by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer
Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena has hosted the CCHA championship weekend every season since 1982, and this weekend, will do so again – and for the final time – in the conference’s concluding moment on Sunday afternoon.
Though perhaps the most appropriate potential participant for the league’s final weekend might have been Michigan State (11 championships all-time, including a stretch of seven out of nine in the 1980s), it’s still fitting that this weekend includes one final CCHA showdown between Michigan and Miami, teams that have cultivated arguably the best league rivalry of the past decade. The Wolverines, of course, look to keep their historic NCAA tournament appearance streak (22) alive while the RedHawks attempt to wrap up the No. 1 seed at the upcoming NCAA Midwest Regional in nearby Toledo.
Saturday’s matinee semifinal, meanwhile, features the Fighting Irish, winners of the CCHA title in 2007 and 2009, and the Buckeyes. Ohio State has quite an opportunity; it won the first CCHA title in 1972, and is trying to bookend it by winning the last.
The CCHA championship game will be played Sunday afternoon – the only college hockey game on the schedule that day – just hours before the NCAA tournament field is announced.
No. 1 Miami vs. No. 7 Michigan
Five months ago, the Wolverines and RedHawks – who last faced off in the postseason in 2010, with Miami winning an NCAA tourney game in double overtime – kicked off the CCHA regular season by splitting a pair of games in Ann Arbor.
Now, after Michigan overpowered Western Michigan last weekend and Miami overcame a game one loss to eventually win its quarterfinal series against Michigan State, this will be their first meeting since October.
“At the beginning of the year, our guys were trying to find their identity, who they were going to be,” said Miami coach Enrico Blasi about the evolution of the RedHawks – with 18 freshmen and sophomores – since their early season meeting against Michigan. “[Now], our team is totally different. They’ve grown up a lot. They know who they are and how they want to play from night in and night out.”
Most notably, Miami features Hobey Baker finalist Austin Czarnik, one of just two sophomores (Johnny Gaudreau, Boston College) and the only CCHA finalist. Czarnik, who isn’t even leading his own team in points – he trails freshman phenom Riley Barber – is one of a long list of Miami Hobey finalists during the past decade, a list that includes 2011 winner Andy Miele. Barber, meanwhile, is one of many Miami freshmen who managed to make a seamless transition to college hockey this year.
Said Miami captain and senior defenseman Steven Spinell, “The biggest thing was to bring them in right away and make them feel at home, really show them what the brotherhood is all about. We didn’t treat them like rookies, we treated them like brothers.”
Michigan coach Red Berenson said, “They’re a scary team because they can score with anybody, and defensively, they’re the best team in our league. They don’t give up much, and they don’t need much. They’ve been the team to beat all year in this conference.”
Michigan, meanwhile, spent most of the year as the team to be beaten. The Wolverines have awoken down the stretch, entering the weekend with an eight-game unbeaten streak, the longest active stretch in the country.
For most of the rest of the season, though, not much went right in Ann Arbor for a team that boasts a dozen NHL draft picks. In November, Michigan went 2-6-1 – and in January, 1-6-0. But after a dismal weekend in mid-February against Notre Dame, when Michigan gave up 13 goals over two games, the Wolverines rebounded quickly, sweeping Ohio State in Columbus the following weekend and now haven’t lost since.
Not surprisingly, Blasi and the RedHawks aren’t even close to taking the No. 7 seed for granted.
“Michigan is a great team,” said Blasi, a four-time CCHA Coach of the Year. “They have a historic program. They’ve been to 'The Joe' 24 years in a row. I don’t know what else to tell you – we’ve got to show up. They’re the hottest team in the country.”
Michigan – which has never lost to Miami in five CCHA tournament games all-time – has scored four or more goals in six of its last eight games.
“I don’t think we can put our finger on one thing,” said Berenson, attempting to explain it. “It’s been a gradual turnaround. We’ve had a tough year defensively, so obviously we had to get better in that area confidence-wise. I think slowly they’ve earned confidence and a little bit more trust on the team.”
Added Michigan captain Kevin Lynch, “Early on, everyone wasn’t on the same page – whether it was that we weren’t playing for each other or we weren’t playing a full 60. Now we have confidence.
“We’re doing everything for the team, and that’s all that matters right now.”
Among the many storylines in this game – Saturday’s primetime matchup – is the showdown between two rookie goaltenders. Steve Racine, playing well now as the No. 1 starter for Berenson, will be opposed by either Ryan McKay or Jay Williams for Miami – both in the nation’s top 10 for goals-against average this year. While Blasi has yet to announce a starter – reminiscent of his recent good fortune with standout netminders Cody Reichard and Cory Knapp – recent history seems to favor McKay, who has started six consecutive games.
