Congratulations to the six teams making the trip to Detroit, and congratulations to every team in the CCHA for a memorable season.
Perhaps it is because the season was so memorable, so hard-fought, that this year — for the first time in recent memory — everyone seems at least as focused on winning the Mason Cup as on their NCAA chances.
“Coming here was a big goal,” said Northern Michigan head coach Walt Kyle, whose No. 6 Wildcats beat Alaska-Fairbanks in two games in Fairbanks last weekend to advance to the Super Six. “Just to get here was a big thing for us.”
Red Berenson, head coach of the top-seeded Wolverines, said, “We limped into first place thanks to a lot of other things, and we limped into Joe Louis because of the last 10 minutes of our hockey game.” After going 0-3-1 in its last four regular-season games, Michigan needed three games to get past No. 12 Nebraska Omaha last weekend, and also needed a loss by Miami the week before to capture the regular-season title.
“There were years that we expected to be here; this year we’re lucky to be here,” said Berenson.
“It’s a tremendous feat getting to this point in the season,” said Ohio State head coach John Markell, whose Buckeyes are the No. 4 seed in the Super Six. “I want to win the CCHA.”
Given that three CCHA teams are arguably on the NCAA bubble, this focus on the immediate future is both extraordinary and understandable. Fans of the league know that the 2003-2004 season was marked by genuine parity, with no one team running away with it all; yet each win in the Super Six brings a team closer to that Holy Grail of college hockey, so winning is, well, win-win.
Michigan State and Ohio State are tied with Wisconsin for 10th in the current PairWise Rankings (PWR), and Notre Dame is 13th.
“I want to say good luck to everybody in the national scene, too,” said Markell. “We’ve all worked very hard this season. I would love to see five [CCHA] teams get into the tournament.”
Wouldn’t every CCHA fan?
No. 6 Northern Michigan (20-14-4)
“For Walt Kyle’s team to lose home ice the last weekend and have to travel to Alaska, it’s a real tribute to his team to be here,” said Red Berenson.
I’ll go you one better, Red.
NMU was one of three teams battling for home ice in the last few weeks of the regular season, and even though Kyle and the Wildcats knew that sweeping Ferris State in the last weekend of regular-season play would send them to Fairbanks, they did it anyway.
Now that says something about this Northern Michigan team.
“We had a real difficult series in Alaska,” said Kyle. “They’re always a tough opponent. We had to be very prepared for that series. I give our guys a lot of credit because that travel is not always easy.”
It’s also not easy to travel all the way to Alaska without your top goaltender, but Tuomas Tarkki filled in admirably for Craig Kowalski, who was out with a pulled groin. Tarkki’s save percentage was .958 for the two games, and the junior had a 1.50 goals-against average.
The series win was the third consecutive first-round sweep for the Wildcats, and their first victories in a first-round road series since 1999, when they beat Notre Dame 2-1 in South Bend.
Even though the Wildcats are young, Kyle insists that his team has “the experience to be here.” NMU is led by Kowalski, who is also the team’s captain, a man whom Kyle calls “the heart and soul and catalyst on our hockey team.”
“We’re a bunch of guys who work pretty hard and compete,” said Kyle, who called the season “a growth process.”
A trio of youngsters lead the Wildcats in scoring: freshman forward Darin Olver (13-19–32), sophomore defenseman Nathan Oystrick (8-20–28), and sophomore forward Dirk Southern (10-15–25). Olver and Southern are the only Wildcats with 10 or more goals.
The Wildcats — at minus-64 in league play, minus-9 overall — have difficulty scoring even strength, which is bad news for any team in tournament play but potentially devastating for a team whose power play has clicked along at only 3.70 percent (you read that correctly) for its past eight games. NMU is 1-for-27 during that stretch, with Justin Kinnunen netting that single power-play goal in a March 5, 3-2 win over Ferris State.
Given their tenacity — and their willingness to go to the seeming ends of the Earth en route to Detroit — this team can survive most anything.
