I just glanced at the story I wrote the week of the 2011 CCHA championship tournament to find that it was unseasonably warm this week last year, too. Of course, there was a winter a year ago that hasn’t existed for much of the CCHA’s geography in recent months and the temperatures this weekend in Detroit will be flirting with 70 degrees — that’s 21 for you Canadian folks.
This year, we all know that the weather won’t be the only thing sizzling at The Joe this weekend. And, yes, anything above 65 in mid-March is sizzling in southeast Michigan.
This year, three of the four teams that played for the 2011 Mason Cup return to Detroit, including defending champion Miami. Even though three of the teams are returnees, this field is remarkable in a number of ways. After a CCHA season that brought parity to new levels of excellence, here are some things to consider about the teams playing in this weekend’s tournament.
• Michigan is making its 23rd consecutive trip to the CCHA semifinals — not the 24th, as everyone is reporting. The streak is remarkable in every way; that no one caught the mistake before now is also remarkable. This streak began at the end of the 1989-90 season — not at the end of the 1988-89 season, as was previously reported — when only a handful of current Wolverines players were alive to bear witness. Luke Glendening, Adam Janecyk and Jeff Rohrkemper were in diapers — Janecyk was a newborn — and fifth-year senior goaltender Shawn Hunwick was just shy of 3 years old in March 1990. As smart as Hunwick is, I’m sure that his memory of the 1989-90 season is a little spotty.
• Western Michigan is making its second consecutive trip to The Joe under its second consecutive first-year head coach. Last year under Jeff Blashill, the Broncos were returning to the CCHA championship tournament for the first time since 1994. This year under Andy Murray, the Broncos posted four more league wins than they did a year ago and have hit the 19-win mark overall for the second straight year — after finishing in the basement in 2009-10.
• Miami is making its third consecutive CCHA Championship tournament appearance and fifth in the last seven seasons — but the first as defending playoff champion. The RedHawks captured their first Mason Cup in 2011.
• Bowling Green returns to the CCHA Championship tournament for the first time since 2001, and the Falcons are the lowest seed in CCHA history to vie for the Mason Cup. The Falcons are the only team to advance this year without the benefit of a first-round bye, and they’ve played six CCHA playoff games to the two everyone else in the field has recorded.
After Michigan swept Notre Dame Saturday night — and it was a really, really good series between two evenly matched teams — Hunwick was asked to sum up the weekend.
“Whoever wants it the most — it’s cliche to say it — but whoever wants it the most,” said Hunwick, “and is working the hardest is probably going to win the games.”
In a season when so many teams were so evenly matched, I think Hunwick is right. Ask Northern Michigan and Ferris State. I think the Wildcats and Bulldogs might agree as well.
No. 1 Michigan
The Wolverines are the top seed in the field because first-place Ferris State was eliminated. After tying for second place with Western Michigan, Michigan earned the higher seed because of the first tiebreaker, league wins.
After a first-round bye, the Wolverines defeated the Fighting Irish 2-1 and 3-1 in Yost Ice Arena; the first game went to overtime. In the 22 straight years that Michigan has played in the CCHA Championship tournament before this season, the Wolverines have played in the title game 16 times and have won the championship nine times in that stretch.
Last year, Michigan lost to Western Michigan in the semifinals before beating Notre Dame in the third-place game.
• Record: 23-11-4
• Last 10 games: 8-2-0
• Goals scored per game: 3.29, 10th nationally
• Goals allowed per game: 2.13, 4th
• Power play percentage: 15.6, 44th
• Penalty kill percentage: 85.1, seventh
• Top scorer: Alex Guptill (16-16–32)
• Top goal scorer: Guptill
• Top goaltender: Shawn Hunwick (1.97 goals against average, .934 save percentage)
This may be Michigan’s 24th straight chance at a playoff title, but nothing about this trip was de facto for this year’s Wolverines. Sitting in eighth place at the start of the second half of the season, Michigan has had to work its way to this point — and the Wolverines know it.
