CCHA Playoff Preview: First Round
by Courtney Lewis/CHN Reporter
While Miami, Michigan State, Ferris State and Northern Michigan enjoy byes this week, eight teams will be fighting it out in the first round of the CCHA playoffs. This weekend’s winners get to play another Best-of-3 series next week, and the final four teams will head to Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena March 19-20.
No. 9 Notre Dame at No. 8 Ohio State
Notre Dame lost just six games all last season and won the CCHA Championship but has suffered from a rash of injuries this year. Eleven different players have been sidelined at some point during the season, and with a fluctuating lineup, the Irish have had inconsistent results.
After being shut out by Michigan last Friday, the Irish beat the Wolverines 5-3 Saturday for their only win in February.
“We’re going to be on the road for the first round, and that’s going to be challenging,” Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said after finishing the regular season. “We’re going to have to get good goaltending, and we’re going to have to play good defensively and a little bit more disciplined than we did (Saturday)”.
Ohio State also had just one regulation win last month — at Western Michigan Feb. 19. The Buckeyes wrapped up the regular season by earning a 0-0 tie (and shootout win) with Miami after losing to the RedHawks 6-2 on the road in the first game. Ohio State was outshot by 15 Saturday, but Dustin Carlson made 38 saves.
Sophomore forward Zac Dalpe leads Ohio State with a 19-18-37 scoring line.
When the Irish and Buckeyes met in October, Notre Dame won the first game, while the second was a 2-2 tie.
“I‘d like to believe that with confidence we can do anything,” Jackson said of the playoffs. “With continuity and confidence, and as long as we play our system and play as a team, I think we can beat anybody.
“But we have to win two of three, which we haven’t shown that consistency all season long. So it’s going to be about not just playing well in one game but being able to play well in two straight games or two out of three straight games.”
No. 10 Lake Superior at No. 7 Michigan
The Wolverines will be relying on a goaltender who, before last weekend, had played in just one game in his career. Junior Shawn Hunwick will make his second straight start Friday because Bryan Hogan was injured against Notre Dame last week. Michigan coach Red Berenson said Hunwick has looked good in practice this week and is confident.
After being swept by Nebraska-Omaha, Michigan earned splits with Northern Michigan and Notre Dame the last two weekends of the regular season. Michigan, which isn’t used to playing in the first round, will have to win the CCHA playoffs and secure the conference’s automatic bid in order to extend its record streak of 19 straight NCAA tournament appearances.
“We just have to look ahead and play our best hockey,” Berenson said. “There is a sense of urgency. And I think it’s a time for players who haven’t had a great season to redeem themselves and players who have to build on that and lead us during the playoffs. So we’re approaching it like we approach the playoffs every year.”
The Lakers have dropped their last five, including a 2-1 overtime loss and a 3-0 defeat at Northern Michigan last weekend.
Michigan earned a road sweep against Lake Superior in October.
“They’re a team that has been a stingy team in past playoff series,” Berenson said. “When they’ve played in the playoffs in recent years, they’ve been a team that could upset you.
“They can rely on their goalkeeping and team defense, and I think they’re better offensively than they’ve been in recent games. They’ve only won one of their last 10 games, but six of those were on the road in tough venues. They’re a good skating team, a good penalty-killing team, and they have dangerous forwards. They’ll be a desperate hockey team.”
No. 12 Western Michigan at No. 5 Alaska
Alaska heads into the playoffs with momentum after going 6-0-2 in February. The Nanooks are coming off a pair of wins over rival Alaska Anchorage last weekend.
Freshman winger Andy Taranto leads the team in scoring with 39 points, while Dion Knelsen earned six points against the Seawolves and has 38 on the season.
The Nanooks reached the CCHA semifinals last season. They’re currently tied for eighth in the PairWise Comparison Rankings.
Western Michigan has just two wins in regulation during the second half of the season. Those came a month ago against Notre Dame. The Broncos have tied their last three games, including a strong showing against Ferris State last weekend. The Bulldogs earned the shootout win the first night, and Western prevailed in a shootout Saturday.
Senior Riley Gill, who ranks third in the conference with a .925 save percentage, made 41 saves Saturday to give the Broncos a chance.
Western and Alaska played a close series in early December in Kalamazoo. The Broncos won the opening game 3-1, but the next night the Nanooks tied the game with 16 seconds left and won the shootout.
No. 11 Bowling Green at No. 6 Nebraska-Omaha
The Mavericks upended Bemidji State Saturday for a split, capping off a month in which they beat Ohio State in regulation and then in a shootout, swept Michigan, and split with Miami.
“Nebraska’s playing some really good hockey right now,” Bowling Green coach Dennis Williams said. “They’re playing with a lot of confidence. They continue to shoot the puck a lot. They take chances, their D jump up in the rush a lot. So we’ve gotta make sure on our back pressure and backchecking that we’re aware of the D-men coming up and not just worrying about those three forwards.”
At 18th in the PairWise, the Mavericks will need to make a run in this tournament to have a chance at the big one.
Like Nebraska-Omaha, Bowling Green ended the regular season on a good note. The Falcons tied Michigan State 2-2 and won a shootout. The week before, they picked up a regulation win and shootout win against Notre Dame.
Williams, who’s in his first year, said the team has jelled in the second half.
The two teams skated to a 3-3 tie in their first meeting in October, with the Falcons winning a shootout. The Mavericks claimed a 3-1 win the next night. Williams said that was so early in the season that both teams will probably look drastically different this time around.
“The way we match up with them is physical, simple hockey,” Williams said. “Rolling four lines as much as we can, getting everybody out there and getting a lot of shots on net. If we can do that and not get into a power play/penalty kill game so much at times and control our emotions out there ... I definitely think we’re going to go out there and surprise these guys.”