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NCAA Hockey Tournament: Ferris saves the CCHA; get ready for a hell of a Sunday

Ryan Lambert
Puck Daddy

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In which we recap the day's events in the NCAA tournament.

The CCHA entered the tournament as the nation's undisputed super-conference.

Well, perhaps not undisputed per se, but certainly the one with the best chance of stocking the Frozen Four in Tampa with multiple teams.

After all, it sent five of its 11 teams to the NCAAs, territory that's usually reserved only for the WCHA and, far less often, an extremely lucky Hockey East. And most expected strong showings from even the weaker sides, if not easy trips through to the Elite Eight — not that they call it that — and a couple days in sunny Florida. But now, through two days of games, all five have been slain, their hopes of a national title lying in tatters.

The first CCHA defeat came as soon as it possibly could have, as No. 3 Union dropped 15th-ranked Michigan State on Friday, in the tournament's opening game. Not long after that, No. 13 Lowell edged No. 7 Miami in overtime. Then, in the tournament's biggest shocker, 14th-seeded Cornell got past No. 2 Michigan.

The misery continued for the Central Collegiate Hockey Conference, as one might have expected, Saturday afternoon when CCHA tournament winners Western Michigan lost to hard-charging North Dakota. It was the eighth win in a row for the terribly determined not-Sioux, who seem destined for yet another Frozen Four appearance.

Now only Ferris State, which won the CCHA regular-season title but crashed out of the league playoffs, remains of the CCHA's five entrants, having bested injury-depleted Denver on Friday and, more importantly, survived a dicey third period against Cornell on Saturday to advance to its first Frozen Four in school history.

As the 2-1 scoreline in both games imply, the victories sure didn't come easy, but they came perhaps how Ferris would have wanted: With a combined total of 49 shots against in 120 minutes.

Having that kind of defensive responsibility is perhaps the biggest thing if you're a team like Ferris, with no drafted players on your roster and just two players north of 30 points in a now-41-game season. Jordie Johnston was the clear offensive star for the weekend, as he had been throughout the season. He scored two of Ferris' four goals, and his tally on Saturday was also a third-period game-winner.

In fact, all goals in the game came during the final period, as Ferris struck first just 11 seconds in, then Cornell answered at 1:32. Then all hell broke loose. Just 10 seconds later, Ferris' T.J. Schlueter was called for both hooking and hitting from behind, the latter of which warranted a five-minute major and game misconduct, and Cornell's Cole Bardreau went off for hitting after the whistle. But Cornell failed to capitalize on the major, or indeed, any of the six power plays it was gifted by a Ferris team that clearly wanted to exhibit its altruism in the third period. And that was their undoing.

Just seconds after the major expired, Johnston scored the goal that stood up as the game-winner, and netminder Taylor Nelson, as he did the night before, shut the door the rest of the way.

But what does this, the first-round failures of 80 percent of its entrants — or, if you prefer to look at it the other way, a success rate of 20 percent — tell us about the CCHA?

Perhaps that it's just as top-heavy as the WCHA is.

Perhaps that its basement is simultaneously not quite so strong. Perhaps that, in not being so strong top-to-bottom as Hockey East (which itself had rather a nightmarish Saturday) its best teams aren't quite so prepared to play actually good entrants from other conferences. Take, as evidence of this, how Northeastern, which finished ninth of 10 in Hockey East, laid waste to its CCHA opponents this season: Three games, all on the road, all W's, and 15-4 on aggregate.

So now only one team from five remain. Such is the nature of the NCAA tournament, especially in hockey, where upsets seemingly happen at least once a day. Things simply didn't go well for the CCHA this weekend.

It happens in any one-and-done tournament. But if you really want to go looking for a reason, you'll probably find one.

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Get ready for a hell of a Sunday

I'm sure there are a lot of good NHL games Sunday. We're in the home stretch of the season and lots of teams are still jockeying for position and so forth, but if you have ESPNU and you're not tuning in for the games at 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., you're doing yourself a terrible disservice.

In the early game, two of the fiercest rivals in the nation, North Dakota and Minnesota, will face off at Xcel Energy Center. Which is in St. Paul. Which is in Minnesota. Someone might actually die in this game.

The two teams advanced to that game by beating Western Michigan and Boston University, respectively. Neither game was an upset, and only the latter was surprising.

North Dakota probably got a bigger fight from Western than it expected, and needed an empty-netter to make the score look a flattering 3-1. But at the same time, this is a team that's rattled off eight straight W's, and grimly so: In that stretch, it's allowed more than two goals just twice, but scored 32.

The not-Sioux will take on archrivals Minnesota, which pounded BU 7-3 behind a runaway third period and an explosive performance by Chad Rau, who had four points. Only three Gophers forwards failed to record points. However, the game was closer than the score implies, as two goals were into empty nets, and at one point early in the third period, it was only 4-3 Minnesota. Nico Sacchetti's unassisted goal midway through the third was the dagger.

That game will be a rematch from the WCHA semifinals, where NoDak rumbled to a 6-3 win.

Meanwhile, in the Northeast regional final at 8 p.m., the matchup doesn't get much more marquee, at least in terms of recent postseason success. Top-seeded Boston College will face Minnesota-Duluth. BC's won two of the last four national titles, and Duluth is the reigning champion.

BC — Hockey East's only remaining team after Union bounced UMass Lowell 4-2 in the East Regional final — edged Air Force in a game that was closer than it had any right to be, thanks to a two-goal performance from Chris Kreider that surely had Glen Sather weeping for joy.

Duluth, meanwhile, stomped Maine 5-2 in a major and authoritative comeback. The Black Bears, playing about a four-hour drive south of their home rink, jumped out to a 2-0 lead midway through the second period, but Jack Connelly, and that Caleb Herbert, and then Jake Hendrickson turned the game on its head with three goals in less than seven minutes.

These are four very, very good teams, playing in what are sure to be two very, very promising games. And then the winners play each other in Tampa. Yikes.


Three stars

1. Taylor Nelson, Ferris State goaltender

When you only give up two goals in a weekend and lead your team to the first Frozen Four appearance in school history, that is pretty acceptable. He very understandably took his regional's MVP award, making 22 stops for the Bulldogs, including 10 of 11 in the final period. In the 40 minutes prior to that, he faced just 12 total.

2. Troy Grosenik, Union goaltender

Troy Grosenik actually had his worst game in a while, conceding two whole goals to UMass Lowell on just 21 shots. As far as stats go, that's a nearly unacceptable night at the office, and his stats ballooned to 1.64/.936. He made more than a few red-light saves, including one in the first few minutes of the game, and another couple when Lowell really began to turn up the heat late in the third. Union, to its credit, got in front of a lot of shots, but Grosenik bailed them out more than once as well.

Like Ferris, this is Union's first-ever trip to the Frozen Four, and the teams play each other in the first round down in Tampa. Bank on that one being the early game.

3. Chad Rau, Minnesota forward

The BU/Minnesota rivalry isn't what it once was, in that they don't engage in bench-clearing brawls any more. But that doesn't mean Kyle Rau didn't get up for this one. His four points was the most by any one player in a single game this weekend.

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