Paula's picks, March 22, 2013: The CCHA's last trip to The Joe

My last-ever, CCHA-only picks. But first, here’s how I’ve done so far.
Last week: 7-4-0 (.636)
Season to date: 129-94-29 (.569)
Who knew I could improve, even a little, toward the end?

CCHA playoff championship

The semifinal games are televised by FOX Sports Detroit PLUS. The championship game is carried by FOX Sports Detroit. There is no third-place game.
Saturday, March 23
No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 2 Notre Dame, 1:05 p.m.
No. 4 Michigan vs. No. 1 Miami, 4:35 p.m.
Sunday, March 24
Championship game, 2:05 p.m.
This is it
Three games, one champ. Half of this weekend’s field needs to win the final CCHA championship to receive the league’s autobid to make an appearance in the NCAA tournament. I am sure, however, that every single one of these teams has its eyes only on the Mason Cup as the weekend begins. Who wouldn’t want to be remembered as the final team to win the CCHA playoff championship?
As I said in this week’s column, every story line this weekend is interesting. The most compelling — and the one to receive the most media attention — is that of Michigan, the seventh-place Wolverines who need two wins to keep alive their NCAA appearance streak. Should they win out, they’ll go to the NCAA tournament for the 23rd consecutive season. This is their 24th consecutive appearance in the CCHA championship tournament.
That is compelling. I don’t care if you are a Michigan hater. This is interesting stuff.
Perhaps, though, it seems less interesting to Miami coach Rico Blasi. In a conference call that featured the four Joe-going coaches Tuesday, Phil Colvin, the CCHA’s director of communications, asked Blasi how the RedHawks would deal with Michigan’s momentum heading into the tournament. Blasi, in response, sounded exasperated, as though he’d heard the question one too many times.
“Well, I guess we’re going to have to show up on Saturday and play the game, Phil,” said Blasi. “I don’t know what else to tell you.” It was the perfect answer.
Blasi continued, “Michigan is a great team, they’ve got a great program, historic program. They’ve been to the Joe twenty-four years in a row. I mean, I don’t know what else to tell you. They’re the hottest team in the country and we’ve got to show up and play our game and see what happens.”
Each of these four teams has an equal chance, in my opinion, of capturing the title this weekend. I don’t think I’ve ever seen as level a field as this one at Joe Louis Arena, not in recent memory. The top-seeded RedHawks have a freshmen tandem in goal that is veteran at this point and talented beyond its experience. Additionally, Miami’s defense is the grittiest, tightest, best in the league. While the RedHawks’ offense is inconsistent, it is dangerous and capable of explosive output. The RedHawks absolutely could be the 2012-13 CCHA playoff champions.
In that same conference call, Michigan coach Red Berenson called Miami “scary,” and he’s right. “They’re a scary team because they can score with anybody and defensively they’re the best team in our league,” said Berenson.
“They don’t give up much, they don’t need much, and they’ve got a lot of offensive firepower. They’ve got a lot of offensive skill. Their coaching staff has done a good job. They’ve been the team to beat all year in this conference.”
The Wolverines bring an eight-game unbeaten streak (7-0-1) into Joe Louis Arena. For a team that didn’t seem to have any clue as to what it was doing for three quarters of the season, Michigan sure looks like a contender now — and the Wolverines are on a mission.
“You know what can happen,” said Berenson. “The game can go either way. These are big games for both teams. Obviously, we’ve got a lot more at stake than Miami does in the big picture. We’ve played a couple of games at Joe Louis this year. That might help us but nevertheless, this will be a big game between two good teams.”
Michigan’s not the only team riding a streak into Detroit. The Fighting Irish may be the overlooked team in this field, in spite of their second-place finish. Notre Dame had a little slump of its own in the second half — there was a tough January schedule and a slew of injuries — but the Irish are 5-0-2 in their last seven contests. When the going got a little tough for ND in the second half, the Irish refused to give up.
“We had good leadership and guys stayed patient and stayed with the program,” said coach Jeff Jackson. “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.”
Where Notre Dame was in the first half was at the top of the standings. With all due respect to Coach Berenson, for the first half of the season, the Fighting Irish were the team to beat. On the road in the first weekend in February, though, the Irish took two points from their semifinal opponents with a loss and tie (plus shootout point) in the Schottenstein Center. Jackson, a goaltender himself, has a healthy respect for Ohio State senior Brady Hjelle and the rest of the Buckeyes.
