And The Season Begins, Again
It’s playoff hockey, and anything can happen.
Or can it?
How likely is it that Alaska Fairbanks will steal one from Michigan State, or that Bowling Green will win the Battle of Ohio, or that Ohio State will get through Omaha to a play-in game somewhere in Michigan?
This season the rebounding CCHA — with the enthusiasm of nearly 100 rookies, three second-year head coaches, and genuine parity if you throw Michigan State out of the mix — remains a two-tier league, and the teams who rose to the top to secure home ice did not do so by accident.
Michigan State is a well-coached machine, with balanced scoring and defense and a not-so-secret weapon in net.
Miami is an experienced team whose veterans have weathered a coaching change and more than a few crises through the years. Add a smart young coach and you see why the RedHawks finished second.
Michigan is Michigan. They haven’t finished lower than (a tie for) second in 10 years.
Nebraska-Omaha is another team with experienced veterans, young talent, and the advantage of trial-by-fire in the playoffs in its inaugural season. Talk about a confidence builder.
And Northern Michigan is the hardest-working team in college hockey, team with a never-say-die attitude and one of the best coaches in the business.
Do you see any surprises in this brand-new season? I don’t.
Of course, I’m often wrong.
Each series is best of three, and each is Friday through Sunday, except for the Battle of Ohio, which is Thursday-Saturday.
You’ve Won A Fabulous, All-Expenses Paid Trip To East Lansing!
Congratulations, Nanooks, for making the postseason tournament for the first time in three years! Your reward is Michigan State in the first round.
No. 10 Alaska Fairbanks (9-17-8, 7-14-7 CCHA) at No. 1 Michigan State (28-4-4, 21-4-3 CCHA)
After a solid first half of the 2000-2001 season, the Nanooks went 2-6-0 against league opponents in February, and finished the year with a tie and loss against in-state rivals Alaska Anchorage. True, four of those February losses were on the road, and three of the losses were against Michigan State and Miami, but from October through the end of January, the Nanooks took at least a point from every opponent in a two-game series (with the exception of Anchorage in October), so the end of the regular season was anything but strong for UAF.
The Nanooks are led offensively by senior forwards Jim Lawrence (14-15–29) and Ryan Reinheller (9-7–16), junior forward Bobby Andrews (9-15–24), sophomore forward Blaine Bablitz (7-16-23), and freshman forward Cam Keith (9-10-19).
UAF defenders Daniel Carriere, Darren Tymstra, and my boyfriend Chad Hamilton are the only active Nanooks with goals against Michigan State.
The Nanook net is defended by freshman Preston McKay, who has set new school records with his 2.59 goals-against average and .914 save percentage. Former Nanook goalie Alba Brice (3.01 GAA, .906 SV%) holds the previous records.
Thirteen active Spartans have scored at least a goal against UAF, and even goaltender Ryan Miller has an assist against the Nanooks. The Spartan dominance over Fairbanks is led by senior forward Rustyn Dolyny, who has six goals and 12 assists all-time against the Nanooks, and who leads the Spartans in scoring this season with 11 goals and 24 assists for 36 points.
Speaking of Ryan Miller, the super sophomore goaltender has especially impressive numbers against UAF. In three contests versus the Nanooks, Miller is 3-0-0 with a 0.33 GAA and .981 save percentage.
Michigan State leads the all-time series against Alaska Fairbanks 19-4-0, and the Spartans are 10- 3-0 in Munn Arena when hosting the Nanooks.
Michigan State enters the first round of the league playoffs with an 11-game win streak vs. Fairbanks, dating back to Jan. 3, 1998. This streak includes seven wins at home.
In addition to nearly every other advantage you can imagine coming into this series against UAF, Michigan State has not lost a CCHA first-round playoff series since 1990-91, and have not dropped a home playoff series since the current best-of-three format was adopted in 1984-85. The Spartans’ record when hosting in the first round is 30-2-0, and they’ve won nine straight first- round playoff series.
The Spartans hope to capture both the regular-season and playoff championships for the second time in four years, and the Nanooks are their first casualty. Michigan State is the only CCHA opponent from whom second-year UAF head coach Guy Gadowsky has never taken a point.
Picks: Michigan State 4-1, 4-2
The Battle of Ohio
The Falcons and RedHawks have never met in postseason play, and the ‘Hawks are so confident that they’ve gone blonde for the occasion.
No. 9 Bowling Green (13-18-5, 8-15-5 CCHA) at No. 2 Miami (20-14-2, 17-10-1 CCHA)
The Falcons are the only CCHA team with a winning road record (13-12-2), and have won first-round series at Michigan, Western Michigan, and Lake Superior State, but the RedHawks are 8-1-0 at home in first-round playoff action, and head coach Enrico Blasi says his team knows there’s more at stake than just a trip to The Joe with these contests.
