April 3, 2012 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Preview: Union vs. Ferris State

Frozen Four Newcomers Eager to Show They Belong

by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer

Ferris State senior defenseman Chad Billins (photo: Mark H. Anbinder/14850.com)

Ferris State senior defenseman Chad Billins (photo: Mark H. Anbinder/14850.com)

At 4:30 p.m. ET on Thursday afternoon in Tampa, Union and Ferris State will kick off the 2012 NCAA Frozen Four, with each team playing its first ever game in the month of April, and its first ever game at the Frozen Four.

On the surface, the matchup seems perhaps unusual — a notable contrast to the primetime showdown between traditional powerhouses Minnesota and Boston College. A deeper look, however, is more revealing.

Like the Eagles and Gophers, Union and Ferris State won the regular season titles in their conferences — the ECAC and CCHA, respectively. Between them, en route to Tampa, they knocked off teams like Michigan State and Denver — both of which have won NCAA championships in the last decade.

Union — now 17-2-1 in its last 19 games — also won the ECAC tournament championship and is one of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament, only two of which remain. Ferris State, a No. 2 seed, is the only representative remaining from a conference (the CCHA) that sent a nation-high five teams to the four NCAA regional sites this season.

In short, this matchup is no undercard.

For the Ferris State Bulldogs, their arrival in Tampa comes less than 8 months after the media selected them to finish ninth in the CCHA preseason polls.

"That's bulletin board stuff," said Bulldogs senior goaltender Taylor Nelson, who was named the NCAA Midwest Regional Most Valuable Player a week ago after allowing just one goal each to Denver and Cornell. Nelson admitted to being irritated by the low preseason expectations from outsiders.

"That's stuff that really fuels the fire."

Under the guidance of Bob Daniels, who has been the Bulldogs' head coach since the 1992-93 season, Ferris State caught fire in the second half of this season, riding a 15-game unbeaten streak in January and February to a CCHA regular season title.

But one notable and heavily analyzed blip on the radar for Daniels' crew was a CCHA quarterfinal round loss to Bowling Green, the lowest seed in the tournament. The Falcons headed to Detroit for the CCHA's championship weekend at Joe Louis Arena, and the Bulldogs were left at home — with an extra week to practice before the Midwest Regional and perhaps with an opportunity for doubt to creep into their minds.

That, however, did not happen. Daniels made sure of it — and he had some help.

"We got some lulls in our defensive zone coverage that had probably been creeping into our game over a period of time," reflected Daniels. "We had gone on a 15-game unbeaten steeak, and when that's going along, sometimes things start to slip a little bit and we felt we needed to tighten up our defensive zone coverage.

"I also got an interesting call and spoke with [former Union coach and current Providence coach] Nate Leaman. A similar situation occurred to [Union] a year prior. He gave me a couple of ideas on how to move forward. During the off week, it's hard to practice. You don't know who your opponent is going to be, you don't know where you're going to go, it's hard for everyone to get overly excited, you're down because of the tough loss. But his idea was to pick a topic each day that he wanted to see his team improve in. So one day was the defensive zone. We just simply went out to practice and said, 'We're going to be a better team in defensive zone than before the day started.' The next day was forechecking, then special teams. We kind of did a different topic each day. It allowed us to get some focus."

Daniels credited former Michigan State coach Ron Mason — the namesake of the CCHA championship trophy — and current Miami coach Enrico Blasi with similar encouraging phone calls, emphasizing again the familial nature of the small college hockey world.

In the end, the newfound focus translated into a pair of 2-1 wins, first against Denver, then against Cornell. Low-scoring, defensive games have been typical for Ferris State this season, thanks in part to Nelson and the strong defensive corps in front of him. Senior blueliner Chad Billins was named to the 2011-12 All-CCHA First Team, while his defensive zone partner Scott Czarnowczan led Ferris State with a plus-16 rating and 65 blocked shots in league action.

"I think the Dutchmen are very similar to our team — goaltending, defensive integrity, limited turnovers," said Daniels of this Thursday's Frozen Four matchup — the first meeting between the Dutchmen and Bulldogs since Oct. 2007. "Expect a one goal game, maybe an overtime game."

Opposing Nelson in this semifinal's goaltending duel is Union's Hobey Baker finalist Troy Grosenick, who owns a 22-5-3 record and boasts the nation's second highest goals-against average (1.64). Last weekend at the East Regional, Grosenick registered his typical, steady performances in wins against Michigan State and Mass.-Lowell.

Grosenick played only 85 minutes a season ago, as a freshman backing up then-sophomore Keith Kinkaid. But Kinkaid, a First Team All-American, decided to forgo his final two years of eligibility to sign with the New Jersey Devils — which opened the door for Grosenick.

"When Keith left, I knew there'd be an opportunity there," said the sophomore goaltender, who has played 1,864 minutes this season. "It wasn't given to me. I still had to work hard. I just saw the opportunity for someone to come in and fill that spot, so I just made sure I came in [this season] in the best condition possible to put myself in the best position possible to earn that spot."

As a team, Union ranks first in the country by allowing 1.80 goals per game. Only twice all season have the Dutchmen allowed more than three goals in a game — compared to nine such instances for Ferris State.

But to say that Union is a purely defensively oriented team would irresponsibly gloss over the fact that the Dutchmen are the nation's fourth best team offense, averaging 3.55 goals per game.

"We don't want to put so much emphasis on [defense] that it takes away our offense," said Union coach Rick Bennett, in his first year at the helm for the Dutchmen. "We believe here in our sacred seven — our six D and our goaltender. And if we can keep it out of the net, get it up to our D, get it up to our forwards as quickly as possible, I like our chances."

Union's offensive efforts are led by junior forward Jeremy Welsh and senior forward Kelly Zajac. Welsh has amassed 43 points, and Zajac leads the team with 34 assists.

And a third of Welsh's 27 goals have come on the power play, creating a potential "matchup to watch" on Thursday against a Ferris State team that has killed all 10 opposing power-play situations so far in the NCAA tournament.

Said Bennett, "Any time you face an excellent PK, the puck movement has to be the number one versus player movement. I think we have to shorten up a little bit here the next few days on our power play. We're getting the looks but we're just not putting the puck in the back of the net."

For both Union and Ferris State, the journey to this moment, to Tampa, to the Frozen Four, began long before this season began. Each team brings with it some inexperience — but, in common with Boston College and Minnesota, the Dutchmen and Bulldogs are each just two wins away from a national championship.

"Our focus has to be about us," said Bennett. "I respect [Ferris State] a lot, but at the same token, both teams look like they're in unchartered waters here. So the team that comes out and executes their systems, gets their feet going and has that energy, I think that's the team that's going to come out on top."

Added Daniels, when asked about the importance of experience, "It's more important that you have great leadership and a well-rounded team. And that can only come from the kids, the players themselves. It doesn't come from the coaches."

Now, all that's left is the game itself — a new opportunity for two programs that have enjoyed periodic success but never to this magnitude.

And to Thursday's victor, of course, goes the spoils of staying in unchartered waters for two more days.

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