CCHA Championship Preview
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
The road to this weekend's CCHA championship weekend in Detroit — which began on campuses across the midwest and beyond so many months ago — has taken many twists and turns through the autumn and winter.
But in the end, the top four teams in the regular season standings — Michigan, Notre Dame, Miami, and Western Michigan — will arrive in the Motor City this weekend, seeking the CCHA tournament championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Like all conference tournaments, NCAA implications are aplenty. For now, all four teams are in the top 12 of the Pairwise rankings. Western Michigan, at No. 12, has the most to lose, while Michigan and Miami — tied for fourth — are playing for potential No. 1 seeds.
Depending on the results this weekend, four out of the 16 NCAA tourney teams could be "imported from Detroit," but first, the CCHA championship is up for grabs in Hockeytown's Joe Louis Arena.
No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 4 Western Michigan
A year ago, Michigan enjoyed a magical run through the CCHA playoffs, winning the title as the No. 7 overall seed, thanks in large part to the then-inexperienced Shawn Hunwick providing heroics in goal.
This season — in a year when they played outdoors in front of the largest crowd to ever witness a hockey game — the Wolverines finished in first place, led of course by the most dynamic senior trio in the nation. Carl Hagelin, Louie Caporusso, and Matt Rust have a combined 97 points this season alone.
The only problem is that Caporusso has been hurt, and the team also lost forward David Wohlberg to a collarbone injury. The Wolverines have been forced to get offense from all sorts of locations, making it an unusual — yet still effective, thanks in large part to its defense — season in Ann Arbor.
Coach Red Berenson, of course, will be behind the bench as he leads the Wolverines to their 22nd consecutive trip to Joe Louis Arena this weekend after sweeping Bowling Green, 5-1 and 4-1, in the quarterfinals. They now look to return to the title game for the 10th time in the last 11 years.
"We are getting scoring from all over," said Hunwick, who has played the majority of minutes in net for the Wolverines this season, again due to an injury to Bryan Hogan. "We have seven defensemen that can play any given night and make contributions. I think we are getting a lot of scoring from the back end, which has been huge for our team."
Perhaps looming for Michigan is another matchup against Miami — which would be a rematch of last year's NCAA regional final in Fort Wayne, Ind. Michigan won the CCHA tournament, while Miami won the NCAA game, propelling the RedHawks to the Frozen Four.
Still, the top-seeded Wolverines must first face a Western Michigan Broncos team that played well all year, stumbling slightly during a six-game (1-4-1) Miami/Michigan/Notre Dame gauntlet to close the regular season.
Western Michigan, making its first appearance at Joe Louis Arena for the CCHA championship since 1994, will certainly not be taking the vaunted Michigan offense lightly. In six of the last seven meetings between the teams — all wins by the Wolverines — Michigan has scored five or more goals.
Overall, Michigan has won 19 of their last 22 contests against the Broncos, and was the only team to sweep WMU this season. But the games this season were good, and Western Michigan would already be assured an NCAA bid had it been able to finish off Michigan in the last meeting, when Carl Hagelin scored in the closing seconds of regulation to tie, and the Wolverines won in overtime.
Western Michigan rallied in last weekend's quarterfinal series against Ferris State, winning a pair of games 3-1 and 5-4 (OT) after dropping the first game against the Bulldogs. In Sunday's decisive contest, senior forward and leading scorer Max Campbell proved to be the hero, while classmate Jerry Kuhn made 29 saves for the win.
Campbell and Kuhn, as seniors, have had perhaps the most valuable perspective in Kalamazoo, witnessing a change in the culture thanks to new head coach Jeff Blashill.
Said Kuhn, "The character and the culture around the rink and around the university has completely changed. Coach Blashill has instilled a winning attitude into this program. As soon as he got in here, he talked about 'earning our locker room' and 'choosing to be great.'"
Michigan and Western Michigan face off at 8:00 P.M. local time on Friday night.
No. 2 Notre Dame vs. No. 3 Miami
In Friday afternoon's matinee at Joe Louis arena, fans might not want to blink too often when the RedHawks and Fighting Irish take the ice.
Miami's Andy Miele, Carter Camper, and Reilly Smith are all in the top 10 in the nation in scoring, with Miele leading the way with a staggering 65 points and 1.81 point per game average. Miele and Camper were named, Thursday, as Hobey Baker Award finalists.
"It's been a treat to see Andy play and coach him in the last few years," said Miami coach Enrico Blasi on Tuesday. "As Andy would tell you, it's equally as important the guys he's been playing with. He has had pretty good linemates this year in Carter Camper at times and Reilly Smith, Trent Vogelhuber and Pat Cannone. It's been a special year for him. At the end of the day it's all about the team and individual success is secondary in his eyes, and he's probably the first one to tell you that."
Also enjoying individual — and team — success this season are Irish rookies T.J. Tynan and Anders Lee, who have formed the best freshman duo in the country.
Notre Dame needed a full three games last weekend to defeat Lake Superior. Not surprisingly, in Game 1's 3-2 overtime win by the Irish, freshmen provided all the scoring for Jeff Jackson's squad. After Tynan and Lee chipped in with regulation goals, classmate Jeff Costello scored in the overtime period.
Two nights later, in the final postseason game to be played at the Joyce Center in South Bend, Costello scored again as the Irish closed out the Lakers.
"If our freshmen don't all contribute, we have problems," said the veteran Jackson, who owns a 36-10 all-time coaching record in the CCHA tournament. "Jeff Costello has had a very positive year for us playing on one of our top few lines. Mike Voran and David Gerths both playing in the third or fourth line role have done a great job creating energy and physical play for us. It's something that has helped improve our team as far as the style of which we play."
Miami, meanwhile, looks to return to the CCHA title game after last year's loss to Michigan in the CCHA tournament semifinals. The RedHawks have yet to win the Mason Cup in eight previous trips to Joe Louis Arena but are riding an 11-game unbeaten streak, including last weekend's quarterfinal sweep of Alaska.
The RedHawks won both games 4-1, and of course, Cody Reichard and Connor Knapp — the most familiar goaltender rotation in the nation by now — provided steady netminding as always.
Still, the Irish have had success against both junior netminders this season, scoring five goals on each of them in separate contests — a 5-5 tie and a 5-2 Notre Dame win.
"Both Conner Knapp and Cody Reichard have been playing extremely well," said Miami head coach Enrico Blasi. "With our team defense, there's been a little more of a purpose to what we do. Since the Michigan State series and going into Notre Dame, our guys are starting to play with a lot more purpose and focus, which has helped in all three zones."
Notre Dame and Miami kick off the CCHA Championship Weekend on Friday afternoon at 4:35 P.M.