CCHA playoffs begin for the final time

By Michael Caples - 

“There’s always next year.”

It’s a saying used season after season, sport after sport. It’s a reminder that even if your team disappoints, in a few short (or long) months, you can forget about it and start all over.

But for the Central Collegiate Hockey Association and its member schools, that saying doesn’t really hold true.

When the Mason Cup is awarded to a team at Joe Louis Arena on March 24, it will be for the final time. Each of the 11 schools will either prepare for the NCAA Tournament, or prepare for final exams.

But there won’t be any preparing for another CCHA season. The teams will go their separate ways – some to the Big Ten, some to the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, and some to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

There won’t ever be another shot at the Mason Cup.

So the question arises – who will win it for the final time? The Miami RedHawks, led by Michigan natives Austin Czarnik and Riley Barber, captured the regular-season title last weekend. Notre Dame finished just three points behind, while Michigan’s top collegiate team this season, the Western Michigan Broncos, were only five points off the pace.

Yet the beautiful thing about the CCHA playoffs is that everybody gets a chance. Just ask Bowling Green, who finished last in the regular season last year but made it all the way to the final game at Joe Louis Arena.

It’s a story that Michigan State could take a peek at while they wait for their flight to Alaska for the first round.

On that note, here’s a look at the Michigan schools as they prepare for their final CCHA playoff appearances.

Western Michigan's Frank Slubowski has already proven he can lead the Broncos to a CCHA championship. (Michael Caples/MiHockey)

No. 3 Western Michigan

The Broncos entered the final weekend of the regular season with a realistic chance of moving past Miami and Notre Dame for the top seed. Instead, they split with Michigan State, but they are still a team to beat come playoff time. Western Michigan is the only Michigan-based school to lock up home ice for their first playoff match-up, which will occur on the weekend of March 15-17.  Broncos bench boss Andy Murray said that if his team didn’t have a bye, he would say it was a disadvantage, but that it’s great for his team to rest and work on the details before welcoming a team to Lawson.

It’s been a scoring-by-committee situation for the Broncos this season, and while sometimes they’ve been left hoping for more offense, it’s gotten the job done. Senior captain Dane Walters and Nashville prospect Chase Balisy tied for the team lead with 24 points apiece this season, while ten different Broncos picked up at least 10 points. Goaltender Frank Slubowski has continued to serve as the Broncos’ backbone, tending to the pipes for 95.6 percent of the WMU hockey action this season. He holds a 19-9-8 record with a .922 save percentage and 1.85 goals-against. Meanwhile, a defense with the likes of Danny DeKeyser, Kenney Morrison, Luke Witowski and Garrett Haar means that Slubowski is getting high-quality support night after night.

The Broncos stand the best chance of being the Michigan school that keeps the Mason Cup in our state for many years to come.

Can the Bulldogs build on a Cinderella Story from last season? (Andrew Knapik/MiHockey)

No. 5 Ferris State

The Bulldogs don’t have to play in the opening weekend of the CCHA playoffs, but when they do begin, they will be on the road. Ferris State pulled their goalie in the closing moments of a tie game with Michigan last Saturday in a desperate attempt to gain extra points; their inability score a goal in that time frame means they weren’t able to gain the fourth and final home-ice seed for the playoffs. Last year’s Cinderella Story of the NCAA Tournament can’t get bounced early from the CCHA Tournament again (they lost to Bowling Green in the quarterfinals last year) if they want another shot at the national title.

Garrett Thompson leads the Bulldogs in scoring this season, with a line of 11 goals and 14 assists for 25 points. Kyle Bonis is one behind, with 24 points, but leads the team in goals, with 17. Jason Binkley has been FSU’s points leader on the blue line, posting two goals and 17 assists in 34 games. C.J. Motte continues to be their anchor in goal, playing in 32 of the Bulldogs’ 34 games this season. He holds a 14-13-5 record, with a .927 save percentage and 2.17 goals-against average.

The Bulldogs start the playoffs in Buckeye country; Ohio State and Ferris State make up the No. 4 vs. No. 5 second-round match-up.

Jacob Trouba has impressed in the regular season; what will he do in his first and only CCHA playoffs? (Andrew Knapik/MiHockey)

No. 7 Michigan

While their season results are far lower than expected, the Michigan Wolverines might just be figuring things out at the right time. After struggling through the majority of the season, the Wolverines swept the No. 4 Buckeyes in Columbus two weekends ago, then last weekend topped the No. 5 Bulldogs in regulation Friday, and in a shootout on Saturday. Their late surge secured home ice in the first round for the Wolverines, something that wasn’t looking like a sure bet in the heading into the final stretch of the regular season.

