March 12 , 2003
Road to the Joe Revisited

By Mike Eidelbes


Ferris State senior forward Chris Kunitz boasts Hobey Baker credentials, with 65 points in 36 games and a whopping +40 plus-minus rating.

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First Round Series Previews
No. 7 Notre Dame at
No. 6 Miami
20-15-3 (13-12-3)
15-15-6 (13-12-3)
Season series:
Tied, 1-1-0
RedHawk Fact:
A tale of two halves for Miami: they were 12-3-1 in October and November, and have gone 8-12-2 since.
Irish Fact:
On Feb. 1, Notre Dame was in 10th place in the CCHA with a 7-10-3 record. They went 6-2 in the league down the stretch to finish in a fifth-place tie.
How Notre Dame Wins:
Score first – the Irish are 11-1-3 when they get the game's first goal. Goaltender Morgan Cey can help by turning in a performance like the one he gave in last year's first round playoff series against UNO.
How Miami Wins:
Score goals, said Captain Obvious. Seriously, the RedHawks are 17-2-0 when they get three or more goals in a game. Goalie David Burleigh runs hot and cold, so an early dose of confidence could be a factor.
No. 8 Western Michigan at
No. 5 Northern Michigan
18-16-2 (14-13-1)
15-19-2 (13-14-1)
Season series:
NMU won, 2-0-0
Bronco Fact:
Western Michigan hasn’t won a first round playoff series since 1994. Only Ferris State, which last made a trip to the Joe in 1993, has endured a longer drought.
Wildcat Fact:
The last first-year head coach to win the CCHA playoff championship was Jeff Jackson, who guided Upper Peninsula neighbor Lake Superior State to the honor in 1991.
How Western Michigan Wins:
They're not gifted offensively, but they're physical. The Broncos need an effective forecheck and lots of shots on goal – 30 has been their magic number. Dana Lattery sets the tone; if he's off his game, his mates will follow suit.
How Northern Michigan Wins:
Special teams will be a factor, as the Wildcats are fairly solid on the PP and PK. NMU will be in good shape if they can use the larger ice sheet at home to their aid.
No. 9 Alaska-Fairbanks at
No. 4 Michigan State
21-13-2 (17-10-1)
15-12-7 (10-11-7)
Season series:
MSU won, 2-0-0
Nanook Fact:
Alaska-Fairbanks enters the postseason with a nine-game unbeaten streak. They’re 6-0-3 during that span.
Spartan Fact:
Michigan State, which is tied for 16th in the latest Pairwise Rankings, last missed the NCAA Tournament in 1993.
How Alaska-Fairbanks Wins:
Stay out of the penalty box and keep the potent MSU power play off the ice and hope netminder Keith Bartusch is on one of those “goalie-from-out-of-nowhere” rolls.
How Michigan State Wins:
Continue to spread the wealth offensively, as the top eight forwards and defensemen Brad Fast and John-Michael Liles have all contributed as of late.
No. 10 Nebraska-Omaha at
No. 3 Ohio State
22-10-5 (16-8-4)
UNO: 9-17-2 (13-19-5)
Season series: Tied, 2-2-0
Maverick Fact: UNO is 0-9-2 in its last 11 road contests and has been outscored 43-12 in those games.
Buckeye Fact: Neither Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State has won the CCHA playoff championship and sole possession of the Big Ten football title in the same academic year.
How Nebraska-Omaha Wins: Scoring goals, any way possible, would be a plus. Plan B would be a return to form by goaltender Dan Ellis, keeping the game close until the Mavs can get timely goals.
How Ohio State Wins: Jump out to first period leads – UNO has been outscored in the opening frame by nearly 2-to-1 this season – and remember that Nationwide Arena is in Columbus. OSU is 15-3-2 at home this season.

No. 11 Bowling Green at
No. 2 Michigan
24-9-3 (18-7-3)
BGSU: 8-23-3 (5-20-3)
Season series: U-M won, 1-0-1
Falcon Fact: The last time the CCHA’s second seed was bounced from the playoffs in the first round was in 2000, when Bowling Green upset Miami.
Wolverine Fact: Michigan hosts a first round playoff series for the 15th straight season. U-M is 27-4-0 all-time at home in the opening round of the league postseason.
How Bowling Green Wins: The Falcons own the league’s most porous defense, so acrobatic goaltenders Jordan Sigalet and/or Tyler Masters have to frustrate U-M forwards with their unorthodox styles and BGSU needs a top effort from its penalty-killing units.
How Michigan Wins: They’ll get goals, but freshman netminder Al Montoya has to play with more consistency and the team’s defensive corps must assert itself.

No. 12 Lake Superior State
at No. 1 Ferris State

FSU: 27-8-1 (22-5-1 CCHA)
LSSU: 6-26-4 (3-24-1)
Season series: FSU won, 2-0-0
Laker Fact: Second to last in the nation in scoring, LSSU tallied 58 goals this season and was held to two or fewer goals in 31 of 36 games.
Bulldog Fact: Ferris State’s first place finish in the CCHA marked the first time since the team finished in the top half of the league standings since 1991.
How Lake Superior State Wins: Think back to last season, when they stunned Michigan in the first game of the best-of-three playoff series and gave the Wolverines all they could handle.
How Ferris State Wins: Stick to their system, score first to get the frenetic Ewigleben Arena crowd into the game early and avoid injuries to Kunitz or Brown.

Michigan. Michigan State. Michigan. Michigan State.

