Coming Under Fire

Northern Michigan and Colgate probably pulled off the biggest of the playoff upsets last weekend. Both rallied from 1-0 down on the road to knock off champions. NMU upended the defending national champions from Michigan State and Colgate bounced No. 1 seed and reigning ECAC Hockey champ Clarkson.

Congratulations to head coaches Don Vaughan and Walt Kyle on those accomplishments, which both get to follow up this weekend, Vaughan in Albany and Kyle at the Joe as the CCHA takes center stage in Hockeytown to crown its playoff champion.

Kyle comes in with a team that is as hot as any. The Wildcats have overcome a pair of 1-0 series deficits, one on the road, to get here. Kyle has a young team that plays an up-tempo game and is bolstered by a few kids who should take the program to the next level in the next couple of years.

However, what makes you root for Kyle is this: he has always talked about the CCHA as a two-tiered league. There are the big four (Miami, MSU, Michigan, Notre Dame) and then there the other eight. Those other eight are always trying to crack the top four, and it’s interesting that Kyle is the one who did it.

Other teams in that mold are Ferris State and Bowling Green. Both are improved and made life interesting in round two of the CCHA playoffs last weekend. Ferris had Notre Dame down 1-0 and Bowling Green gave Miami quite the fight in the battle of Ohio. Scott Paluch has taken Bowling Green back to a CCHA contender, and the Falcons will be among those teams poised next season to knock out someone from the Big Four.

Bowling Green had good offensive-zone play and its transition game made life difficult for Miami. Youth bore out as they placed two players on the all-rookie team and the freshman class demonstrated tremendous work ethic and speed in a conference that seems to get faster and more skilled by the season. They also have a “franchise” goalie in Nick Eno, around whom Paluch had said they will build. Eno was good in the playoffs and won 12 games this season. He’ll get better as he progresses.

“The biggest thing with the CCHA is that they do have that big four but five through 12 are pretty close,” said Paluch, which is why recruiting in the CCHA has become as vital as ever. Coaches in that league have started to reach out even more to nontraditional areas such as the East Coast and West Coast for players.

“The top four will always be deeper than the other eight and that’s where the difference is, but we had a great series vs Miami and had a chance to win. They have a complete team and they are deep and that was the difference.”

Michigan State also has a deep team, but maybe not as deep as Michigan and Miami and that’s where Northern Michigan struck oil. Friday night “the Northerns” (as Michigan radio play by play guy Al Randall calls them) stayed close and hung around until MSU got in gear and blew them out late. Kyle told his team to flush it out Friday and come back strong Saturday. His pitch to his team had been to be in games late and win third periods. Most of all, he told the team if they were to lose the series in East Lansing, they were going down in game 3 and not game 2.

“We knew how we felt on Saturday morning and what we needed to do to rebound and we felt that we wanted to put them in that position on Sunday with the series tied,” said Kyle. “We split with them this season and we knew we could play with them.”

Friday Kyle saw a case of nerves as a young team lined up at Munn against the national champions. An early shorthanded goal had them up 1-0 but State showed composure in battling back and scoring on that same power play to tie the game.

“This team has never been to the Joe so the closer we got the more nervous we got,” said Kyle. “We got anxious after the first round and after Friday we realized that if we play the way we can, we can play with anyone. Our upperclass took charge and they really helped out our kids. Miller was great, Butcher scored an OT winner and Siddall was tremendous. He’s a prototypical Northern Michigan forward, plays each end, and works hard and smart.”

In looking ahead, Northern is on the rise, Ferris is upward bound, Bowling Green and Ohio State have great recruiting classes coming in, and teams like UNO and Alaska will continue to improve. Jim Roque has Lake Superior on the right track, Jim Culhane’s teams always battle hard at Western and he is working to improve their scoring ability. Ohio State is a team that many want to see back in the big four, to make it a big five with the school’s Big Ten and national exposure.

What it boils down to is that the CCHA’s big four will be under fire by upstart Northern Michigan this weekend, and by the other eight next season.