And The Meek Shall Inherit The Earth
So there’s really nothing meek about hockey, especially Bowling Green hockey. By beating Northern Michigan in the Tuesday play-in game, however, the nine-seed Falcons become the lowest seed ever to advance to the CCHA Semifinals.
Congratulations, Bowling Green.
And congratulations Tyler Masters, the goaltender who has been the backbone of this Falcons squad all season. Masters made 107 saves in three playoff games, as Bowling Green swept Miami (4-3, 4-3 OT) and downed Northern Michigan 2-1. In that game against the Wildcats, Masters (2.48 GAA, .921 SV%) stopped 37 of 38 shots.
Masters’ performance in the opening round of the playoffs is metaphorical for the entire Falcon season; this is a hard-working, never-say-die team that easily could have found itself at home this weekend.
On March 2, Bowling Green and Ferris State were knotted 0-0 at the end of regulation. With 19 points, the Falcons were in 10th place, one point behind Notre Dame, two behind Alaska Fairbanks. “In the overtime game with Ferris, we were two minutes from not making playoffs,” says Buddy Powers, BGSU head coach. “That was a huge win for our confidence.”
The Falcons haven’t lost since, sweeping Ferris State, Miami, and then winning that all-important play-in game. Says Powers, “We’ve backed that up now with consecutive close games. [Tuesday] was our second straight overtime win.”
Bowling Green hasn’t made a trip to the CCHA Championship Tournament since the 1996-97 season, when the No. 5 Falcons lost to the No. 1 Wolverines 7-2 in the first Semifinal match. You have to go all the way back to the 1987-88 Tournament for the last time the Falcons won a CCHA Semifinal game, when No. 2 Bowling Green beat No. 3 Michigan State 6-4.
“This will be the first for our seniors to be at the Joe,” says Powers. “Bowling Green is an excited team.”
By Whatever Means Necessary
Last year, the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks surprised nearly everyone by beating Northern Michigan in Marquette in the first round of the CCHA playoffs, then defeating Bowling Green at home in the Tuesday play-in game.
This year, the road to the Joe went through Omaha, but it wasn’t easy.
The Mavericks hosted the Buckeyes in a thrilling, hard-fought first-round series that saw OSU win the first game 5-4 in overtime, UNO picking up the second game 2-1, and the Mavericks winning the third contest 4-3 in double OT to advance to the Joe.
“It was our goal at the beginning of the season to get to the conference final,” says Nebraska-Omaha head coach Mike Kemp. “Realizing that goal was a real challenge. It has been a nail biter in very sense of the word. I can’t say enough about the Ohio State program and how hard they played those three games.”
It was a series decided by inches. The Buckeyes hit pipe after pipe in the three matches, including several shots that should have given Ohio State a victory Sunday night. But as Danny Ellis (2.48 GAA, .911 SV%) said after the Mavericks finally put the series to bed, “There was definitely someone watching over me this weekend.”
The deciding game was the longest game in UNO history, lasting 3 hours and 56 minutes. During that contest, the Mavericks had to come from behind twice and were outshot 47-40.
The Mavericks are a charmed team. In addition to the pipe angels watching over Ellis, a greater mojo is at work here; UNO has broken a seeding curse, becoming the first No. 4 to advance to the CCHA Semifinals since the 1991-92 season.
A big part of Nebraska-Omaha’s recent cosmic goodness has been the play of senior forward Billy Pugliese, who scored the game-winner in the double-OT contest. Pugliese has seven goals and two assists in his last six games, including three goals scored in the first-round series against OSU.
This is the second trip to the Joe in as many years for the Mavericks, a fact made more extraordinary because this is UNO’s second year in the league. If the Mavs weren’t awestruck last year in their inaugural run at a CCHA title — and they proved they weren’t by beating Michigan 7-4 in UNO’s first-ever Semifinal game — they’re even less dewy-eyed this time around.
“It [last year’s tourney] was a very exciting time for our whole program as we were striving to reach goals, and being at the Joe was one,” says Kemp. “Accomplishing those goals are just pleasant memories, part of our history. We are much more concerned about the present.”
There’s No Place Like Home
For Michigan, the CCHA Championship Tournament has become just another part of any given season. This Friday’s Semifinal game against Nebraska-Omaha marks the Wolverines’ 12th consecutive trip to the Joe, the longest such streak in the CCHA.