“Obviously, in the back of your mind, you’re thinking that if you don’t win you don’t go on,” says Blasi. This year, the CCHA has just one auto-bid to the NCAA tournament, and that goes to the winner of the championship tournament next weekend in Detroit.
Blasi says that Miami is not underestimating Bowling Green, a team that vaulted into postseason action at the last possible minute, edging out Notre Dame by a point in the last weekend of regular- season play.
“That’s the beauty of playing in the CCHA,” says Blasi. “Everything’s so tight, everyone’s playing with [a playoff] mind set. We’ve been playing with that mind set for four or five weeks. With the exception of Michigan State, everyone’s really been in the same position for a while now.”
The Falcons are led by in scoring by junior forward Greg Day (20-22–42), senior forward Ryan Murphy (20-13–33), and junior forward Scott Hewson (8- 19–27). Day has at least a point in 12 of his last 15 games, with 11 goals and 18 assists in the past 21 games.
Sophomore goaltender Tyler Masters (2.52 GAA, .919 SV%) broke two school records Friday, Mar. 2, when he shutout Ferris State 1-0. His five career shutouts surpasses the previous mark of four, and his three this season break the previous single-season mark of two. Masters is currently first in the CCHA with 787 saves, which tells you more than a little about the Falcon squad.
The RedHawks are 12-18-0 in their previous 30 CCHA playoff appearances, and this is the fourth time Miami has hosted a first-round series.
Miami is led in scoring by Jason Deskins (19-20–39), a junior forward who should have made the CCHA First Team. Senior forwards Gregor Krajnc (15-15–30), Pat Leahy (11-19–30), and Ernie Hartlieb (10-12–22), are also among Miami’s offensive threats, as are rookie forwards Derek Edwardson (6-19–25) and Mike Kompon (10-11–21).
The sophomore David Burleigh (2.69 GAA, .899 SV%) has been the workhorse in net for the RedHawks, logging 1,874 minutes. Burleigh has allowed just three goals in his last three outings, and his 2.69 goals-against average is the best in school history.
Bowling Green leads this all-time series 50-22-5, but the RedHawks swept the Falcons in Goggin in January.
Picks: After Bowling Green stunned the RedHawks 4-3 in the first game, Miami battles back to take the second and third games 4-2, 4-2
Love’s Labors? Lost
These two squads split a home-and-home series this season, each winning in its own barn. The weekend was marred, however, by chippiness that escalated into an out-and-out brawl at the end of the game in Ewigleben. Few opponents like the Wolverines; the Bulldogs like them even less.
No. 8 Ferris State (13-18-5, 9-15-4 CCHA) at No. 3 Michigan (22-11-5, 16-9-3 CCHA)
The Bulldogs and Wolverines managed to amass 266 penalties in a two-game lovefest earlier this season, but Michigan head coach Red Berenson doesn’t think bad blood will be a factor in this first-round series.
“If you understand what’s going on — and I think both teams understand playoff games are more important than any bad feeling — I don’t think that will be an issue,” says Berenson. “Still the way Ferris plays, we know we’ll be in for tough, physical games.”
Berenson is the first to admit that this Wolverine squad hasn’t had the flash of previous Michigan teams. “Our team has had good games and not so good games. I thought we finished off pretty well. For all intents and purposes, we finished in second place.”
In fact, the Wolverines went 3-4-1 in their last nine games, dropping their regular-season finale to first-place Michigan State hard-fought 3-1 game in which Berenson says the team played very well.
The Bulldogs finished the regular season in similar fashion, with a 4-5-1 record during their last 10 games, but Ferris State rides a four-game losing streak into the playoffs.
There’s no doubt that each team was anchored by its goaltender this season. In fact, both Josh Blackburn and Phil Osaer were named to the league’s Second Team, and each has played in the shadow of another netminder a few miles down the road.
Overall this season, Michigan’s Blackburn posted a 2.29 GAA and .906 save percentage, while Ferris State’s Osaer finished second overall in goals against (2.18) to Ryan Miller, and recorded a .913 overall save percentage.
Each is even better in conference play, where Blackburn (1.97 GAA, .914 SV%) is second to Miller, and Osaer (2.19 GAA, .913 SV%) is third.
Berenson says that Blackburn has been Michigan’s most consistent player. “He’s been solid start to finish.”
Other Wolverines qualifying for solid seasons include sophomores Andy Hilbert (23- 34–57) and Mike Cammalleri (22-32–52).
With these Wolverines, there’s more of a team effort in all aspects of the game than has been in season past. As a team, Michigan is +177 overall (+123 CCHA), and 17 players have at least one goal. Even Blackburn has contributed offensively, with five assists in regular-season play.
