CCHA says goodbye with semifinal matchups that once seemed unlikely

Well, we’re down to it.

2013 CCHA Championship

Follow all our coverage of the CCHA postseason at Playoff Central

The final battle for the Mason Cup pits Ohio State against Notre Dame and Michigan against Miami. Could anyone have predicted that at the beginning of the season?

As the CCHA prepares to write its final chapter, let’s look at the stories. Each is a good one.

Michigan (17-18-3, 10-15-3-3 CCHA)

It’s not unusual to see Michigan vie for a playoff title. After all, this is the Wolverines’ 24th consecutive trip to Joe Louis Arena for the CCHA Championship.

What is unusual, as everyone knows now, is that Michigan is there as the fourth seed after a seventh-place finish in the CCHA standings.

“It’s been a challenge all year,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said, “and we’ve had some recent success and that’s good, but obviously this way of getting to Joe Louis was a big accomplishment.”

The “this way” was to play through Kalamazoo and defeat third-place Western Michigan in two games last weekend, 4-3 and 5-1, bringing the Wolverines’ unbeaten streak to eight games (7-0-1). That’s after a first half of the 2012-13 season so dismal that this week’s trip to Detroit looked impossible.

Part of the reason why Michigan now looks like the team that the coaches picked second and the media picked first in the 2012-13 preseason polls is that, top to bottom, the Wolverines are playing as a unit, especially defensively.

“I don’t think we can put our finger on one thing,” Berenson said of the team’s recent success. “I think it was a gradual turnaround. In terms of defense, you know, we had a tough year defensively so obviously we had to get better in that area. Confidence-wise, there wasn’t a lot of confidence on our team but I think slowly that they’ve earned confidence and there’s a little more trust on the team and defensively a little better. Offensively, we’re OK.”

Michigan is tied with Rochester Institute of Technology for the eighth-best offense in the country, averaging 3.21 goals per game. That firepower up front has never wavered.

The defense, though, is another story. It took a while for the Wolverines’ defensive corps to get healthy; it also took a while for a goaltender to emerge, and freshman Steve Racine has done just that.

“I think the team is playing harder, playing more desperate and better defensively,” Berenson said, “and so it gives your goalie a better chance to be a factor.”

Berenson said that the Wolverines would “like to make some noise” this weekend in Detroit, but true to character, he’s hedging his bets. “I think our team is a lot better than we were a month ago,” he said, “but I can’t say that we’re there yet.”

Ohio State (16-16-7, 13-10-5-1 CCHA)

From the outside, Ohio State is another unlikely team to be appearing in the final conference championship tournament. With a .500 conference record in the second half of the season, the Buckeyes finished in fourth place and needed three games at home to defeat fifth-place Ferris State.

After dropping their first semifinal game 4-2, the Buckeyes won 3-1 and 3-2 in the teeny, tiny OSU Ice Rink last weekend to advance to The Joe. And they are young, with 16 freshmen and sophomores in the lineup.

The obvious story of the year for Ohio State — one of the biggest stories in college hockey this year — is the emergence of senior goaltender Brady Hjelle, a transfer from Minnesota-Duluth. With his .935 save percentage and 2.00 goals against average, Hjelle has been dominant in CCHA play this season, and coach Mark Osiecki knows that Hjelle deserves a lot of credit for OSU’s success.

“First and foremost, obviously Brady played very well for us,” Osiecki said. “He allows us to be in each and every game. You have so much more confidence when you know there’s a goalie back there when there’s a breakdown.

“Let’s face it: Hockey is a game of mistakes. You just have to find a way to eliminate the mistakes or try to have a goaltender that can cover up for a lot of mistakes that are made.”

The Buckeyes, though, are more than the sum of a single player. Part of their strength, oddly, is their youth. A trio of sophomores leads OSU in scoring, including Tanner Fritz (11-25–36), who captured the CCHA scoring title this season. Ahead of him in points now, though, is classmate Ryan Dzingel (15-22–37). Max McCormick (15-16–31) rounds out that sophomore trio.

Osiecki said that another big part of the reason that the Buckeyes are playing this weekend is that his young team has matured, especially these three sophomores.

“As freshmen, you come in and you’re in a situation when you’re following a bit,” Osiecki said. “Now they’re looked upon as being more leaders, and that’s hard for a sophomore. These guys have really matured. Ryan for sure put on great strength and I think that allowed for more confidence to come through with his play, with and without the puck.”

As for Fritz, said Osiecki, he’s a second-half player. “Two years in a row he finally finds the back of the net and finds a way to obtain more points.”

Dzingel, Fritz and McCormick are “great leaders,” Osiecki said. “They do everything the right way both on and off the ice.”

The Buckeyes are making their first trip to the CCHA Championship since 2005.

Notre Dame (23-12-3, 17-8-3-2 CCHA)

Notre Dame was the dominant team in the CCHA for the entire first half of the season. Then came January, when the Fighting Irish went 2-5 in conference play.

