Goin’ To The Joe
This year’s CCHA championship tourney includes two perennials, one old friend, and one newbie.
Congratulations to Michigan, Michigan State, Notre Dame, and Nebraska-Omaha.
Between them, Michigan and Michigan State have 20 more wins in overall play than do Notre Dame and UNO. Both Michigan and Michigan State are ranked; the Irish and the Mavs finished the regular season with records below .500 in overall play.
I don’t know what this says about the league, but I’m sure every coach would point to this as an indication of how tough the CCHA is as a league from top to bottom. It does seem to prove that any team can beat any other team on any given night, but I’m not sure that says as much about the strengths of the league as it does its weaknesses.
But I digress.
Teams No. 1, No. 2., No. 5, and No. 7 are participating in the semifinals, marking the first year since the 1996-97 season that a squad that wasn’t among the top four made it to The Joe. In that year, No. 5 Bowling Green knocked off No. 4 Lake Superior, in the Soo.
It would be deja vu all over again, if BG hadn’t had to go through Omaha after Sault Ste. Marie on the road to Detroit.
You have to go all the way back to the 1986-87 season to find two seeds lower than No. 4 in the semis. That year, No. 6 Ohio State and No. 5 Western Michigan joined No. 1 Bowling Green and No. 2 Michigan State. Both lower seeds lost their semifinal games.
It was the 1996-97 season that last saw two teams from outside of Michigan make the semis, when No. 5 Bowling Green and No. 2 Miami played along with No. 1 Michigan and No. 3 Michigan State.
Teams representing three different states–Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois–last participated in the semifinals in 1988-99.
This year, however, marks the very first time that a team in its first-ever season of league affiliation of any kind has gone to The Joe. That honor belongs to the Mavericks of Nebraska-Omaha.
To quote Ron Mason, and many good sportsmen like him, "May the best team win."
No. 1 Michigan
"Our team is glad to get the first round out of the way," says head coach Red Berenson. "It was a hard-fought battle with Western Michigan."
The Wolverines outscored the Broncos 10-4 on the weekend — not blowouts, but decisive wins.
"We were expected to get there, and sometimes that puts a little different kind of pressure on your team."
Consecutive wins of 4-2 and 6-2 ought to dispel any doubts about Michigan. This team was supposed to beat Western handily, and it did.
Now the Wolverines meet the Mavericks in the second game of the Semifinals. For those of you keeping track of such things, Michigan beat Omaha 6-2 and 6-1 in December–when the Wolverines were "struggling."
And now it’s time for postseason play. Here are a few tidbits that should speak volumes about this impending semifinal game:
The Wolverines have appeared in the last nine consecutive NCAA Tournaments.
Michigan has been to the Frozen Four six times in the last eight years, including four consecutive appearances from 1995-98.
The Wolverines have won a record nine NCAA Tournament National Championships, and more importantly have taken two of the last four (1995-96, 1997-98).
Michigan has captured four out of the last six CCHA tournament titles.
Berenson led Michigan to nine consecutive Great Lakes Invitational tournament championships.
"Overall, I like the way our team is playing," says Berenson. "Our defense has become more and more solid since the first of the season, and with Josh Blackburn back in goal, he gives us an added dimension. He can make the difference in the game if we do break down, as we did against Western."
Blackburn missed the first half of the season with a foot injury, but since returning to the net full time in the second session, Blackburn has a cumulative .913 save percentage in league play, and a 2.12 GAA.
"We’re getting balanced scoring from our team," says Berenson. "Scott Matzka has played extremely well in recent weeks, along with the players who are expected to score, like Mike Comrie and Andy Hilbert."
Matzka is one of the league’s underrated players. An in-your-face, all-heart kind of guy, Matzka has 14 goals and 15 assists in overall play, is +22 overall, and has six shorthanders on the season. Tenacious doesn’t even begin to describe this kid.
As for the Michigan team defense, it’s at +212 overall, and +166 in league play. The Wolverines outscored league opponents 112-65 on the season.
