At The Joe this weekend, Michigan State is the number-one seed, Michigan is second, Ohio State is third, and Northern Michigan is fourth.
A year ago, Michigan State was first, Michigan was second, Ohio State was third, and Northern Michigan was fourth.
This is the first time the same four teams have appeared in back-to-back CCHA conference championship tournaments since the tourney was moved to Joe Louis Arena in 1982.
The same four teams did appear in back-to-back tourneys once before, in 1980 and 1981. Those teams were Northern Michigan, Bowling Green, Ferris State, and Ohio State.
What’s different about this year, compared with last year?
Well, two goaltenders and some big guns are gone. But the rosters look remarkably similar to last season’s teams.
Michigan head coach Red Berenson says that this season, the Wolverines had a tougher time getting to The Joe. And he adds, "Ohio State was less than a proven team last season. If they caught anyone by surprise last year, they won’t again."
John Markell says of his Buckeyes, "This year we’ve been severely tested day in and day out. We’re more conditioned to tournament hockey. Having had to defend a whole season puts us in a better position."
Ron Mason says, "It’s ironic that the same matchups are occurring this year as last year. It goes to show you how solid these programs are."
Northern Michigan head coach Rick Comley says, "Funny, I never remember much about the past."
The Boys on the Bubble
There’s more at stake in each game than the CCHA tournament. While Michigan State has sewn up an invitation by winning the regular-season championship, each of the other three participating CCHA teams are "bubble" teams that may or may not be invited.
In the PairWise Rankings, Ohio State is 11th, Michigan 12th, and Northern Michigan 13th. Take No. 10 Quinnipiac out of the mix, and you have the last three teams to make the tourney.
According to Joe Marsh, head of the NCAA tournament selection committee and coach of the St. Lawrence Saints, you can’t take Quinnipiac or any other MAAC team out of the mix, regardless of who they have or have not played.
In fact, say Marsh and the NCAA, every team at or over .500 is considered for an NCAA berth. There are 22 teams under consideration.
The five selection criteria for the selection to the NCAA tournament are:
1. The ratings percentage index (RPI). 2. Head-to-head competition. 3. Record against common opponents. 4. Record against teams under consideration. 5. Results in last 16 games.
In a telephone press conference on March 15, Marsh steadfastly refused to disallow MAAC teams–and realistically, the team in question here is Quinnipiac–saying that they should have equal consideration, since they finished above .500.
How many criteria can Quinnipiac actually meet? Certainly, they have an RPI, and you can look at some head-to-head competition. Record against common opponents? Record against teams under consideration?
OK, you can look at their last 16 games.
When pressed, Marsh said that it wasn’t fair to judge Quinnipiac by the teams they haven’t played, since no teams from the other four conferences (including his own Saints, by the way) did play them.
While it may be true that none of the big boys scheduled Quinnipiac and other MAAC teams, that doesn’t negate the simple truth that the MAAC teams under consideration can not be compared in any way with the teams from the four conferences.
If punishing MAAC teams for not playing teams from other conferences seems unfair, punishing any team from one of the four established conferences because its schedule was inherently more difficult than that of Quinnipiac is beyond the realm of reason.
If you’re Ron Mason, you take this one step further. Mason is outraged that teams from the CCHA are punished in the RPI because they are, well, CCHA teams.
"Our third-, fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-place teams in the league–their RPIs are never very good, because we’re beating up on each other," says Mason.
While the cynical person can say, "Isn’t that true of other leagues?" keep in mind that the top six teams in the CCHA spent time not only in the USCHO poll for at least part(s) of the season, but each also ranked among the top ten in the PairWise at some point or another. You can’t say that about any other Division I men’s league.
Mason thinks that Michigan, Ohio State, and Northern Michigan should all be invited to the NCAA tournament. "It would be just a travesty if they didn’t [get invitations]. If one team doesn’t get in, I think we have to reevaluate the system because all four of these teams deserve to get in.