“They don’t hand that out,” said coach Red Berenson. “That’s not an automatic and I think we’ve been really fortunate to have that consistency to get back there. In some years, the playoff system was a little different and it might have seemed a little easier and some teams might have taken that for granted.”
But not this year. Not this team.
Things began to roll for Michigan in the second half for a couple of reasons. First is the line of freshman Alex Guptill, senior David Wohlberg and junior Chris Brown. The trio has put up 20 of Michigan’s 125 goals since the start of the calendar year.
“Wohlberg was struggling on left wing,” said Berenson. “We decided to move him to center … and it was amazing. It just took off. The line just clicked. It’s been one of those things. You never know how players are going to play together.
“Wohlberg is a senior and he’s been a hard-working, two-way player his whole career. He can score. He can make plays. He can check. Chris Brown is a big, strong forward. He can shoot the puck. He has that knack around the net. Guptill has really good hands. All three of them have size, they have decent speed and they can be a handful when they’re on their game.”
Another key component in Michigan’s second-half turnaround was the reinstatement of sophomore defenseman Jon Merrill, who spent the first half of the season suspended for an undisclosed violation of team rules. Berenson won’t single Merrill out as the reason for the improved defense, but there’s no denying that Merrill elevates Michigan’s play.
“He gives us another experience, poised defenseman on the blue line,” Berenson said.
Berenson and the Wolverines understand what they’re up against in Friday night’s semifinal match against Bowling Green. It’s no gimme; the Wolverines split a series with the Falcons in Bowling Green to end the regular season.
“I thought after that weekend that they were a much better team than their record,” said Berenson. “I thought when they hired Chris Bergeron that was a great hire and it was just a matter of time when that team would take a step, and obviously that team has taken a step.
“I thought the goalie [Andrew Hammond] looked like he was very poised and … like he was always in position. He looked like he was the kind of goalie who can make a difference and he is.
“You can put their season records behind them. It really comes down to one game and they’ve got the momentum — let’s face it.”
No. 2 Western Michigan
After tying for second place with Michigan in the regular-season standings, the Broncos were the No. 3 seed overall in the CCHA playoffs because the Wolverines owned the first tiebreaker. After Ferris State bowed out last weekend, WMU became the second seed in the remaining field.
The Broncos followed their first-round bye week with a two-game sweep of Lake Superior State 4-2 and 5-2. Last year, WMU upset Michigan in a CCHA semifinal game before losing the title game to Miami.
• Record: 19-13-6
• Last 10 games: 6-3-1
• Goals scored per game: 2.74, 36th nationally
• Goals allowed per game: 2.24, 11th
• Power play percentage: 20.1, 19th
• Penalty kill percentage: 84.7, 11th
• Top scorer: Chase Balisy (12-22–34)
• Top goal scorer: Dane Walters (15)
• Top goaltender: Frank Slubowski (2.03 goals against average, .910 save percentage)
There is no secret to this team’s success. Western Michigan plays as hard as any team in college hockey. As Murray puts it, the Broncos want to be a miserable team to play against.
In addition to that extraordinary work ethic, this year’s Broncos players have a new weapon — experience. Last year was a magical run for a team that finished the previous season in last place. Just getting to Joe Louis Arena and the NCAA tournament was enough. This year, the Broncos absolutely want more.
“Just having the experience of being at Joe Louis last year has given us another level of confidence,” said junior assistant captain Dane Walters. “Last year, just getting there was a great accomplishment for our team. Beating Ferris State in double overtime at Lawson [Ice Arena] last year was a special game and this year, getting the opportunity to sweep Lake Superior was also pretty special.
“I think this year we have bigger goals in mind. Not that we didn’t last season, but this year we have that experience of getting there and we know what it feels like. We are looking to take it to the next level.”
Another new weapon is freshman goaltender Frank Slubowski, who has the eighth-best goals against average in the country and has won 15 games for the Broncos.
