Ferris State Hits a Wall After a Strong Start
by Joe Meloni/CHN Staff Writer
The extended break between the end of the first half and the beginning of the second arrived at an ideal time for Ferris State. The Bulldogs closed the first portion of the 2010-11 season with a 4-1 loss at Notre Dame to close a six-game stretch that saw FSU go 3-3-0 after starting the year 8-2-1.
Beginning the second half with a pair of non-conference games against RIT and Vermont provided FSU with a chance to piece together some momentum and amend the issues that arose in November and December. Those problems weren't too difficult to identify, either. The power play and penalty kill that sprung the Bulldogs in their first 11 games became weaknesses.
In those first 11 games, the Bulldogs' power play converted 22.4 percent of their chances — going 11 for 49. On the other end, their penalty kill neutralized 89.7 percent of their opponents' power plays during the good times.
Hardly the offensive powerhouse, such efficiency on special teams helped FSU become one of the surprise teams in the country. As both units began to falter, though, the strong positions in both the CCHA and national picture FSU carved for itself quickly evaporated.
As the second half began, struggles on special teams continued in losses to both RIT and UVM. Thursday afternoon, FSU went 0-for-9 on the man advantage and allowed a pair of power play goals to RIT in a 3-0 loss. The following evening, FSU managed a goal on its power play, but Vermont countered with three of its own in a 4-2 win to close the tournament.
Encouraged with his team's puck movement and the goal it scored with the advantage, FSU coach Bob Daniels believes the power play woes may be behind his team. However, killing just five of 10 power plays in Burlington is hardly the start he hoped for.
"Earlier in the year, when we were winning, we might have given up two power-play goals in 10 games," Daniels said on Friday. "Now, all of a sudden, our penalty kill is really suffering. We were scoring about a power-play goal and a half per game, and that's kind of dried up. Although it appears like, looking at a positive, that's coming around."
Following the action from the official beginning of college hockey's second half, FSU finds itself 20th in the Pairwise. When the puck dropped Thursday, the Bulldogs were in great position nationally. With 16 games remaining in the regular season, including 14 against TUCs, FSU has more than enough opportunity to reclaim its place in this conversation. This weekend, FSU hosts ECAC upstart Colgate in its final non-conference games of the season. Playing outside of the CCHA will give the Bulldogs a good opportunity to right itself ahead of the stretch run — they're currently fifth in the conference — but the pair with Colgate could give FSU a critical PWR comparison win over the Raiders come championship Saturday.
"Even though they're non-conference, they have a big bearing on the national picture and our RPI, so, from that standpoint, we have to get it turned around quickly," Daniels said. "They're non-conference, but they are still very important games for everyone.
"It's nice to be in the position where we should be able to secure a bid (to the NCAA Tournament) with a good second half, but we know we'll have to start putting more wins up than we have been lately," he continued.
Putting together those wins will require some improvements. Namely on the penalty kill, FSU currently ranks 17th nationally at 84.5 percent for the year. In each of the last two seasons, the Bulldogs led the nation in penalty killing. Based on that and the unit's excellence in the first 11 games of the year, it's likely FSU will find its game again.
With the man advantage, though, the Bulldogs overachieved to such an extent in the beginning of the year that it's difficult to judge the unit's true capability. Their 14.3 percent is good enough for 44th in the country. In their last 10 games, they've scored just three power play goals on 43 chances — a 6.9 percent success rate.
Even with the difficulty of the last 10 games, the hot start is enough to sustain Ferris State right now. Daniels and his club know the level they can reach when they're truly at their best. For now, though, they're searching for that formula, some momentum to pull them through the rest of the year.
"There are some things we need to tighten up," Daniels said. "Overall, though, we just need to get a couple to go in. It might have to be one off a skate or an odd one. It'll get the guys to play a little bit looser."
The pair of losses in Burlington were troubling, but Ferris headed back Grand Rapids, Mich., knowing exactly what needs to improve. Based on October and the first few games of November, the Bulldogs know the level they can reach when their special teams are their strength. At the same time, the last 10 show how quickly a game — and a season — can get away when special teams become a weakness.