For Ferris State, junior Rob Collins (15-17–32), senior Kevin Swider (15- 17–32), and sophomore Chris Kunitz (16-12–28) are responsible for 44.0 percent of the team’s offensive production this season, and the trio has also generated 52.3 percent of the team’s goal-scoring. Collins is on a personal mission, with career-best numbers.
After those three, however, the Ferris State offense drops off sharply, with no other Bulldogs recording goals in the double digits this season. Ferris State is 11th in goal scoring both in overall (2.44 per game) and CCHA (2.29 per game) play.
One bright spot for Ferris State of late is its penalty kill, which has allowed just one power-play goal in 26 chances (96.2 percent efficiency) in its last five outings.
Michigan is 7-4-1 in its last 12 meetings against Ferris State, dating back to Dec. 31, 1996, and the Wolverines are 13-4-1 in the last 18 meetings between the two teams. Michigan is 12-3-0 at home against Ferris State, including a 7-2-0 mark in the last nine games.
Michigan beat the Bulldogs 4-1 Nov. 10 in Ann Arbor, and lost 5-4 the following night in Big Rapids.
In spite of the difference on paper, Berenson is not one to take any opponent lightly, especially one who has already beaten his Wolverines once this season. “The parity in this league is so tight, if you’re not sharp or desperate, anyone can beat you and will beat you.”
But maybe not this weekend.
Pick: Michigan in two games, 5-2 and 4-3
Clash Of The Midwestern Semi-Titans
The good news for the Buckeyes is that they are one of three CCHA teams to have beaten the Mavericks in the fabled Bullpen. The bad news is that the Feb. 16, 4-3 win was the last time Ohio State took a point from anyone.
No. 7 Ohio State (16-16-2, 13-13-2 CCHA) at No. 4 Nebraska-Omaha (22-13-3, 15-10-3 CCHA)
Each team’s home city has a diverse metropolitan population, a good art museum, and a lovely zoo. Each team draws about 8,000 people per game.
Of course, the difference is that the Buckeyes play in the cavernous Value City Arena, while the Mavs pack the Civic Center to the rafters with rabid UNO fanatics.
(And beer. Don’t forget the beer.)
There’s a reason why the Mavericks were 12-3-1 at home against non-Findlay opponents this season: the Bullpen is a wicked place to play. With change-filled milk jugs, cowbells, and fans who are absolutely loony about UNO hockey, the Mavericks have arguably the most serious home- ice advantage in the league.
But, boy, the Buckeyes love playing on the road. While a .500 record isn’t particularly stellar, Ohio State is 9-5-2 on the road (compared to 7-9-0 at home), with impressive road wins against Maine, Miami, and these Mavericks.
UNO head coach Mike Kemp says that Ohio State’s 4-3 win in Omaha is something the Mavericks will bear in mind. “I think it’s one of those things that will get our attention. When they come in here, it’ll be a dog fight. They really took it to us the first night. Both games were hard- fought. That second game was really a 3-1 game.”
After losing 4-3 to OSU, Omaha came back to beat the Buckeyes 6-1, a loss that was the first in the five-game skid that closed out the regular season for Ohio State. “In the second game, we had chances to score^Åbut what failed in the second game was specialty teams,” says John Markell, Ohio State head coach. “We had a shorthanded goal scored against us, and three power-play goals. Other than that, it was a very close game.”
While the Mavericks finished up strong, going 5-2-1 in February (and with two March wins over Findlay, but who’s counting?), the Buckeyes are not necessarily limping into Omaha. During their last regular-season game, the Bucks lost 3-0 to Miami but ironically recaptures some momentum in the final two periods of the season. After allowing two goals in the first seven minutes of the contest, Ohio State returned from a time out a different team, allowing just five shots in the second and third periods of that game. The third goal was an empty netter.
Both of these teams can score. UNO is averaging 3.07 goals per conference game to OSU’s 2.89, although Ohio State has notched just six goals in its last five outings.
Sophomore forward and CCHA First Teamer David Brisson (19-25–44) leads the Mavericks in scoring, followed by junior Jeff Hoggan (11-16–27), sophomore defender and First Teamer Greg Zanon (10-14–24), and freshman forward Andrew Wong (12-9–21).
In net for UNO is All-Rookie Team goaltender Dan Ellis (2.47 GAA, .912 SV%).
For the Buckeyes, senior forward Jean-Francois Dufour (14-20–34) and rookie forward R.J. Umberger (14-20–34) lead the team in scoring, followed by freshmen Dave Steckel (16-16–32) and Paul Caponigri (11-15–26).