But Michigan State in the quarterfinals?
If Kowalski is affectionately known, is playing and on his game, he earns his nickname “K-Wall.” NMU is a grinding team without a true star player out front, although Olver, Oystrick, and Jamie Milam (8-14–22) are capable players.
Kowalski (.918 SV%, 2.71 GAA) may or may not be ready for Thursday’s game against the Spartans. That leaves the netminding to Tarkki (.929 SV%, 2.16 GAA), who beat Fairbanks twice last weekend for just his second and third decisions of the season.
No. 5 Notre Dame
Every utterance from Dave Poulin has the potential to sound like a philosophy lesson.
“I have six [seniors], five that play, and any time you get players that are potentially playing their final games, consciously or subconsciously, that can effect the games.
“When you’re a freshman, you think you’re going to get here every year.”
Notre Dame’s head coach is correct in thinking that senior leadership can swing a playoff game. The Irish seniors — Tom Galvin, Aaron Gill, Rob Globke, Neil Komadoski, Brett Lebda, and T.J. Mathieson — have been here before, a distinct advantage.
“This is our fourth time in five years, third in a row,” said Poulin. “The first time players walk into this building, it’s pretty intimidating. When you walk into the hallowed grounds where the Red Wings have had so much success, it’s intimidating.
“Rather than The Joe being a mystical, mythical place out there … [for us] it’s real.”
The Irish needed three games and then some to get past the Western Michigan Broncos last weekend at home at the Joyce Center, a venue that had seen just two losses during the regular season. Notre Dame beat Western 4-2 Friday but were shut down by the Broncos Saturday, losing 4-0.
In Sunday’s deciding game, the Irish watched their two-goal lead disappear in the third period, as Vince Bellissimo and Pat Dwyer scored just over two minutes apart mid-stanza to knot the game. Jason Paige’s game-winning goal came at 12:35 in overtime, making Notre Dame the last team to qualify for the Super Six.
“This was definitely an emotional night for us,” said Poulin postgame “We played with poise after giving up the two-goal lead and played well in overtime.”
The Irish have four 10-goal scorers on their squad: Globke (18-17–35), Gill (13-19–32), sophomore Mike Walsh (11-11–22), and freshman Paige (10-6–16).
And the Irish are a big, physical team; the team average weight is 192 lbs.
This is a team that has beaten OSU once, shut out Maine and BC, and can rise to many occasions. This may be Notre Dame’s year — to advance beyond the quarterfinals, anyway.
If Notre Dame is to survive the quarterfinal against Ohio State, the Irish will do so because they were one-and-out at the Super Six last year and the year before, and they’ve either 1) learned from their experience, or 2) are not going to take it anymore. It’s gut-check time for Notre Dame.
Morgan Cey (.925 SV%, 2.29 GAA)and David Brown (.928 SV%, 2.18 GAA). Fear these men. They have the potential for greatness.
Who’s going to play? “It’s only Wednesday so I haven’t even come close to a decision yet,” said Poulin.
Even though the Irish split the season series with the Buckeyes, Notre Dame is 6-14-4 against Ohio State during John Markell’s tenure — which, coincidentally, is Dave Poulin’s tenure.
And don’t forget that the Irish are working on less rest than the Buckeyes.
No. 4 Ohio State
The Buckeyes know what they’re up against when they play the Irish Thursday. “I think every team here has an opportunity to win, more so than past years,” said Markell. “We know we’re evenly matched against Notre Dame.”
Last weekend, OSU beat Bowling Green in two games to become the first CCHA team to qualify for the Super Six, which may be an advantage against a tired Notre Dame squad. But OSU has other issues to deal with going into Thursday’s game, issues that the Irish didn’t have to face.
This week was finals week for Ohio State’s winter term; the Buckeyes are hurting, quite literally; and OSU has a tendency to underachieve in first games in any given weekend.
