Win, Maybe Place, But Probably No Show
Congratulations to the Wolverines, regular-season champions of the CCHA.
That’s one team going to the NCAA tournament. Where does that leave the rest of the conference?
At number 12 in the Pairwise, Michigan State is on the proverbial bubble to make the NCAA tourney. Next after the Spartans are the Bulldogs at 17th. The Lakers are 20th, while Northern Michigan is 25th.
In case you’re wondering, Michigan is 10th, right behind Niagara and Quinnipiac.
For the first time since 1991–and only the second time since the NCAA tournament increased to 12 teams in 1988–the CCHA will most likely be represented by just two teams in the NCAA postseason tourney.
To quote an anonymous source close to the league, "What is up with that?"
What’s up is that the league has increased to 12 teams, and has set up a three-cluster system to accommodate the increase.
When a winning team plays a team whose record is below .500, the winning team’s RPI and Pairwise take a hit based on strength of opponent. Let’s say that the winning team–Michigan, for the sake of argument–plays below-.500 teams even one more time per season, then Michigan’s strength of schedule is hurt even more.
The Wolverines played both the Buckeyes and the RedHawks four games each, or eight total against teams whose records were below .500.
Heaven help the team who meets such below-.500 teams and loses, as did Michigan State to Miami, twice.
Then factor in the number of games against stronger opponents dropped from the schedule to make room for clustermates, and you can see how a given team’s RPI and Pairwise may be sabotaged from the start.
The clusters will change from year to year within the CCHA (that’s the plan, at least), but for the time being, unless Ferris, Lake, or Northern (with the third-, fourth-, and fifth-best PWR among CCHA teams, respectively) wins the league championship tournament outright, the Bulldogs, Lakers, and Wildcats are staying home.
Of course, the same can be said for any other team CCHA team entering postseason play.
The selection system–based in part on strength of opponent–currently hurts teams in every conference, to some extent. Teams trying to establish themselves have difficulty scheduling marquee opponents because there’s the established team has little to gain from playing a program that is trying to get on its feet.
That would be the reason why teams like Niagara and Quinnipiac have had such difficulty scheduling established opponents.
Well, they had that problem. Take a look at their Pairwise. They may be snubbed for reasons altogether different, now.
All’s Fair In Love And Playoffs
Well, love may have very little to do with it, except in the sense that hockey fans love this time of year.
Unless they root for the Nanooks or Buckeyes. And there are exceptions even among the diehard fans of each team.
All series are best-of-three, played Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (if necessary) at 7:05 p.m., with the exception of Friday’s Western Michigan-Michigan game, which begins at 7:35.
For the first time since 1997, the Western Michigan Broncos have made the CCHA playoffs, an impressive turnaround for this program.
Their reward? A trip to Yost, where they’ll lose in two.
Western Michigan (12-19-3, 10-15-3 CCHA) at Michigan (24-8-4, 19-6-3 CCHA) Yost Ice Arena, Ann Arbor, MI
In a two-game series one month ago in Yost Arena, the Broncos scored five goals against Josh Blackburn (.913 SV%, 2.12 GAA).
Unfortunately for Western Michigan, the Wolverines scored 16 times on Jeff Reynaert (.888 SV%, 3.76 GAA).
For the math challenged (and I include myself in that category), that’s two games in two nights, with Michigan winning 7-2 and 9-3.
And there’s the story of each team’s season, in a nutshell. While Blackburn is vulnerable, Michigan’s offense compensates by being unreal. While the Broncos are capable of scoring goals, Reynaert’s save percentage is the third-lowest in the league.
Michigan scores on average four goals per game–first in the league–while Western Michigan allows 3.89 per game–worst in the league.
Even those of us for whom math is hard can grasp those numbers.
Says Western Michigan head coach Jim Culhane, "We’re the underdogs this weekend and have nothing to lose. This series is going to come down to goaltending and executing on special teams."
