March 13, 2008
In This League, Nothing is "Four" Certain

By 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 home.


Junior rearguard Mark Mitera has been a steadying presence on a Michigan defensive corps that features four freshmen.

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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).

CCHA Quarterfinal Matchups

No. 8 Nebraska-Omaha at No. 1 Michigan
17-17-4 (11-13-4 CCHA)
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 chances.
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.

No. 7 Bowling Green at
No. 2 Miami
18-19-0 (13-15-0 CCHA)
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 at home.
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
17-18-4 (12-13-3 CCHA)
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 all-rookie team.
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.

No. 5 Ferris State at
No. 4 Notre Dame
17-14-5 (12-12-4 CCHA)
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 Center.
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.


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.


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.


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 first-round series.


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 points.

Other forwards around the league (Jones, Marshall, Bowling Green's Derek Whitmore) put up similar numbers, but none equaled Porter's all-around impact.


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 at