This League, Nothing is "Four" Certain
James V. Dowd
While this season's regular-season race was
a four-team fight for the championship from the onset, the
CCHA playoffs have proven time and time again that everything
changes once it is, as the saying goes, time to win or go
Junior rearguard Mark Mitera has been a steadying
presence on a Michigan defensive corps that features
Think back to Nebraska-Omaha in 2000, when
the Mavericks reached the league title game after starting
the tournament as the No. 7 seed. Or look at 2004, when
a fourth-seeded Ohio State team knocked off Michigan, the
top seed, in the championship game. Anything can happen.
And though the regular season was fairly predictable,
there were a few surprises. Ferris State swept Miami and
Northern Michigan took two from Michigan State. Besides,
with two first-round playoff series decided in overtime
of the final game, there is a lot of potential for volatility
as the quarterfinals unfold this weekend.
And while the top teams look to solidify their
NCAA tournament resumes and their respective challengers
are drawing up elaborate plans for upsets on the road, it's
already reviewing and rebuilding time for Alaska, Ohio State,
Lake Superior State, and Western Michigan.
Will it be stars like Jeff Lerg, Ryan Jones,
and Kevin Porter leading their squads to glory? Or will
an unknown quantity disturb the league hierarchy en route
to Detroit? Only time will tell, but judging by Michigan's
consistently strong performance against all comers thus
far, the Wolverines seem poised to win their first Mason
Cup since 2005.
All season long, people pointed to the Feb.
8-9 series between Michigan and Miami as the games that
would decide the CCHA regular-season title. Having seen
the big-game results — a win and a tie, which put
the Wolverines in the driver's seat en route to the championship
— it seems as though Michigan is best prepared for
the tumultuous road which leads to the Mason Cup.
With Bryan Marshall (if he returns from injury),
Mick Lawrence, and the rest of the high-scoring offense,
Nebraska-Omaha will certainly put up a worthy quarterfinal
challenge. Still, Michigan (3.82 goals per game) still averages
more than half a goal per game more than the Mavericks (3.24).
No. 8 Nebraska-Omaha
at No. 1 Michigan
UNO: 17-17-4 (11-13-4 CCHA)
U-M: 27-5-4 (20-4-4 CCHA)
Season series: U-M leads, 2-0
Wolverine fact: Michigan is 20-4-3 all-time
against UNO and has only lost to them once in Ann
Arbor, during the 2004 CCHA playoffs.
Maverick fact: The Mavericks have the league's
best power play, scoring on 24.4 percent of their
How Nebraska-Omaha wins: Frustrate the Wolverines
with physical play, forcing them to wind up the penalty
box. That'll give Bryan Marshall (if healthy) and
Mick Lawrence a chance to shine.
How Michigan wins: Stick to their guns and
don't look past the Mavericks. The two teams are quite
familiar with each other, and so they need to get
Porter and Kolarik involved offensively and rely on
stellar play from Billy Sauer.
7 Bowling Green at
No. 2 Miami
BGSU: 18-19-0 (13-15-0 CCHA)
MIA: 29-6-1 (21-6-1 CCHA)
Season series: Split, 1-1
RedHawk fact: Although Miami is just 19-30
in CCHA playoff history, it is an impressive 13-7
Falcon fact: This weekend's series is the
first time in seven years that the Falcons have made
it past the opening round of the CCHA tournament.
How Bowling Green wins: In order to keep
pace with Miami, the Falcons must buckle down on defense
and try to slow down an extremely potent attack. If
they succeed at frustrating the Redhawks, turnovers,
odd-man rushes and offensive chances might ensue.
How Miami wins: While BGSU's Derek Whitmore
is an imposing forward, the Redhawks can use their
superior depth to simply outgun the Falcons and put
the pressure on the opponent's green goaltenders.
No. 6 Northern
Michigan at No. 3 Michigan State
NMU: 17-18-4 (12-13-3 CCHA)
MSU: 23-9-5 (19-6-3 CCHA)
Season series: Split, 2-2
Wildcat fact: The Wildcats' Erik Gustafsson
and Mark Olver were both named to this year's CCHA
Spartan fact: MSU has advanced to the Joe
Louis Arena portion of the CCHA tournament in 16 straight
seasons and 25 times in 26 seasons.
How NMU wins: The Wildcats must be opportunistic
and finish their chances against the stingy Jeff Lerg.
That said, they can't focus too much on offense —
the games could get out of hand quickly if Bryan Lerg,
Justin Abdelkader, and Co. get loose on goalie Brian
Stewart. How MSU wins: The Spartans must do
a better job controlling the defensive zone than they
did against the NMU in the two regular-season losses
in Marquette. By spreading out and forcing bad passes
and awkward shots, they''ll make Jeff Lerg's job easy.
5 Ferris State at
No. 4 Notre Dame
FSU: 17-14-5 (12-12-4 CCHA)
ND: 22-12-4 (15-9-4 CCHA)
Season series: FSU leads,
Bulldog fact: Ferris State coach Bob Daniels
has a 16-10-4 career record in games at the Joyce
Irish fact: The Fighting Irish certainly
know how to spread the puck around, as 15 skaters
notched double-digit point totals on the season.
How FSU wins: Simply keep doing what they've
done against Notre Dame — play solid defense
and don't give up quality chances. The Bulldogs lack
big-time offensive firepower, but the scoring-by-committee
approach has worked well for them lately.