“We put ourselves in a tough position with six games in 11 nights,” coach Jeff Jackson said. “That really set us back. A number of our team’s statistics dropped off. Our goaltending dropped, our penalty kill dropped. I think confidence dropped a little bit at that point.”

The kind of second-half swoon that the Irish experienced wasn’t anything new. Notre Dame had a great start last season, too, before the Irish began losing. That 2011-12 dive began sooner — in November as opposed to January — and lasted much longer, resulting in an eighth-place finish and no trip to Joe Louis Arena.

Jackson said that when the Irish faltered a little this year, the difference was immediately noticeable. “The positive thing is that I think everybody maintained a calm attitude, a positive attitude,” he said. “We had good leadership and guys stayed patient and stayed with the program.

“A year ago we had a similar situation and some guys kind of checked out a little bit and frustration built up to where it was a negative. This year, that didn’t happen. Everybody pretty much stayed on course, which allowed us to slowly get back on the right track. I think in the last month, we started to look very similar to how we were in the first half.”

The Irish are making their second bid for the Mason Cup in three years, having last appeared in the 2010-11 tournament. To get to Detroit, Notre Dame needed to fend off Bowling Green, a team that made a habit of knocking off higher-seeded teams in the CCHA tourney both this season and last.

Junior Bryan Rust had three goals in Notre Dame’s sweep of the Falcons last weekend, playing the overtime hero in the 1-0 win Friday and netting two more in Saturday’s 4-3 contest, including a successful penalty shot. His 15 goals in 38 games this season surpasses his 11 goals from 80 games in his first two years in South Bend.

“Bryan Rust is the key guy basically because he’s turned the corner as far as his college career goes,” Jackson said. “He’s been a much better contributor because of his skill level and his instincts, but this year I think he’s gained a little of a competitive edge, which has helped him a lot.”

Rust is just one of Notre Dame’s weapons up front. Junior Anders Lee (19-18–37) and freshman Mario Lucia (12-10–22) are the Irish’s other two double-digit goal scorers, and junior Jeff Costello (9-18–27) has played well since returning from an injury.

Miami (24-10-5, 17-7-4-4 CCHA)

One of the most interesting things about this year’s regular season championship team is its youth.

“I think if you’ve watched our team at all over the course of the year, you know that we have 18 freshmen and sophomores,” Miami coach Rico Blasi said. “At the beginning of the year, our guys were trying to find themselves and an identity of who we were going to be. That was a long time ago, October.

“Our team is totally different. We’ve grown up a lot. This team has come together. They have pretty good identity of who they are and how they want to play from night in to night out. The guys have done a really good job and our captain, Steve Spinell, has done a great job of making sure that guys are reminded of that every day.”

Never heard of Steve Spinell? He’s the stay-at-home defenseman with a single goal in each of his four years with the RedHawks. He’s also one of only four seniors on the Miami roster who play regularly. None is flashy.

That’s another reason why this Miami team is so interesting. It’s a gritty, grindy, tough team with an inconsistent offense and one of the best defenses in the country. The RedHawks have been shut out seven times this season, including their 3-0 loss to Michigan State in their first CCHA quarterfinal game last weekend. They average 2.54 goals per game, the 37th-best offense in the country.

They’ve also registered five shutouts this season and held opponents to one goal in 15 additional games — including the pair of 4-1 wins over the Spartans last weekend in the remaining two CCHA quarterfinal games.

After losing that first night, said Blasi, the RedHawks never panicked. “One of the things we focused on all year is just being in the moment,” he said. “I thought we did that this weekend, just took the games one by one and not worried about whether we’d won the night before or lost the night before. That’s why they call it a series, and I thought our guys did a good job of focusing on that.”

With such a young team, one thing that gives the RedHawks focus is their tandem of now-seasoned freshman goaltenders, Ryan McKay (1.20 goals against average, .954 save percentage) and Jay Williams (1.89, .926). Only the RedHawks have the luxury of having to choose between two goaltenders in Detroit. Each has played 20 games; McKay had both wins against MSU last weekend.

“Part of preparation is looking back and seeing what worked against Michigan back in October, and Jay Williams played really well against them and did a nice job,” Blasi said. “We’ll make that determination on Friday but we feel pretty comfortable with both goalies.”

The RedHawks should feel good about their goalies and the team’s overall defense. Allowing 1.62 goals per game, Miami’s defense is second-best in the country.


You’ll have to wait until Friday morning for those.

My ballot

I don’t know why anyone would care, but I am in favor of transparency.

1. Minnesota
2. Boston College
3. St. Cloud State
4. Miami
5. Quinnipiac
6. Massachusetts-Lowell
7. North Dakota
8. New Hampshire
9. Yale
10. Notre Dame
11. Minnesota State
12. Denver
13. Western Michigan
14. Niagara
15. Wisconsin
16. Michigan
17. Providence
18. Nebraska-Omaha
19. Union
20. Rensselaer

So long, CCHA

I had a car named Gypsy once. She was a beautiful 1989 Volkswagen Jetta, navy blue, the first shiny car I’d ever purchased. I bought her in 1993, a terrible year that included in quick succession the suicide of a close friend, a head-on collision and the overdose death of my then-husband’s boss. Soon after that crash and barely able to move my head from side to side, I walked onto a used car lot on the eastern edge of Columbus, Ohio, and saw Gypsy. It was love at first sight.

