CCHA Quarterfinal Preview
CHN Staff Report
The quarterfinal round of the CCHA tournament features several intriguing storylines and questions.
Can Michigan State, after finishing in last place in the regular season, pull off a postseason upset for a second consecutive weekend, just like Bowling Green did a year ago? Which of his two freshmen goaltenders will Miami’s Enrico Blasi start in their first playoff appearance? Can Michigan, looking to keep its NCAA tournament streak alive, take advantage of a struggling Western Michigan squad? Will Bowling Green – after scoring 13 goals in its last two games – match up with the offensive firepower of Anders Lee and T.J. Tynan in South Bend? And can the Buckeyes – displaced from its usual rink because of high school basketball – take down last year’s national championship runner-up?
Those questions and many more will begin to be answered on Friday night on the campuses of Miami, Notre Dame, Western Michigan, and Ohio State.
No. 11 Michigan State at No. 1 Miami
CCHA regular-season champion Miami had a first-round bye and on paper is the clear favorite in this conference best vs. conference worst matchup. But after last-place Michigan State upset No. 6 Alaska – the second consecutive year that the league’s last-place team has advanced past the first round – the Spartans are back on the radar.
MSU – after overcoming the league’s longest road trip, in addition to a bout with food poisoning last weekend – is riding its best stretch of the season with six wins in its last 10.
“Being as youthful as we are, one of the challenges for the season has been finding that level of desperation,” head coach Tom Anastos told the Hamilton Journal-News this week. “Well, now you have no choice but to play desperate. I thought we played with some of that desperation at Alaska, which allowed us to win the series.”
In the series win at Alaska, senior goaltender Will Yanakeff started Games 1 and 2, winning the opening game of the weekend 2-1 on the strength of 34 saves. Freshman netminder Jake Hildebrand, a finalist for the CCHA Rookie of the Year award, earned the win in the decisive third game on Sunday.
On the other end of the ice, top-seeded Miami also boasts the top-ranked Division I goaltender in terms of statistical prowess, as Ryan McKay's .957 save percentage will be a test for Michigan State – assuming he starts on Friday, that is. The RedHawks also have the option to go with fellow rookie Jay Williams, who has slightly edged McKay in minutes played this season, only because of an early-season injury to McKay.
The team's faced off twice this season in Oxford, resulting in a 2-2 draw and a 2-0 RedHawks win.
“Any time you get a bye in the playoffs, you’re facing a team that’s pretty confident because they’ve just won a series and feel good about themselves, and rightly so,” Miami coach Enrico Blasi told the Hamilton Journal-News. “We’ve seen it before where the 11th seed has gone all the way to Joe Louis. Our focus has got to be on our preparation.”
With the season they've had, the RedHawks – behind Player of the Year finalist Austin Czarnik – would be hard pressed not to win this series, which begins Friday at 7:35 p.m.
No. 9 Bowling Green at No. 2 Notre Dame
Last year's Cinderella team is attempting to make another run to Joe Louis Arena. After knocking out Lake Superior in three games, including a dominant 7-0 victory in game 3, Bowling Green is looking to win a second series on the road and make it back to the CCHA semifinals at Joe Louis Arena for the second straight year.
The road to South Bend will not be as long as the trip to Sault Ste. Marie but certainly might end up being a tougher battle for the Falcons. Notre Dame has been one of the top teams in the country all year and needs a series victory over Bowling Green to avoid falling off the Pairwise bubble.
"To me (Notre Dame's) depth is their biggest challenge," said Bowling Green coach Chris Bergeron. "If it's not a forward, it's a defenseman. If it's not a defenseman, it's Summerhays or Johnson will be there. It's their depth because that depth is so many layers. It's big and strong depth, it's skill depth, it's defensemen that are a big bunch."
Irish junior Anders Lee (18 G, 16 A) leads the Notre Dame forwards and was named First-Team All-CCHA this week, but of course, the Falcons boast some talent of their own as sophomore forward Ryan Carpenter – with five points last weekend and 33 overall to lead the team – and senior defenseman Bobby Shea were both named Second Team All- CCHA.
This is the first time the Falcons have had an all-conference selection since 2007-08 and the first time Bowling Green has had multiple selections since 1998-1999.