"I like our team," says Berenson. "I think we’ll put up a good battle."
Mr. Understatement speaks.
No. 2 Michigan State
The Spartans have won all 19 first-round series they’ve played in Munn Arena, and only once since joining the CCHA have they missed a trip to The Joe–and that’s because they lost a first-round series on the road.
Like the Wolverines, the Spartans have an impressive playoff pedigree.
MSU has captured eight CCHA tournament titles, most recently in 1997-98.
MSU is 56-15 all-time in the CCHA tournament, and has the best tournament winning percentage in conference history (.789).
MSU is 22-9 at Joe Louis Arena in the CCHA Tournament (.710 win percentage), another conference best.
MSU is 10-0 in overtime CCHA tourney games.
Ron Mason has 68 CCHA tournament wins, nearly twice as many as the next closest coach (Berenson).
The Spartans beat the RedHawks 6-2 and 5-1 to get to The Joe, and Mason sounds as much relieved as pleased with the statement made with those two games.
"Three months ago I told everybody here that we were kind of in a holding pattern, that we could go in two or three different directions: we could head up, we could head down, or we could stay the same. Our team for one reason or another really seemed to band together and we played our best hockey, and we ended up going up.
"We played well down the stretch, and I think the pucks started to go in for us a little bit more than they were earlier.
"With the Miami series, we were playing a team that had a lot of injuries and things weren’t going that well for them and we got most of the bounces, so the games weren’t really that close for us.
"But most of the games that we’ve been playing here down the stretch have been just like playoff games; they’ve been close games, hard-fought."
Two of those hard-fought battles were against the Irish, a 2-2 tie in South Bend and a 5-2 win in Munn. Earlier in the season, the Spartans split a weekend series with Notre Dame, losing 1-0 and winning 4-1.
"All the games have been tough games, and all the players have respect for their program and where they’ve gone."
Michigan State has been a bit of an enigma this season, starting the campaign on fire, cooling off in the middle, and–as Mason said–climbing toward the end. Mason himself succinctly sums up the Spartans.
"Shawn Horcoff has had an unbelievable year. I think last year he was overshadowed by Mike York and this year he’s had a chance to show his stuff. He’s everything a coach would like. He sets the standard for all the rest of our players.
Horcoff won the league scoring title with eight goals and 36 assists (12-46–58 overall), and finished the regular season at +19 in league play. Horcoff is a playmaker of the highest caliber, the kind of guy who can break a game open.
"Mike Weaver–we finally got him back in the lineup against Miami Saturday. He’s so key to our penalty killing and our defense. Without him we’re not as strong. Adam Hall of course is our leading goal scorer and he’s had a fabulous year."
Weaver (+14) is essential to Michigan State’s defense. In the four games the senior missed because of injury, the Spartans gave up five power-play goals. Michigan State had given up five power-play goals in the 19 games preceding his injury.
Hall has 19 goals in league play. Let me repeat that: 19 goals in league play. He’s a great player, on a great line with Horcoff and Brian Maloney.
"Goaltending-wise, Ryan Miller and Joe Blackburn are very good, and I don’t know who’s going to play on Friday," said Mason.
Miller–with an astounding .941 save percentage in league play–appears to be the go-to guy for the Spartans, in spite of what Mason says. Blackburn’s save percentage of .908 is nothing to sneeze at.
"Our team has been pretty consistent all year. Our power play has been pretty good all year and still is. Our penalty killing has been pretty good all year and still is."
The Spartans have the top power play (.200) and top PK (.911) in the league.
"I like the way we’re playing right now," Mason summed up.
No. 5 Notre Dame
The Irish return to The Joe for just the second time in program history, and the first time since 1981-82, when current Irish head coach Dave Poulin was co-captain of the Notre Dame squad. The Irish lost 4-1, and current CCHA Commissioner Tom Anastos was a freshman and scored the game-winner for the Spartans in that game.
Poulin, who’s always quick with the one-liners, quips, "Actually, I was covering Tom on that play."