“He’s a Canadian goalie from Prince Rupert [British Columbia] who’s a true hockey player,” said Murray. “We asked him the other day what he thought about Peyton Manning and he said, ‘Who’s Peyton Manning?'”
All joking aside, Slubowski — who earned CCHA All-Rookie Team honors for the season — has emerged as the Broncos’ starter in the second half. “He was very good right from the outset of training camp with us,” said Murray. “He got the opportunity to play and from that point on he certainly has been the one we have relied on. He has a great deal of composure and [is] a quality young man that our players definitely believe in.”
Another quality player upon whom the Broncos rely is someone who doesn’t garner a lot of attention, senior forward and captain Ian Slater. Slater had three goals against Lake Superior last weekend, his first CCHA postseason tallies — and his first goals since Nov. 15, 2011.
“I would never rate one captain over another because that would be a disservice to someone who’s done a lot for me,” said Murray, “but I’ve had none better than Ian Slater. Being a senior, what he does is all by example. He leads us in conditioning, he leads us in work ethic in practice. He’s been a quality player for our program.”
Murray and the Broncos know what they’re facing when they play Miami in Friday’s early game. They lost two games to Miami 3-1 and 4-1 in Oxford Jan. 21-22.
“They’re obviously well coached and well organized,” said Murray. “They have solid, physical defensemen, great speed and balance up front and a balance of aggressiveness and ability. They have all the elements to make a great team, obviously, and have a tradition of success.
“We were not very good that weekend, and we will have to be a lot better come Friday.”
No. 3 Miami
The defending CCHA playoff champions finished in fourth place in the regular season standings, two points behind Michigan and Western Michigan and a single point ahead of Michigan State — a position earned with a six-game, regular season-ending win streak, four of which were league contests.
After their first-round bye weekend, the RedHawks returned to late-season form and demolished Michigan State last weekend 6-0 and 4-1. Last year, Miami beat Notre Dame to advance to the CCHA championship game, and the RedHawks beat Western Michigan 5-2 to take their first Mason Cup.
• Record: 23-13-2
• Last 10 games: 8-2-0
• Goals scored per game: 2.97, 21st nationally
• Goals allowed per game: 1.97, second
• Power play percentage: 15.3, 47th
• Penalty kill percentage: 85.9, sixth
• Top scorer: Reilly Smith (27-16–43)
• Top goal scorer: Smith
• Top goaltender: Connor Knapp (1.43 goals against average, .943 save percentage)
The RedHawks are another team that isn’t taking this weekend for granted. When the second half of the season began, Miami was in ninth place, one point behind eighth-place Michigan. In the second half, though, the RedHawks’ transformation was much more dramatic than that of the Wolverines, in large part because of the play of senior goaltender Connor Knapp.
At the end of December, Knapp’s save percentage was so low that he didn’t show up among the top 15 goaltenders in the CCHA — and the lowest save percentage on that list at the time belonged to Bowling Green’s Hammond and Notre Dame’s Mike Johnson, both at .889.
Now Knapp has the second-best save percentage in the country (.943) and his goals against average (1.43) leads the nation. He’s had five shutouts this season — all since Jan. 7 — and his save percentage in the second half is .964. In spite of Knapp’s remarkable second-half transformation, Miami coach Enrico Blasi is low-key about his netminder heading into the weekend in Detroit.
“I think it starts with everybody — our forwards, our defensemen — doing a really good job in front of him blocking shots,” said Blasi. “Connor seems to be seeing the puck real well and making the plays he needs to make.”
Blasi is correct in that Miami’s success isn’t the product of one player, that’s for certain. In the first half of the season, the RedHawks were a talented team that didn’t play as a cohesive unit; now they’re a machine — a scary machine. The RedHawks are bringing an eight-game win streak into Joe Louis Arena, a stretch through which Miami has outscored opponents 31-5.
