Capsule: Ferris State
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
After the CCHA sent five teams to the 2012 NCAA tournament, only one — Ferris State — remains. After being picked to finish ninth in the preseason polls, the Bulldogs won the CCHA regular season title and went on to defeat Denver and Cornell at the Midwest Regional a week ago.
Under veteran coach Bob Daniels, Ferris State now heads to Tampa for its first NCAA Frozen Four in program history.
Players to Watch
Taylor Nelson, Sr. G (20-6-3, 2.10 GAA, .923 save%)
At the NCAA Midwest Regional in Green Bay, Nelson allowed just two goals in two games, one each to Denver and Cornell, and in doing so, returned to form after a decidedly rough weekend against Bowling Green — in a CCHA opening round series that saw the Falcons score 11 goals in three games en route to an upset.
If anything, regrouping after setbacks is nothing new for Nelson, who — after being the starter for part of his early career at Ferris State — lost the battle for the starting job last year to Pat Nagle. Of course, there's no shame in being the second option behind an All-American goaltender, which Nagle was — but impressively, Nelson used that experience as motivation.
In short, with the help of Dave Cencer, the team's strength and conditioning coach, Nelson went back to the drawing board.
"What he's gone through the past four years has made him appreciate the moment he's in right now even more," said Daniels. "What I like about Taylor is how hard he works every day in practice. We use him as an example quite a bit to our young freshmen as a way to attack practice. Because Taylor is such a competitor, when Pat started to get the majority of games, Taylor worked even harder in practice. And sometimes that led him to technically getting off his game.
"I liken it to a golfer's swing. Sometimes they try to change their swing to try to get an extra 10 yards. And then all of a sudden they mess their swing up and it's hard to get back. I think Taylor overworked himself and over-tried in practice, creating what I thought were some flaws in his games. [In the offseason, Dave Cencer] strictly worked on [Nelson's] movement and fundamentals and really got Taylor back to how he was as a freshman. They watched a lot of videos. When the year started, he developed that confidence. He got his swing back, and then all of a sudden, he was back to what we saw as a freshman and even beyond."
In the Midwest regional, the senior netminder made 47 saves and posted a .959 save percentage. Nelson was named the all-tournament goaltender and the NCAA Midwest Regional Most Valuable Player.
Jordie Johnston, Sr. F (20-16-36)
See separate article.
Kyle Bonis, Jr. F (18-11-29)
After scoring just 19 points during his first two seasons in Big Rapids, Bonis has amassed 29 points already this season, and the junior's 18 goals trail only Johnston for the team lead.
And with four multi-goal games this season, the Lindsay, Ont., native has demonstrated a tendency to score in bunches. Still, in line with the apparent mantra for Ferris State all season, Bonis continues to emphasize defensive responsibility over his personal goals on offense.
Said Bonis, "I like to pride myself on being an offensive guy, but when it comes to this time of year, defense is obviously at a premium. So that is going to be my primary focus. On the offensive end, it's going to be trying not to do too much, getting pucks in deep, and sticking to my game plan even though it's a big stage.
"We're a team with very well rounded defensive system that we take a lot of pride in. At the same time, we have good offensive instincts, and we rely on those when we use our defense to create turnovers."
Bonis is also looking forward to heading to Tampa — 1,300 miles or so due south from Big Rapids.
"I've been to Florida once, when I was eight years old," said the junior left-winger. "I'm really excited to go back because I believe the weather is warmer than it is here."
Chad Billins, Sr. D (7-22-29)
From Jan. 14 to Feb. 24, Billins posted one of the more impressive offensive stretches in recent memory for a CCHA defenseman, as the senior blueliner tallied points in 12 consecutive games. During that time, Ferris State never lost.
In the Bulldogs' first and second round NCAA tournament wins this season, Billins registered six blocked shots and was recognized as an all-tournament defenseman — another honor among many this season, including being named to the 2011-12 All-CCHA First Team and being named a finalist for the league's Best Offensive Defenseman.
Playing alongside Billins on the Bulldogs' top defensive pairing is sophomore defender Scott Czarnowczan (2-18-20), who was a finalist for the Best Defensive Defenseman Award this season in the CCHA. Czarnowczan led Ferris State with a plus-16 rating and 65 blocked shots in league action.
Matthew Kirzinger, Jr. F (10-24-34) and Garrett Thompson, So. F (10-12-22)
Johnston, the Bulldogs' leading scorer and most recent hero, may get most of the attention from fans and even opposing defensemen, but his linemates — Kirzinger at center and Thompson on the opposite wing — have been scoring at a prolific pace recently. In 40 games played this season, Kirzinger scored 11 points in the first 20 games and 23 points in the Bulldogs' most recent 20 games. In fact, the junior right winger has a five game point streak entering the Frozen Four.
Similarly, Thompson has points in four of the Bulldogs' last five games. Thompson opened the scoring in the regional final victory against Cornell a week ago, scoring a power play goal after only 11 seconds had elapsed in the third period.