In the past 19 seasons, the Irish have won just three first-round playoff series, either as members of the WCHA or the CCHA, and Notre Dame is 12-28-3 all-time in postseason play.
Last weekend the Irish finally broke the curse of the bridesmaid by winning their series with Ferris State in three games.
"We had a terrific, terrific battle with Ferris State on the weekend. It was emotional," says Poulin.
"We played well on Friday night, came back to win 4-3, then got hammered on Saturday night in the 6-1 game. So you don’t know how your team is going to react coming back. The previous two years we’ve been in similar situations–lost to Michigan two years ago, then lost to Northern at home in the third game–so we’d been there, and I think that helped us in preparing for Sunday night’s game."
The Irish won the third game 4-2.
"It was a terrific hockey game and an empty net goal, and I think that’s how close our league is right now."
The Irish came out of the gate slow again this season, but have improved in key areas as the year progressed.
"I was disappointed with our play early on. We fought through a number of things, and we’ve certainly played our best hockey since January 1. The reason is our that our best players have been our best players.
"Up front, Danny Carlson, a junior out of Edina, Minnesota, has been terrific. Ben Simon is playing his best hockey of the year."
Carlson leads the Irish with 13 goals and 11 assists in league play. He has been spectacular on the Notre Dame power play, garnering eight goals in conference play, nine in overall. He also has three league game-winners, five overall.
Simon has been equally effective on the PP. Simon (8-13–21 conference) has seven league power-play tallies and 10 in overall play.
"The four seniors on defense who have led the way throughout have been good all year long–Nathan Borega, Tyson Fraser, Sean Molina, and Sean Seyferth. And a freshman has really emerged for us on defense, Evan Nielsen."
The numbers don’t reflect how effective this Irish defense can be. The four seniors are collectively minus 18, and only Molina is on the plus side at +1. Nielsen is +3 in conference play. The team, as a whole, is -65 in league contests.
But these four defenders–especially Borega and Fraser–have been the backbone of this Irish squad through tough times, when one or the other–or three, or four–has been injured or ill, when leading scorers have been injured or off in the World Juniors, through the proverbial thick and thin.
And while the Irish are being outscored by conference opponents, they can brag that it ain’t by much: 76-65 in regular-season league play.
"In net, our guy has been Tony Zasowski, who came from the Omaha Lancers last year and really took the reins in early December."
Zasowski went 11-5-6 in conference play, with a .909 SV% and 2.30 GAA.
The Irish are tough contenders, not at all easy to beat.
No. 7 Nebraska-Omaha
"This is certainly a goal that people set up for themselves," says Mike Kemp, "and we feel privileged to be joining everybody there."
Privileged…and tired, no doubt. The Mavericks have played four games in five days to reach the Joe, beating Northern Michigan 4-2, losing to the Wildcats 5-1, and then winning the road series 2-1 before returning to the Bullpen, where the Mavs beat Bowling Green 3-1.
Jeff Hoggan (12-7–19) had the game-winner in all three of UNO’s playoff games. Holy cow.
Junior James Chalmers (1-6–7) had three goals and two assists in the Northern series.
Another junior, Allan Carr (5-16–21), became the first Maverick to reach the 30-point plateau with his assist on Hoggan’s power-play goal in the BG game. Carr has 11 goals and 19 assists overall this season.
"It’s been quite a stretch here for us…over the last week," says Kemp. "The Northern Michigan series was just a great, great hockey series, and we feel very fortunate to have come out of that series knowing the kind of game that Northern Michigan plays, the quality of their program, the history of their program.
"It was a huge challenge for us to go up there…and our kids rose to the occasion," says Kemp. "And I think we had some luck, especially Sunday [when] there were a couple of close calls–pucks that went into the net and the net got dislodged, a waved-off goal. It always gives you the thought that maybe you’re a team of destiny.