“I think we’re trying to be a good, solid team in all three zones,” said Blasi. “We’ve gotten some good contributions from everybody at this point. I don’t know if I can point to one person or one thing. It’s been a team effort. It’s been pretty much that way since Nov. 1.”
Senior defenseman and captain Will Weber said that perhaps that first half of the season was a matter of everyone learning to play together. The RedHawks lost some pretty big guns after last season and while Miami certainly knows how to reload, the team needed time to adjust.
“We have a lot of new faces and guys were getting used to each other,” said Weber. “The freshmen have been playing pretty good all year, but it was guys getting used to each other on the ice and a lot of little things like learning the college game.
“I think at the start we struggled because we weren’t doing those things, but now we have come together and are playing pretty well right now. I think it was a maturing process that had to take place throughout the year.”
The RedHawks play the Broncos in the first semifinal game Friday. Even though Miami swept Western Michigan during the regular season, Blasi said the RedHawks aren’t looking past the Broncos.
“You’re in a semifinal game so you’re going to have to bring your best,” said Blasi. “Western is a pretty darned good team. They’ve got weapons up front. They’re pretty deep at forward. Their [defensive] corps is one of the best in the country. They’ve gotten good goaltending all year.
“It’s no different any other year we’ve been there. You focus on the first task and you go from there.”
No. 4 Bowling Green
Everyone thinks that the Falcons have come on just lately, but I warned you about them after they posted a .500 record in January. To get to this point, though — to finish in last place in the regular season standings and earn the right to play for a league playoff championship — Bowling Green had to go through two tough barns and beat two tough teams.
In the first round of the CCHA tournament, the Falcons eliminated Northern Michigan in Marquette for the second consecutive season, losing the Friday game before winning two straight. The Wildcats had lost two games at home all season to that point.
Last weekend, the Falcons beat regular season champ Ferris State 3-2 in overtime on Friday before losing badly the next night 7-4. Sunday, the Falcons trailed 3-0 at the end of the first before coming back to tie the game and win in overtime 4-3.
• Record: 14-23-5
• Last 10 games: 5-5-0
• Goals scored per game: 1.95, 55th nationally
• Goals allowed per game: 2.90, 38th
• Power play percentage: 8.6, 56th
• Penalty kill percentage: 82.6, 25th
• Top scorer: Ryan Carpenter (10-19–29)
• Top goal scorer: Dan DeSalvo (14-11–25)
• Top goaltender: Andrew Hammond (2.72 goals against average, .902 save percentage)
There is no one more fun to talk to right now than Bergeron. After the first half of the season — when the Falcons had a single league win and six overall — Bergeron said that he and his staff realized that perhaps their own attitudes were bringing down the team. They needed to make work fun again. The Falcons were playing hard with little reward in the first half and Bergeron — along with assistant coaches Barry Schutte and Ty Eigner — needed to find a way to remain upbeat for their very young team.
Whatever they did worked. Obviously.
“The difference started at Christmastime,” said Bergeron. “We’ve been a more confident group. The results kind of started. We had a series with Ohio State [Jan. 7-8] and they were two ties and we had two shootout wins and for a team that was struggling, they acted as two wins for us.”
Fast-forward to the end of the regular season, and the Falcons broke a four-game losing streak with a 4-3 win over Michigan in front of a record-breaking home crowd. Two weeks later, the team found itself down three goals after the first period of a deciding Game 3 against the league’s regular-season champions. With the season on the line, Bergeron knew what he had to say to his players.
“The message after the first was [that] they’re a bunch of great kids and they owe it to themselves and to each other not to quit on this game,” said Bergeron.
The goal that put Ferris State up 3-0 at the end of the first period of Sunday’s game was a little soft, but it became the point at which the Falcons rallied around Hammond.
“He [Hammond] was able to close the door at three, and our guys went out there and won the game for him. And that’s what guys were saying on the bench. ‘Let’s not let that third goal be the game winner,’ the one that obviously Andrew wanted to have back. I’m so happy for Andrew because, again, he deserved to feel better than the way he would have felt had that been the winning goal.”
