CCHA Final 4 Preview
by Bill Briggs/CHN Correspondent
DETROIT The top four seeds held as all teams with a first-round bye advance to Joe Louis Arena for the CCHA Championship. Miami will face off against Northern Michigan in the 4:30 game followed by Michigan State and Michigan in the 8:00 nightcap.
On the Line
Northern Michigan, currently tied for 16th in the pairwise (10th in KRACH), has the most to play for of the teams involved. With a win over highly-rated Miami, the Wildcats have a chance to slide off of the bubble and into one of the last NCAA Tournament spots.
NMU will rely on a defense-first approach to keep the score low and hope that they can pop in an opportune goal. The Wildcats advance to the semifinals after putting the clamps on high-powered Nebraska-Omaha, holding the nation's leading scoring duo of Scott Parse and Bill Thomas to just two points and UNO to just three goals in a sweep.
Much of the credit there goes to goaltender Bill Zaniboni, who with his lemon yellow pads can be as good as anyone in the league, and the league's top defensive pair of Geoff Waugh and defensive-defenseman of the year Nathan Oystrick.
Expect a low-scoring affair as Miami has already mastered the NMU game plan. The RedHawks' defense, led by All-CCHA selections Andy Greene and Mitch Ganzak, has allowed both Charlie Effinger and Jeff Zatkoff to post record seasons in net.
"They present a lot of problems to us," said NMU coach Walt Kyle.
Coach Enrico Blasi has no plans to choose between his goaltenders, as he stuck to the season-long rotation in a quarterfinal sweep of Western Michigan. The slightly more experienced Effinger will likely get the nod on Friday and with a win may get a rare consecutive appearance in the championship game. A trip to the consolation game should give Zatkoff some playoff experience.
"Denver won two national championships going one night with one guy and one night with the other," said Miami coach Enrico Blasi, the CCHA Coach of the Year. "So it's been done before. We're not exactly sure what we're going to do this weekend. We always evaluate our situation from week to week. I think I know what we're going to do, but it's something we're going to discuss Saturday morning."
Up front, a couple of familiar names are beginning to show up in the box score. Matt Christie and Marty Guerin, who led Miami a season ago, had been quiet behind the stellar play of the Davis brothers and Ryan Jones, but they broke out in the quarterfinals, registering a 2-3-5 line.
Their emergence gives the RedHawks some much-needed scoring punch. Coming into the playoffs, the Davises had accounted for nearly one-third of all Miami's goals. Further contributions from Christie, Guerin, and Nino Musitelli will all be crucial to Miami's chances of completing the title sweep.
"Both teams have good goaltending, and both have d-men who log a lot of ice time — Greene and Oystrick — and both have forwards that can hurt you if you're not paying attention to detail," Blasi said.
Miami got a boost from an unlikely source last weekend, when freshman defenseman Alec Martinez scored his first three collegiate goals.
"Martinez has played very well for us all season. We're not counting on him to score goals, but he happened to be in the right place at the right time," Blasi said.
Michigan State was the last team to pack its bags for Detroit, but proved that dropping the first game to Alaska Fairbanks was just a speed bump along the road. The Spartans exploded for 13 goals while facing elimination, a season high.
Depth has helped the Spartans improve mightily this season. MSU features balanced scoring from three lines, including an all-freshman line of Tim Kennedy, Justin Abdelkader, and Tim Crowder that Dave Starman believes may be the best in the league.
Leadership from a strong senior class and an underrated Drew Miller has pushed the Spartans all the way to a tie for third place in the latest pairwise rankings.
Speaking of leadership, Brandon Kaleniecki and Andrew Ebbett have saved what would otherwise be a disappointing season for Michigan. This regular season marked the first time since 1990 that the Wolverines finished lower than second place in the CCHA and they are currently amid a huge pack of teams in the middle of the pairwise.
"We're more fortunate to be here than maybe the other teams," said Michigan coach Red Berenson. "We were on a bumpy road at the end of the season. From week to week it's been an adventure. We're not coming in with the momentum our opponent is. On the other hand, it's a big challenge for our team to come in as one of the non-favorites."
Strong performances by Jack Johnson and T.J. Hensick went a long way in taking UM to Detroit, and they will need to step up once again to propel the Wolverines to the crown.
After a torrid start and a No. 1 ranking, the Wolverines have been a .500 club since November. Yet, their ability to score goals in bunches makes them a threat in any tournament. The question is whether Michigan can score enough goals to make up for its defensive lapses.
"It was like the little Dutch boy when the dam started leaking, and as soon as you put your finger in one hole, another one opened up. ... Our young players have been good, they've worked hard, I think they're better now — but it's been a combination."
Certainly some of the defensive woes can be attributed to the rarity at Michigan of not being able to settle on a goaltender. The idea is usually to bring a guy in and let him play just about every game for four years, but that didn't work out too well for freshman Billy Sauer, so senior Noah Ruden has gotten time. But he hasn't excelled consistently either.
"They're more stable in goal than we are, their power play is on fire," Berenson said. "But we're coming off a pretty good series against Ferris."
When Michigan and Michigan State clash, the rankings and the records go out the window. The Spartan senior class has a slight 6-5-5 advantage over their Wolverine brethren, but five of the last six contests have ended in a tie. That won't be a problem in the playoff format, but fans may be treated to a game that rivals that of Yale and Union from a week ago.
"There's a little bit different personality on each team, but anyone who slips just a little bit is going to struggle here," said MSU coach Rick Comley. "Red feels like his team is on a roller coaster, but gosh, they had such a great start to the season."