Freshman goaltender Mike Betz (3.01 GAA, .895 SV%) has been the netminder of record for most of this season.
The Buckeyes have a 3-1-0 edge in this brief all-time series, and are 21-41-4 all-time in the CCHA tournament. Ohio State returns to playoff action for the first time since the 1998-99 season, and the Buckeyes have made 18 postseason appearances in the past 19 years.
The Mavericks, of course, have perfect postseason attendance, having made the playoffs their first two season in the league including this year.
Both teams know what’s in store this weekend, hockey played hard, and no easy wins. “It’s going to take timely goal scoring, and good solid team defense,” says Markell. “We’re going to have to do a lot of the little things right — from goaltending all the way to the centermen. We’re going to have to be responsible out there. As long as we carry responsibility out there with emotion, we give ourselves a chance.”
He adds that the Buckeyes are “actually excited to play in that building because of the atmosphere. This is what big-time college is about, this kind of pressure.”
Hosting their first playoff series, the Mavericks were seasoned by taking the long route to Detroit last season, says Kemp. “A blessing of being a road playoff team last year is that we had to learn fast.”
Kemp says, “Last year our goal was to make the playoffs. This year our goal was to be a host team for the first round.”
Makes you wonder what the Mavericks are aiming for next season. Total world domination, perhaps?
Picks: Nebraska-Omaha in two games, 4-3 and 4-3
When all was said and done, at the end of the regular season the Wildcats had 12 league wins, 10 league losses, and six ties in conference play. So did the Broncos. But how each team made its journey through the 2000-2001 campaign says much about how this series will unfold.
No. 6 Western Michigan (19-11-6, 12-10-6 CCHA) at No. 5 Northern Michigan (16-11-7, 12-10-6 CCHA)
“Both teams are pretty evenly matched,” says Western Michigan head coach Jim Culhane.
On the surface, anyway.
Final standings aside, let’s take a look at some pertinent facts regarding each team in regular-season league play.
Of course, the Broncos are led by the top two scorers in CCHA play, Mike Bishai (20- 41–61, 17-26–43 CCHA) and Dave Gove (22-35–57, 18-25–43). This is the third time in CCHA history that teammates have shared the league scoring crown. Northern Michigan’s Mike Miekle and Bill Joyce (1977-78) and Bowling Green’s John Markell and Mark Wells (1976-77) managed the feat 20-odd years ago.
Western Michigan has serious firepower, with Jeff Campbell (23-24–47) and Steve Rymsha (22-25–47) tied for third in team scoring.
What’s suspect with Western Michigan is defense. Jeff Reynaert (2.99 GAA, .903 SV%) has played solid hockey all season, but he has inconsistent help in front of the net. The Broncos are a run-and-gun team, and if they can’t force their opponent into that pattern during the game, they’re in for a hard time.
The Wildcats prove the adage, “Slow and steady wins the race.” While Western Michigan came out of the gate this season like a horse possessed, Northern’s season was more balanced, with a young team learning as the season progressed.
Chad Theuer (10-23–33) led the Wildcats in regular-season scoring, followed by Bryce Cockburn (19-10–29), Terry Harrison (13-15–28), and Chris Gobert (10-16–26). The ‘Cats as a team finished the season +119 overall (+71 CCHA).
Senior Dan Ragusett (2.31 GAA, .919 SV%) and freshman Craig Kowalski (2.61 GAA, .910 SV%) split time in the Wildcat net. For my money, Ragusett is still one of the more entertaining goaltenders to watch, with a wicked quick glove hand.
The Broncos and Wildcats last met in postseason action in 1983-84, when Western took a two- game set in Marquette. Culhane was a Bronco rookie that season, in case you’re counting.
Western Michigan has lost 11 straight postseason games, dating back to the 1994 CCHA playoffs.
The Wildcats have finished fifth or higher each season since rejoining the CCHA in 1997-98. Northern is 12-11-7 all-time in the CCHA Tournament, with an 8-3-4 record at home. The Wildcats have lost just one first-round series at home, including last year’s series when Northern lost in three games to Nebraska-Omaha.
While Culhane says his team is “pretty confident,” he knows that the Olympic sheet of ice in Marquette may be a disadvantage for the Broncos. “There’s so much more room up there that positioning is critical so that you don’t get caught with odd-man rushes.”
That may be Western’s undoing in this series. While the added room gives the run-and-gun offense of the Broncos plenty of space to play, Western’s weakness is recovering at the other end, and the Bronco defense may have difficulty on the bigger ice surface.
Picks: Northern in two games, 4-3 and 5-4
And Lest We Forget…
In Tuesday night’s play-in game, I’ll take Nebraska-Omaha over anyone at the Bullpen, 4-3.