“They certainly have one of the best if not the best goalie in the country and that certainly solidifies everything that they do,” said Jackson. “That’s not to say they don’t have a lot of skill and talent up front. They have a lot of guys that allow them to play an aggressive style. Sometimes they can take risks. They activate their D. They’ve got a big D that have skills and those defenseman activate into the rush so they’re good on transition. And when they do break down, they have a wall in net.”
A coach who knows what he’s up against — and who prepares his team for what it’s up against — is a coach that can win a game or two. One of Notre Dame’s biggest weapons is Jackson and his coaching staff. It doesn’t hurt that the Irish are another team with a solid defense, good goaltending from Steven Summerhays and a potentially explosive offense.
Notre Dame’s opponent, Ohio State, is the team that won the first-ever CCHA championship tournament, so it seems poetically just that the Buckeyes are going to Detroit this weekend. I don’t mind saying that OSU’s appearance brings to Joe Louis Arena people associated with Buckeye hockey of whom I am rather fond — long-time friends and acquaintances that I haven’t seen often since moving from Columbus to Michigan in 2008.
I also remember quite fondly OSU’s miracle run to the CCHA title in 2004, when the Buckeyes became only the second team to play its way through three conference championship playoff games — the CCHA had the Super Six back then — with a team that really had no business doing so, much to the delight of the fans in Joe Louis Arena. While it’s true that people who aren’t Buckeye fans despise the Buckeyes, most CCHA fans hate Michigan even more; every fan who remained for the title game who wasn’t rooting for Michigan was pulling for Ohio State, and that game — as games go — did not disappoint.
Unless you were a fan of the Wolverines. Ah, but I digress again.
Back to this weekend’s semifinal game between Notre Dame and Ohio State. I’m not Jeff Jackson’s only fan. Here’s what OSU coach Mark Osiecki has to say about Jackson.
“Jeff’s done a tremendous job with that program,” said Osiecki. “They’re unbelievably well coached.”
Osiecki knows what the Buckeyes are up against in their first game this weekend. “I think [the Irish] are very, very disciplined – disciplined with their team systems. I think we’re going to have to be extremely patient, be smart. This team’s so gifted, talent-wise. We just have to play smart. We have to play as a group of twenty guys on the ice.
“If we get into penalty situations, that’s where Notre Dame certainly their skill is going to rise.”
Osiecki’s onto something there. The Irish scored a slew of power-play goals in their last four games — all against Bowling Green for the final two regular-season contests and last weekend’s CCHA quarterfinal games. Notre Dame also had a successful penalty shot against BGSU last weekend.
Of course, the Buckeyes have the wall to which Jackson referred, senior goaltender Brady Hjelle, whose numbers were off the hook in the first half of the season but who has settled for mortal status in the second half — if you can call a .935 save percentage in nearly 2,000 minutes of play “mortal.” The Buckeyes have the league’s scoring champion, Tanner Fritz, and a bunch of other guys who can score, and OSU’s defense is solid.
In short, Ohio State could win it all, too.
It’s an incredible field. All four teams have gritty, tough blue lines now. The proof is in the numbers for Miami, Notre Dame and Ohio State, and for Michigan, the proof is in the recent streak and killer confidence. I love good defensive battles. This weekend, I’d love three one-goal games.
This weekend, I’d love three overtime games. Seriously. I’d like as much CCHA hockey as I can get, please.

My picks

I’m not hedging my bets when I say that anyone can take the Mason Cup this weekend. No one’s win — nor anyone’s loss — would surprise me.
Ohio State 2-1
Michigan 3-1
Michigan 4-2

Haters gonna hate

I know, I know. I’ve picked a Big Ten final — not because I want to, but because I have a feeling. I could be wrong. We all know that’s likely, actually.
I’ll be covering the CCHA tournament with Katie Carito, Matt Mackinder, Matt Nye and Rachel Lewis. It’s a great USCHO crew and I think we’ll do the last weekend justice. I’ll be live blogging all weekend from Joe Louis Arena, so please join me for that.
I will also be attending the league’s party Saturday night in COBO Hall, so if you’re there and want to say hello, please do so.

Oh yeah — that NCAA tournament …

Miami’s in. Notre Dame’s in. Western Michigan is on the bubble. OSU and UM are out, unless one of them wins the Mason Cup.
Want to play with the PairWise? Well, you can, right here. USCHO’s PairWise Predictor is a fun waste of time an excellent way to spend a little of your Friday at the office.
You figure it all out and see how well you match up by the time Sunday’s selection show arrives. Then watch as the genius of Jayson Moy is revealed. Don’t believe me? Check out his Bracketology Blog to see the master at work.