DETROIT — From the demeanor of the team and its coaching staff, you would never know that with a 4-2 win over Northern Michigan the Ferris State Bulldogs secured their first appearance in the CCHA title game and hit 30 wins for the first time in school history.
“We feel pretty fortunate that we got a couple of bounces at the right time,” said Bob Daniels, FSU head coach. “I thought both teams played well.”
While Craig Kowalski put on a show in the Wildcat net, this game belonged to the Bulldogs and especially senior captain and Hobey Baker finalist Chris Kunitz, who netted the first two goals in the game and set up the play that led to Jeff Legue’s game winner.
“He’s the best player in our league,” said NMU head coach Walt Kyle.
The first period was a two-man duel between Craig Kowalski and Kunitz, with the advantage going Kunitz’s way — but not for Kowalski’s lack of effort. Kowalski had very little help in the first period, and he stopped puck after puck, rebound after rebound — but he couldn’t get them all.
Kunitz’s first goal was his second effort on the attempt, but the third shot that Kowalski faced in quick succession. With Kowalski sprawled on the ice high in the crease, Kunitz took the puck from under the netminder’s glove and tucked it into the open net behind him, making it 1-0 at 5:25.
Kunitz struck again at 11:49, this time picking up his own rebound left of the crease after Kowalski made a stellar point-blank save, and finding the Wildcat goalie’s five-hole for the 2-0 lead.
The game could easily have gone to 3-0 several times in the first twenty minutes, as the ‘Dogs outshot the ‘Cats 16-5. NMU’s best chance to put the game away early came with the puck was on Chris Gobert’s stick with a minute left in the period, but Kowalski stoned Gobert at point-blank range, kicking aside the puck with his right leg.
“It was a fairly evenly played game,” said Daniels. “When we were up two-nothing in the first, we had an awful lot of opportunities to score. If we could have scored that third goal, just from the fact that Northern had to play the night before. But once they scored, it became anybody’s game.”
Jamie Milam cut the FSU lead to one early in the second on the power play, a blast from the top of the slot that beat FSU goalie Mike Brown clean.
NMU tied it up, 2-2, at 11:51 when Brown and the FSU defense were caught looking. Brown made the save on Andrew Contois’s initial shot but gave up the big rebound right to Gobert, and then could do nothing but watch the puck go up and over his left shoulder to find the top shelf.
Legue put the Bulldogs ahead for good at 18:04 in the second. With the Bulldogs buzzing and cycling the puck well low in the Wildcat end, Kowalski was screened by two of his own players. Kunitz passed from the left circle — with the safety of the two-Wildcat screen — to Legue stationed right of the net. Kowalski, drawn to the left, had little chance on Legue’s goal, which found the open net clean on the right.
Phil Lewandowski’s insurance goal to make it 4-2 at 7:45 in the third was a thing of grace and beauty. Lewandowski stole the puck in the Bulldog end and skated in alone on the left wing, crossed the crease, and deked Kowalski fair and square; Kowalski dove face down for the puck, and Lewandowski backhanded it in near the right post.
“Phil Lewandowski’s goal was a huge goal for us — put us up two goals and gave us a little bit of breathing room,” said Daniels, who admitted that he never saw it. “I was busy making sure the next line was up.”
Toward the end of the third, the Wildcats had over a minute of five-on-three advantage but couldn’t convert.
“The five-on-three penalty kill was obviously a big thing because of Northern Michigan’s great power play — if they scored quick on the five-on-three,” said Daniels, “we were concerned they’d get another one five-on-four.”
Said Kyle, “We had our chances. It was four-two and we had a five-on-three power play with three minutes left. We have to convert on those.”
Kyle said that even though his players were tired from their 7-5 Quarterfinal game against MSU last night, they didn’t want to use fatigue as an excuse for tonight’s loss.
“We knew that we were going to be tired, playing last night. We knew that they were going to come out early and we thought we had to play better as the game went on. I give these guys credit. They played hard and kept us in there until the end.”
Kowalski had 41 saves in the effort; Brown stopped 29 for the Bulldogs.
Ferris State (30-8-1) advances to Saturday night’s title game against the winner of the Ohio State-Michigan semifinal, while Northern Michigan (20-17-2) will play the loser of that match in Saturday afternoon’s consolation game.