CCHA Playoff Preview
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
Seven of the eight teams playing in the CCHA quarterfinals this weekend are currently in the top 20 of the Pairwise rankings, and the eighth — Bowling Green — remains in the tourney after knocking off another top 20 team (Northern Michigan) last weekend.
It's all a testament to how strong the CCHA has been all year long, and now, these remaining eight teams will face off in best-of-three series this weekend for the right to play for the Mason Cup at Joe Louis Arena a week from now.
Here's a preview of each quarterfinal round. Check the CHN blog prior to Friday night's games for predictions.
No. 1 Ferris State vs No. 11 Bowling Green
For the first time since the Chris Kunitz-led Bulldogs won 31 games in 2002-03, Ferris State is again the regular season champion in the CCHA. And this weekend, their quest towards their first Mason Cup begins, as the Bulldogs open their postseason by hosting a Bowling Green team that upset Northern Michigan last weekend.
Ferris State was picked ninth in the preseason coaches poll but now enters the CCHA playoffs as the No. 1 overall seed.
"Everyone's asking, 'Where's Ferris State?' Now, we're putting our name on the map," sophomore defenseman Scott Czarnowczan told The Detroit News this week. "We're making a name for ourselves, and it's exciting."
Ferris State swept the season series against Bowling Green, outscoring the Falcons 19-5 in four wins, with Bulldogs senior goaltender Taylor Nelson shining in each of the four games.
On Wednesday, Nelson, who over the course of the season took over the No. 1 goaltender position after previously platooning with freshman C.J. Motte, was named to CCHA All-Conference First Team, after posting a 2.08 goals-against average and .927 save percentage in CCHA play this year.
"If somebody doesn't notice you on the ice, I feel like I've done my job," Nelson told CHN in January. "When you're making things look easy, that's what I kind of strive for."
Taylor Nelson is, of course, far from a household name, even among CCHA circles, and some heads may have turned when Nelson was named to the CCHA First Team over Michigan goaltender Shawn Hunwick. Nevertheless, it was Nelson, behind a relatively modest offense, who led Ferris State to the regular season league championship.
Of course, others played a role too — namely, seniors Jordie Johnston and Chad Billins and juniors Matthew Kirzinger and Kyle Bonis — and they'll be counted on this weekend to overcome a Bowling Green team that, despite finishing in last place, is playing confidently, knocking off Michigan two weeks ago before upsetting Northern Michigan last weekend. Earlier this week, Billins was named one of three finalists for the CCHA Player of the Year Award.
Meanwhile, against Northern Michigan in the first round last week, Bowling Green's all-rookie line of Adam Berkle, Ryan Carpenter and Dan DeSalvo combined for seven goals, eight assists, and a plus-21 on-ice rating — the most dominant performance (by far) of any trio in the opening round of the CCHA playoffs. They may need a similar performance this weekend in Big Rapids to overcome a Ferris State team that is 11-1-4 in the 2012 calendar year thus far.
Of note, and as part of a developing news story that puts this weekend's playoff series in perspective, Bowling Green also enters the weekend coming off an emotional week on campus. Last Friday, a horrific car accident on Interstate 75, just miles from campus, left three Bowling Green students dead and two others seriously injured when a wrong-way driver slammed into a car full of young women who were driving to an airport for a spring break trip.
No. 2 Michigan vs No. 8 Notre Dame
On Jan. 20-21, the Wolverines and Fighting Irish played one of the more memorable series of the season, splitting a pair of closely-contested games in South Bend. And if Notre Dame is to advance to the CCHA Final Four and play for the right to win an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, coach Jeff Jackson's crew will have to break one of the most impressive active streaks in college hockey — for 23 consecutive years, all with Red Berenson behind the bench, Michigan has advanced to the CCHA semifinal round.
Jackson, of course, has had plenty of success in the postseason as well, which makes this matchup even more intriguing. Jackson, a two-time national champion as a coach, is 38-12 all-time in the CCHA playoffs, a .760 winning percentage, and Notre Dame enters the weekend with a much different feel than a typical No. 8 seed.
After all, the Irish are less than a year removed from a Frozen Four appearance, are led by Player of the Year candidate T.J. Tynan (his 41 points as a sophomore give him 95 in his young career already), and boast a goaltender, Steven Summerhays, who has two shutouts in his last three games.
Summerhays, a sophomore, has taken over the starting role in South Bend, wrestling away that position from upperclassman Mike Johnson, who struggled in the final weeks of the season. It was also Summerhays who played both games against Michigan earlier this season, and the Anchorage, Alaska, native opened some eyes in late February with a highlight-reel save against Michigan State, stopping junior Chris Forfar on a clean shorthanded breakaway.