At this point, everyone knows — or should know — the story of BGSU freshman Dan DeSalvo. He had four goals in 27 regular-season games; he has scored 10 in six playoff games, setting a new CCHA record for playoff goals.
“I’m telling you,” said Bergeron, “when we recruited Dan, we were told that he’s got a knack to score big goals. I’m not just saying that. We were told that he just has a knack to do that and, boy, does he ever.
“It’s nice to see us scoring goals, because obviously it’s been something we struggle with. If it’s one guy doing the scoring, we’ll take that.”
After Sunday’s win, Bergeron said that being proud doesn’t do justice to the feeling that he and the coaches have for a team that includes 17 freshmen and sophomores, 16 of them skaters. There are no named captains on this squad, said Bergeron, a decision he doesn’t regret.
“They’ve done a nice job of being resilient together,” said Bergeron. “It has developed into a lead by committee. That’s included everybody who’s been in the lineup.”
As emotionally high as the Falcons are, they’re grounded when it comes to facing Michigan in Friday’s second semifinal game. “First and foremost, I think there’s so many keys to take on a team like [Michigan] that we need to keep in mind,” said Bergeron. “We really need to take care of the puck in all areas on the ice. Michigan is going to make opportunities on their own and we can’t afford to create opportunities for them.”
A couple of other guys
Because I was lucky enough to get to Ann Arbor on Saturday and Big Rapids on Sunday, I was also able to chat with Notre Dame’s Jeff Jackson and Ferris State’s Bob Daniels. Each had interesting things to say.
Jackson was all about Hunwick, whom he credited with making the difference in the weekend. Jackson talked about Irish goaltender Steven Summerhays as well — and Summerhays had a great series and really looked good at the end of the season — but Jackson was vocal about Hunwick.
“I voted for him to be a Hobey Baker finalist,” said Jackson. “I think he’s of that caliber. I know he comes from a great family; I coached his dad — midget hockey, a long time ago.
“I admire the kid. I admire [Jeff] Lerg, too, because they’re similar types of goalies. Because of their size, everyone counts them out. That kid competes and battles as hard as anyone.”
In Big Rapids, the Bulldogs were stunned — and stung — by the playoff loss, but Daniels put things into perspective.
“This team’s accomplished an awful lot,” said Daniels. “I don’t think anyone expected us to finish the regular season champions. As difficult as this pill is to swallow — and let me tell you, this is tough, this is — we’re lucky that we’re going to have another opportunity to move forward and do some other things that people don’t expect us to do now.”
Daniels also talked about how difficult it will be for his players to sit out the CCHA Championship tournament, with no control whatsoever about their NCAA tournament seeding.
1. Boston College
5. Boston University
8. Ferris State
11. North Dakota
14. Western Michigan
16. Notre Dame
17. Michigan State
18. Colorado College
19. Air Force
20. Bowling Green
My end-of-season hardware
Sadly, no nominations came in for the two vacant awards. I’ll think on it a little, still take nominations, and maybe we’ll be able to put something together for a blog somewhere down the road.
If not, the Mike York and Brendan Morrison awards will remain vacant until next season.
And finally …
This is my last column of the season. There will be Monday and Friday blogs, coverage from Joe Louis Arena this weekend — including live blogging — and Frozen Four coverage, but as this is my last column, I’d like to thank everyone who’s helped make this such an enjoyable season of CCHA coverage for me.
That’s a long, long list that includes every CCHA coach, every CCHA team’s sports information director, many people throughout the league — especially in Munn Ice Arena and Yost Ice Arena, the two venues closest to my home city of Flint, Mich. — people in the CCHA’s league office, other reporters from around the country, and all my peeps here at USCHO.com, especially my long-suffering editor, Todd Milewski.
And you readers. Thank you all for spending some of the season with me.