As one of two teams new to the Frozen Four this year, the Ferris State Bulldogs know that they’re underdogs — pardon the pun — but they have no problem with it.
They don’t care that before the season, the CCHA coaches picked them to finish ninth and the media had them at seventh. They don’t care that few but the FSU faithful expect them to make it past Union in Thursday’s national semifinal.
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There is merely a job to be done and the willingness to do it.
“The reason is that just because as long as Jordie [Johnston], Chad [Billins], and I have been here,” said senior goaltender Taylor Nelson, “we’ve been underdogs and yet we’ve had some pretty good seasons. You come into this year, and we’ve done some things that the dream team for Ferris, that 2002-03 team, hadn’t done.”
Nelson was the MVP of the Midwest Regional, and winning a regional is one of the things that the last — and first — FSU team to make the NCAA tournament hadn’t done. Johnston is the senior forward whose 20 goals lead the team; in 2002-03, the Bulldogs had three 20-goal scorers, including Chris Kunitz with 35.
Billins is the senior defenseman and co-captain who helps to anchor the Bulldogs’ fifth-best defense in the country. Billins said that a combination of confidence and chemistry has helped this year’s Bulldogs team do what no FSU team has done before.
“I don’t know exactly what made our team so tenacious this season,” said Billins. “I feel that all the years we’ve been here we’ve put in the hard work … and we just know what we can do.
“This year, if we get down in a game, no one gets down on the bench. Maybe it’s just how tight our group is in the locker room. I know it’s a cliche [but] there are no cliques or anything, and anyone would do anything for anyone on our team. Everyone just believes.”
That belief helped the Bulldogs through two tough spots this season, a disappointing showing in the Catamount Cup in Vermont and the loss of their second-round CCHA playoff series against last-place Bowling Green, a slip that meant sitting out the CCHA championship tournament.
Coach Bob Daniels, the 2011-12 CCHA coach of the year, said that as much as the recent focus is on FSU missing the CCHA tourney, the two losses at the Catamount Cup may have been even more important for the Bulldogs.
“We had a great start to the season and you always wonder, when does a great start move into a great season?” Daniels said. “We did hit a bump in the road in December. We were disappointed we didn’t do well there.
“The credit for turning it around goes to the players. It’s a very mature group. When we didn’t have success, you never really saw it. Outside of the regional final and when we clinched the CCHA [regular season championship], you’d be surprised at how quiet the locker room is. They just kind of take things in stride.”
And they understand how dependent they are on each other. This year, Johnston’s 20 goals double his production from his first three years, yet he credits linemates Matthew Kirzinger and Garrett Thompson.
“Matt’s probably one of the smoothest all-around players and Gary can grind it,” said Johnston, who said that FSU’s offense is difficult to pin down, and that may be an advantage in the Frozen Four.
“You don’t necessarily need one guy to score every game,” said Johnston. “Opponents never know who’s going to score for us. I hope that’s one of our strengths going in.”
It’s clear where the quiet confidence of the team originates. When talking about his team’s chances in Florida, Daniels said evenly, “We have an equal shot [among] any of the four teams that are down there.
“You can’t guarantee victory — none of the four teams can — but I can guarantee this right here, that we’ll come out and we’ll play as hard as we can play and we’ll give it everything we’ve got and those kids will prepare themselves the best they can for this tournament.”