CCHA Final Four Preview
by Cara Spilsbury/CHN Reporter
Miami was the anointed team this year, running away with the regular-season crown early. But there are so many factors at play this weekend, including just how hungry the other three teams here are, still scratching and clawing for NCAA bids, among other things.
No. 3 Ferris State vs. No. 2 Northern Michigan
Ferris State earned a first-round bye and took on Nebraska-Omaha in round two. They defeated Nebraska-Omaha 3-1 in the first game, but needed overtime to close out the Mavericks 3-2.
In the regular season, the Bulldogs finished with a 13-9-6 record with four shootout wins and 49 points in the CCHA, with a 21-11-6 record overall.
Northern Michigan, which also earned a first-round bye, took on Alaska in the second round. NMU closed out Alaska in two games, squeaking past the Nanooks 4-3 in the first game and handily putting them away 5-1 in the second game.
The Wildcats finished the regular season in fourth place in the CCHA, with a 13-9-6 record and three shoot out wins in conference play and 19-11-8 record overall. NMU was just one point behind Ferris State's 49 in the CCHA standings.
Both teams are fighting it out for NCAA spots, something Northern hasn't done since 1999 and Ferris State since 2003. FSU is in somewhat better position right now, but two losses could still do the Bulldogs in.
"We have not mentioned the NCAA tournament once to our team," FSU coach Bob Daniels said. "We are strictly focused on getting to Joe Louis. We have never won the Mason Cup. It would be very important to our program to do that. We've wasted zero energy on talking about the NCAA tournament."
Led by Hobey finalist Mark Olver, the Wildcats had another slow start this season, which has become a trademark of Walt Kyle's teams. What's also a trademark is a hot finish. The problem is, unlike a team like North Dakota, the hot finishes have never been enough to compensate for the cold starts. In particular, goalie Brian Stewart, who was expected to be a candidate for the league's top goalie, was terrible to start the year. But, he too improved rapidly and led the team down the stretch.
"We hear that a lot," NMU coach Walt Kyle said of his team's slow starts. "We're very similar to most other teams — we try to make a big emphasis on our team's improvement over the course of the season. We've been fortunate to be able to do that over the last couple of years."
Ferris State is an example of how a "smaller" school can make good runs by keeping a core intact, and not constantly be losing players to the pros. The Bulldogs have put it together this season with a top seven scoring group that is all seniors and juniors. It includes character playerse like Blair Riley and Cody Chupp, and junior defenseman Zach Redmond.
"They have a great work ethic," Kyle said of his opponent. "They're quick and physical. Their defense corps is exceptional. Their top line can play with anyone in the country."
In goal, junior Pat Nagle has started the bulk of games.
Head to head, Northern Michigan holds the edge this season. The Wildcats visited Ferris State in Big Rapids on Feb. 5 and Feb. 6, securing a shootout victory and a win on their trip. After trailing 3-2 to NMU in the first game's third period, the Bulldogs' Casey Haines tied the game 3-3 at 3:54. NMU nearly won the game with 1:22 left, but the potential game-winning shot by Jared Brown was disallowed because of a NMU skater made contact with Bulldogs goalie Taylor Nelson in the crease. After overtime, the game remained tied, giving both teams a point in the standings. Then the Wildcats earned the shootout victory.
In the second matchup that weekend, the Wildcats blanked the Bulldogs 4-0. Ferris State unleashed a barrage of offensive chances on NMU's Brian Stewart, but the senior goaltender stopped all 51 shots. Fittingly, Stewart was named that evening's No. 1 star.
"We're similar," Daniels said. "There's not a lot that differentiates us. They have an excellent goaltender. ... Both teams play a similar style of hockey. Both pursue pretty heavily on the puck, both like to cycle. They have some pretty good offensive defenseman on their team. There's more similarities between the two teams than there are differences."
