March 8, 2007
Predictably, CCHA Playoffs are Unpredictable

By James Jahnke


Notre Dame goaltender David Brown leads the country with 25 wins and a 1.68 goals against average, and ranks sixth nationally with a .927 save percentage.

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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 anything but.

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.


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
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.

No. 10 Northern Michigan at No. 2 Michigan
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.

No. 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.


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 and collected.

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 defenseman.

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.


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.


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.


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 at