CCHA Playoffs: Quarterfinals CCHA Playoffs: Quarterfinals by Paula C. Weston
You’ve heard the cliches: It’s all even in the playoffs. Everyone’s at zero-zero. Anything can happen. Equality? A level playing field? If you’re a fan of the CCHA, you know these phrases mean nothing — and everything. Two of the four CCHA playoff series are almost-sure bets to go three games. Bowling Green travels to Lake Superior, a team the Falcons swept in regular season play; Western Michigan visits Michigan State for a physical, even matchup between in-state rivals.
The only series that’s almost guaranteed to be a two-game affair is the Nanooks-Wolverines series in Ann Arbor. While Alaska-Fairbanks finished the season playing very good hockey, the games are in Ann Arbor, and this is Michigan. Which teams will advance to the Joe? Is it predetermined that the top four will go? Is the Championship predetermined? As the CCHA playoffs begin, possibility hangs as heavy as the fog in the tiny OSU Ice Rink on a 70-degree day. The suspense is palpable. A crystal ball would be useful. (Note: in what follows, the numerical designator denotes a team’s CCHA playoff seed — e.g., "No. 3 Michigan State.") No. 5 Bowling Green (15-15-5, 10-12-5 CCHA) at No. 4 Lake Superior (19-12-5, 15-8-4 CCHA) Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (if necessary), 7 p.m., Taffy Abel Arena, Sault Ste. Marie, MI At the beginning of the season, the Falcons had hoped to build on last season’s 18-11-1 conference record and fifth-place finish in the CCHA. Bowling Green’s league record was once again good enough for a share of fifth place, but the Falcons have more league losses than wins, and their overall record is an even .500. Toward the end of the season, when it was apparent that Bowling Green would be traveling for the playoffs, head coach Buddy Powers talked about the disappointment of an injury-laden season. Toward the end, Powers said, it was all too clear that the Falcons would finish with a record that could ensure a short post-season if the team didn’t take the CCHA Championship. With that in mind, the Falcons head to the Soo. "I think everything’s at zero," says Powers. "We’re all trying to get to Joe Louis Arena." Although Bowling Green is the road team and the Lakers have the advantage in conference wins, BG may actually have an edge in this series. The Falcons beat the Lakers three times this season, and are 4-2-0 against Lake Superior for the last two seasons. The last home loss the Lakers experienced was at the hands of the Falcons back in October, and Laker head coach Scott Borek says his team remembers. "They don’t have to be 100 percent to beat us," says Borek. "They have our number." Indeed, the Falcons haven’t been a hundred percent since their first loss of the season, to Michigan State, Nov. 1. (During the months of November and December, the Falcons were 2-10-2.) Among the injured have been some of the top BG guns, like Kelly Perrault and Curtis Fry. "Fry sat out Saturday," says Powers, and Adam Edinger "played in regular five-on-five situations" against Michigan State last weekend. "He got a regular workout," says Powers.
Powers expects every able-bodied — or even semi-able-bodied — Falcon to suit up for the Lake series. "Any player who wants to don a sweater will." "They’re a team that’s very dangerous, because they’ve been through a lot this season," says Borek of BGSU. "It probably affects their edge. They’ll have a much better edge going into this series. We can’t afford a slow start against Bowling Green. "The one positive is that when we’re playing them we have a ton of respect for them." It sounds like the respect is mutual. "We’ve got a bit of a mountain to get past with these guys," says Powers of Lake. "If anything, we’ve given them fuel by beating them three times this season. It’s a difficult task, and this is the time of year when you want difficult tasks." Borek says he can see this series going to three games. "It very easily could. It depends on how the team that loses on Friday responds. There’s every potential for this to go to three." All depends on which fire burns brightest in which belly. With solid goaltending from Bob Petrie, Bowling Green has emerged from its early season slumber to claw its way into fifth place. The potential exists for either team — but not both — to receive an invitation from the NCAA. "The bottom line our league," says Borek, "is that Lake has to get to Joe Louis Arena to be considered for the NCAA. We’ll need to get to the final game, at least, to be considered." For Bowling Green, winning the CCHA Championship is the only ticket to the NCAA playoffs. PICK: Bowling Green in three. No. 6 Western Michigan (14-6-5, 10-12-5 CCHA) at No. 3 Michigan State (20-11-4, 16-7-4 CCHA) Friday 7 p.m., Saturday 4 p.m., Sunday 7 p.m. (if necessary), Munn Ice Arena, East Lansing, MI Michigan State head coach Ron Mason is a master of understatement, and Mason claims that having home ice advantage will matter very little in this series. "Our