Bowling Green has also benefited from some playoff depth, as sophomore forward Dan DeSalvo has scored 12 goals in 11 career playoff games, including two goals last weekend. Meanwhile, DeSalvo has only seven goals in 63 career regular season games.
Notre Dame won three out of the four games between the two schools this year, including a sweep in South Bend the last week of the regular season. The Falcons did beat Notre Dame 4-2 on January 15 in Bowling Green and senior goalie Andrew Hammond told the Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune this week that the victory in January can be used as motivation by the Falcons.
“It gives us confidence that we can beat them,” Hammond said. “We didn’t play our best hockey against them [the last time].”
No. 7 Michigan at No. 3 Western Michigan
Michigan defeated No. 10 Northern Michigan 6-2 on Saturday to sweep the Wildcats and secure a place in this CCHA quarterfinal round. Ten different Wolverines registered points in the matchup, and they'll need to carry that offensive momentum into their matchup with Western Michigan, who had a first-round bye after a third place regular season finish.
The Wolverines are riding a six-game unbeaten streak – thanks in large part to finally finding consistency between the pipes with Steve Racine – and were able to take down Northern Michigan in a two-game sweep, continuing a hot run as of late after a sub-par season.
Western Michigan, meanwhile, enters the playoffs 19-9-8 overall on the season, but the quarterfinal hosts have just one regulation win in their last seven and are 1-3-3 in as many games. They're a stellar 13-2-3 at home though, which will work to their advantage as hosts in this series.
Western Michigan is 3-1 against Michigan this season. When the Broncos traveled to Ann Arbor earlier this season, they won 4-1 before the Wolverines came back the next day for the 2-0 win.
"We think we match up well with them,” Western Michigan head coach Andy Murray said. “They've got great balance up front and certainly have got some solid defensemen and now they're getting strong goaltending as well so they're a very good team but we like the way that our team matches up against them.”
Sophomore goaltender Frank Slubowski, tied for seventh nationally among goaltenders and named this week to the All-CCHA Second Team, will be key for the Broncos. He has a .922 save percentage and has just a 1.85 GAA. Helping Slubowski out in those categories have been defensemen Dan DeKeyser and Luke Witkowski, who were also honored this week with an All-CCHA First Team and Second Team selection, respectively.
No. 5 Ferris State at No. 4 Ohio State
Ohio State (14-15-7, 13-10-5-1) is hosting the CCHA quarterfinals for the first time since the league went to the current 11-team tournament format in 2005-06.
Despite earning home ice the Buckeyes will not get to play in their home rink; Value City Arena is booked for high school girls’ basketball finals this weekend. Instead, the Buckeyes and Bulldogs will face off in a much more intimate setting – at the OSU Ice Rink, where the Buckeyes called home from 1963 to 1998 and still hold some of their practices.
However, their home-away-from-home had been good for Ohio State as they won their last two series there (vs. Notre Dame in 2010 and vs. Bowling Green in 2009). While Ohio State has not had a first round bye in a while, Ferris State (15-14-5, 13-12-3-1) has earned a bye each of the last four years.
"We are excited to have the bye again," said Ferris State head coach Bob Daniels. "This year more than any other year I think in terms of getting some guys back and healthy, the bye is going to come in handy."
The Bulldogs know if they are going to make it back to the national championship game for a second straight year they will need to win the CCHA Tournament, and the first step is getting past Ohio State.
"They (have) a couple of forward lines that are about as good as you are going to see. I think the matchup is really good," Daniels said. "I think the teams are really close, very similar in styles. We have not seen Ohio State now for a little while, but realistically we have played enough over the last few years to know there is not a big difference in the way each team approaches the game."
Junior Garrett Thompson leads the Bulldogs in scoring with 25 points while Kyle Bonis has scored a team leading 17 goals.
They will face one of the top goalies in the league this weekend in Ohio State's Brady Hjelle who was named as the goaltender on the All-CCHA First-Team. Hjelle posted a league-best four conference shutouts, while his .937 save percentage and 1.89 goals- against average were second best among CCHA netminders.
The Buckeyes and Bulldogs split the season series, each winning a pair of 3-1 games in early January in Big Rapids.
Sam Obermyer, Jillian Saftel and Avash Kalra contributed to this report.