WCHA Quarterfinal Preview
by Ryan Evans/CHN Reporter
After an ultra-competitive regular season that ended in newcomer Ferris State claiming the MacNaughton Cup by one point on the season’s final weekend, the revamped WCHA begins its postseason this weekend with four series at campus sites. The four best-of-three series begin Thursday night with No. 3-seeded Alaska taking on No. 6 Alaska Anchorage and will run through Sunday, if need be.
The winners of the four series will advance to the 2014 WCHA Final Five, which takes place March 21-22 at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Mich.
No. 1 Ferris State vs. No. 8 Bemidji State
Season series: Ferris State, 3-1-0
The Bulldogs welcome Bemidji State to Ewigleben Arena this weekend and are hoping to re-create some of the same home cooking that helped propel Ferris State to the WCHA regular-season title.
Ferris State is 14-1-1 at home this season, including an undefeated 13-0-1 in WCHA league play. Last weekend, Ferris swept Lake Superior State at home, which clinched the MacNaughton cup. The Bulldogs swept the Beavers back in early November in Big Rapids, but Bemidji State didn’t make it easy, forcing Ferris State to overtime in the first game before losing 5-4 and then losing 5-3 in the series finale. The two teams split their mid-February meetings.
The Bulldogs have consistently been ranked among the top 10 teams in the country, and currently sit No. 6 in the Pairwise. That success has come, in part, thanks to an offense that effectively spreads the wealth. Ferris State ranks No. 2 in the WCHA in scoring at 3.22 goals per game, but doesn’t have a player ranked in the top 10. But, they do boast six players with 20-plus points, led by junior forward Justin Buzzeo (11-16—27) and senior forward Garrett Thompson (15-12—27).
FSU's league-best defense — which allows only 2.22 goals per game, the seventh best mark in the country — doesn’t hurt either.
“They’re league champions, so they do a lot of things well,” Bemidji State head coach Tom Serratore said. “It’s a tough building (to play in), but it’s exciting. It’s playoff time and everybody is 0-0, that’s how we look at it.”
The Beavers are just 5-11-3 on the road and 1-6-3 against top-15 teams this season, but that lone top-15 win did come against Ferris State, 2-1, back on Feb. 15 in Bemidji. They are coming off being swept by Bowling Green in their final regular-season series.
BSU is led by sophomore forward Cory Ward, who is having a career year. He leads the Beavers with 28 points and his 18 goals rank first nationally among second-year players.
Bemidji State comes in as the underdog, but according to sophomore forward Markus Gerbrandt, the Beavers’ win over Ferris State a month ago may give them the confidence they need to knock off the league champs.
“We know we can beat Ferris State,” Gerbrandt said. “We did a couple of weeks ago. Right now we just have to have a good mindset and be focused on what they’re going to bring.”
No. 2 Minnesota State vs. No. 7 Northern Michigan
Season series: Minnesota State, 3-1-0
Both Minnesota State and Northern Michigan come into their first-round series on a bit of a roll. The Mavericks are unbeaten in the last nine games after a win and tie against Michigan Tech last weekend, while the Wildcats have won four of their past seven contests.
Minnesota State will certainly be looking to prove something in the matchup after that tie against the Huskies clinched the regular-season league title for Ferris State.
The Mavericks bring one of the conference’s highest-scoring offenses — which averages 3.14 goals per game and has outscored opponents 21-4 in its last six games — into the matchup, as well as some of the WCHA’s most prolific scorers. Minnesota State boasts two of the top three and three of the top six scorers in the conference, led by junior forward Jean-Paul LaFontaine — who is having a breakout season with 20 goals and 39 points — as well as junior forward Matt Leitner (9-29—38) and senior forward Johnny McInnis (19-15—34).
One key to the Mavericks’ success this season has been their power play, which ranks No. 1 in the WCHA and No. 4 in the country at 25.1 percent; it is 42 for its last 124 (.338). Freshman Cole Huggins is also one of the league’s top goaltenders. In his rookie season he posted a 1.96 GAA and .922 save percentage in 24 starts.
After entering the regular season’s final weekend in ninth place, Northern Michigan earned its ticket to the playoffs by sweeping Alabama-Huntsville, thereby leapfrogging Bemidji State into the No. 7 spot.
The Wildcats are led by senior forward Stephan Vigier, whose 30 points lead the team and ranks No. 9 in the conference. But the player to watch for is freshman forward John Siemer. Since joining Northern Michigan midseason, Siemer is averaging nearly a point a game, registering 18 (7-11) in 19 contests.