Since this is OSU’s third straight trip to The Joe, Markell thinks that his team’s experience will have helped them deal with taking finals while preparing for the tournament. And he said that his team should be ready for its first match.
“People know that this is a very important game — one and out. If you don’t come with everything you’re capable of. Everybody has to bring what they have.”
OSU will be without the services of Sean Collins, who earned a game disqualification late in Saturday’s game against BGSU. That further shortens the defense; Nate Guenin is out indefinitely with an undisclosed injury.
Returning to the lineup is senior forward Chris Olsgard, out last weekend with an undisclosed injury. Another senior, Daymen Bencharski, returned to the lineup after being sidelined since midseason with — all together now — an undisclosed injury.
The Buckeyes have more up front than most people realize; six players have 10 or more goals, including Paul Caponigri (15-19–34), Scott May (14-19–33), Dave Steckel (16-12–28), Dan Knapp (11-17–28), Andrew Schembri (11-11–22), and J.B. Bittner (11-7–18). Caponigri, May, and Steckel are seniors.
“We’ve fought the injury bug for the last month and a half and suspensions,” said Markell. “We’re not getting carried by our senior class, but our young guys — freshmen and sophomores — are really buying into it.”
“I think we have an opportunity here.”
The Buckeyes have the potential to get past first-round opponent Notre Dame even though OSU has proven repeatedly this season that it’s not a first-night team. In fact, the Buckeyes are 6-11-0 on Friday nights, and for all intents and purposes, Thursday is Friday this week.
Should OSU advance past ND, can it make the title game? Doing so would mean getting past the Spartans, who spanked the Buckeyes recently in Columbus. Of course, OSU schooled MSU in East Lansing earlier in the season …
Dave Steckel. The senior has taken a lot of heat over the years for allegedly underachieving because he’s never matched the offensive numbers of his freshman year, but he’s one of the league’s best defensive forwards, and he’s on his game. The line of Steckel, Bryce Anderson, and Matt Beaudoin is a pleasure to watch, even if looking at Beaudoin’s hair is painful in pregame warmups.
Sean Collins and Nate Guenin aren’t playing. With two of OSU’s best defensemen sitting, and with other Buckeyes playing with injuries, this is a banged-up, shortened bench that may not be able to get past the quarterfinals, period.
No. 3 Michigan State
“It’s almost impossible,” said MSU head coach Rick Comley of the task at hand — advancing from the Super Six quarterfinals through to the title game, and winning the championship.
“The WCHA has done it longer than the CCHA has, and no one has ever gone through to play three games and win it. Good, bad, or indifferent, I’m not sure, but it’s tough to survive three games.”
That realism is the hallmark of a coach who has the advantage of experience in nearly every game his team plays. After two full seasons with MSU, Comley has the Spartans playing the kind of hockey he likes: grinding, defensive, but goal-scoring as well.
Michigan State is led in scoring by the superb Jim Slater (19-29–48) and boasts four other 10-goal scorers, any one of whom can finish off an opponent: Mike Lalonde (22-18–40), Tommy Goebel (15-17–32), A.J. Thelen (11-18–29), and Brock Radunske (11-10–21).
The Spartans ride the nation’s longest unbeaten streak into the Super Six (6-0-1), are making their 13th consecutive appearance in the CCHA tournament, and hold the league’s record for playoff titles (10). Last weekend, the Spartans beat Ferris State in two games to advance to The Joe.
“Our series with Ferris was difficult,” said Comley. “[FSU coach] Bobby Daniels did an excellent job preparing his team.”
The 6-4 Friday night win was back-and-forth, with the Bulldogs coming from behind to tie it up, 4-4, early in the third. But Slater had the game-winning-goal at 8:24, and Colton Fretter sealed the win at 18:43.
Saturday’s game was a different story. After a scoreless first period, the Bulldogs scored three unanswered goals to lead 3-0 by the 5:34 mark of the second period. Ethan Graham netted his first of the year at 12:06 in the second to make it 3-1 after two, but the Spartans exploded for four more goals in the third to bring the final score to 5-3. Drew Miller, Ryan’s younger brother, had the game winner in that one.
