The Boys On The Bubble

This weekend, three CCHA teams lived life on the bubble–and one was hoping that its hadn’t burst.

The only team heading into the CCHA semifinals with a guaranteed NCAA berth was the Michigan State University Spartans, winner of the regular-season CCHA championship.

Michigan, Ohio State, and Northern Michigan were the undecided cusp teams. Northern Michigan improved its chances dramatically with a 5-3 semifinal win over the Spartans, and Michigan likewise with its 3-2 win over OSU. The winner of the tournament gets a bid outright, but the Buckeyes were still holding out hope Friday night.

And, according to Spartan head coach Ron Mason, they should, as should Michigan, Northern Michigan–and Notre Dame.

“Why not five?” asked Mason after the Spartans lost to Northern Michigan. “When it comes right down to it, why doesn’t Notre Dame go as well?

“This is a very difficult conference. I’ve said that all along. It’s a very physical conference, and it’s very tough on guys like Mike York who have no room. That’s what makes our league so good. I just feel that you can take five teams from our conference, and that would be fine.”

Mason has been the most vocal proponent of sending all four CCHA finalists to the NCAA tournament. During the CCHA teleconference preceding the tourney weekend, Mason was adamant about the inclusion of at least four CCHA teams–and the exclusion of MAAC teams like Quinnipiac.

“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,” said Mason.

“It would be just a travesty if they [Michigan, Ohio State and Northern] didn’t go. 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.”

After his team’s win over the top-seeded Spartans, Northern Michigan head coach Rick Comley said that the Wildcats were definitely thinking about the outcome of the semifinal game against Michigan State in NCAA terms.

“Last year we were close, but not as close as this year. You don’t even know if this win can make it that way. It really depends on what happens in the three other leagues. As long as a one or two seed wins in the other leagues, we’ve really improved our chances to get in.”

After losing to the Wolverines, Buckeye head coach John Markell remained hesitantly optimistic about his team’s chances to make the tournament.

“Well, there were no upsets. Obviously, Northern and Michigan will probably jump ahead of us. I think we’ll be in 13th or so in the RPI, and nobody will jump ahead of us there. I think it’ll probably be the committee’s choice to pick Quinnipiac or us, based on strength of schedule.”

Markell himself asked if it would be “fair” for Quinnipiac to get a bid. “I don’t think so, but that’s my feeling as the coach of Ohio State hockey. I think strength of schedule should justify who makes it.”

Markell added that the Buckeye schedule, which was dictated by the mid-season opening of the new Schottenstein Center, also contributed to where Ohio State is now. “We played seven games on the road, nonconference, due to the fact that our new building wasn’t completed.” Ohio State was 1-5-1 in nonconference play.

The only bubble coach unwilling to speculate about his team’s NCAA chances on Friday night was Michigan’s Red Berenson, who said he didn’t know what winning meant to the Wolverines, other than getting to the CCHA title game.

“We have an opportunity to win the CCHA championship tomorrow night, and that’s the most important thing on our minds. I’ll leave the NCAA to someone else. I feel a lot better about our chances than I would have had we lost.

While their coach may have seemed nonchalant about the Wolverines’ NCAA prospects, the Michigan players were certainly concerned about what a loss to Ohio State would do beyond this weekend.

“We knew that if we lost this game tonight, we’d have less than a one percent chance of moving on this year,” said Mark Kosick.

“It was a tough third period. It really felt like a national championship game or a final four game just because it had the same consequences if we lost. We’d be going home now, going back to Ann Arbor, and putting our gear away for the season.”

As far as Wolverine Sean Ritchlin is concerned, the team that Michigan beat to get to the title game is deserving enough to play next week.

“I think they showed tonight that they’re a really good team. Our league has been so competitive this year, up and down and throughout, and for them to come in third place is great. I think they should be in the tournament.”

Nothing would make John Markell happier. “And if we play like we did tonight, I’ll be a happy man, because we’ll win more games than we lose.”