"We felt that on Saturday night when we lost 5-1 that we didn’t play badly as a team. We had a short stretch in the second period where things kind of unraveled…when it went from 1-1 to 5-1. After that we seemed to settle down and play consistently until the end of the game, and that gave us something to build upon Sunday."
Apparently, the game at the Civic Center in Omaha was something special, newly-built ice and all.
"Our fans turned out in droves, and the atmosphere in Civic Auditorium is something I don’t recall in my 25 years of college coaching. It was a deafening atmosphere, a carnival-like atmosphere, and certainly the fans did much to get our adrenaline pumping and help us overcome any fatigue we might have been feeling from our 36-hour recovery time from game to game.
"Our kids rallied, played hard. I can’t say enough good things about the way Bowling Green approached the game and how hard they played. Tyler Masters was absolutely outstanding, but we were fortunate. In any game like that, it gets down to late in the third and it’s a 1-1 game, you just know that it’s going to be a bounce, and certainly we were fortunate to get a bounce and the puck just kind of trickled in our way.
"That set the stage for us to go forward."
Team of destiny? Maybe.
The Mavs are plus one in league play, and have been outscored by conference opponents 96-86. They’re fifth in the league in goals per game (2.97), 10th in goals allowed (3.31), eighth on the power play (.160), and 10th on the PK (.799). They average nearly 23 minutes per game in the box.
Kendall Sidoruk has a .889 conference save percentage with a 3.24 GAA. Rodney McLeod’s save percentage is slightly higher (.898).
The Mavericks have taken at least a point from each league opponent they’ve faced this season, with one very important exception–the Wolverines.
This team is flying high, riding adrenaline into The Joe. Kemp had something there about destiny. A little destiny–fate, luck, what have you–wouldn’t hurt Friday night.
What Does Ron Mason Think? Ron Mason Thinks The System Is A Doofus
OK, so I’m paraphrasing.
One thing that concerns just about everyone in the CCHA this postseason is the prospect of placing just two teams in the NCAA tournament, especially after four were invited last year.
Michigan State head coach Ron Mason has been very vocal about the selection process, and worries about his own team’s chances of making it to the Big Dance.
"To be honest with you, I don’t even know if we’re in the tournament. If you look at the Pairwise with Michigan 10th and us 12th, I can’t even figure out…I think we’re just going to concentrate on trying to win the game Friday and take what we get."
Mason has a suggestion for the NCAA: review and revise.
"I think we should go back in the last five and the last ten years and see how leagues have performed in the NCAA tournament, see what the percentage of winning is. Maybe that would give a league a little better credibility in terms of how teams are selected. That would be one of my suggestions.
"The Big Ten in basketball gets six teams. They get six teams because their league is strong and they go on and do well. In hockey, there aren’t as many teams. When you have 300 basketball teams and 50 hockey teams, maybe the numbers don’t crunch out right. What we have to do is look at the league and say, ‘Who has won what in postseason?’ and maybe that will be an indication of how many teams a league should get."
Half of the selected CCHA teams last season bowed out after the first game. On the other hand, half won at least one game, and one was the sole non-Hockey East team in the Frozen Four.
In retrospect, what, exactly, does this say about the league?
Friends New And Old
This week, Notre Dame fans flooded my mailbox with negative email.
Thank God. I was beginning to think that your silence meant that y’all liked me.
And this is a typical message from Maverick fans, who are fast climbing many lists, some not so flattering: "Nice call Paula on the Northern Michigan series. Did you publish your ‘play-in’ game pick with Bowling Green this week? Probably had BG by 3 or 4 goals in that one."
I don’t care that the guy is giving me grief, but he could at least read the column, n’est-ce pas?
And here’s some advice for the lone UNO fan who has been trolling on the BGSU hockey fan listserv: Knock it off. Rubbing salt in the wounds of fans of the team you beat–in a forum where they are the hosts–is rude beyond measure.
Mavs fans, your team has made an incredibly positive statement this season, and your home fans–by all accounts–are gracious.
Save the public gloating for Wolverine fans, who at least have earned the right along with the reputation.