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January 23, 2014 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

Second Thoughts

Is Ferris State Slipping in WCHA Race?

by Ryan Lambert/Columnist

The results the last few weeks have not been particularly good for Ferris State, a team which has grown accustomed to having the results go their way for most of this season.

The Bulldogs have just five losses on the year, but three of them have come since Jan. 4, which is a short span in which to see your season's defeats increase 150 percent. This is a point of concern not because they can't afford to lose a few games and still breathe somewhat comfortably, but more because the two most recent losses were in a sweep by Minnesota State.

Those were the first two conference losses of the season for Ferris, and all of a sudden they go from sitting pretty with 26 points from just 16 conference games, to hearing footsteps behind them. While they have two games in hand on anyone within reasonable striking distance, those same Mavericks are making up serious ground after a deeply disappointing 4-7 start. They're 10-3-0 in their last 13, every one of them a conference game, and now sit just two points back of the leading Bulldogs. Likewise, Bowling Green has made up a decent amount of ground, but at five points behind the likelihood that they catch up seems pretty slim.

But again, there are the games in hand to consider, which will be erased after this weekend because the Mavs are playing in that North Start Cup of theirs. If Ferris can get three or four points from Michigan Tech, which is of course totally manageable, and in fact something they should 100 percent do on paper, then this problem might go away.

The key word, though, is “might.”

A look at the underlying numbers, such as shot differential and shooting percentage, indicate that the Bulldogs are perhaps not as good as their record indicates. Their overall share of shots on goal is just 39th in the nation at 48.2 percent, which could on some level be indicative of score effects (i.e. that trailing teams tend to shoot more often), but at the same time is not necessarily reflective of how well the top teams in the country dictate their games; of the top 10 teams in the Pairwise, only Providence, Northeastern, and Ferris are outside the top-20 nationally in this regard.

Instead, we can look at the total team offense the Bulldogs have produced this season and say that their 83 goals, sixth in the nation, have come on just 778 shots, good for a shooting percentage of 11.46. That, likewise, is sixth, but what's interesting is that while that might seem high (because it is, opposing goalies should allow only about 9.3 percent of shots to get by them), most elite offenses in the country dine out on big shooting numbers like that. The question is whether the team can continue shooting at this rate, because this is the highest shooting percentage the team has posted by far in the last five seasons. Huge fluctuations in this area are, by and large, not controllable — teams and individual players will go through inexplicable slumps and unexpected surges all the time — so to bet heavily for or against this kind of thing happening, particularly in seasons as short as what's remaining on the schedule.

The way the Bulldogs have scored this season has been largely by committee, because only three of their players have triple-digit goal totals. However, their top five scorers are shooting north of even that high team average, with Garrett Thompson (15.1 percent), Justin Buzzeo (20), Matt Robertson (24.4), Kyle Schempp (14), and Kenny Babinski (12.2) dramatically overperforming versus their career numbers. Unless they're all inexplicably doing something differently this season, there shouldn't be this much of a jump. At least, not one that can be reasonably expected to last. The rest of the team, though, is all shooting at a much more sustainable rate.

This is, to a lesser extent, the argument against betting anything on Northeastern accomplishing much down the stretch in Hockey East. They're shooting almost as successfully as Ferris, getting absurd goaltending, and winning more than they reasonably should as a result. Ferris, to its credit, is also ninth in team save percentage, and that seems likely to continue; CJ Motte is one of the best goaltenders in the country, and his .925 this season is actually below his career average by a single point. There's no reason to think this isn't going to continue for the remainder of the season.

There's a stat called PDO — and no, it doesn't stand for anything — that is the simple addition of team shooting percentage to team save percentage. Any number north of 100 is likely to come down at some point (except for truly elite teams like Boston College or Minnesota, which have a demonstrated ability to sustain them). Ferris State's is second in the country at 104, behind on BC, and that should tell you a lot.

But again, there's just not a lot of track left before the finish line, so it would take a major push from the Mavs to catch up. Their PDO is currently 47th in the country at just 98.2, weighed down by a 48th-place shooting percentage of 8.28 and an .899 save percentage that's tied for 45th. However, both seem likely to go up, especially because freshman netminder Cole Huggins is stopping an absurd amount of shots these days after some early and perhaps expected struggles, and Mankato always seems to have the puck.

In terms of shot differential numbers, only Quinnipiac, in the entire country, has put more shots on goal. Their total (833) is seventh in the nation, and they're scoring on shot volume rather than so-called quality. In fact, it's reasonable to assume that the puck will start going in with greater frequency for these guys down the stretch, because any bottoming out in this regard seems actually impossible.

All of which is to say that the numbers point to a very tight race for the WCHA title down the stretch. Ferris has, barring a monumental collapse, done well enough to get into the tournament even without the autobid, but Minnesota State might to need to win a bunch more and hope some other teams falter. The clock is ticking, and the gap is narrowing. It's time for the team everyone has had penciled in as the WCHA favorite since September to show this latest hiccup is just that, or be trampled by a resurgent upstart.