This specific Michigan squad, however, looks different from those who’ve gone to Detroit in recent years. “We’ve been very inconsistent this year,” says Michigan head coach Red Berenson. “It has not been an easy row to hoe.”
In the second half of regular-season play, the Wolverines went 9-6-2, hardly the record of a team on fire. Included in that stretch is a split in Omaha in early February, when UNO beat Michigan 4- 1 before the Wolverines rebounded for a 4-1 win of their own.
So the Wolverines weren’t a sure loss for any team they faced this season, but let’s face it — they’re still the Wolverines, and they have an arsenal nearly any Division-I program would covet.
Playing most consistently for Michigan in this season of inconsistency has been Mike Cammalleri, who registered a point in 30 of 37 games this season, and 18 goals in those 37 games. Cammalleri also has 17 multi-point games this season, and as goes Cammalleri, so go the Wolverines; Michigan is 14-1-3 when the sophomore scores a goal, the only loss being to Michigan State March 1.
Another workhorse for the Wolverines and one of the league’s unsung heroes is sophomore defender Mike Roemensky, who led the league in plus/minus with a rating of +24.
And then there’s Mark Mink, another non-household name. Mink has played in 81 consecutive games for Michigan, and hasn’t missed a contest this season.
Perhaps one of the most significant reasons why the Wolverines notched over 20 wins for the 14th consecutive season this year is between the pipes. In this season of Ryan Miller, it’s been easy to overlook the excellent year that junior goaltender Josh Blackburn is having. Overall, Blackburn’s goals-against average is 2.25, and his save percentage .906, but in league play his GAA drops to 1.94 and his save percentage jumps to .914.
Several key Wolverines have missed games due to injury and illness, including Josh Langfeld (sprained MCL), Jeff Jillson (groin), Geoff Kock (ankle), Dave Huntzicker (torn MCL, shoulder), and Jed Ortmeyer, whose season ended in February with knee surgery.
Berenson says that the team is “a little healthier” than it was a few weeks ago, and adds, “We are playing a little better. The sense of urgency in the playoffs will bring the best out of our team.”
They Don’t Call It The Mason Cup For Nothing
This year, the winner of the CCHA Championship Tournament will hoist the Mason Cup, named after the current Michigan State head coach, Ron Mason.
“I am proud to have it named in my honor,” Mason says. “It is going to be around for a long time and many good teams are going to win it.”
The good team most likely to win the cup this season is Mason’s own Spartans. With just four losses in 38 games, Michigan State looks tough to beat.
In past seasons, the Spartans have relied on a game-breaking, go-to guy out front and an excellent supporting cast. Think Mike York. Think Shawn Horcoff.
This season, however, the scoring is by committee and the go-to man is between the pipes. Ryan Miller has put up record-breaking numbers this season, with a 1.36 goals-against average overall and an overall save percentage of .948. He’s even better against league opponents: 1.24 GAA, .950 SV%.
Miller’s supporting cast includes if not prolific scorers, frontmen who can get the job done. There’s Rustyn Dolyny (12-25–37), Brian Maloney (15-20–35), Adam Hall (17-11–28), and John Nail (19-7–26), who had the game-winner in MSU’s overtime match last weekend against Alaska Fairbanks.
Add defenders Andrew Hutchinson and John-Michael Liles to the mix, and you have a hard-working, consistent, patient hockey team.
One thing this crew is not is cocky. “This has been the beauty of our team all season,” says Mason. “They have no delusions of grandeur of where they are going or what they are doing.”
What hasn’t been written about the Spartans that needs repeating now? They’re a shoe-in for the NCAA tournament, but don’t think there’s nothing at stake for Michigan State this weekend.
“Any time we play at Joe Louis Arena, there’s something at stake,” says Mason. “The Great Lakes banner hangs there all year, and our name’s on it. The CCHA Championship banner hangs there all year, and someone’s name is going to be on it.”
No. 9 Bowling Green (16-18-5) vs. No. 1 Michigan State (30-4-4) Friday, 5:05 p.m., Joe Louis Arena, Detroit, Mich.
The Falcons come to the Joe the long way, clinching a playoff berth in the last regular-season game, and winning three road playoff games against two separate clubs.
“We kept telling the guys to hang in,” says Buddy Powers, Bowling Green head coach. “Every game we battled so close but just couldn’t get the goal that put us over the top to let us win the hockey game. That wasn’t happening for us and in these last games it has. It was tough to get that goal that made the difference in the hockey game and in the last few weeks we have.”