"There has to be some sort of designation within the league, because maybe there is a stronger league, and if they are they shouldn’t be punished for being stronger."
Mason used his soapbox to make a different, but related plea. "Of course, if we win the tournament the three other teams get in," he joked. "I hope the other coaches hear that."
The teams are numbered according to tournament seed. The pairings are exactly as they were last year.
All player statistics are conference stats through the end of the regular season.
All games are played in Joe Louis Arena, Detroit, MI.
No. 4 Northern Michigan (21-13-5, 14-11-5 CCHA) vs. No. 1 Michigan State(28-4-7, 20-3-7 CCHA) Semifinal Game 1, Friday, 5:00 p.m.
Rematch No. 1: Why Does Michigan State Have Our Number?
The Northern Michigan Wildcats reached the CCHA semifinals by beating Notre Dame two of three games in South Bend, losing 3-2 Friday, but winning 7-1 Saturday and 3-2 Sunday. Sophomore goaltender Dan Ragusett (2.44 GAA, .910 SV%), this week’s CCHA Defensive Player of the Week, carried the Wildcats with a .935 GAA in the series.
"It was as big a win for our program in the last few years," says Northern head coach Rick Comley. "All of our guys gave a gutty effort and battled hard the entire series. Dan Ragusett was great in goal for us, especially in our victory Sunday night."
The wins earned the ‘Cats the right to face Michigan State–a team that has beaten them three times this season and tied them once. One Spartan win was a first-round Great Lakes Invitational Tournament win at Joe Louis in December.
"We’ve identified who Mike York is," quips Comley, "but we haven’t identified how to deal with him."
York has tallied four goals against the Wildcats this season, including a hat trick at the GLI.
The ‘Cats themselves are led by a great line. Senior captain Buddy Smith (5-27–32)–who was criminally overlooked in this year’s CCHA all-conference voting–J.P. Vigier (17-15–32), and Roger Trudeau (14-9–23) combined for over one-third of Northern’s conference scoring.
The question mark for Northern is its defense, as it has been all season. While Northern has scored 94 goals this season, its given up 83.
The Spartans beat a "feisty" Lake Superior State team, according to Ron Mason, 3-2 and 4-0 to advance to the semifinals. "Saturday night we played one of our best games of the year," says Mason. "It was a good win for us."
The Spartans took the regular-season title on February 20th, and are making their eighth consecutive trip to The Joe.
Everyone knows that Michigan State is led by Mike "get-the-sensation" York. And you should know by now that York (13-24–37) led the CCHA in plus-minus (+25 conference, +35 overall), having been on the ice only twice for five-on-five opponent goals this season in well over 800 shifts.
Other things to know about the guy Comley’s identified, but has yet to figure out:
He’s had more than one point in four of his last five games and carries a seven-game point streak into this weekend.
He’s had a hand in 41.5% of the Spartans’ goals this year, 52% in the last 10 games.
He has 20 points in 14 career CCHA tourney games.
York and linemates Adam Hall (10-4–14)–this week’s CCHA Rookie of the Week–and Bryan Adams (17-10–27) have combined for 40 of Michigan State’s 91 conference goals.
Beyond York, the Spartans simply have an excellent team that allows few goals. This isn’t news.
Paced by Joe Blackburn (1.34 GAA, .935 SV%) between the pipes, the stingy Spartan defense has give up just 40 conference goals this season.
Mason says of the Wildcats, "We know we’re going to have to contain the big line they have, and we can’t give up anything."
Comley says of the Spartans, "We’ve played well against Michigan State this year, and it should be a great battle between the two of us. Mike York has made the difference for them in their victories, and we’ll have to try our best to contain him and his line the best we can."
Hmmm. Containment seems to be the issue of the moment. May we suggest something with a lid you can burp?
The Wildcats are 4-11-0 at Joe Louis Arena, and are 1-3-0 all-time at The Joe against the Spartans, 1-4-0 against the Wolverines, and 0-1-0 against the Buckeyes.
