Friday’s first West Regional semifinal featured the kind of hatred typical of a game between archrivals. Penalties of all stripes, late hits, late shots. Bad blood.
The thing was, Ferris State and North Dakota hadn’t played one another for almost five years. Not one player on either team had ever suited up in his current jersey against any of his opponents.
The tone was established early, as North Dakota’s Kevin Spiewak was called for interference 23 seconds into the game. After that, the officials were rarely bored, whether it was ringing up Mike Kinnie and Matt Greene for matching high-sticks or sending Ferris State’s Matt York off after a rarely-seen diving call.
By the end of the second period, a total of 16 penalties graced the scoresheet, but even that number was deceptive. If referee Scott Hansen had raised an arm for every extracurricular activity, the penalty boxes would have resembled clown cars — faces pressed against windows, limbs sticking out at every angle.
With Mariucci Arena a campus venue, they might have built lofts in the sin bins for extra occupancy.
According to the Bulldogs, though, the physicality wasn’t necessarily part of the game plan.
“I was actually surprised at the hitting, because of the large ice surface,” said Phil Lewandowski of the Olympic-sized Mariucci sheet. “But eventually our speed took over.”
“The physical part, we did think it would be less than what we’re used to in our league,” confirmed Bulldog head coach Bob Daniels. “But that obviously wasn’t the case.”
In the end, for Ferris State the 5-2 win earned some well-deserved respect. Coming in, the Bulldogs had won 30 games, claimed the CCHA regular-season championship and took Michigan to the wire before losing the postseason title game.
But outside its own league, Ferris State was something of an enigma. Prognosticating types gave North Dakota an even-money shot Friday, despite the fact that UND staggered into the NCAAs with a 5-9-2 finish in its last 16 games, while FSU had won 12 straight before the loss to the Wolverines.
So was Friday’s result something more than just a victory?
“That’s not what we were looking for,” said Daniels, whose Bulldogs were making their NCAA tournament debut. “It’s not like we came in saying, ‘This is a big statement game.’
“I think our only theme for tonight was, ‘Don’t get nervous.'”
The Bulldog power play, surprisingly not among of the nation’s statistical leaders, was a factor as well. FSU got its first two goals with the man-advantage in nearly-identical fashions: cycle puck up top to Kunitz, release slapshot from point, tip, goal.
They looked like plays Ferris State had been running all year, but according to Daniels, the power play is in a constant state of flux, especially where No. 14 is concerned.
“It wasn’t until two weeks ago that we put [Kunitz] up top on the power play,” said Daniels. “We rotate him around. … If teams in our league know where Chris is going to be, they’ll take him away and play four-on-three.”
Lest one forget, Mike Brown made 44 saves to backstop the win. Brown’s stops, many of them made with the kind of dead calm most folks can only muster during a midafternoon nap, kept the Sioux from taking advantage of a substantial shot advantage.
The Bulldogs’ Saturday opponents, meanwhile, took note.
“There’s a good reason they’ve won 31 hockey games,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia. “We talk in our sport about how some names don’t carry enough respect. … If it were Michigan State with 31 wins, maybe there’d be a little more of an aura about them.”
For FSU, though, getting there has been at least half the fun.
“We’re pretty excited to be where we’re at,” Daniels agreed.