CCHA Championship Preview
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
The journey towards the CCHA tournament championship culminates this weekend at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. And the four teams heading to Motown aren't only vying for the Mason Cup — they're all, in their own way, searching for something else as well.
Bowling Green, the remarkable story of the postseason so far across college hockey, looks to become the first No. 11 seed to ever win the CCHA championship — after all, they're already the first No. 11 seed to advance to the semifinals.
How's that for your March Madness?
On Friday night, the Falcons take on a Michigan team that is in search of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Wolverines also seek to play in their 10th CCHA championship game in the last 12 years.
Friday's matinee features a rematch of last year's championship game, as defending champion Miami takes on a Western Michigan that was entirely unfazed by the preseason coaching switch from Jeff Blashill to Andy Murray. The Broncos seek their first CCHA title since 1986.
The RedHawks, meanwhile, have had one of the best second halves in all of college hockey and could even leave the weekend with a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs. They're seeking to become the first CCHA team to successfully defend the title since Michigan won back-to-back championships in 2002 and 2003.
Check the CHN blog on Friday for predictions of each matchup — and a pick for Saturday's CCHA championship winner. But for now, here's a closer look at each of Friday's semifinals.
No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 4 Bowling Green
Friday night's prime time matchup features a rematch of an entertaining late season series that the Wolverines and Falcons split one game apiece. And, certainly, it's a rematch not many expected to see so soon.
Michigan is the highest remaining seed in the tournament thanks to the Bowling Green's stunning quarterfinal series win against Ferris State, the CCHA regular season champion, a week ago.
Stunning, of course, to anyone other than the Falcons — a team that, with no named captains, has instead placed individual and team responsibility on every player on the roster.
"The difference started at Christmas time," said Bowling Green head coach Chris Bergeron on Tuesday, dismissing the notion that his team has only recently started to play well. "It wasn't the past five games. We're a more confident group. We had a series [in early January] with Ohio State, and there were two ties that ended in shootout wins for us. For a team that was struggling for positive things, they acted as wins for us."
Still, despite the heroics all weekend long of goaltender Andrew Hammond, the Falcons trailed Ferris State 3-0 after one period of last weekend's decisive Game 3. On the third Ferris State goal, Jason Binkley scored his first goal of the season when a shot from center ice took an awkward bounce in front of Hammond and skipped behind the junior netminder.
"We told the team that they hadn't given up on themselves the whole year, and that wasn't the time to do it," said Bergeron of the first intermission locker room atmosphere and his team's determination to rally around Hammond. "If they would have quit on that game and quit on each other, they would have regretted it."
Ultimately, Bowling Green turned the 3-0 deficit into a 4-3 overtime win, behind three goals from freshman Dan DeSalvo — who, after scoring just four goals all season, has enjoyed the most productive six game stretch of any CCHA player in recent playoff history. DeSalvo, who previously hadn't scored since Nov. 19, has now amassed 10 goals in the playoffs thus far, with five each weekend, to will the Falcons to a CCHA championship weekend berth.
Said an appreciative Hammond, "I've never seen anything like it."
DeSalvo joins fellow rookies Ryan Carpenter and Adam Berkle on Bowling Green's young top line.
"All three of them have a pretty good level of self-belief and confidence," said Bergeron. "Nothing overboard by any means, but they all believe in what they are doing, and when they're on the top of their game, they can be very effective.
"They're very vocal, they talk amongst each other a lot on the bench and in the locker room, and they're developing into a little personality of our team."
Much of that personality was displayed on the final weekend of the regular season, when in front of a raucous home crowd, Bowling Green topped Michigan with a third period comeback that, in retrospect, foreshadowed more recent events — setting up this weekend's rematch in Detroit.
And although Michigan rebounded for a 3-0 win the following night, the late-season series has ensured that the Falcons have the Wolverines' full and undivided attention.
"I thought after that weekend, they were a much better team than their record," said Michigan coach Red Berenson. "When they hired Chris Bergeron, that was a great hire. It was just a matter of time before that team would take a step, and obviously they've taken that step."
The Wolverines, after sweeping Notre Dame last weekend in a series that featured a weekend-long goaltending duel between the Irish's Steven Summerhays and Michigan's Shawn Hunwick, are making their record 24th consecutive trip to Joe Louis Arena for the CCHA championship weekend.
Hunwick, the fifth-year senior whose remarkable and now well-chronicled career has stretched from days as a little-known back-up to a potential Hobey Baker Award candidate, has steadied Michigan's defense all season.
Asked if Hunwick is playing the best hockey of his career, Berenson responded reflexively: "No question."
"This is the first year he's been our starting goalie with essentially no backup goalie that was expected to play," continued Berenson. "He knew he'd play every night, and he's had to play through thick and thin."
The next task for Hunwick? Slowing down DeSalvo and his fearless teammates on Friday night. Of course, the Michigan offense is no slouch, either. Ranked in the top 10 in goals per game this season nationally — compared to Bowling Green's more humble ranking of No. 55 — the Wolverines have been led by their potent top line featuring David Wohlberg, Alex Guptill, and Chris Brown.
"Wohlberg is the senior, and he's been a hard-working two-way player his whole career," said Berenson. "He can score, he can make plays, and he can check. Chris Brown is one of the more physical forwards in college hockey, a big strong kid who can really shoot the puck. He scored the overtime winner last Friday, and he's just got that knack around the net. And [the freshman] Guptill has really good hands. All three of them have size and good speed, and they can be tough to handle when they're on their game."