Michigan State is 9-0 at The Joe in its last two seasons alone, and the Spartans are looking to recapture their second consecutive CCHA tournament title. Doing so would give the Spartans their ninth overall, a stat equal to half the number of times Michigan State has made it to the CCHA tourney.
The Wildcats are really banged up. As Comley says, "We’re down to 20 healthy players, but that’s all you dress anyway."
Comley feels good about the Wildcats’ chances this weekend. "We’re excited about coming. We’re coming off a great weekend of hockey, maybe one of the series I’ve been in in a while.
"We’re playing pretty well right now. I think we’re a better team than we were at the end of the season last year. We still have a dominant line. We have better goaltending this year on a steadier basis than we did last year."
Mason says, "Our team’s been consistent, probably because we got goaltending in some games.
"I don’t think we played our best hockey in our last four regular-season games, but we did play well Saturday night." Mason thinks that winning the regular-season title as early as the Spartans did contributed to a mini-lull for Michigan State at the end of the season.
It’s important to note that the mini-lull included exactly one loss.
It’s also interesting to note that Ron Mason played college hockey against Red Berenson, and coached both Comley and John Markell. Has no bearing on the games, but it is kind of interesting.
Mike York and the Michigan State defense, 3-1, over Northern’s first line and Dan Ragusett.
No. 3 Ohio State (21-14-4, 17-10-3 CCHA) vs. No. 2 Michigan (22-10-6, 17-8-5 CCHA) Semifinal Game 2, Friday, 8:30 p.m.
Rematch No. 2: To Find Columbus, Drive South and Follow the Smell! Or, We Don’t Give a Damn About the Whole State of Michigan! Or, Our Stadium Is Better Than Your Stadium. Is Not! Is So! Is Not! Is So!
"Coming into the playoffs we were a little bit concerned because we’d lost four out of our last five," says OSU head coach John Markell. "Ferris came in and played very, very hard, and I think that set us up to compete very well at Joe Louis."
The Buckeyes advanced to The Joe after beating Ferris State 4-2 and 3-1. Neither win was easy for Ohio State, and Markell’s right; Ferris State played extremely well in the losses.
An interesting note: Ohio State took a penalty within the last two minutes of each game, which resulted in a 4-on-6 OSU goal each night. Ryan Jestadt (8-3–11) and Hugo Boisvert (15-23–38) scored the goals on Friday and Saturday, respectively.
Boisvert’s goal was most welcome by OSU, as the junior forward had been scoreless–no points at all–in four of the previous five games leading up to the victory Saturday. Boisvert scored the goal that tied the game for the Buckeyes earlier in the third period to break that negative streak.
Other than Boisvert’s lack of scoring, why were the Buckeyes slumping? "I just think we were trying to get some easy wins. Obviously we weren’t playing very well. We lost our concentration and our persistence a little bit. We were playing teams that we thought that we could just skate out on and beat without even trying."
The slump included home losses to Alaska-Fairbanks and Bowling Green.
But Markell’s sure the Buckeyes have turned it around. "I think we have to bring internal motivation. We’re looking forward to playing Michigan, and we think it’s going to be a hard-fought battle."
The Wolverines, making their 10th consecutive appearance at the CCHA championship tournament, were less than stellar themselves going into the final stretch of the regular season.
"We had a season at Michigan where we didn’t live up to the expectations of the preseason poll," says Wolverine head coach Red Berenson. "We went through of more of a rebuilding year than I think than last year, and ran into the biggest slump we’ve had in 10 years going into the last two weeks of the season."
During that slump, Michigan was 0-4-4. "But in the last two weeks of the season," says Berenson, "I thought we recovered and played well."
The Wolverines beat Bowling Green 3-2 and 9-3. The second game became a bit, um, emotional, and resulted in Bob Gassoff’s game disqualification when he went at it with Falcon Craig Desjarlais, who was also DQed.
"BG was a formidable opponent with a great power play," says Berenson. "The first game was a close game and the second game could’ve been a lot closer."
