CCHA Final Four Preview
by Courtney Lewis/CHN Reporter
Lake Superior State is making its first appearance in the CCHA semifinals since 1996, when Jeff Jackson was behind the Lakers bench. Now, in an unlikely match-up, Jackson's Notre Dame team that was under .500 last season is the No. 1 seed this weekend and taking on a Lake Superior squad that, until a couple weeks ago, hadn't won a playoff series since Jackson's tenure ended there 11 years ago.
Friday's other semifinal at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit features a more familiar pairing, as bitter rivals Michigan and Michigan State, who have already met five times this season, try to punch their ticket to Saturday's CCHA Championship game.
Notre Dame vs. Lake Superior State
"It's been kind of a Cinderella type of season for us," Notre Dame's Jackson said. "I think that going into the year, we expected to have a better team, but I'm not sure that we expected to be where we were at the end of the regular season. We are obviously thrilled to have the opportunity to go to Joe Louis. I know that was an objective at the beginning of the season, and now that we're there, we just have to focus on the task at hand.
"The Lakers are playing very well in the playoffs and have come together at the right time of the season ... so we have total respect for what they bring to the table."
Excellent goaltending is something both teams bring to the table. Friday's contest pits the CCHA's First Team All-Conference goalie (David Brown of Notre Dame) against the Second Team goalie (Jeff Jakaitis).
Brown leads the conference with a 1.64 goals against average and is second in save percentage (.928); Jakaitis is second in GAA and first in save percentage (2.17 and .935).
Jakaitis, a senior, has been Lake Superior's anchor for much of his career. Both Jackson and Lake Superior coach Jim Roque said the netminder doesn't get the recognition outside of the conference that he deserves.
"He's been great for us for a long time," Roque said. "He's given us a chance to win games a lot of nights when maybe we shouldn't. Obviously this year I think we've gotten a little better, so there have been nights where we've been able to score some goals and take some stress off him, too. But he's been fabulous for a long, long time here at Lake Superior."
Jackson said he didn't know what to expect from Brown when took over as coach last season because Brown was inconsistent in his sophomore year.
"David Brown, I'm extremely proud of," Jackson said. "I think that he's really come a long way in his mental approach to the game, and he's gained a lot of humility along the way. The two key things that have allowed him to have this type of a season are his mental toughness and also learning that it's better to be humble and to recognize what his teammates contribute. I think maybe those are things that he wrestled with early in his career, and he's really matured in a great way."
Brown's play and some major contributions from young players have been big parts of Notre Dame's surprising season. Sophomore Erik Condra leads the team with 44 points, and freshmen Kevin Deeth and Ryan Thang are next with 38 and 36, respectively. Rookie defenseman Kyle Lawson has also had an impact.
Notre Dame (29-6-4) swept Alaska last week to advance to the championship weekend and is 8-1-1 in its last 10 games.
Lake Superior, which is having its best season in a decade at 21-17-3, survived Ferris State in the first round and then upended Miami in two games in the quarterfinals. Senior Jeff Rainville has gotten hot in the playoffs, notching eight points, and sports a 13-13—26 line this season.
"A lot of people have been critical because maybe he hasn't been the point-producer that everyone thought he was going to be, but he's played very well for all four years," Roque said. "He's one of the key guys on our team, and I'm just really happy for him because I think he deserves this moment. He's had a great playoff. He's produced at the right time, and he's going out on a good note. He's a super person, and I hope this will quiet some of the criticism he's gotten ..."
Trent Campbell has a team-high 29 points, and Derek A. Smith has garnered 27. Troy Schwab, who has also earned 27 points, was one of several players injured or sick last weekend — the Lakers dressed just 17 skaters Saturday, and Ryan Baird played through an illness. Roque said he wasn't sure how much healthier the Lakers will be this weekend.
Lake Superior is likely the only one of the four remaining teams that must win the CCHA Championship, and the automatic bid that comes with it, to get into the NCAA tournament, though Roque said Tuesday that he hadn't talked to the team at all about that.
Rivals At It Again
In the last meeting between Michigan and Michigan State, on Feb. 10, the Wolverines stormed back from a 3-0 deficit to salvage a tie. The Spartans (21-12-3) went on a slide from there, threatening their NCAA tournament hopes. They used their bye week to regroup and came back with a sweep of Nebraska-Omaha in the quarterfinals.
"We had to overcome the last couple weeks of the season that were disappointing to us...," Michigan State coach Rick Comley said. "I think we've been a team that's had to scratch and claw every night to make something happen, and scoring is not easy for us at all times. We had a great stretch where we went I think 11-1-2 and then went into those last two weeks, and I don't know if we hit the wall or got tired or exactly what happened, but we struggled and went 1-4. Last weekend, I thought our quality of play started to come back. We looked a bit sharper and crisper."
Jeff Lerg has been solid in net for the Michigan State, which is the tournament's No. 4 seed. He boasts a 2.40 GAA and a .913 save percentage.
Bryan Lerg is Michigan State's top scorer with 22 goals and 12 assists, and Tim Kennedy is right behind with 33 points. But the Spartans rank seventh in the conference with 3.17 goals per game.
"I think all of our kids have worked hard, and you have to get enough chances," Comley said. "We've gone through some stretches where we generate some shots and then some where we don't. We have so many good goaltenders in our league that scoring is really tough. And you need traffic, screens, tips, rebounds and to score a little bit ugly, I guess.
"If you look at our record when we get three (goals), we are pretty darn good because we have good goaltending. If we don't get three, then we struggle to win."
Michigan, on the other hand, has had no trouble scoring. The Wolverines (25-12-1) have the top scoring offense in the country and are powered by T.J. Hensick. The star forward spurned the NHL to return for his senior season and has accumulated 62 points.
"He came back for the right reasons for his senior year — to become a better player and to graduate and to do it right, and that's what he's done," Michigan coach Red Berenson said. "He's been on a mission this year, and he's become a much better two-way player and a much better leader."
Michigan has been more consistent in the second half after suffering from chronic defensive lapses early in the season. In net, Billy Sauer has also gotten better as the season has gone on.
"I think he's improved a lot," Berenson said. "The first half, he was up and down, but he was just like our team. And then the second half, he got steadier, but I think our team got steadier in front of him as well. So he's playing with a lot more confidence."
The second-seeded Wolverines downed Northern Michigan in two games last week.
Michigan State has a slight edge in the series this season, having gone 2-2-1 against Michigan. The Spartans beat the Wolverines in the 2006 semis and went on to win the title game.
"I think they're a rival team, obviously, and you get the best out of both teams," Berenson said. "And they tighten up and play well defensively against us. I think Jeff Lerg has been a factor in some games.
"Every game is a little different, and each team has shown even in the same game that they can put the other team on its heels, and I think that's what you'll see on Friday night."