How ND Wins: The Irish must capitalize on
their chances. Late in the season, the Notre Dame
scoring touch disappeared, which led to the team's
swoon down the stretch.
THE GATE CRASHER
Northern Michigan has shown signs of improvement,
especially against the league's very distinguished top four
during the latter part of the regular season. The Wildcats
started slow, then ran into a nightmare schedule during
which they faced Michigan, Michigan State, and Miami in
succession, losing all six games.
NMU sprang to life with four wins in six games
against Bowling Green, Lake Superior State, and Alaska,
continued to play well in December, then went a combined
3-1-2 against Notre Dame, Michigan and Michigan State in
the second half.
In addition to their second-half
success, the young Wildcats' poise in coming from a 1-0
deficit to win their first-round series against Ohio State
last weekend gives them even more momentum.
INCH'S ALL-CCHA TEAM
F - Kevin Porter, Michigan Prior to the season, the question was, how good
is Kevin Porter without T.J. Hensick? Maybe we should have
been asking, would Hensick have been as good as he was without
Porter? All year, Porter and linemate Chad Kolarik tortured
opponents, occupying the top two spots on the CCHA scoring
chart. Porter also gets points for performing admirably
as the Wolverines' captain in what was supposed to be a
transition year. (P.S.: Hensick is doing well, scoring
11 points in 31 games with the Colorado Avalanche)
F - Ryan Jones, Miami When Hobey Baker Award favorite Nathan Davis went
down with an injury early this season, Miami's offense remained
virtually unstoppable. Jones, the nation's leading goal
scorer who was right on Porter's and Kolarik's heels in
the league scoring race, played a huge role keeping the
RedHawks in the CCHA title race down to the last weekend.
F - Bryan Marshall,Nebraska-Omaha Marshall rarely gets the recognition that Porter
or Jones get, but he has performed brilliantly all year
long in Omaha. His proficiency at distrbuting the puck is
why he and linemates Mick Lawrence and Brandon Scero emerged
as one of the most dangerous scoring lines in the league.
D - Alec Martinez, Miami Twenty-six was the magic number for Martinez, who
continually exudes a strong presence at both ends of the
ice. The junior notched 26 points on seven goals and 19
assists, all while maintaining a gaudy +26 plus-minus rating
that many blueliners sacrifice in exchange for those kind
of offensive numbers.
D - Mark Mitera, Michigan With Matt Hunwick, Jack Johnson, Jason Dest, and
Tim Cook no longer in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines needed someone
to show their enormous freshman class the ropes on defense.
Mitera was a steadying influence on the rookies and managed
a +24 plus-minus rating.
G - Jeff Lerg, Michigan State Old reliable up in East Lansing, Lerg played 144:07
more than any other CCHA netminder while keeping 92.4 percent
of the shots he faced out of the net. He was a primary reason
the Spartans stayed in the regular-season title hunt.
COACH OF THE YEAR
This is a tough call. Red Berenson performed
his magic once again with a freshman-heavy Michigan roster
and Walt Kyle orchestrated a strong second half at Northern
Michigan. But first-year Alaska coach Doc DelCastillo
takes the honor for his effort in turning around a Nanook
team which seemed lost in the first half of the season.
DelCastillo urged his players buy into his
system, earned their respect while working them to the bone,
and generated a lot of excitement in Fairbanks as the Nanooks
pushed for home ice in the playoffs – something we
will likely see in coming years – and took Nebraska-Omaha
to three overtimes in the deciding third game of last weekend's
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
No question here. Kevin Porter
was absolutely magical just about every night, making the
plays he needed to make while committed to showing his freshman
teammates what hard work means. Working with Kolarik, Porter
scored 27 goals and added 27 assists for a league-best 54
Other forwards around the league (Jones, Marshall,
Bowling Green's Derek Whitmore) put up similar numbers,
but none equaled Porter's all-around impact.
FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR
Michigan's entire freshman class seems worthy
of this award and Miami's Andy Miele was spectacular after
joining the RedHawks for the second half of the season.
But Northern Michigan's Erik Gustafsson
stayed under the radar for most of the season, even though
he played a major role in the Wildcats' resurgence.
Gustafsson, who arrived in Marquette by way
ofSweden, is still searching for his first collegiate goal,
but he notched 26 assists — the most of any CCHA blueliner
and fourth-best total in the league — and also played
well at the other end of the ice, earning a plus-minus rating
of +15 for a team that had an overall goal differential
of -1. And if you put a premium of playing best in the big
games, take the rookie's seven assists in last weekend's
first-round series against Ohio State (a school playoff
series record) as a sign of things to come.
Funny to think of a relatively well-known
junior as someone who could have a breakthrough season,
but where might Michigan have been with the Billy
Sauer Wolverines fans knew during his first two
seasons in Ann Arbor?
Working with new goaltender coach Josh
Blackburn, Sauer completely turned around his game and stood
tall when the Wolverines needed him most. Even off the ice,
Sauer seems to have gained confidence, a trait that will
serve him well as the pressure increases — the Wolverines
are hungry to monopolize the college hockey banners hanging
from the Joe Louis Arena rafters.
A variety of sources were utilized in
the compilation of this report. James V. Dowd can be reached