Certainly, goaltending has been the story for Michigan as well, with Shawn Hunwick's well-chronicled rise from obscurity now culminating in a stellar senior campaign that has included whispers of potentially being named one of the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award.
Hunwick was famously thrust into action two years ago when then-starter Bryan Hogan was injured in a game against, ironically, Notre Dame. Last year, Hunwick came within a bounce of winning a national championship, so it's been somewhat surprising that the Wolverines have been relatively quiet this year in finishing the regular season tied for second in the Pairwise.
A lot of that has to do with the balanced offense, with five forwards scoring 10 or more goals during the course of the season thus far. Leading the way has been freshman Alex Guptill, who leads the Wolverines in points and was named to the CCHA All-Rookie team this week.
"He's really just opening his eyes and learning from everyone else around him," linemate David Wohlberg told The Michigan Daily this week. "He's become a really good player."
No. 3 Western Michigan vs. No. 7 Lake Superior
Frank Slubowski, Western Michigan's freshman goaltender and clearly one of many impressive young goaltenders in the CCHA (read above), put on a show on the final weekend of the season, turning aside seven of seven Ferris State attempts in a shootout and then shut out the Bulldogs the following night.
The only unanimous selection to the All-CCHA Rookie Team, Slubowski started 27 games between the pipes for the Broncos, and his 2.03 goals against average will break the program's single season record for lowest goals against average in a single season. He also currently ranks in the top 10 in the nation in that category.
And Slubowski is no stranger to his opponent this weekend. The Broncos split their season series — a pair of games just three weeks ago — with the Lakers, with Slubowski starting each game against opposing goaltender Kevin Kapalka, quietly one of the more talented goaltenders in the country.
Kapalka enters the weekend after stopping 72 of 75 shots last weekend in a playoff opening round sweep of Alaska and has demonstrated an ability to win big games.
Nevertheless, as much as goaltending may be the story in the Michigan/Notre Dame series, special teams may mold the script in this matchup — one that figures to be a low-scoring, physical affair based on the skill sets of each team.
In the two games between the Broncos and Lakers this season, Lake Superior was unable to score an even strength goal, scoring three times on the power play and once shorthanded. Each team is ranked in the top 15 in the nation in penalty killing, with almost identical special teams numbers. As a result, whichever team stays the most disciplined and has the most success on the power play may determine who advances to Detroit next weekend.
No. 4 Miami vs. No. 5 Michigan State
In perhaps the most intriguing quarterfinal series — mostly because these teams have been preparing for each other for two weeks — Miami faces Michigan State for the first time in the playoffs since the 2006 CCHA championship game, which the Spartans won en route to a national championship.
And even though the RedHawks swept this season's two games against the Spartans — a pair of games at Michigan State in early January — Miami is 0-9 all-time in the CCHA playoffs against Michigan State.
Nevertheless, Miami enters the playoffs winning its last six games of the season — and in dominant fashion. The RedHawks outscored opponents 19-3 in that stretch. Connor Knapp started in goal for five of those six games and may be the starter for the duration of the season if coach Enrico Blasi decides to ride the hot hand. In doing so, Blasi would leave Cody Reichard — the CCHA Player of the Year two years ago — on the bench.
"It's a fun time of the year, and you want your team playing well," head coach Enrico Blasi said after Miami's regular season finale two weeks ago. "Over the last couple of weekends, we've probably played some of our best hockey, and it helps when you have a guy like Reilly [Smith] on your team, who seems to be clicking on all cylinders."
Smith, a CCHA Player of the Year finalist, has 26 goals this season — second in the nation — and has stepped out of the shadows of Andy Miele, last year's Hobey winner, and Carter Camper by leading the RedHawks offense all season long. Chipping in have been a host of freshman forwards, including Austin Czarnik, Jimmy Mullin, and Blake Coleman — who in a year or two may very well be household names in the CCHA.
In contrast to the forward-driven offense of the RedHawks, the Spartans have been led all season by offensively-minded defenseman Torey Krug, who joins Smith (Miami) and Billins (Ferris State) as a finalist for the league's Player of the Year award this season.
Krug led the entire league in scoring this season, finishing with 11 goals and 18 assists in league play.
"I'm a 5-foot-9 defenseman, so most of the time, people say, 'Oh he's got to be an offensive defenseman,'" Krug told CHN. "That's been part of my game this year. I've been trying to become more well-rounded and play well on both sides of the puck. Any time our team has the puck, I like to push for offense."