OK, let’s get back to that goaltending thing. Without Blackburn, Michigan went through a "rough" spell in November and December, by Wolverine standards, anyway. During that two-month span, the Wolverines went 8-5-0.
Since Blackburn’s return, the Wolverines have just two losses, including a 6-3 loss in Yost to Bowling Green last weekend (and don’t think Michigan fans aren’t thrilled to wave to the Falcon bus as it wends its way north to Sault Ste. Marie).
Blackburn has also been responsible for four ties since his return–two against Northern Michigan in clutch play in Marquette, one against arch-rival Michigan State, and one against an Ohio State team that usually scores more than one goal on him.
Blackburn faces just over 22 shots per game, while the beleaguered Reynaert sees nearly 30.
Unless Reynaert pulls off the play of his life, Michigan has the edge all over the net.
So, onto Culhane’s Plan B, special teams.
In a league where so little five-on-five hockey is played, special teams are very important. The Wolverines, as we all know, spend a lot of time in the penalty box. That’s bad news for Michigan, as the Broncos have the second-best power play in the league, converting at 19.3%.
You’d think a team that spends so much time killing penalties would have the best PK in the league, but Michigan’s is .856, third in conference play.
Three Western players were dissed by the league in post-season honors, all three of whom figure big in Western’s power play, a unit that has improved some 24% over last year’s Bronco PP.
Dave Gove was third in league scoring (17-23–40), had seven power-play tallies, two shorthanders, and four game-winners–and was named to the league’s second team.
Gove was one of three players to hit the 40-point plateau this season, and he did so by spending fewer than 20 minutes in the box in conference play this season. He took five penalties in 28 conference games. Second team.
Mike Bishai (15-18–33)–whom I correctly pegged last week as the Chris Richards Memorial Award winner–had an impressive 11 goals on the power play, and three game-winners. Bishai tied for fourth in league scoring, and was not even an "honorable mention" selection.
Dave Cousineau (6-15–21), second among rookie defenders in scoring and with four power-play goals himself, was not named to the All-Rookie team, in spite of being the brightest spark on the Bronco blue line.
All five of the goals the Broncos scored on Michigan this season were on the power play. Gove scored three of them.
(Of course, it’s difficult to earn respect when your team is at -120 collectively in league play.)
Michigan’s power play is fourth in the league (.184), while Western’s PK is last (.781).
Western Michigan was the only team to have two of the league’s top five scorers. Michigan, however, is loaded with talent up front, with six players–Mike Comrie (15-28–43), Andy Hilbert (14-12–26), Mark Kosick (12-12–24), Jeff Jillson (6-17–23), Josh Langfeld (8-14–22), Scott Matzka (11-9–20)–netting 20 or more points this season, every one of them firmly on the plus side of things.
Remember all of those blowhards who pointed out that the millennium doesn’t begin until next year? That’s an important point for this series, as only one Miracle on Ice is allowed per century.
Picks: Michigan 5-2, 6-3
The Next Sure Thing
Miami limps into the playoffs, and earns a chance to face the Spartans in the first round. You can almost hear what they were saying when all was said and done in Oxford last weekend. "Oh, goody."
Miami (13-18-3, 10-15-3 CCHA) at Michigan State (23-10-4, 18-8-2 CCHA) Munn Arena, East Lansing, MI
In November, the Spartans dropped a pair of games to the RedHawks, 3-2 and 3-0, in Goggin Arena.
That was then. This is now.
Michigan State is 6-2-2 in its last ten games, while Miami is 3-7-0 in the same span.
"I’m happy with the way that our team worked these last few weeks of season. If a few more bounces had gone our way this season we could finished in first again.
"We seen Miami in a long time, so it should be an interesting matchup for us. They will have our full attention after they beat us twice down there."
Full attention? Read, "We will bury them."
While the Wolverines have the kind of high-flying offense that can deliver a spanking, the Spartans are certainly a team capable of punishing anyone. They’re sneaky; you think you’re in the game, but when the buzzer sounds the scoreboard delivers sobering news, especially in Munn.