For the better part of the last decade, the CCHA has been about as predictable as the climax of a Scooby Doo cartoon. That dominance not only manifested itself in the league regular season – teams coached by either Red Berenson or Ron Mason took top honors 13 times in 18 seasons between 1984-2002 – but also in the postseason, as the Wolverines and Spartans have won eight of the last nine titles.

So what to make of this season, then, when Ferris State wins its first regular season crown and boasts the conference's leading scorer and top goalie? Ohio State finishes third, just the team's third upper-division finish since 1985? MSU finishes fourth, its worst showing since 1993? Or that there are more Spartan defensemen (two) than Michigan forwards (one) among the CCHA's top-20 scorers.

As Bob Dylan said, the times, they are a-changin'. Maybe it was Bob Daniels. Anyway, one season does not indicate a changing of the guard, but it was certainly a breath of fresh air for the CCHA and an indication that anything can happen in this year's league tournament.

The Favorite

While one could logically put Michigan in this role given their history and experience in the playoffs, it’s hard to look past Ferris State. Bob Daniels’ team has passed every challenge presented to them this season, from maintaining their torrid start to not folding in the heat of the race for the CCHA regular season title. This team is more than just Chris Kunitz, folks – the Bulldogs have talented running mates for Kunitz in Derek Nesbitt, Jeff Legue and Phil Lewandowski, an underrated defensive corps led by Troy Milam and Matt York and one of the top three goaltenders in the league in Mike Brown.

Gate Crasher

They’re staring the end of a nine-year NCAA Tournament streak in the eyes, and Michigan State knows the only certain way to extend that run is to win the Mason Cup. The Spartans are 13-5-1 since New Year’s Day, enabling them to climb out of an 8-8-1 hole. The questions surrounding MSU’s success in the CCHA Tournament: the health of forward Jim Slater, the mindset of Jekyll-and-Hyde goaltender Matt Migliaccio and the resiliency of defensemen John-Michael Liles and Brad Fast. The senior duo must continue to log 30+ minutes a game for State to take the postseason championship. Can they do that in three straight games in Detroit?

INCH's All-Conference Team

G - Mike Brown, Ferris State: Gets the nod in a close race with Ohio State’s Mike Betz. The deciding factors: Brown’s save percentage (92.5%) is 22 points better than Betz’s (90.3%), and he’s faced nearly double the shots.

D - John-Michael Liles, Michigan State:
Poised to become the first Spartan defenseman to lead the team in points twice. Liles and Brad Fast carried MSU offensively until the forwards got going.

D - Troy Milam, Ferris State:
Steady night in and night out, Milam is always on the ice for the Bulldogs. He’s the Bulldogs’ glue guy. Michigan’s Andy Burnes, by the way, deserves recognition for his work in his own end; he’s the league’s top defensive defenseman hands down.

F - Chris Kunitz, Ferris State:
The league’s most electrifying offensive player. He’ll skate around you or fight through you to get to the net. No slouch on defense, either.

F - Jeff Tambellini, Michigan:
The rookie is arguably the league’s best passer and his snap shot – think Joe Sakic – is lethal. Just ask CCHA defensemen and goalies about his skills.

F - R.J. Umberger, Ohio State:
Umberger has always had good offensive numbers, but the junior ratcheted his play up a notch this season and his teammates followed suit. He’s probably the CCHA underclassman most likely to bolt for the professional ranks during the off-season.

Coach of the Year

It’s not too tough to figure out this one. Bob Daniels’ Ferris State team was picked to finish ninth by the CCHA media in the league’s preseason poll. The Bulldogs responded by winning nine of their first 10 games. They’re also finishing the way they started, having posted victories in 10 of their last 11 games. His systems are balanced on both ends of the ice, and no team is tougher in front of the net on either end.

Also deserving consideration: Michigan’s Red Berenson, who rebuilds better than any coach not named Krzyzewski, and Rick Comley at Michigan State, for preaching patience during the team’s rough start and adapting his system to take advantage of the Spartans’ strengths.

Player of the Year

Chris Kunitz may not win the Hobey Baker Award, but those who’ve had the good fortune to see him play on multiple occasions this year know there’s probably no one in the country more important to his team. Much more than a scorer, Kunitz is an integral part of the Ferris State penalty-killing unit, a pretty good shot blocker and isn’t afraid of contact.

Freshman of the Year

Even Michigan haters – and estimates indicate there are more than 10 of them – love watching Jeff Tambellini play. You know that old sports marketing slogan. “You’ll buy the whole seat, but you’ll only use the edge?” That’s what it’s like when the dynamic Tambellini gets the puck. The last time the Wolverines had a kid with this much talent and moxie, he won the Hobey Baker Award and a national championship (Brendan Morrison).

Tambellini stands above a strong crop of conference rookies that includes teammate Al Montoya, Michigan State’s David Booth, Ohio State’s Ryan Kesler, Vince Bellissimo of Western Michigan and Miami’s Andy Greene.

Breakthrough Player

Two players – both forwards – stand out in this category. Miami junior Mike Kompon came into the year with a total of 45 points. He’s scored that many this season and he’s durable, having yet to miss a game in his college career. Michigan sophomore Dwight Helminen also deserves a nod. With 26 points, he pitched in when the Wolverines were hamstrung by injuries and he’s a demon on the penalty kill, as his CCHA-best three shorthanded goals illustrate. Kompon and Helminen are the picks over Ohio State’s Doug Andress and Mike Lalonde of Michigan State.

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