After struggling for half a season — just as they did last year — the Spartans came into their own through January and February to establish themselves as a real threat. Unable to put together back-to-back wins early on, MSU is peaking at exactly the right time.
“We hope to advance, but I think any game here is a tossup,” said Comley. “I think it’s as close as it’s ever been for any of the six teams here.”
The Spartans have an excellent shot at the postseason title, if they get past NMU and Miami. They’ve proven recently that they can not only beat Michigan, but beat the Wolverines at Joe Louis Arena.
Their coach knows that no one has won three in a row to take the title. Maybe all four teams without the bye are longer shots than we realize.
Everyone knows about Jim Slater, but if you haven’t come to fear Mike Lalonde yet, you’re in flat-out denial. And MSU may be the team from Michigan that’s peaking at exactly the right time.
The Spartans struggled for consistency all season long, but found the right formula down the stretch — just as they did last year. And last year they lost to NMU in their Super Six quarterfinal game. They are young, but maybe they’ve learned.
No. 2 Miami
What’s not to love about the RedHawks? They have — as Comley said earlier this season — the best one-two-three punch in the league, and they play in Ohio, which automatically disqualifies them from winning a postseason title.
This Miami senior class has seen it all, and head coach Enrico Blasi is counting on that experience to propel the RedHawks through the post season.
“Last year we lost to Notre Dame in three games in the first round on home ice, so this is something that they’ve worked for four years. You can bet that they’re going to tell everybody else that we’re going not just to play, but to play hard.”
Let by talented seniors Derek Edwardson (17-30–47), Mike Kompon (12-30–42), and Greg Hogeboom (18-22–40), Miami has depth on offense and defense, experience all around, speed, and tenacity.
“We’re led by Derek Edwardson, Mike Kompon, and Greg Hogeboom, but the success has come from the entire team,” said Blasi.
Like freshman Marty Guerin (13-19–32), sophomore defenseman Matt Davies (5-5–10), and junior Todd Grant (13-11–24), whose goal at 12:05 in overtime last Saturday gave Miami a 2-1 win over Lake Superior State and a trip to The Joe.
“Saturday was a hard-fought battle,” said Blasi. “We were going up to Northern Michigan [in January] to play Walt’s team and got a call on Monday after practice that Todd’s dad was in a coma. He lives in Indianapolis, and we drove up to see him. They told us that he could hear us.
“We talked to him a little bit about the Northern series and how Todd was doing, and half an hour later he passed away.
“The one thing he said to his son was, ‘Get to The Joe.’ It’s fitting that Todd scored the game-winning goal to get us to The Joe.”
It certainly helps to have the bye for the first round; you have less to survive before the title game. The RedHawks can handle the Wildcats, but will the Spartans prove to be too much for Miami?
Should Miami advance to the title game, they’ll play a Michigan team that handed the RedHawks their lunch just four weeks ago in Ann Arbor. That could be motivation — or the end.
Edwardson, Kompon, Hogeboom, Guerin. Need I go on? Did I mention Matt Christie? Andy Greene?
What may catch Miami is the fact that they’ve never been here before. The RedHawks make their first appearance at The Joe since 1997, and as talented as these seniors are, some of them may be as overwhelmed as the underclassmen.
Another Achilles’ heel: goaltending.
No. 1 Michigan
This is a quote worth repeating:
“We limped into first place thanks to a lot of other things, and we limped into Joe Louis because of the last 10 minutes of our hockey game.”
Red Berenson knows that his Wolverines have struggled as of late. After having to wait until Miami and Ohio State finished their regular season to find out whether or not Michigan would take the regular-season title, Berenson is a realist.
“We’re like the other schools, but I think we’re lucky to be here.”
