They’re both new to the Frozen Four, but both Union and Ferris State figure to lean on a tried-and-true postseason formula when they play in Thursday’s first national semifinal.
This game should be played in the classic playoff style, where special teams and goaltending are paramount.
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Both squads are defensively-oriented and both love to make the most of their opportunities on offense, which will make either squad a force to be reckoned with in the championship game on Saturday.
“Both teams are very similar,” said Western Michigan coach Andy Murray, whose team tied Union twice and went 3-0-1 against Ferris State this season. “Both are big teams with lots of size. They are very physical with strong senior leadership and veteran goaltending.”
Goaltending is as good a place as any to start in comparing these teams.
The Bulldogs’ Taylor Nelson has been nearly impossible to beat of late. The senior surrendered only two goals in helping his team to its first NCAA regional title. In the process, he earned the regional’s most valuable player honors.
Sophomore Troy Grosenick has been almost as stellar for the Dutchmen, stopping all but three pucks to lift his team to its first national semifinal as a Division I team and its first since the Division III semifinals in 1985. His steady play also helped the Dutchmen post the nation’s top goals against average (1.80) for the season.
Where these teams begin to differ is in their defensive philosophy. Ferris State prefers to clog up the neutral zone, slowing its opponents down before they reach the offensive zone. Add to that the Bulldogs defenders’ willingness to block shots and you have a stifling defense that doesn’t surrender many Grade A chances.
“They are well-organized defensively,” said Murray. “They have big bodies that made it difficult to get into shooting lanes.”
While Murray’s Broncos managed to find success against the Bulldogs, many other teams, including their Midwest Regional opponents, the Denver Pioneers and the Cornell Big Red, did not.
“Ferris State is smothering defensively,” said Appert, whose Engineers lost twice at Ferris State and lost all five games they played against Union. “They block a lot of shots.”
Leading the battalion of shot blocks is co-captain Chad Billins. After scoring just 22 points over the first two years of his career, Billins, now a senior, notched 29 points this season, including a pair of game-winning goals. His leadership has helped mold sophomore Scott Czarnowczan into an effective two-way defenseman.
The advantage of their defensive style is that the Bulldogs can afford to turn around and strike efficiently on offense when the opportunity presents itself.
Senior winger Jordie Johnston and junior center Matthew Kirzinger lead the Bulldogs’ offense. Neither player averages a point per game, but Johnston’s team-leading 20 goals include six on the power play and five game-winners. Kirzinger has just 10 goals, but that includes three on the power play, three short-handed, and three game-winners.
While the Dutchmen are excellent defensively thanks to their dedication to backchecking, their offense might be a better story, as they have several weapons that have helped make their power play one of the best in the nation.
Junior Jeremy Welsh, senior Kelly Zajac and sophomore Daniel Carr have all notched at least a point a game. Welsh and Carr both have nine goals on the man advantage. Despite not having as many points as his teammates, junior Wayne Simpson has also proven deadly on the power play; nine of his 18 goals have come in such situations.
Welsh, Carr and Simpson helped the Dutchmen to the nation’s fourth-best offense (3.55 goals per game) and power play (24.3 percent) by being a puck-possession team.
“Both teams have very high-profile guys who play very well offensively,” said Denver coach George Gwozdecky, whose Pioneers beat Union and lost to Ferris State. “Whether it’s Johnston or Welsh or Carr, they will beat you.”
At the end of the day, there’s little that separates these two squads, which will make this matchup compelling for all the right reasons.
“Both squads are hard-working teams with older, veteran guys who really buy into what their teams are all about,” Appert said. “They are hard to get off their games because of their belief in who they are.”
Both teams are well-coached as well. While Bob Daniels has put in 20 seasons with the Bulldogs, Rick Bennett has impressed in his first go-around with the Dutchmen.
“Their coaching staffs are outstanding,” said Gwozdecky. “Rick Bennett and his staff have done a great job in just one season.”
One thing is clear: Whichever team comes out of this game will give their high-profile opponent all it can handle in the championship tilt.
“Every game [against these two teams] was a playoff-type game,” said Murray. “Every game was tough.”
Two questions will answered on Thursday.
“This matchup is interesting,” said one coach. “Can Ferris State be patient? How will Union react to that?”
We will find out at 4:30 p.m. EDT Thursday.