CCHA Tournament Preview
by Courtney Lewis/CHN Reporter
Michigan and Miami have been among the best in the country, let alone their conference, all season, but upstart Northern Michigan and defending champion Notre Dame stand in their way of a chance to play for the CCHA Tournament title.
The first-seeded Wolverines face the sixth-seeded Wildcats in Friday's semifinals at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit after a clash between the second-seeded Red Hawks and the fourth-seeded Fighting Irish. The winners will meet Saturday with the championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA playoffs on the line.
Michigan had to hang on for two ties when it faced Northern Michigan in a February regular-season series, and the Wildcats have had some big wins since then.
"I don't think anyone's playing any better hockey in our league than Northern Michigan," Wolverines coach Red Berenson said. "They're as good as anyone. So we're looking forward to the game. It will be anyone's game."
The Wildcats (19-19-4) reached the semis by rallying two weeks in a row. They dropped the first game of series against Ohio State and No. 3 seed Michigan State and then went on to close both teams out in Game 3.
The Wolverines and Wildcats skated to a pair of 3-3 ties last month, and that was a key weekend for Northern Michigan.
"I think it certainly gave us some confidence," Northern Michigan coach Walt Kyle said. "When we look back at it, you're never looking for ties, you're always looking to win, but I think it gave some of our young guys confidence to know we can play with a team that's as good and as nationally recognized as Michigan. I think our guys kind of came together in that series, and it was important to us."
Freshman Mark Olver leads the young Wildcats with 37 points, and junior Nick Sirota has tallied 35. Sophomore Brian Stewart has been solid in net.
Michigan (29-5-4) received a first-round bye and then swept Nebraska-Omaha last weekend. The Wolverines lost just twice in their first 25 games but are 7-3-3 since, including a 5-4 overtime setback against Ferris State in the regular-season finale.
Michigan's offense ranks second in the nation — behind Miami — with 3.97 goals per game, and Hobey Baker contender Kevin Porter (28-28-56) and Chad Kolarik (27-19-46) are both among the nation's scoring leaders.
Billy Sauer has had a career year in net for Michigan. He boasts a 1.94 GAA and a .926 save percentage.
The Wolverines are looking to make their second straight appearance in the championship game; they lost to Notre Dame last year.
After upsetting Michigan State last week, the Wildcats know they have another daunting task this week.
"It's not any kind of reward to get the opportunity to play Michigan," Kyle said. "They're a very good team, and they've kind of had their way with us over the last couple of years. And I think that it's going to be a big challenge."
Miami and Notre Dame split a couple of close regular-season games, although that was just one month into the season.
"I can tell you back in November, it was one of the hardest-fought battles both nights," Miami coach Enrico Blasi said. "I think both teams have good size, both teams play a very similar style. Both teams move the puck very well. That all lends to a physical battle and a grind-out battle. So something will have to give. Somebody will have to execute one more play than the other team."
In the November series, Miami had just gotten standout Nathan Davis back from an injury, while Notre Dame had Erik Condra — someone the Irish will be without this time.
Condra, the team's leading scorer, was injured Sunday against Ferris State after what Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson described as "a knee-on-knee hit." The junior is done for the season.
"Without question, Erik is probably overall our best player from an offensive and defensive perspective because he plays in every situation," Jackson said. "We're just going to have to make sure we elevate our game in the areas where Erik was so instrumental.
"When Erik got hurt on Sunday night, I thought our team elevated its game and took on a different persona. I thought our execution was better, I thought our decisions with the puck were better. I think our team didn't have time to realize the impact of losing him, and I'm hoping we can maintain the level of play that we had after losing him on Sunday night. With the time to think about it, I'm not sure. But our job is to convince them that's the way they're going to have to play to have success."
Forwards Ryan Thang and Mark Van Guilder are two other key contributors. Thang, a sophomore, leads the team with 16 goals and also has 11 assists. Van Guilder, a senior, is right behind with 25 points. Defenseman Kyle Lawson also produces (four goals, 20 assists).
Between the pipes, Jordan Pearce has stepped in as the starter and has averaged 1.95 goals against per night.
Notre Dame (24-13-4) had a first-round bye and got past Ferris State in three games in the quarterfinals.
Miami (31-6-1) eliminated Bowling Green in two games to earn a trip to The Joe. The Red Hawks hit a rough patch in early February, losing and tying at home against Michigan and then getting swept at Ferris State the next week. But they've won their last six.
Besides featuring the highest-scoring offense in the country, Miami also makes it difficult for other teams to score. Junior goaltender Jeff Zatkoff ranks second nationally in goals against average (1.68) and save percentage (.934).
Ryan Jones has powered the offense with 30 goals and 16 assists, and junior Justin Mercier (24-15-39) is one of four other players with more than 30 points.
"I think that their transition game is so good, you have to have great value for the puck and avoid turning the puck over in key areas of the ice because they transition so well," Jackson said. "Their team speed is outstanding, and I think it's generated from opposing teams throwing the puck away and making bad plays with the puck. That's going to be probably the biggest obstacle that we have to overcome, but it's still a matter of trying to generate enough offense to get by their defense and their goaltending.
"There's plenty of things to worry about with Miami. ... So it's just going to be a matter of us playing a very smart game."