Gypsy and I drove all over the CCHA together when I started this USCHO gig in 1996 and we kept on traveling together until 2005, when it became impossible to keep her rusty body connected to her still-powerful soul. She had nearly 300,000 miles on her when I finally surrendered her to the junkyard for the $50 I knew she’d bring — an amount that seemed like a fortune to me at a time when I was working any job I could to keep my own body and soul together, after a fashion.

When I signed her over to the nice lady behind the caged window, I bawled like a baby. It took me completely by surprise. When the nice lady handed me my cash, she patted my hand. “It’s OK,” she said. “Three grown men cried when they brought their cars in this week. It’s completely understandable.”

Completely understandable. My goal for the end of Sunday’s final CCHA Championship game is to avoid a display similar to the one that I exhibited when I sold Gypsy to the junkyard — and I don’t care how many grown men are already crying.

It is impossible to encapsulate my history with the CCHA in any meaningful way. Not this week. There’s so much and I’m so caught up in the end of it now that I have a difficult time putting it all in perspective. It’s like that stupid, stupid question that too many reporters ask of seniors after a team has lost its final game of the season, especially at the Frozen Four.

I know the game just ended, but can you put your time with Hockey University into perspective?

The players are always far more gracious than the press deserves and certainly more composed than I am now. Here we are at the end and, no, I cannot say what it meant. Forty-two years of hockey, 18 of which I covered, beginning the year before the birth of USCHO. It’s taking me more than the two-year heads-up about the demise of the CCHA to be able to put anything into perspective. Time after the fact will help. Wine. Wine might help, too.

There are many standout moments, of course. There was the time we all met Rick James when Ohio State won the Mason Cup in 2004. There was the time I took a puck to the head in the old OSU Ice Rink. There have been individual games that swept me away, like Bowling Green’s 4-3 overtime win in Big Rapids in the second round of the 2012 CCHA playoffs, and Michigan State’s come-from-behind 2007 national championship win, and when Ferris State took its second consecutive Badger Showdown to become the true Defenders of the Realm and the Bulldogs’ 3-1 win over Union in the Frozen Four last year.

There are moments all through the years when I’ve connected with people in unexpected ways because of my opportunity to write about CCHA hockey, like when I wrote about my battle with clinical depression and received dozens of email messages in support — and several messages of gratitude, both by email and in person, from others who had their own experience with the disease.

I’ve shared with you my mother’s favorite cookie recipe, a recipe that I know for a fact that Miami alum Andy Greene helped his mother bake. How do I know? His mother told me so. His mother also told me — in front of a mortified Greene himself — what Greene’s first name would have been had he been born a girl. I, however, will never tell.

I’ve shared with you my thoughts on the link between astrology and hockey and I’ve revealed the the inner workings of a bitter mind when Valentine’s Day rolls around. That some readers have taken such things completely seriously remains one of my favorite things about having covered the CCHA for so long.

Sure, I could have created all of these memories covering any hockey league, but there always seemed to be something unique and endearing about the quirky mix of teams in the CCHA.

And here we are.

American-born writer T.S. Eliot ends his 1925 poem “The Hollow Men” with four of the most evocative lines written in the English language:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

This is where my level of anxiety for the CCHA is in its final days, a fear that there will be no bang, no representation in Pittsburgh. It’s probably irrational, but one of my keenest memories of the CCHA is that three-season stretch from 2004 to 2006 in which the league was not represented at the Frozen Four.

I know that every CCHA team that earns a berth in the NCAA tournament will be focused on a national title. I know that every CCHA team in the tourney will be especially keen this year, not necessarily because of a loyalty to the league as much as for the chance to make a very specific kind of history.

That’s OK with me. I don’t care how the history is made, just as long as it’s made before the league itself is history. I’d be a lot more comfortable celebrating the legacy if the legacy were particularly good — a bang, that is — as the 2012-13 season ends.

Ah, CCHA. Forty-two years total, 18 that I’ve known you. What a ride, for me and for all of us.

Here’s to all the Broncos and Bulldogs and Wildcats and Lakers. Here’s to the Spartans and Wolverines. Here’s to the Fighting Irish and those fearsome Nanooks. Here’s to the Buckeyes, Falcons, RedHawks.

Here’s to the Huskies and Mavericks. And here’s to the Billikens, Bobcats, Flames and Golden Flashes.

Here’s to a great final weekend of CCHA hockey in Joe Louis Arena and the champ that will be crowned Sunday afternoon.

Here’s to the many people who have touched my life because I’ve covered the CCHA. Here’s to the opportunities that have come from covering the CCHA. Here’s to the joy the league has brought me and here’s to the CCHA itself.

CCHA: 1971-2013.