McKay leads the nation in goals-against average and save percentage, and remarkably, has limited Miami’s opponents to one goal or less in 14 of his 20 starts. Not surprisingly, then, Miami is undefeated when scoring three or more goals and is 20-2-1 after scoring first.
The play of McKay and Williams seems to have helped the RedHawks forge an identity as the season has progressed – one that certainly helped in their comeback win against Michigan State a week ago.
Said Blasi, “You probably could learn a lot from goalies, not just from game to game, but from shift to shift. They’ve got a great ability to let things go and focus on the next shift. That’s been our approach as a team as well.”
No. 2 Notre Dame vs. No. 4 Ohio State
Notre Dame is the higher seed, but Ohio State had the edge in the season series. The Buckeyes, playing at the CCHA Championships for the first time since 2005, defeated the Irish, 6-3, in early February and followed up that effort with a 2-2 tie, with Notre Dame earning the extra shootout point.
A key to the Buckeyes’ success that weekend was senior netminder Brady Hjelle, whose .935 save percentage this season is eighth-best in the nation.
“[Hjelle] allows us to be in every single game,” said Buckeyes head coach Mark Osiecki. “You have so much more confidence when you know you have a goalie back there who will make a save when there’s a breakdown.”
Osiecki then continued, referencing Hjelle’s departure from Minnesota-Duluth earlier in his career.
“As Brady left Duluth, probably a shocking situation at that point – this kid’s matured a ton. Then he ends up behind [former Ohio State goaltender] Cal Heeter, and now he’s thinking, what kind of a choice did I make? You give this kid so much credit. He’s matured so much how he approaches the game. He doesn’t cheat anything. He’s really transformed his body. You couldn’t be more happy for a guy like that.”
Added captain Ryan Dzingel, “It’s great to have a goalie like Hjelle, in games and in practice. They create a great atmosphere in practice for us to get better.”
Hjelle and the Ohio State defense will have their hands full this weekend against Notre Dame, a squad that boasts one of the top-producing forward lines in the country, led by junior Anders Lee, a New York Islanders draft pick, who moved to center this season.
“He’s certainly known for his ability to shoot the puck and score goals,” said Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson, now in his eighth season in South Bend. “Moving to center is a big thing for him in college hockey. I always like to have a bigger presence in the middle if we have that. That’s important for defensive zone coverage, defensive zone faceoffs. He’s taken on a role on our penalty kill. He’s done a really good job in a lot of instances matching up against the other team’s top line. He’s become a much more complete player.”
While Lee understandably garners much of the attention – from fans and opponents alike – his wingers Jeff Costello and Bryan Rust have been prolific point-producers as well. The trio has combined for 97 points so far this season.
“It’s the chemistry of the group,” Jackson said. “Bryan Rust is the key guy because he’s turned the corner as far as his college career go. He’s been a much better contributor this year because of his skill level and instincts. And this year he’s developed a competitive edge, which has helped him a lot.”
Added Osiecki, “We’re going to have to be extremely patient, be smart. That team is so gifted talent wise, skill-wise – you’ll have four, five, six, NHL players coming out of there. We’ll have to be very smart.”
Notre Dame’s journey to Joe Louis Arena included a mid-season 10-game slump in which the Irish went 2-7-1 in January and early February. However, this season – in contrast to last year, when the Irish suffered a similar slump that spiraled quickly out of control – Jackson’s squad readied the ship in time for a run to the CCHA championship weekend.
Notre Dame has just one loss in its last 11 games and thanks in large part to senior goaltender Steven Summerhays has found an ability to win a series of close games.
“Everyone kept a calm attitude, a positive attitude,” said Jackson, who also noted that the Irish’s turnaround coincided with regular minutes from sixth defenseman Eric Johnson down the stretch. “A year ago, we had a similar situation, and some guys checked out a little bit. This year, that didn’t happen. Everyone stayed on course and allowed us to get back on the right track. Over the last month, we’ve started to look very similar to how we looked in the first half.
Added Lee, “We are all playing our parts, playing our roles, staying within our system. We got away from it, and that happens when you face a little bit of adversity – you try to do too much, try to do something different. We found our game by going back to our basics. In the locker room, we all stuck together, and we all believed in each other.”
Notre Dame and Ohio State will kick off the final CCHA championship weekend at 1:05 p.m. (ET) on Saturday.