Preview: CCHA at The Joe
by Nicole Auerbach/CHN Reporter
DETROIT Playoff hockey comes down to goaltending — it’s as simple as that.
And the two CCHA semifinal games this weekend feature some of the nation’s best.
Notre Dame vs. Northern Michigan:
Notre Dame has been strong all year. But Northern Michigan got here with a circuitous route. High expectations fizzled fast, but, like recent years, the Wildcats kicked it into gear down the stretch. Last weekend, they defeated Miami in three games to win the series.
Headlining this goalie matchup is Notre Dame senior Jordan Pearce, who leads the nation with a 1.62 goals against average. He tossed two shutouts last weekend against Nebraska-Omaha, bringing his shutout season total to eight, which leads all Division I goalies.
“Pearce is one of the top goaltenders in the country and certainly in our league,” Northern Michigan coach Walt Kyle said. “Notre Dame is a very good defensive team, but whenever they’ve given up opportunities, Pearce has been more than equal to the task.”
Northern Michigan’s Brian Stewart is no slouch, either. The Wildcats have been hot recently, having lost just four of their past 21 games and forcing opponents to forget their sixth-place conference finish. Stewart has kept Northern Michigan in games, and he proved to be the difference maker last weekend with 117 saves in the three-game series.
Both Kyle and Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson didn’t hesitate to give credit to their goalies for their team’s quarterfinal wins. With two dominant players in the creases, expect this semifinal matchup to be a gritty, low-scoring one.
Last Saturday, the Fighting Irish knocked Nebraska-Omaha out of the playoffs with a 1-0 victory.
“Winning 1-0 is probably a little bit more like we're supposed to win,” Jackson said.
It’ll be more of the same this Friday.
Northern Michigan will have to defend against a power play that exploded the last time these teams met, with the Irish scoring a ridiculous 10 PPGs in the two-game set.
"They dominated the games against us on the power play — it's something we're aware of, and we have to do a much better job making sure we don't take as many penalties, and make sure we're killing them," Kyle said. "But we're playing a very good team with very good people. I think it speaks more to Notre Dame's strength, skill and ability on the power play — but we're aware we have to do a better job."
Michigan vs. Alaska
These goalies enter Friday’s semifinal matchup from entirely different directions.
Alaska goaltender Chad Johnson boasts the country’s best save percentage with .939. He’s been an integral part of the Nanooks surprising regular season and playoff run, a constant anchor in net all season, and was just named a Hobey Baker Award finalist.
"He's a consummate pro at how he approaches his hockey career," Alaska coach Dallas Ferguson said. "He's mentally tough. He doesn't waver, he's very consistent in his preparation. He's got a tremendous skill set for a goaltender. His personality on the ice has really helped our team out. You can see it like (last Sunday), he was making saves and not giving up second opportunities, which helps our defense that was pretty young most of the season."
Michigan sophomore Bryan Hogan had to earn the starting job for the Wolverines, and since beating out senior Billy Sauer, Hogan has been quite solid between the pipes. His stats don’t quite measure up with Pearce’s or Johnson’s, but his 23-4 record and eagerness to come out of the crease to spark the offense are crucial to Michigan’s success.
Even with the stellar play of the other goaltenders heading to Joe Louis Arena this Friday, the Wolverines are confident in their often-underrated netminder.
“I like Hogie,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “If I had a choice of the four goalies, I’d take him. … I have a lot of respect for all these goalies, but the goalie I know the best is Hogan. I’m good to go with Hogan.”
Even if Alaska has the edge in goalkeeping, the Wolverines match up better against other aspects of the Nanooks’ game. Alaska, which boasts one of the nation’s best defenses, will have its hands full with Michigan’s multi-line scoring attack. The Wolverines average 3.68 goals per game, and though they don’t expect to score at will against Johnson, they have the explosive speed and skill to light the lamp at least a few times on Friday.
Aaron Palushaj and Louis Caporusso, one-two on the team in scoring, were recently named First Team all-CCHA; and Caporusso is a Hobey finalist.
And the staunch Wolverine defense corps and shutdown penalty-kill unit should be more than prepared for Alaska’s less-than-dangerous offense, which is the 53rd-ranked scoring offense and averages less than two goals a game.
Berenson, nevertheless, remains wary of the Nanooks.
"They were buying into Dallas Fergusons' system," Berenson said. "It's no fluke that they've moved on and are playing this weekend."
It's the 20th straight season Michigan has advanced to the CCHA semis.
"The first few years I was at Michigan, getting to Joe Louis was a huge obstacle, and we had a lot of disappointments before we made it," Berenson said. "So it's something I treasure as a great accomplishment, and even though it's been 20 in a year, it's nothing I take for granted."