CCHA First Round Preview
by Sam Obermyer and Avash Kalra/CHN Reporter
The 42nd and final CCHA postseason begins tonight, stretching from Ann Arbor and Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., to Fairbanks, Alaska. While the series between Michigan and Northern Michigan holds a tremendous amount of intrigue – with Michigan looking to keep its historic NCAA tournament appearance streak intact – there will be plenty of excitement in the other two series as well.
Five teams (Miami, Notre Dame, Western Michigan, Ohio State, and Ferris State – with the latter two to face off next weekend) enjoy a first-round bye. All series are best-of-three.
NO. 10 NORTHERN MICHIGAN AT NO. 7 MICHIGAN
After a disappointing season by any team’s standards, and especially by Michigan standards, things may be finally turning around at just the right time for the maize and blue. The Wolverines are on a hot streak heading into their first round CCHA Tournament series vs. Northern Michigan, as Red Berenson’s crew has not lost in almost a month (5-2-1 in the last eight games).
A big reason for the recent success is freshman goaltender Steve Racine, who has finally stepped up as Michigan's number one starter. Racine has a four game unbeaten streak, having swept the Wolverines’ last two series (at Ohio State, vs. Ferris State). Racine was also named the CCHA Rookie of the Week for the final week of the regular season.
“The last couple of months I have been working very hard in practice, trying to get better,” Racine said. “I was playing a lot in the beginning of the year, and when that goes away, you notice you may have taken it for granted a little bit. So, I just tried to work harder and get in there and make the most of my opportunity.”
Northern Michigan comes in with a hot goalie, too. Jared Coreau was named the CCHA Goaltender of the Week for the final week of the regular season. He won the same award the week of January 7. Northern Michigan (15-17-4, 9-15-4) has spilt its last four series and has a 9-7-1 since January 1.
The Wildcats and Wolverines played two games against each other back in November. The first game ended in a 4-4 tie, with Michigan winning the shootout. The Wildcats won the second game 4-3. Both games were played in Marquette.
Unfortunately for NMU, the Wildcats will be without top scorer Matt Thurber, who broke his leg in practice this week.
Michigan leads Northern Michigan 7-0 all time in CCHA tournament play. The last times these two teams played in the CCHA Tournament was the 2010 Championship Game at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, which the Wolverines won 2-1.
NO. 9 BOWLING GREEN AT NO. 8 LAKE SUPERIOR STATE
Lake Superior earned the league’s final home ice spot last weekend with a 3-0 win on the final night of the regular season. The victory came at Northern Michigan, on the strength of a 33-save shutout for junior goaltender Kevin Murdock and a penalty killing effort that saw the Lakers kill off all eight of the Wildcats’ power play opportunities. Even more impressively, perhaps, was that all three goals were short-handed, as Lake Superior became the first team since Clarkson (vs. Quinnipiac) in 2008 to score three shorthanded goals in a single game. The final goal of the regular season for Lake Superior gave senior forward Domenic Monardo his 100th career point.
Meanwhile, Murdock has quietly become a more consistent goaltender than previous standout – and classmate – Kevin Kapalka. And his effort a week ago helped secure the third consecutive home playoff series for the Lakers. Murdock ranks eighth nationally with a .935 save percentage.
Bowling Green, on the other hand, enters the weekend after losing two games against Notre Dame last weekend. The Falcons swept the Lakers 4-1 and 7-3 in a weekend series in Bowling Green in early February – the most dominant offensive opponent the Lakers have faced all year. Kapalka and Murdock each played a game between the pipes for the Lakers in that series, and neither fared well. One storyline to watch will be whether the Falcons’ Ryan Carpenter – a potential prolific scorer – will return to the scoresheet this weekend after snapping his six-game scoring streak last weekend.
Carpenter, of course, was part of the Bowling Green team that, last season, won a first-round series at Northern Michigan and a quarterfinal series at Ferris State, the eventual national runner up. All that came despite finishing dead-last in the CCHA standings.
"It definitely brings some confidence that we've done it before and know what we have to do right on the road, how we have to play," said junior co-captain Cam Wojtala to the Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune this week. "We know if we stick to that, we can be successful. We just have to know that every play counts."
NO. 11 MICHIGAN STATE AT NO. 6 ALASKA
It’s been a forgettable season for the Michigan State Spartans, who now – by virtue of finishing in last place – must travel to Alaska for the second time in two weeks. The good news is that Michigan State had some success against the Nanooks, splitting a weekend series – with the Spartans earning a 1-0 shutout win in the weekend’s first game.
Freshman goaltender Jake Hildebrand earned another 1-0 shutout just a week ago, against Western Michigan, and his .930 save percentage has been overlooked because of MSU’s woeful record (the Spartans are 11-22-3 overall).
“I told our players Western Michigan was playing for the league championship that night,” said Spartans head coach Tom Anastos of his regular season finale. “They had a sense of urgency. We were playing for pride, and I felt we have as much to play for as they do.”
Alaska, meanwhile, enters the playoffs riding a three-game winning streak, hopeful to play well in the conference tournament and return to the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2010.
“We not only have to bring energy and intensity, we have to bring execution,” Alaska coach Dallas Ferguson told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner this week. “It’s going to be a hard-fought series, and we have to have good execution to have any kind of success.”