After NMU's win in the second game against Ferris State, the Wildcats went on a tear the remainder of the regular season playoffs, winning seven of their last eight games. After their loss to NMU, the Bulldogs went 4-2-2. The Wildcats come into the semifinals riding a four-game win streak, while the Bulldogs have won two straight.
No. 1 Miami vs. No. 7 Michigan
Miami has dominated the CCHA this season, finishing the year with 70 total points and 21-2-5 with two shootout wins in the conference. Overall, the RedHawks were 26-6-7.
After receiving a first-round bye, Miami had the hardest road in the second round of any team in the conference. The RedHawks took three games to close out the Ohio State Buckeyes, the only second-round series that went the distance. After dominating Ohio State 6-2 in Game 1, the two teams fought to a 5-4 OSU overtime victory in the second game. Miami then closed out the Buckeyes 2-1 in game three.
Michigan took out Lake Superior State in the first round of the CCHA playoffs, beating the Lakers 5-2 and 6-0. In the second round, Michigan faced off against in-state rival Michigan State, a team that finished in second place with 50 points in the CCHA this season. As the visiting team, the Wolverines handily defeated the Spartans in two straight games, 5-1 and 5-3.
The Wolverines finished in seventh place in the CCHA after the regular season, with a 14-13-1 record. Overall, they were 23-17-1 this season.
Michigan comes here after what is, for them, a lackluster regular season. Too many years of losing top players to the pros finally caught up to the Wolverines, and returning Hobey finalist Louis Caporusso had a tough time adjusting to the diminishing supporting cast. But lately, he has taken off, and scored his 18th goal in the MSU series, leading the team. And his linemates, David Wohlberg and Luke Glendening, have picked it up too.
"It has taken some of the pressure off (Carl) Hagelin and (Matt) Rust, because that line was contributing most of the offense in the first half of the season," Michigan coach Red Berenson said. "And we picked up more offense from the defnese. But when you're playing better, more players participate. Every team has players that haven't had teriffic seasons, but it's the time of the year when everyone is contributing."
The goaltending remains a question, however, even after Shawn Hunwick stepped in nicely the last couple of weekends. Starter Bryan Hogan, who has been inconsistent in his time with Michigan, got hurt last month, forcing the little-used Hunwick to step in.
Miami has no such problems. Its two-man goaltending rotation of Cody Reichard and Connor Knapp is rock solid, though again Miami, like last season, is still calculating which one it will lean on to be "the man" in the postseason.
It may not matter. A defense corps that was mainly freshmen last year, is now a well-honed, experienced, tough, talented group of sophomores — and they are very stingy. Meanwhile, the offense is well-balanced, with the likes of Jarrod Palmer, Tommy Wingels, Carter Camper and Andy Miele sharing a lot of points.
"They have arguably the best team in the country, let's face it," Berenson said. "And they have since game one this year. We're not worried about their goalie, we're just worried about getting in their zone. They have as good a defense as anyone. And a great forward nucleus."
Michigan is making its 21st consecutive showing at the CCHA Championship and have won the Mason Cup eight of the last 16 years. But its streak of 19 straight NCAA tournament appearances is in jeopardy, and needs a championship here in order to survive.
"We're a team familiar with being down at Joe Louis," Berenson said. "This season was where you really appreciate it. Our team feels very fortunate to be going there. It was a tough road to get here."
The two teams faced each other twice in the regular season, on Nov. 6-7. Miami travelled to Ann Arbor and dominated the Wolverines over the weekend, beating Michigan 3-1 on Friday and 5-1 on Saturday. At the time, Michigan was ranked fourth, while the RedHawks were No. 1.
"It was early, so both teams were trying to figure out their way around the league, and what kind of team they were going to have," Miami coach Enrico Blasi said. "We're not putting much stock into what we saw. We're a different team than we were then, and we know they're playing a lot more confident. So I think you have to look at the two teams how they are right now."
Their two-game series in November was unusual according to the two teams' history against one another. The RedHawks have only one five games at Michigan's Yost Ice Arena, losing 47 times and tying once. All-time, Michigan is 68-22-3 against Miami.