Powers knows that the Falcons have a daunting task ahead of them, facing the top team in the country. “Michigan State has been on a roll all year. We had two good games down there. We had a tie and a 3-1 loss State has the whole package — the goaltender they need to win defense they need to win, balanced scoring, and a great coach.”
The Spartans are currently unbeaten against the Falcons in their last seven meetings (5-0-2). This season, Michigan State took three of four points in Bowling Green, skating to a 3-3 tie with the Falcons the first night before winning 3-1 to close the two-game set.
“We played them in December, and the games we played were really good games,” Mason says. “I thought they had good potential at that point. Right now, they have to be as confident as any team in the league.”
This match will come down to goaltending. While Ryan Miller is off the scale, Tyler Masters is no slouch.
“I know he’s played really well and that is one of the reasons the team has done so well in the postseason,” says Mason of Masters. “He should play well against Ryan [Miller]. I don’t concern myself with that because I think it is an area we have a chance to win.”
The Spartans lead this all-time series 49-22-9, and are 5-1-0 all time against the Falcons in CCHA Tournament play. Additionally, Michigan State owns a 6-1-0 mark against Bowling Green at Joe Louis Arena.
Bowling Green has won five CCHA playoff championships, second only to Michigan State’s nine league postseason titles. Ron Mason was behind the Bowling Green bench for three of the Falcons’ five championships (1977, 1978, 1979).
They really don’t call it the Mason Cup for nothing.
Pick: Michigan State 4-2
No. 4 Nebraska-Omaha (24-14-3) vs. No. 2 Michigan (24-11-5) Friday, 8:30 p.m., Joe Louis Arena, Detroit, Mich.
Last year, the upstart Mavericks upset the Wolverines 7-4 in the CCHA Semifinals. This year’s tournament has these two teams facing off again, but don’t think Michigan is out for revenge.
“It’s not a revenge factor,” says Red Berenson. “There’s a respect factor, but not revenge.
“It’s not the same spot as last year because we had an automatic to the tournament and we had the first-place seed, and Omaha had to make it by winning the play-in game. I remember them outplaying us and beating us on special teams and they were the much better team.
“I don’t mean to say they were over-achieving either — they were playing really good hockey and certainly they have continued that this year. There is no revenge, there is respect.”
A year ago, when the No. 7 Mavs became the lowest seed in tournament history to make it to the CCHA Championship game, Jeff Hoggan and Dave Noel-Bernier led UNO with two goals each in the upset win, while David Brisson recorded a goal and three assists.
Don’t think that the Wolverines will again be so easily upset. “Last year Omaha was the surprise team of the CCHA playoffs and caught everybody off guard,” says Berenson.
Nebraska-Omaha has much more at stake in this tournament than does Michigan. With each league receiving just one auto-bid, and the CCHA’s going to the tournament winner, the league is in danger of sending just two teams to the Big Show, and UNO may find itself on the sidelines if the Mavs don’t take it all.
“It is one of those things that right now our concern is Michigan on Friday night and doing well in the CCHA tournament,” Mike Kemp.. “It is one thing at a time. We haven’t talked beyond that in the locker room. It would be a huge plumb for us to qualify for the tourney. It is still a pretty long stretch for us and we know we have to continue to win to get there. I am more concerned with conference play than anything beyond.”
It’s certain that Michigan State will be invited to the NCAA Tournament regardless of the Spartans’ performance this weekend, and the same is probably true of the Wolverines as well, but Berenson is taking nothing for granted. “”I don’t think anybody can be guaranteed of anything at this time of year. We need to do as well as we can. We are worried about Friday’s game against Omaha, not NCAAs.”
The Wolverines lead this brief, all-time series 3-2-0, having split a pair of 4-1 games in Omaha earlier this season.
Michigan has an advantage in net, although Dan Ellis looked excellent in the first round. Both teams score more by committee, but Michigan has depth that Nebraska-Omaha lacks. And the three-game series UNO played against OSU may have taken something out of the Mavericks; they were looking very tired in that third game.
Still, how this game will play out is anyone’s guess.
Pick: Michigan 4-2
CCHA Championship No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 1 Michigan State Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Joe Louis Arena, Detroit, Mich.
This would be the league’s dream game, as the archrivals would pack the building and attract widespread media attention.
It would also be a hell of a game.
No hype from me. No hoopla. Just a prediction.
Pick: Michigan State 2-1