Notre Dame should be very afraid this weekend.
The fact that the CCHA’s biggest overachiever (Western
Michigan) lost and the biggest underachiever (Northern Michigan)
won during the first round of the league tournament might
foretell a wacky playoff after a regular season that was
Sure, the Fighting Irish running away with
the regular-season championship was surprising, but everyone
knew they would be better than last season, right? And look
who joined them near the top of the CCHA standings. Michigan.
Miami. Michigan State. Nebraska-Omaha. No shocks there.
Ohio State, Lake Superior State and Ferris
State were mediocre, as expected, and Bowling Green brought
up the bottom of the field ... again.
Even the players were pretty predictable.
T.J. Hensick, Scott Parse, Nathan Davis and Mike Santorelli
at the front of the scoring race? Big whoop. Jack Johnson
registering goals and KO’s with equal aplomb? Seen
it. The Jeffs (Jakaitis and Lerg) posting saves by the dozen?
Tell us something we don’t know.
But maybe the Broncos’ collapse and
Wildcats’ rally last weekend were harbingers of things
to come. Maybe Alaska will knock off the Irish in South
Bend this weekend, go on to the Joe and earn an automatic
bid to the NCAA tournament with a sub-.500 record. Maybe
the fun has just begun.
Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish’s four
CCHA losses were half as many as their nearest competitor
(Miami had eight), so it’s tough to pick against them
in this tournament. They did lose to their quarterfinal
opponent, Alaska, at home in the first round last season,
but this is a far different bunch of Fighting Jeff Jacksons.
ND has the fourth-best offense (3.44) and
best defense (1.75) in the CCHA, and its lineup is balanced
throughout. The forward lines have a good mix of upperclass
leadership and underclass talent, the defensemen are steady
and experienced and the goalie is a serious candidate for
the Hobey Baker Award.
THE GATE CRASHER
Nebraska-Omaha. As the CCHA standings began
to crystallize shortly after the New Year, it seemed that
there were four teams head-and-shoulders above the rest.
The Mavericks were part of “the rest.” But as
it stands now, they might be better than that.
CCHA Quarterfinal Matchups
No. 11 Alaska
at No. 1 Notre Dame
Alaska: 7-16-5 (11-20-6 overall) ND: 21-4-3 (27-6-3 overall) Season series: ND leads, 4-0. The
all-time series is 20-20-3. Nanook fact: Coach Tavis MacMillan
missed Friday’s win over Western Michigan while
stuck in Chicago because of wintry weather after visiting
his ill mother in Calgary. He rented a car and made
Saturday’s Game 2. Fighting Irish fact: Here’s
more proof of Notre Dame’s improvement. It has
three road sweeps since New Year’s after not
having any in almost four years (Feb. 14-15, 2003).
How Alaska wins: Just like last week,
keep it low-scoring and hope for some bounces. How
else would a grinding team win on the road? How ND wins: Play with an edge. Alaska
is fighting for its playoff life, and the Irish have
to match that intensity.
10 Northern Michigan at No. 2 Michigan
NMU: 10-17-1 (15-22-2 overall) U-M: 18-9-1 (23-12-1 overall) Season series: Tied, 1-1 Wildcat fact: This is the first time
in their 17 years in the league together that both
NMU and Lake Superior State have advanced out of the
first round. Wolverine fact: Goalie Billy Sauer
is a sophomore, but he’s a playoff rookie. Noah
Ruden played all of U-M’s postseason games last
year. How NMU wins: Ride the hot goaltending
of come-lately freshman Brian Stewart, and find some
offensive depth to help out Mike Santorelli. How U-M wins: Make sure to let Sauer
see pucks cleanly, clear rebounds and keep odd-man
rushes to a minimum.
No. 8 Lake Superior
State at No. 3 Miami LSSU: 11-14-3 (19-17-3 overall) MU: 16-8-4 (23-11-4 overall) Season series: MU leads, 3-1 Laker fact: LSSU has not made it
to Joe Louis Arena since 1996, which also was the
last time it won a playoff round before last week’s
ousting of Ferris State. RedHawk fact: Miami ranks third nationally
on the penalty kill at 88.9 percent, and has killed
the fourth-most penalties, period, at 209. How LSSU wins: Tough as it is, mark
Nathan Davis and Ryan Jones on defense and get some
greasy goals on offense. How MU wins: Keep the game speedy
and don’t let the Lakers muck it up. Whoever
is in net needs to step up.