The Wolverines were led in scoring this season by Rookie-of-the-Year shoo-in Mike Comrie (13-20–33), and helped considerably by Josh Langfeld (17-10–27), Bubba Berenzweig (5-18–23), Dale Rominski (12-6–18), and Scott Matzka (6-9–15)–whom Jeff Maund probably still sees breaking in during his worst Wolverine nightmares.
Josh Blackburn (2.29 GAA, .904 SV%) had an impressive rookie season for the Wolverines.
What to fear if you’re a Wolverine fan: The Buckeyes owned Michigan this season, beating them twice and tying them once, and Ohio State eliminated Michigan in the semifinals at The Joe last season.
What to fear if you’re a Buckeye fan: The same.
These two teams match up pretty well, but Ohio State may have Michigan’s number since beating the Wolverines for the first time in a gazillion years at Joe Louis last year.
Ohio State, however, is famous this season for overlooking some opponents. Not the Wolverines, mind you. Not yet, anyway.
"Our team respects Michigan so much because of the great tradition there," says Markell. In this case, "respect" may be euphemistic for "hating their guts." While the two coaches are indeed very respectful of each other, the players on these teams hate each other.
Don’t let what anyone says about respect fool you, and don’t think there’s no rivalry here because the Wolverines owned the Buckeyes for years and years. The players on these teams are Wolverines and Buckeyes, after all, and the insanity that accompanies that association spills over into hockey.
It may translate into penalties, too, as these are the two most penalized teams in the league. Michigan’s power play is third in the league (18.1%), while Ohio State’s is eighth (14.4%). The Wolverine penalty kill is sixth (.848), while Ohio State’s is second (.880).
The Buckeyes are led by Boisvert and his fellow Quebecois J.F. Dufour (8-10–18) and Eric Meloche (6-11–17). Meloche has played injured all season.
The second line of Chris Richards (8-17–25), Neal Rech (5-2–7), and Dan Cousineau (3-1– 4) is primarily defensive; its role is to shut down opponents’ first lines.
Keep in mind that Chris Richards and Neal Rech have great, streaking breakaways that rarely result in points. Nice to watch, though.
Jeff Maund (2.07 GAA, .927 SV%), who calls playoff hockey "better than Christmas," made 59 saves against the Bulldogs last weekend and had a .952 save percentage for the series.
Jeff Maund over Josh Blackburn, 3-2.
Ohio State (21-14-4, 17-10-3 CCHA) vs. Michigan State(28-4-7, 20-3-7 CCHA) Championship Game, Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Rematch No. 3: The Grudge Match. Or, How Many Overtimes Does It Take To Win This Thing? Or, Don’t Even Think Of Telling Ron Mason That OSU And MSU Are Evenly Matched!
This matchup is pure speculation, of course. But after last year’s thrilling double-overtime Spartan win–where the game-winner was kicked in by an OSU defenseman–and the thrilling Buckeye overtime win in NCAA regional action, why not speculate?
While the Spartans are fond of allowing very few goals in any given game–one or fewer in 27 this season–the Buckeyes have proven they can score on the Michigan State defense.
The teams are 1-1-1 this season–as they were during last year’s regular season–and are 3-3-2 in their last eight meetings, including last year’s post-season play. This season, Ohio State scored four goals in Munn to come back and tie the Spartans, and beat Michigan State 3-2 in the little rink in Columbus. Michigan State beat the Buckeyes 3-1 in Munn.
That’s Michigan State 9, Ohio State 8 for the season.
Who knows why these two teams match so well? Ohio State’s underrated defense is probably one reason, and the fact that John Markell played for Ron Mason at Bowling Green is certainly another.
Jeff Maund’s another reason. In fact, if Jeff Maund’s faith in himself during playoff hockey is enough of a reason to give the Buckeyes the nod in this one.
And after just one game last season, Jeff Maund learned how to keep York from scoring from behind the goal line.
Maund over York 3-2 in just one overtime this year.