A strong showing down the stretch has put Alex Guptill into a tie for the team lead with scoring; his 26 points matches him with rookie Cristoval ‘Boo’ Nieves. Phil Di Giuseppe checks in at No. 3 on the team scoring chart, having recorded 24 points in 34 games. Rookie Jacob Trouba led the Wolverines in scoring from the backend – he might just be our vote for offensive defenseman of the year – with nine goals and 14 assists for 23 points.

The Wolverines welcome the Northern Michigan Wildcats to Yost for a first-round series. In November, Michigan traveled to Marquette to win a shootout on Friday, and lose in regulation on Saturday.

Domenic Monardo leads the Lakers both on and off the ice. (Photo courtesy of the CCHA)

No. 8 Lake Superior

The Lakers set a school record with three shorthanded goals in their Saturday win over Northern Michigan last weekend – a win that secured them home ice in the first round of the CCHA playoffs. It was an important win for the Lakers, who had been swept by regular-season champion Miami the previous weekend.

Senior captain Domenic Monardo has lead the Lakers’ offense the entire season, recording 19 goals and 11 assists for 30 points in 36 games this year. Fellow senior Nick McParland is second in team scoring with 21 points; they are the only two Lakers to eclipse the 20-point mark. A low-scoring team means lots of work for the goaltenders, but LSSU has two junior netminders that have proven to get the job done. Junior Kevin Murdock has appeared in 22 games this season, and holds 10-11-0 record with a .935 save percentage and a 2.34 goals-against average. Meanwhile, Kevin Kapalka has appeared in 18, and posted a 6-8-1 record with a .916 save percentage and 2.89 goals-against average.

The Lakers welcome Bowling Green to the Soo this weekend, hoping to prevent the Falcons from making another improbable run to the CCHA championship weekend like they did last year. Bowling Green won both meetings between the two schools during the regular season, though.

Scott Macaulay and Matt Thurber lead the Wildcats this season. (Michael Caples/MiHockey)

No. 10 Northern Michigan

It’s been a bit of a down year for Northern Michigan, but with the beginning of the playoffs comes new life for the Wildcats. They will start the playoffs on the road in Ann Arbor though – probably not high on the list of destinations for starting the postseason for many NCAA coaches.

The Wildcats will be hoping that strong season from Matt Thurber continues into the first round of the playoffs. The senior forward has 32 points on the season – six goals but a CCHA-leading 26 assists. Sophomore Reed Seckel has 25 points, while Erik Higby and Stephan Vigier also passed the 20-point plateau during the season. Senior captain Scott Macaulay led the way on the blue line, with 16 points in 36 games. It has not been a ‘goaltending by committee’ season; junior Jared Coreau has appeared in all 36 games the Wildcats have played. He holds a 15-17-4 record with a .921 save percentage and a 2.59 goals-against average on the season.

The Wildcats will need a strong series from Coreau to keep the Wolverines’ offense at bay during their first-round match-up.

The Spartans will have to start their final CCHA playoffs in Alaska this weekend. (Michael Caples/MiHockey)

No. 11 Michigan State

It’s a familiar story for the Michigan State Spartans – they’re heading to Alaska. Just two weeks after completing the trek out west for their regular-season match-up, this time the Spartans head to Alaska for their first-round playoff match-up with the Nanooks. They split last time, but you can’t have any series ties in the playoffs.

The Spartans have been searching for an identity on offense all season; sophomore forward Matt Berry is the only MSU player to crack the 20-point mark (he has 25). Brent Darnell checks in at the No. 2 spot on the scoring list, with 19 points, while junior captain Greg Wolfe has caught fire of late, and is third with 18 points. The Spartans also didn’t get much help on the scoresheet from their blueliners; R.J. Boyd’s 10 points – good for 10th on the scoring list – lead the defense. Michigan State is strong in goal, however, as freshman Jake Hildebrand has emerged as top-tier goaltender in the CCHA. His 7-15-2 record is less than impressive, but Hildebrand didn’t have much scoring to work with most nights, and still posted a .930 save percentage, and a 2.30 goals-against average. Junior Will Yanakeff holds a 4-7-1 record with a .896 save percentage and 3.24 goals-against.

The Spartans won their final regular-season game 2-1 over Western Michigan. If they can find any momentum from the win, it could be a fun series out in Alaska this weekend.