Bowling Green, as a No. 11 seed, knocked off the newly crowned regular season champion Ferris State in the first round of the CCHA playoffs — a stunning result given the Bulldogs' consistent dominance since early January. In the decisive game three, the Falcons won 4-3 in overtime — giving Daniels and his team plenty to think about for almost two weeks.
After losing to Bowling Green, Ferris State missed a chance to play for the CCHA's tournament championship trophy, the Mason Cup, at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena and instead had an extra week of practice prior to the NCAA tournament.
An extra week that, it's turned out, was perhaps a blessing in disguise.
"Bowling Green had a whale of a weekend," said Daniels. "They deserve a lot of credit. The fact is, we played very well that weekend. We said, 'Okay, this is painful. It was a tough experience for us.' But we knew that we didn't have to go back and recreate the wheel. We lost to a very good Bowling Green team in that weekend. It can happen to anyone. We felt sorry for ourselves for about 48 hours and then looked forward to the tournament."
Added junior Kyle Bonis, "As a team, we're an older group of guys. It was something that was obviously upsetting, but at the same time, we didn't want one weekend to define our season. We realized that we had accomplished so much and had a great chance to get to the position where we are now. We handled it correctly and got ourselves ready for the national tournament. We didn't let it break what we had in the locker room."
In the third period of the NCAA Midwest Regional Final against Cornell, the Bulldogs found themselves in the precarious position of killing a five minute power play in the third period — with the score deadlocked, at the time, at 1-1.
With freshman forward TJ Schlueter ejected following a dangerous checking from behind penalty, the Bulldogs' penalty killing units stifled Cornell's man-advantage for the full length of the five minute major infraction. As the Big Red's man advantage opportunity expired, Ferris State scored the ultimate game-winner, with senior Jordie Johnston and sophomore Andy Huff expertly executing a 2-on-1.
"It was just a great play," Johnston said immediately afterwards. "I think it was [Cory Kane] along the boards kind of made a nice chip out, and Andy Huff picked up the puck and I just kind of looked up and realized there was only one D-man back there, so I just tried to get up the ice as quick as I could. It was near the end of my shift and I was getting a little tired, but Andy avoided the D-man and made a beautiful pass to me and I just kind of held onto the puck a little bit and then put it in the empty net. It was a good feeling."
Of course, none of that would have been possible without a successful penalty kill first. During the regional, the Bulldogs went 10-for-10 in penalty killing situations — reflective again of a commitment to defensive responsibility. Overall, Ferris State is currently ranked tied for fifth nationally in team defense, allowing only 2.17 goals per game.
Despite a milder than usual winter, December was still a miserable month in Big Rapids. Ferris State lost five of six games — a stretch that culminated in a pair of losses, to RIT and Vermont, at the Catamount Cup.
"We hit a bump in the road in December," recalled Daniels this week. "The low point was that tournament in Vermont."
Nevertheless, a week later, the Bulldogs looked like a new team — as if, as 2012 began, they had resolved to do so. With continued strong play from Nelson between the pipes, a balanced offense, and most notably a dedication to team defense, Ferris State rode a 15 game unbeaten streak en route to winning the CCHA regular season championship, which was clinched on the penultimate night of the season — a 1-1 tie against Western Michigan.
Entering Thursday's national semifinal showdown with ECAC regular season and tournament champion Union, Ferris State boasts a 7-0 record against ECAC schools this season, sweeping two game series against Colgate, St. Lawrence and Rensselaer before toppling Cornell in the NCAA quarterfinals prior to the Frozen Four.
This is Ferris State's first NCAA Frozen Four appearance and also the first for Bob Daniels, who has been the Bulldogs' head coach since the 1992-93 season.
Ferris State has no NHL draft picks on its team — and neither does its Thursday opponent, Union. In comparison, in the other half of this week's Frozen Four, Minnesota boasts 18 NHL draft picks, while Boston College has nine.
In a conference call last week, coach Bob Daniels noted that multiple former players — including former Hobey Baker candidate and current Pittsburgh Penguins star Chris Kunitz — have called to wish him and the Bulldogs well in the Frozen Four this week. Kunitz called following Ferris State's NCAA quarterfinal victory against Cornell, shortly after returning to Pittsburgh following a Saturday night loss in Ottawa. The following night, Kunitz scored just a minute into the Penguins' game — ultimately a 5-2 win — against the New Jersey Devils.
The last time the Frozen Four featured four regular season champions — Ferris State (CCHA), Union (ECAC), Minnesota (WCHA), Boston College (Hockey East) — was 1996, when Cincinnati hosted Michigan (CCHA), Vermont (ECAC), Colorado College (WCHA), and Boston University (Hockey East).
The 2011-12 edition of the Ferris State Bulldogs has posted the program's third-best all-time mark with a 25-11-5 record to date this year. The 2002-03 team holds the school's top spot with a 31-10-1 record. The 1979-80 squad under head coach Rick Duffett compiled a 26-11-1 overall record, which marked the Bulldogs' first campaign as a member of the CCHA.