road and home records have always been good; we play well in both spots," says Mason. "Of course, I’d much rather be playing at home than on the road. "You can come from behind easier at home," he allows. Western Michigan assistant coach Jim Culhane isn’t fooled. "Obviously, it’s going to be a tough place for us to play," he says. "They have such a strong tradition of winning, especially at Munn. It’s going to be a difficult environment for us to play in." Culhane says that "[keeping the] crowd quiet by playing our best early" is one strategy that the Broncos will try to employ. Last season, Western Michigan finished with a share of third place in the CCHA with a 21-6-3 league record. Bowling Green prevented them from going to The Joe, but the Broncos received an at-large bid in the NCAA Eastern Regionals. Clarkson ended their post-season, beating the Broncos 6-1. The sudden loss of goaltender Marc Maglarditi before the start of this season threw the Broncos off until sophomore Matt Barnes found his feet. Barnes is largely responsible for Western’s remarkable record of only four home losses this season. With a save percentage of .882 in his 1,624 minutes in net, Barnes has proven to be one of the more consistent goaltenders in the CCHA. Barnes faces Spartan goaltender Chad Alban, whose save percentage is .899. But the bigger difference between the two is in goals against. Barnes has allowed an average of 3.4 goals against per league game — a figure that has dropped steadily throughout the season — but Alban, with a GAA of 2.65, is one of the few CCHA goaltenders who can claim a figure lower than three. Coaches from both teams expect tough games. "I expect the Broncos to work hard," says Mason. "I expect them to play the way they always play, with a tough defensive style. It’s a good matchup for us. We’d just as soon play them as anyone." "Both teams are going to play very hard," says Culhane. "The big thing is going to be special teams. If we can stay disciplined and not take a lot of penalties, we’ll be in those games." Although Mason says the Spartans aren’t looking beyond this weekend’s games, he says he knows that Michigan State needs to get past this weekend to be considered for the NCAA tournament. "We have to get to Joe Louis to give ourselves a chance for the NCAA," says Mason. "We frittered away some games out East [early, against Boston College and Northeastern] that cost us." Culhane knows the only way the Broncos will advance to NCAA tournament play is with a CCHA title. "There’s no question," he says. "But you don’t look ahead. Your first step is Munn. "Our kids work very hard. They’ve had four losses at home all year. We have to play with that emotion and confidence away from Lawson." There’s no doubt that the Broncos will be playing with emotion and confidence–but so will the Spartans. PICK: Michigan State in three. No. 7 Ohio State (12-23-2, 9-16-2 CCHA) at No. 2 Miami (25-10-1, 19-7-1 CCHA) Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (if necessary), 7 p.m., Goggin Ice Arena, Oxford, OH This series pits two teams whose stories are finishing far differently from what everyone expected at the beginning of the season. Miami took second place in the CCHA, while Ohio State made the playoffs. Each team considers its season a success. Ohio State hasn’t advanced past the first round of the CCHA playoffs since the 1986-87 season. Ohio State has seen accomplishments this season that it hasn’t seen in years — a seven-game unbeaten streak, a player with 20 goals. The Buckeyes ended their season with a loss against Michigan, a game in which they led the Wolverines for two periods. Can all this give the Buckeyes the confidence to think about upsetting Miami? "They’ve beaten us three times, twice very convincingly," says Buckeye head coach John Markell. "Naturally, we’re aware of that. "Nothing less 100 percent will beat Miami." The Buckeyes were definitely less than that in their first two games against Miami this season. In both games, the Buckeyes lost by six goals. In the first game, Miami scored six goals in the first period; in the second, it was five goals for Miami in the first. The Buckeyes lost those two games while seriously outshooting Miami. The third game, in Oxford, was decidedly different. Ohio State led Miami for two periods in that game. "We have tremendous respect for them," says Miami head coach Mark Mazzoleni. "They gave us everything we could handle last time they were here." Still, Miami seems to own this Buckeye team, in large part because of goaltending. Two of those losses were recorded by Buckeye freshman goaltender Ray Aho. Aho says he feels the need to "redeem" himself in Goggin. During the recent Buckeye unbeaten streak, Aho was 4-0-1, with a GAA of 3.0 exactly. He was also twice named CCHA Defensive Player of the Week during the streak. Markell says Aho’s confidence has helped the team play more confidently in front of him. "We feel pretty good about our defense," says Markell. "We’re boxing out a lot better."
