Nanooks Can Hold Heads High
by Michael Eisenstein/CHN Reporter
DETROIT Alaska’s season can be summed up with four words: Chad Johnson, Dallas Ferguson.
The senior goalie and first-year head coach led the Nanooks to a fourth-place CCHA regular-season finish and their first trip to Joe Louis Arena since the conference returned to a four-team format three seasons ago.
But Alaska’s pursuit of an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament came to a halting end with a 3-1 loss to Michigan on Friday night. The only Nanook goal came from their struggling power-play unit, which was converting at just a 10 percent clip coming into the semifinal matchup.
And now all that’s left to play for is pride.
“It’s easy,” said Ferguson about tomorrow’s third-place game. “For us, it’s another hockey game. By nature, you want to win. For me, it’s about representing your school and getting another win in the win column and playing for pride. It’s an easy one.
“It’s another opportunity to go out and compete to get the win.”
The loss came just 24 hours after Johnson and Ferguson were recognized as the pillars of the Nanooks’ incredible turnaround season.
At the CCHA award ceremony Thursday evening, Johnson was named the conference’s Player of the Year, the first Nanook to ever receive the honor. (He was also named a Hobey Baker Award finalist that day.) Ferguson became the third first-year coach to be voted Coach of the Year in 34 seasons. All that after being picked to place 11th in the preseason poll.
Johnson surrendered just two goals on 31 shots against Michigan, including one while killing a five-minute major, and it’s impossible to not drop your jaw when looking at the progress Johnson and Alaska has made in just one season.
Ferguson took over a program he’d coached as an assistant for four years, reversing the recent poor fortunes of the talent he had recruited to Fairbanks, and in particular the role of one senior who had an injury-shortened, seven-game-long junior year.
“With Coach Ferguson named head coach last year, he kind of told me it was my year,” Johnson told College Hockey News in December. “He always knew my capabilities as a goalie — that was one thing I was excited about. He knew what I’m capable of. He recruited me. The confidence he had in me, he let me know he expected a big year for me.”
Lowering his goals-against average from 3.36 to 1.67 and improving his save percentage from .893 to .939 would probably qualify as a bit more than a big year for Johnson.
But unfortunately for Alaska, its inability to manufacture goals — it averages less than two lamp lighters a contest this season — proved too much to overcome against a speed-infused Michigan offense that has thrived off of scoring quickly and frequently.
“Michigan's one of those teams that can win games in two or three shifts because they score in bunches, especially early on,” Ferguson said after the game. “(Breaking down the game into segments) was one of the things we wanted to get accomplished. I thought we did. After the first period, things were kind of settling down for us.”
And going into the final frame, the Nanooks were playing the type of game they wanted to be in, down just 2-1, and hadn’t surrendered any quick back-to-back scores.
But a Wolverine empty-net power-play goal with just over two minutes remaining sealed Alaska’s fate: Saturday afternoon will be its last game of the year.
And though Johnson will not get a chance to carry this team even further through its rebuilding stage, he has certainly helped Ferguson get off to a great start in his first year on the job.