaltending. Have to match alban in net." Newton agrees that goaltending will was a big factor in the regular-season meeting between Miami and Michigan State. "It was a very intense, close-checking series that really had some outstanding goaltending on both ends of the rink. For all intents and purposes, they were one-goal games." "In the game in Miami," says Mason, "we were able to exploit some areas that you normally don’t [get to do] with that team. I agree with Mark that the game in Munn came down to goaltending. We’re used to close games. I’ll look to goaltending and defense to win it." Defense will be key for Michigan State. In order to win this game, the Spartans will have to contain a team with explosive potential, second only to Michigan in the CCHA. "Basically," says Mason, "all you have to do is look at the statistics to see that we’re a better defensive team than we are an offensive team. If we do play well defensively, we do have some people who can score up front. In some games and some series, the combination has been outstanding. "I’ve said all along, they’re as good as anyone. We have to play as well as we can in order to be successful." In order for Michigan State to beat Miami, that combination of offense and defense will have to click, and click fast. Miami has the power to take this game early and put it away. PICK: Miami 4-2 Championship game (projected): Miami (27-10-1, 19-7-1 CCHA) vs. Michigan (32-3-4, 21-3-3 CCHA) Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Joe Louis Arena, Detroit, MI It’s tempting to sum up the entire CCHA Championship Tournament with this statement: Michigan wins. However trite that sounds, it is unlikely that anyone will upset the Wolverines. Taking nothing away from Miami (or Bowling Green or Michigan State, for that matter), Michigan is a true powerhouse, with nine seniors who already have one national championship under their collective belts. Eleven members of this team have been drafted. Returning goaltender Marty Turco was the goalie of record for a national championship team as a sophomore. This is some daunting combination. Unless you’re the team that ended its season by beating the Wolverines 4-2 at home. Miami played Michigan hard in two games at Yost. Miami lost, 5-3, after leading for two periods, and then made Michigan work for its 3-0 victory the next night. Few teams have played this particular Michigan team as tough as Miami has. This game will come down to the experience of the players. As good as Miami is, Michigan has won more playoff games than Miami has played. PICK:Michigan 3-2
Paula C. Weston is the CCHA Correspondent for U.S. College Hockey Online.
Copyright 1997 Paula C. Weston . All Rights Reserved.
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