Michigan State leads this all-time series 48-14-5, and 24-8-3 in East Lansing. Miami has never beaten MSU in the post-season.
And here’s a kicker: Michigan State has won all 17 of its first-round playoff series in Munn. The only time the Spartans lost the first round was their sole road series, in 1990-91.
Michigan State has taken the CCHA tournament championship eight times in 18 seasons in the conference. For those of you who are math-challenged–as am I–that means that the Spartans have been in the playoffs each season they’ve been members of the CCHA.
Michigan State is 54-15 all-time in the league tourney, and has the best win percentage in conference history (.783).
Ron Mason has 66 CCHA tournament wins, twice as many as the next closest coach, Michigan’s Red Berenson.
This is Miami head coach Enrico Blasi’s first trip to the CCHA playoffs since he wore a Redskin uniform. Welcome back to the league, Rico!
This is Miami’s 11th first-round appearance, and their first time back since the 1997-98 postseason. The RedHawks are 12-16-0 in CCHA tourney play, and it’s just the second time that Miami and MSU have met in the first round.
The RedHawks did advance past the first round on the road once, back in 1992, when Miami, as the #5 seed, beat Western Michigan, the #4 seed. Back in that day, Blasi played for the Red(skins)Hawks, while Miami assistant coach Joe Bonnett was a Bronco.
While Michigan State has turned around what looked to be a mediocre season, the RedHawks, repeatedly bitten by the injury bug, have struggled since early December. In fact, you can pinpoint the RedHawk tailspin to the Dec. 5 loss to Ohio State. Prior to that game, Miami was 8-4-2, including a resounding 5-0 whoopin’ of the Buckeyes two days before.
Since then, the ‘Hawks are 5-13-1. The looks on their faces after their third consecutive loss to the Buckeyes–2-1 to end their regular season in Goggin last Saturday–said all you need to know about Miami’s second half.
Miami does have a formidable first line in Dustin Whitecotton (10-22–32), Pat Leahy (14-17–31), and Nick Jardine (10-8–18). In Miami wins, the trio has combined for 21 goals, but if you shut that line down–and Michigan State can–RedHawk production falls off drastically. In losses, the three have combined for 10 goals.
In net, David Burleigh, Andy Marsch and Ian Olsen (who has seen limited play this season) have combined for a dismal .876 team save percentage.
And Miami faces the league’s leading scorer Shawn Horcoff (8-36–44), as well as his linemates Adam Hall (19-10–29) and Brian Maloney (8-10–18), and a host of other Spartans who can score. MSU outscored league opponents by an 84-46 margin in regular-season play.
And don’t forget who’s minding the Spartan net.
Both teams are hurt by injuries. Michigan State’s Mike Weaver is out this weekend for certain, but Miami is positively plagued. In addition to forwards Evan Cheverie, Gregor Krajnc, and Jason Deskins–all of whom have been missing from action for a bit–defenseman Jeremy Bautch and forward Danny Stewart are sidelined with ankle injuries sustained during the Ohio State series.
Bautch and Stewart won’t be the only RedHawks in pain, figuratively speaking, after this weekend.
Picks: Michigan State 3-1, 3-1
[Insert Name Here] Vs. Jayme Platt
You could almost hear the lower-tier teams salivating at the thought of playing Lake Superior State. After all, who wanted to visit Ann Arbor, Marquette, or East Lansing?
But there’s a lot more riding on this series than meets the eye. Pride, a postseason invitation, perhaps a man’s job–the Lakers have a lot to play for.
Bowling Green (15-18-1, 12-15-1 CCHA) at Lake Superior State (18-14-2, 17-9-2 CCHA) Taffy Abel Arena, Sault Ste. Marie, MI
The Lakers ended their regular season on a high note, sweeping Northern Michigan and securing third place, their highest finish since they took the conference in 1996.