Added Bergeron, "I think offensive-skilled type people want time and space, and we need to take that away from them. I don't think we can take the approach that we can sit back and wait, we need to be proactive and take away time and space from these guys."
It'll all be part of the cat and mouse game between the rookie coach Bergeron and the veteran Berenson on Friday. Berenson, for his part, has been around enough to know that playoff seeding doesn't carry much weight at this point of the season, with each team just two wins away from the league championship. And with NCAA tournament implications aplenty hanging in the balance.
"I think when you go into this Friday, both goalies are good," said Berenson. "There's not going to be much to choose from between the two teams, you can put their season records behind them, and it really comes down to one game."
No. 2 Western Michigan vs. No. 3 Miami
Just like a year ago, when Miami defeated Western Michigan 5-2 in the championship game, the RedHawks come to Detroit riding a lengthy winning streak that has been nothing short of dominant.
Last season, Miami came in with an 11-game unbeaten streak, winning its final five games en route to Joe Louis Arena by a score of 24-5. This year, it's more of the same — yet somehow more surprising, given the RedHawks' early season stumbles.
Miami has now won eight straight, outscoring opponents 32-5, behind commanding performances offensively by potential Hobey candidate Reilly Smith and a slew of freshman forwards and defensively by goaltender Connor Knapp, who has taken over the No. 1 position entering play this weekend and is first in the country in goals-against average.
Smith, meanwhile, whose 27 goals trail only the unrelated Austin Smith from Colgate, has scored in 10 of Miami's last 14 games. The Mimico, Ont., native also has four consecutive multi-point games heading into Friday afternoon's showdown with Western Michigan — a team, by the way, that he scored against four times during the regular season, including a hat-trick on Jan. 20.
Said Miami coach Enrico Blasi of his team's scoring leader, "Well we think he's always been a pretty good player on the ice. What everybody probably doesn't see are the things he's doing off the ice. He's become a very good leader in terms of his preparation away from the rink and the way he's matured over the last few years is something that has elevated his game on the ice as well.
While Smith may get most of the attention, the reality is, Miami's dominance during the second half of this season can be credited in large part to a freshman class that includes Austin Czarnik, Jimmy Mullin, Blake Coleman, and Tyler Biggs — all of whom have quickly adapted to the college game and are among the highest scoring rookies in the league.
"We have a lot of new faces and guys were getting used to each other," said Miami co-captain defenseman Will Weber. "The freshmen have been playing pretty good all year, but it was guys getting used to each other on the ice and a lot of little things like learning the college game. I think at the start we struggled because we weren't doing those things, but now we have come together and we are playing pretty well right now. I think it was a maturing process that had to take place throughout the year."
Despite being led by captain Ian Slater and several sophomores and juniors who experienced the CCHA championship weekend ago, freshmen have contributed significantly for Andy Murray's Western Michigan Broncos too.
Most notably, Frank Slubowski has provided a steady presence in net, while Washington Capitals draft pick Garrett Haar logged solid minutes on the defensive end. Both were named to the CCHA All-Rookie team, with Slubowski a unanimous selection.
Said Murray of his goaltender, "He is a Canadian goalie from Prince Rupert, British Columbia, who is a true hockey player. We asked him the other day what he thought about Peyton Manning and he said, 'Who’s Peyton Manning?'
"He is a player that loves the game of hockey, loves to play, loves to practice and has a great work ethic in practice. He was very good right from the outset of training camp with us. He got the opportunity to play and from that point on he certainly has been the one we have relied on. He has a great deal of composure and a quality young man that our players definitely believe in."
Still, Slubowski was in net for both games against Miami earlier in the year and gave up seven goals over two games. Whether or not the rookie goaltender will be able to adjust to Miami's new-found offense on Friday will be one of the keys to the game.
"They are obviously well-coached and well-organized," said Murray. "They have solid, physical defensemen, great speed and balance up front and a balance of aggressiveness and ability. They have all the elements to make a great team obviously and have a tradition of success. We were not very good that weekend and will have to be a lot better come Friday."
Murray, after years in the NHL with teams like the St. Louis Blues and L.A. Kings, notched his first career college postseason victories last weekend with a pair of wins over Lake Superior.
Said Murray, "People asked me the whole year how I compare coaching in college to coaching in the pros, and I think you are who you are as a coach and so for me, preparation was that you're playing a college playoff game. An NHL playoff game has the same type of intensity. You are playing because you want to keep playing, and if you don't win, you don't keep playing."
Those words are particularly true this weekend, with Western Michigan floating precariously on the NCAA tournament bubble, currently No. 15 in the Pairwise — holding on to the final at-large bid and in need of at least one win this weekend.
And after getting a taste of the championship game a year ago, the Broncos are looking for even more than that.
Said Western Michigan junior forward Dane Walters, "I think this year we have bigger goals in mind. Not that we didn't last season, but this year we have that experience of getting there and we know what it feels like. We are looking to take it to the next level."
Miami and Western Michigan face off at 4:35 p.m. on Friday, followed by Bowling Green taking on Michigan at 8:05 p.m. FOX Sports Detroit Plus will broadcast both semifinal games on Friday, while FOX Sports Detroit will broadcast the CCHA Championship on Saturday night at 7:35 p.m.