Aho has had help from fellow walk-on Ryan Skaleski. At 6’3" and 210 pounds, "he gives us a strength factor," says Markell. If the Buckeyes continue to play well, it could almost be like meeting a new team for Miami. "They haven’t seen us play since we’ve been playing as well as we have," says Markell. Markell talks about containing Miami players like Randy Robitaille and Dan Boyle, but he says it’s Ohio State that his players are most concerned with. "We have to put some of our chances in the net. We’ve outshot them before, but you don’t win a game by outshooting opponents. You have to outscore opponents." Miami is riding a season-ending high, having beaten Michigan 4-2 during Miami’s last game of the regular season. Mazzoleni calls last weekend’s wins (including a Friday win over Western Michigan) "very emotional." Mazzoleni says that his team is very relaxed going into the playoffs. "I don’t think there’s pressure at all. Our focus over these last six games of the season has been just to get to Joe Louis. That doesn’t change." Miami will probably get a bid to the NCAA tournament even if Ohio State pulls off an upset. But Miami probably won’t need to worry about that. "Hopefully," says Markell, "they’ll make mistakes we can capitalize on." Hopefully, but unlikely. PICK: Miami in three. No. 8 Alaska-Fairbanks (14-20-1, 8-18-1 CCHA) at No. 1 Michigan (30-3-4, 21-3-3 CCHA) Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (if necessary), 7 p.m., Yost Ice Arena, Ann Arbor, MI For any other team in the CCHA, facing the defending NCAA Champions in the first round of conference playoffs would be seriously depressing. Not so for the University of Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks. "We’re playing really well right now," says a cheerful UAF head coach Dave Laurion. "It’s a big step for our program. It’s our first legitimate time in the playoffs. "We just have to play hard and play smart. We can only control our own performance. "I think our guys understand that this is just a good opportunity. There’s no pressure on us to win. Everyone in the stands and everyone across college hockey expects Michigan to win in two. The pressure is on us to play our best, but not to win." The Nanooks have earned that kind of relaxed attitude. After dropping their first seven games of the season and their first 11 home games, the Nanooks have recovered to play respectable hockey. Four straight non-conference wins gave the Nanooks the confidence to take a game from the resurgent Bowling Green Falcons in Bowling Green late in the season. "That was a turning point," says Laurion. "After we beat Bowling Green, our guys knew we could play." In order to make the playoffs, Alaska-Fairbanks needed to take at least five points in their season-ending three-game home series with Ferris State. With a little emotional lift from injured player Erik Drygas, the Nanooks did what they needed to do. Drygas has been rehabilitating in Colorado from a pre-season spinal injury, and his return for the Ferris series allowed him to swap stories about rehab and hockey with his teammates. "I think it helped to relax the players," says Laurion. Once his teammates had the chance to see Drygas in person, after so many months of separation, "there weren’t any unknowns any more." The Nanooks have steadily improved their play all season. One big improvement is the play of freshman goaltender Chris Marvel, who was just named to the CCHA All-Rookie Team. In spite of the improvements, it is highly doubtful that UAF can defeat the mighty Michigan team. It would be a feat nothing short of biblical. "They’re a better team now obviously," says Michigan head coach Red Berenson. "They’ve got a lot of confidence. They’re coming in on a high, making it into the playoffs in the last game of the regular season." Berenson says that although his team is the heavy favorite, the Wolverines will be taking nothing for granted. "We know we’re going to have to be on our toes. They’re the underdog, but we expect close games from them. "We know that we’ve had a better season. We also know this is a new season. We’ll make that clear to our players." Most people in college hockey expect this series to be done in two games. "I’m pretty confident that if we stick to our game plan and there are no surprises," says Berenson, "we’ll win first game." If Michigan wins the first game, the series will be over Saturday night. PICK: Michigan in two.
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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