"Obviously, we are pleased with the results of our hard work," said Laker head coach Scott Borek of the Northern sweep. "I think NMU helped raise our game to a level where we should be confident about our ability to succeed."
And why not? The Lakers finish the season with a three-game win streak, splitting a weekend with Western Michigan before beating Northern twice. And the Lakers are getting production from all lines, something that can be said of few CCHA teams.
In the two-game NMU series, seven different Lakers–Mike Vigilante (3-11–14), Ryan Vince (5-13–18), Jeremy Bachusz (8-9–17), Blaine McCauley (2-10–12), Ben Keup (13-3–16), Jason Nightingale (7-9–16), and Aaron Phillips (1-1–2)–were responsible for the seven goals scored.
In addition to this evenly distributed scoring, the Lakers have Not-So-Secret-Weapon-Number-One, Jayme Platt. Platt’s .934 save percentage is phenomenal, and his 2.16 GAA isn’t bad either. This guy is a really good one-timer goalie, almost always getting that first shot. And he’s got a decent defense in front of him to clear when he needs them.
Goaltending will be what separates the two teams that take the ice in Abel Arena. Bowling Green’s reputation for inconsistency in net is well earned. Rookie Tyler Masters (.896 SV%, 3.00 GAA) is, according to head coach Buddy Powers, the go-to guy, but Shawn Timm (.918 SV%, 2.43 GAA) has had a strong showing since re-emerging from the depths of the bench.
Neither goalie is as consistent as Platt, period.
As always, Bowling Green knows how to score. The Falcons are averaging 3.21 goals per game, a healthy stat that makes them the third-most-productive offense in the league. They are, however, giving up nearly as many as they score (3.14).
Both teams are pretty good at killing penalties, and neither is especially effective on the power play, but when the BG PP gets going, it’s pretty to watch.
Bowling Green leads the all-time series with Lake 58-50-4, and the Falcons are 3-2-0 against the Lakers in the past two regular seasons, including this year’s split.
The Falcons also hold the 7-3-0 edge over the Lakers in the Soo. In 1997, the Falcons won the first round of the CCHA playoffs in Abel Arena, 5-3 and 8-4.
That, however, was B.P.–Before Platt.
Picks: Lake Superior 4-3, Bowling Green 4-2, Lake Superior 4-3
The Mavericks have done especially well in their first season as members of the CCHA, and beating Northern in Marquette would be the fairy-tale ending to a delightful first season.
You can’t always get what you want.
Nebraska-Omaha (12-17-7, 10-12-6 CCHA) at Northern Michigan (21-11-4, 16-8-4 CCHA) Berry Events Center, Marquette, MI
Friday’s game is just the third meeting between the two teams, and Northern has the series edge 1-0-1. Northern beat Omaha 2-0 on Oct. 29, but the Mavericks earned their first-ever point against a league opponent when the two teams tied 4-4 the following night.
"Northern has a very balanced team that can explode offensively. They will be a very different team from when we went up there earlier in the year. We will experience ‘playoff atmosphere’ for the first time, and we look forward to the challenge."
Kemp is correct when he says that the Northern offense is potentially explosive. The Wildcats have scored six or more goals in six contests this season, and are second in the league in goals-per-game average (3.32).
That comes from an extremely balanced and productive offense. Four Wildcats–Roger Trudeau (17-8–25), J.P. Vigier (9-11–20), Chris Gobert (15-9–24), and Brian Phillips (6-14–20)–have totaled at least 20 points each this season, and Chad Theuer (8-11–19) is not far behind.
And this is a team that plays tremendous team defense. The’ Cats–the fourth place team–ended the season with an astounding +175 plus/minus ratio. There isn’t a guy on the team who’s in the red.
Conversely, the UNO offense is not doesn’t have nearly the same oomph. The Mavs are averaging nearly three goals per game, but their offense isn’t nearly as deep as Northern’s, nor as experienced.