Like the Spartans, the Wolverines are led by their junior class. Dwight Helminen (17-12–29), Milan Gajic (12-16–28), and Eric Nystrom (10-12–22) — all juniors — are among Michigan’s top scorers, but the team actually scores by committee; freshman T.J. Hensick (11-30–41) and sophomore Andrew Ebbett (8-26–34) lead the team in scoring. Sophomores Brandon Kaleniecki (16-11–27) and Jeff Tambellini (14-10–24) round out Michigan’s six double-digit scorers.
And that committee extends beyond just the top scorers; all Wolverines who have seen more than three games have scored at least one point, except for sophomore goaltender Al Montoya.
Like the Spartans, the Wolverines have built a tradition of dominance in CCHA postseason play. Michigan is 31-5-0 in first-round games under Berenson. The Wolverines have won the last two Mason Cups, and are 10-4-0 in CCHA tourney semifinals.
The players change, but the coach remains the same.
See Surviving the CCHA Tournament in the sports section of your local newsstand. The Wolverines wrote the book.
When this team is on, they are unstoppable. When sophomore goaltender Al Montoya (.914 SV%, 2.27 GAA) plays to his potential, he’s unbeatable. Then there’s Helminen, who single-handedly has the ability to make any CCHA opponent miserable. Just ask the Buckeyes, who lost to Michigan on Helminen’s hat trick in a 3-0 game in last year’s Super Six semifinals.
Backing into the regular-season title, “limping” into The Joe — none of this bodes well for the Wolverines. What, exactly, is the problem? Maybe it’s the small senior class; maybe it’s the inconsistency bug; maybe it’s a lot of things.
How ironic to go 13-0-0 in CCHA action at Yost Arena during the regular season, only to have No. 12 Nebraska-Omaha deliver your first home loss against a league foe, in the first round of the playoffs. That’s got to hurt.
So Long for Now
This is probably the last regular column I’ll write this season, so I’d like to take the time to thank a few people who have made the 2003-2004 season enjoyable and memorable.
First, thanks to all the coaches in the CCHA. I’m one of the luckiest people I know to have regular contact with such a terrific group of professionals, and a great bunch of guys. Because of scheduling and time constraints, I haven’t been able to catch coaches consistently, but every coach has been more than cooperative.
After nine years of this gig, I’m still amazed at how personable and accessible each head coach is, and I’m always grateful. Thank you, gentlemen.
Thanks, too, to the Sports Information Directors of each team, especially Leann Parker at Ohio State, who puts up with me every home game. Leann and her staff make my job easy. Special thanks, too, to Ryan Erb at Miami (thanks for the press release note, Ryan — the first time I’ve ever been named in a release) and Kris Kamann of Bowling Green, for the hospitality.
Thank you to Fred Pletsch, Courtney Welch, and Tom Anastos at CCHA central. I’d be completely remiss if I didn’t thank the CCHA head of officiating, Bryan Hart, and all the league’s officials, on and off the ice. These men do a tremendous, largely thankless, job.
(Pi, I’m almost sorry it’s postseason; I saw you so much this season that I’m sick of you already, and I’ll likely see you every week from here out.)
Thanks to Tom and Mary Reese, who rescued me in many ways but especially when my computer was down. Thank you Craig Merz, my most excellent colleague from the Columbus Dispatch. Thank you John Porentas.
Thanks also to Dee, Nancy, Josh, KB, Marty, Adam, Parker, Peter, Neil and Mo, Aaron, and everyone at the Schott who makes such long seasons bearable.
Thanks to my USCHO.com editor, Scott Brown, and thanks to my sanity — USCHO.com staffers Ed Trefzger, Chris Lerch, and Lee Urton.
Thanks to my fellow USCHO.com weekly columnists for their hard work: Todd Milewski (WCHA), Jim Connelly (AHA), Juan Martinez (ECAC), Mike Volonnino (CHA), and never last nor least, Dave Hendrickson (HEA).
And thanks to you for reading, for writing, for sharing stories, for keeping me honest.