No. 3 Alaska vs. No. 6 Alaska-Anchorage
Season series: Tied, 2-2-0
As if the postseason didn’t carry enough weight on its own, Alaska and Alaska-Anchorage will also be fighting for state bragging rights in the WCHA’s first round.
“The state of Alaska has another opportunity to watch one of the biggest rivalries in college hockey,” Alaska coach Dallas Ferguson said. “We’re excited for the opportunity.”
It’s the first postseason meeting between the two longtime rivals since the 1992 D-I Independents Tournament in Fairbanks, where the Seawolves beat the Nanooks, 4-3, in overtime.
The two teams just played each other in Fairbanks last weekend and split the series. Because they also split the overall season series, the Governor’s Cup had to be decided in a shootout, which Alaska won, 2-1. But there will be much more on the line this weekend.
“We’re going to have to bring that momentum from winning the (Governor’s Cup) and bring it into the games,” Nanooks’ freshman forward Josh Erickson said.
Alaska comes into the series as one of the hotter teams in the country. Sitting in ninth place in mid-January, the Nanooks won nine of their final 11 games to shoot themselves up the standings and into the No. 3 spot. Overall, Alaska is 12-5-2 since Dec. 7.
The second half surge was led by senior forward Cody Kunyk, who leads the team and the WCHA with 22 goals and 42 points. Kunyk, the reigning WCHA Co-Offensive Player of the Week, captured the scoring title on the league’s final weekend, scoring a career-high four goals in Alaska’s 7-2 win over Anchorage last Friday.
“We should feel good about what we’ve accomplished this season,” Ferguson said, “but, it’s time to reset and prove yourself again.”
By finishing sixth, Anchorage secured its best ever finish in the WCHA, but that accomplishment is bittersweet, according to head coach Matt Thomas, as the Seawolves missed out on their goal of securing home ice advantage by one game. As a result, they have to head to Fairbanks, but Thomas does see some benefits to that.
“That win (last) Saturday at Fairbanks was exactly what we needed to understand that we can go up there and win,” Thomas said. “The matchup is one we’re confident in and comfortable with.”
“For us it’s the easiest travel, which is always a nice thing,” he added. “Instead of a six-hour flight we’re looking at a one-hour flight.”
With this being the third series of the year between the two schools, Alaska hockey fans are certainly getting their money’s worth this season.
“These will be our fifth and sixth games this season against Fairbanks, which is fun for us because it’s such a great rivalry,” said senior forward Matt Bailey, who leads Anchorage and ranks fifth in the WCHA with 35 points this season. “We’re excited to go back up there. This is the playoffs. This is what we’ve practiced and prepared for all year.”
No. 4 Bowling Green vs. No. 5 Michigan Tech
Season series: Michigan Tech, 2-1-1
During the four regular-season meetings between Bowling Green and Michigan Tech, both teams seemed more comfortable on the road than they did at home. The Huskies hope that trend continues as they travel to BGSU Ice Arena this weekend.
Each team was unbeaten against the other on the road this season. Michigan Tech won 5-2 and 5-4 in overtime at Bowling Green in late January and the Falcons prevailed, 3-2, and tied, 4-4, in Houghton, Mich., in early December.
“They have a lot of speed and skill,” Huskies’ freshman defender Shane Hanna said of Bowling Green. “I think it’s a good, even matchup.”
Michigan Tech will have to awaken its offense after scoring just one goal in its two games against Minnesota State last weekend. For the season, the Huskies rank eighth in the WCHA, scoring just 2.53 goals per game. However, the Huskies did average four goals per game in their four games against Bowling Green this season.
“We just have to keep putting pucks on the net, keep putting in our rebounds and bear down in front,” Michigan Tech senior forward Dennis Rix said. “We need to get a lot of traffic to the net.”
“We know we have the skill on our team,” he added. “All four lines can score and any defenseman can put one in on any given night, so I think we’ll be fine.”
The Falcons rank in the top half of the conference in both team offense and defense, scoring 3.11 goals per game and giving up just 2.69 per contest.
“The big thing against Bowling Green is playing well defensively and hopefully the offense will come,” said Michigan Tech junior forward Blake Pietila, who leads the Huskies with 27 points (8+19) this season.
The Falcons spread their offense around, as five players have scored 20 or more points this year. Junior forward Dan DeSalvo leads the way with 28 points (7+21), while sophomore forward Ben Murphy leads the team with 13 goals.