Freshmen David Brisson (12-10–22) and Greg Zanon (2-20–22) lead UNO in scoring, and other than Brisson, the only other Maverick with goals in the double digits is Jeff Hoggan (10-6–16). The Mavericks have been outscored this season in league play 95-83.
They’re 1-9-1 when they don’t score on the power play. And, in this day of limited five-on-five hockey, that’s a serious disadvantage. The Mavs were 0-for-13 on the power play against Niagara last week, and look where that got them.
And Nebraska-Omaha is facing the second stingiest defense in the league. Northern gives up just 2.29 goals per game, in part because of Dan Ragusett’s excellent play in net. Often overlooked in a league stocked with great goaltenders, Ragusett’s .913 save percentage ties him for third in the league. And he’s got a wicked glove hand.
Northern Is 7-3-4 at home, and UNO is 3-9-4 on the road this season. The Wildcats have the serious advantage of experience as well.
For the Wildcats, this is the 10th season of CCHA playoff action; NMU is one of only two active teams to make the playoffs for every year they’ve been in the league. They’re 7-1-4 at home in the CCHA tourney, and got to The Joe on the road last year, at home the year before.
Says head coach Rick Comley, "We’re obviously disappointed with our results last weekend, but we’ve still had a pretty good year, and now it’s time to put that behind us and get ready for the CCHA Tournament.
"It doesn’t matter who you are, the playoffs are a challenge for everybody. I don’t think there’s a single team that has a guarantee to get to Joe Louis, and it’s the teams that play the best this time of year that advance."
Don’t know if they play the best, but Northern definitely plays harder than most teams.
Picks: Northern Michigan 5-2, 4-2
The Bridesmaids and the Defenders of the Realm
If the Irish want to be taken seriously, the must win this home series.
Ferris State (20-14-4, 13-13-2 CCHA) at Notre Dame (14-16-8, 11-10-7 CCHA) Joyce Center, South Bend, IN
Take a look at the records of these two teams. The reason for the difference in the overall record is offense. Ferris State has it, and Notre Dame struggles with it.
The Bulldogs averaged 3.04 goals per conference game this season, outscoring league opponents 85-79. The Irish, on the other hand, couldn’t find the net for half a season, and scored just 65 league goals to opponents’ 76.
The difference between the two squads’ special teams is negligible, and the difference in net is nil; both Tony Zasowski and Phil Osaer own .909 save percentages. Osaer faces about 20 shots per game, while Zasowski sees about 22.
The Bulldogs have a more productive and balanced offense, led by Brian McCullough (15-18–33), Kevin Swider (14-13–27), Rob Collins (8-14–22), and Chris Kunitz (12-5–17).
The Irish are led up front by Dan Carlson (13-11–24), Ben Simon (8-13–21), Joe Dusbabek (6-15–21), and David Inman (10-4–14), who is out with mono. Also missing from the Irish line-up are Chad Chipchase and Andy Jurkowski.
The loss of Inman is significant for this Irish team. Bodies are important; Ferris State’s depth includes impressive speed up front.
The Irish are 10-27-3 in post-season play, and lost at home in three games last season to Northern Michigan. In first-round play at Yost at the end of the 1997-98 series, Notre Dame took the Wolverines to three games, but lost.
This is a chance for the Irish to show what they’re made of, and if they’re not careful, they’ll learn why Ferris State has 20 wins on the season.
Picks: Notre Dame 3-2, Ferris State 4-3, Ferris State 4-2
One More Time
The winners of the fourth and fifth series play Tuesday night, and I’ll make my prediction right now: Northern Michigan over Ferris State, 4-2
Of Course, Now It’s Crystal
A Michigan student fan wrote last week to tell me, "We swear because we care."
Darkness, Gloom, And Despair
Thurman Thomas wearing a Miami Dolphins’ jersey.
Ray Bourque wearing any jersey other than Boston’s.