Second thoughts

Big Ten

Michigan: Freshman defenseman Kevin Lohan has been out since Nov. 1 with a severe injury, and is close to being able to return, but the Wolverines have played so well in his absence that Red Berenson doesn't know if he'll be able to slot him into the lineup when he is ready to come back. That's just how it goes I guess. Can't argue with success.

Michigan State: Kind of weird that Friday was MSU's first non-shootout conference win of the season, right? It was their fifth game. I know they aren't good this year, but they should have been better than this.

Minnesota: Big hat trick for Sam Warning, who's up to 26 points in 22 games. It also pushed him past his career high for goals (previously eight in 29) with seven games to spare. The Gophers still haven't lost a Big Ten game.

Ohio State: Tough for a freshman to get his third-ever career start at Minnesota. He is, though, one of four goalies the Buckeyes have used this season, so it's not going great all the way around.

Penn State: The Nittany Lions didn't take a single penalty in Friday's loss to Michigan State, but made up for it with four minors and a major the next night.

Wisconsin: Mike Eaves made a visit to a Madison preschool last week, presumably to offer a few kids scholarships. Haha that's a joke about how young schools recruit now! It's very young indeed! Anyway, two kids committed. That's another joke!

NCHC

Colorado College: Usually a good idea for hockey teams is not to give up five goals in one period to anyone, let alone the team with arguably the best goaltender in the country. Tigers head coach Scott Owens: “You got a snapshot of our year all in one weekend.” Yuck.

Denver: You have to consider this a big weekend for Denver, because basically no one goes into Duluth and beats the Bulldogs this year, regardless of how it happens (such as blowing a late two-goal lead and then having to win in overtime and then losing in a shootout).

Miami: The RedHawks earned a home “split” with Nebraska-Omaha by picking up a shootout win on Friday, but boy did they ever get creamed on Saturday. They were 0-3-1 against the Mavericks this year, which is bad. Just a tough, tough year for Miami. Their team save percentage in conference play is .898.

Minnesota-Duluth: A crowd of 6,889 shoehorned their way into Amsoil Arena on Saturday to see Duluth beat Denver in a shootout. Biggest attendance figure in school history, which is amazing if you think about it.

Nebraska-Omaha: Jaycob Megna is back, and the Mavs are 8-7-2 with him in the lineup. Otherwise, they're 1-4.

North Dakota: Oh look, North Dakota is unbeaten in nine. And this is maybe the least-talented team the school's had in a while. Scary to think about.

St. Cloud: What the hell was that this weekend? When you score five times on 22 shots in a tie, I guess you can expect to go 1-for-33 the next night.

Western Michigan: Not that the Broncos are a pushover or anything. After all, they rallied from down 4-1 to earn that 5-5 tie.

WCHA

Alabama-Huntsville: Friday's tie with Anchorage was only their second non-loss this season. Says just about everything.

Alaska: Meanwhile, the Nanooks' win at Northern Michigan was the first time the team had won there since Feb. 2005. And they came back from down 2-0 after 20 to do it.

Alaska-Anchorage: Only drawing with Huntsville on Friday seemed to spark something in the Seawolves, as they won 4-1 behind goals 15 seconds apart. They're unbeaten in their last five conference games, after starting the season winless on the road in seven.

Bemidji State: That tie on Friday night that halted the North Dakota winning streak? Pretty much entirely down to the play of backup Andrew Walsh, who stopped 42 of 43.

Bowling Green: No games this weekend for the Falcons, but they still can't get over how Ralfs Freiburgs made the Latvian Olympic team. Nor should they. It's a huge deal.

Ferris State: If you somehow haven't seen footage of the “fight” here is footage of the “fight” which is a lot more like headlocks and takedowns. Be careful out there kids.

Lake Superior: The Lakers were doubled up on the weekend by a combined score of 10-5 at Notre Dame. Can't put too much of the blame on Kevin Murdock, thought. He faced 94 shots on the weekend.

Michigan Tech: Tech picked up a close W over Tech this weekend, thanks to an intrasquad scrimmage that finished 4-3. Bad loss for Tech, though.

Minnesota State: I like that “NEW RIVALRY” is all in capital letters. It really lets you know that this is a new rivalry.

Northern Michigan: Mathias Dahlstrom wasn't so good in the series with Alaska, allowing eight goals on just 59 shots. “I'm not happy with this weekend at all," Dahlstrom said. "(Friday) I was not sharp enough, but the guys had my back and scored five goals, which was really good. I didn't do the extra. I just didn't have it this weekend. I'm not that happy with this weekend.” It sounds to me like he's not happy with this weekend.

Player of the Week

Jake Hildebrand stopped 77 of 79 on the weekend, including a 48-save shutout on Friday. Even if it was against Penn State, that's mighty impressive.

Goal of the Week

It's not so much the finish on the second goal of Sam Warning's hat trick, but the pass from Nate Condon through traffic. Boy that's nice.

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