5 Nebraska-Omaha at No. 4 Michigan State UNO: 13-11-4 (18-14-8 overall) MSU: 15-10-3 (19-12-3 overall) Season series: MSU leads, 1-0-1 Maverick fact: UNO has played two
playoff games against the Spartans but hasn’t
scored, losing 6-0 in the 2000 championship game and
5-0 in a 2005 Super Six quarterfinal. Spartan fact: MSU is 47-4 in home
playoff games, and has never lost a series at Munn
Arena. How UNO wins: Jump on MSU early and
try to snap its fragile confidence. Sound defense
will keep the Mavs in it. How MSU wins: Find some fire, don’t
fall behind, and score the puck. Jeff Lerg can steal
a series, but it wouldn’t be wise to depend
on him to do so.
UNO is darn potent, ranking third nationally
in scoring (3.75) and first in the league on the power play
at 19.4 percent. Defense has been an issue, but Mike Kemp’s
squad is pretty healthy on the blue line nowadays after
a rash of injuries a few months ago. If goalies Jeremie
Dupont and/or JeradKaufmann can tighten up, UNO won’t
go out quietly. Plus, their quarterfinal opponent, Michigan
State, is on a 1-4-1 skid.
INCH'S ALL-CONFERENCE TEAM
G - David Brown, Notre Dame:
Ranks first nationally in goals-against average (1.68) and
wins (25) and sixth in save percentage (.927). Calm, cool
D - Jack Johnson, Michigan:
Leads CCHA defensemen in goals (15) and points (31). A supreme
blend of physicality and skill, opposing players must mark
his movements at both ends of the ice.
D - Sean Collins, Ohio State:
First defenseman to lead the Buckeyes in scoring since Dennis
Carol in 1970. His 28 points were a nice complement to his
steady, effective work in the defensive zone that made him
a double finalist for best CCHA offensive and defensive
F - T.J. Hensick, Michigan:
Moved into the top 10 in career points among Wolverines
with 209. Leads the league in points (56) and assists (39),
and has made a star of linemate Kevin Porter.
F - Scott Parse, Nebraska-Omaha:
Has quietly amassed 52 points (24 g, 28a) despite the loss
of last year’s running mate Bill Thomas to the Coyotes.
In the top five in the CCHA in points, goals and assists.
F - Mike Santorelli, Northern Michigan:
Leads the conference and is second in the country with 29
goals despite not having much offensive support in Marquette.
Second in the CCHA with six game-winning markers.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Jeff Jackson, Notre Dame. In just two years
on the job, Jackson has turned a five-win team into a first-round
playoff host into a runaway CCHA champ with the best scoring
margin (1.69) in the country. Part of his success has come
from unearthing the hidden production in veterans such as
Mark Van Guilder, David Brown and Jason Paige, all of whom
are having career years. The other component is his recruiting,
which has landed studs such as Kevin Deeth, Ryan Thang and
Kyle Lawson for this squad. Jackson all along has done an
exemplary job of keeping the team’s expectations within
reason while pushing it to new heights.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
David Brown, Notre Dame goalie. As with most
goalies, his detractors will say that he’s a product
of the system. But it’s hard to imagine the Fighting
Irish having their success this season without Brown as
their backstop. In becoming just the second Notre Dame player
to make the all-CCHA first team, Brown dominated statistically
while serving as a workhorse who played the second-most
minutes in the league. He easily holds the school record
for career shutouts and has been the No. 1 reason Notre
Dame is having its finest hockey season ever.
FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR
Mark Letestu, Western Michigan forward. At
22 years old, Letestu isn’t a rookie in the pimply
faced, fresh-out-of-high-school way. But he is in his first
season of American hockey, and the Elk Point, Alberta, native
led the Broncos with 24 goals and 46 points. He had at least
one point in 25 of WMU’s 37 games, led the league
in short-handed goals with five and amassed 12 more points
than any other CCHA freshman.
Derek A. Smith, Lake Superior State defenseman.
We had always heard that Smith was an offensive defenseman
(an endangered species in Sault Ste. Marie for about a decade),
but it took him until this season to prove it. After posting
one goal and five assists as a freshman and two goals and
eight assists as a sophomore, Smith busted out for 26 points
on nine goals and 17 assists this season. The point total
was good enough to rank tied for second on the Lakers’
scoring chart and third among CCHA defensemen. He made the
all-CCHA second team, which means he would have been a first-teamer
if Michigan didn’t play hockey.
A variety of sources were utilized in
the compilation of this report. James Jahnke can be reached