NCAA Midwest Regional Preview
by Zach Helfand/CHN Reporter
GREEN BAY, Wis. One by one, they arrived in Green Bay, and each in its own way. Denver, after a spate of injuries, hobbled. Ferris State faltered, failing to reach the CCHA Tournament by losing a series to last-place Bowling Green.
Cornell sprinted, after winning what was essentially a play-in game in the consolation game of the ECAC Tournament. And with a loss in the CCHA Championship game, Michigan stumbled.
On Thursday, they all assembled at the Resch Center for the final full practice (each will skate on Friday morning) before the start of the NCAA Tournament on Friday.
On the line, of course, is a trip to the Frozen Four to whoever can emerge from the Midwest Region with two wins.
There are tournament veterans — notably Michigan, with 22 straight appearances in the NCAA Tournament and 24 total Frozen Fours — and novices — Ferris State makes just its second appearance.
And each team carries a season’s worth of experience with it. Here’s a closer look at each first-round matchup.
No. 2 Ferris State vs. No. 3 Denver
Bob Daniels has been here before. But this time, he says, is different. The Ferris State coach took the Bulldogs to their only other NCAA Tournament appearance in 2003, where they upset North Dakota before falling to Minnesota in the Gophers’ home rink in the second round.
But Daniels struggled to handle the pressure.
“I went in there very nervous,” Daniels said. “I think because I was nervous, the players were a little bit nervous as well.”
Not this time.
“No one’s really nervous anymore. I think what we are is excited, I can say that. Even if you just watch that last practice we just had out there, guys were moving the puck well. There’s no nerves involved.”
The Bulldogs practiced confidently, and why shouldn’t they? In the regular season, at least, Ferris State emerged from the free-for-all that was the CCHA — what even Denver coach Geroge Gwozdecky referred to as this year’s “power conference.”
And the Bulldogs did it with defense, ranking ninth in the nation in scoring defense by limiting opponents to just 2.2 goals per game.
“Ferris is a really good team,” said Gwozdecky, putting emphasis on the “really.” “I don’t know if I’ve seen any team … as committed to playing as hard defensively as the Bulldogs do. It’s tough to get pucks to the net on them. It’s tough to get second-chance opportunities. They have three or four guys who can, if you give them an opportunity, they’re going to counter on you and make you pay.”
Senior goaltender Taylor Nelson leads Ferris State defensively. Nelson earned First Team All-CCHA honors this season, beating out Hobey Baker Finalist Shawn Hunwick of Michigan.
Offensively, Ferris State lacks a 20-goal scorer, and only has three players in double digits. Senior forward Jordie Johnston is the scoring leader with 33 points off of 18 goals and 15 assists.
Coming off an overtime loss to Bowling Green that eliminated Ferris State in the CCHA quarterfinals, the Bulldogs will be well-rested.
Though Daniels called that loss “devastating,” he wasn’t upset with the team’s level of play.
“We actually played well in that series,” Daniels said. “I thought we played easily well enough that series to win it. We didn’t, but we played well. And I think because of that, we were able to move forward.”
On the other side are the Pioneers, who may as well have driven to the tournament in an ambulance.
In the Championship of the WCHA Final Five, Denver’s leading goal scorer, Jason Zucker, landed awkwardly on his left arm. Zucker joins teammates Chris Knowlton, Josiah Didier, Paul Phillips, Beau Bennett and David Makowski in the theoretical injury report. The status of all six remains unclear.
“We’re going to have some game-time decisions as far as who’s in the lineup and who’s not,” Gwozdecky said. “That’s all I can tell you right now.”
The potential loss of Zucker deals a blow to Denver, especially on offensively. But as a team, the Pioneers have been dynamic in with the puck. They rank ninth nationally in goals per game, making them an even matchup with Ferris State’s ninth-ranked defense.
In all 25 of Denver’s wins have come when it has scored three goals or more. If Ferris State can slow the pace and make the game a defensive struggle, look for the Bulldogs to prevail.
“What we saw (on tape) is a team that is excellent on transition,” Daniels said. So one of the mantras that we’ve had is that we’ve got to make sure that we’re smart with the puck. Our puck management has to be at a high level.
“They can go five minutes without getting a shot on net, and then all of a sudden they get their chance, and boom, it’s in the back of the net.”
No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 4 Cornell
Cornell has been preparing for this game the entire season.
It’s the reason the Big Red played Boston University in Madison Square Garden. It’s the reason they played Colorado College.
So when the time came to play a team like Michigan, they’d be ready.
“That’s what you want your non-conference schedule to do, is to mimic the tournament,” said Cornell Coach Mike Schafer. “So it’s not so much you’re preparing for Michigan this week, it’s the preparation has been happening all year long.”
Cornell will have its hands full with top-seeded Michigan, the No. 2 overall seed in the tournament. The Wolverines come to Green Bay bringing the nation’s fourth-ranked offense defense and tenth-ranked offense with them.
But the Big Red can hold their own defensively. Though Cornell has just two double-digit goal scorers, it also allows just 2.3 goals per game, and it has the depth to match Michigan.
The Wolverines lack a prototypical top-line scorer. Forwards Alex Guptill and David Wohlberg lead the team with just 16 goals and 17 assists apiece. But Michigan has found offensive success with its depth, something that Schafer hopes to neutralize.
“We pride ourselves on great balance,” Schafer said. “Defensively, I’m never really worried about anybody on our team and line matchups. … You know that if you play a team that’s going to create a one-two punch and two players, or you’re playing against a team that can contribute offensively from everywhere, that we have that balance.
“Our balance ourselves is going to give us an opportunity that we don’t feel that there’s a line that we have to protect or defensive pair that we have to protect.”
Cornell rode that balance and defensive style to a second place finish in the ECAC, behind No. 1 seed Union, before getting blown out by Harvard in the ECAC tournament semifinal game, 6-1.
That loss stung, but the Big Red recovered to defeat Colgate, 3-0, in the consolation game to cling to a tournament bid.
Michigan, meanwhile, made it to the championship game of the CCHA Tournament before being edged by Western Michigan, 3-2.
And Michigan coach Red Berenson said that the Wolverines should feel very comfortable against Cornell.
“I see them as a CCHA-type team,” Berenson said “If they were in our league, they’d be right there with the top teams in our league
“They’re in the ECAC but they look like they belong in the CCHA. Whether it’s their grinding style or the defensive style, I just see this as a real grinding hard-fought close game.”
And the familiarity doesn’t end with the style. Freshman forward John McCarron grew up in nearby Macomb, Mich., though he was more of a Michigan State fan. And goaltender Andy Iles played for the U.S. Development Team in Ann Arbor. He went to high school for one year about a minute walk from Michigan’s home at Yost Ice Arena.
Iles has been a rock for Cornell the entire year, starting all 33 games with a save percentage of .918. Despite his steadiness, though, the Big Red have struggled on the penalty kill.
Penalties, it turns out, could play a key role in Friday’s matchup. Michigan’s dreadful power play ranks 46th in the nation, and Cornell’s penalty kill is even worse. Its un-Cornell-like 78.9 kill percentage ranks 48th in the nation.
Cornell, though, isn’t concerned about any numbers Michigan puts up — good or bad. For the Big Red, it’s all about playing their own game.
“We’re not going to change our style of play for them just because they’re Michigan,” McCarron said.