Miami and Notre Dame could be facing each other again in the CCHA Championship game. - Jonathan Daniel
The three remaining MAC hockey schools suffered losses last Friday night, but only Miami was able to bounce back and take the series.
Heading into last weekend, we were tossing around the idea of having 3 MAC schools in the CCHA's final four at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. Those were better times. After Friday night, there was a serious chance that there would be zero teams representing the MAC in Detroit.
Bowling Green was a heavy underdog heading to Notre Dame, but managed to throw everything they had at the Irish on Friday night, before eventually falling 1-0 in overtime after Notre Dame scored on its first shot of the extra frame. Andrew Hammond was great in net for BG the entire game, making 35 saves. Despite the tough loss, the Falcons showed a lot of heart on Saturday as well, coming back from 2-0 down to tie the game, but ultimately lost, 4-3. Shortly after the series, Hammond reportedly signed a pro contract with the Ottawa Senators, although there hasn't been an official announcement yet.
It was a disappointing end to the season, but despite not making a return trip to Detroit, it will likely be seen as an improvement over last year. From last place to 9th, and this close to finishing in 7th or 8th and hosting a first round series. It will be an interesting transition for them to the new-look WCHA next season, but that's a discussion for another time.
On Friday, Miami was shut out by Michigan State 3-0. It was the seventh(!) time this season the RedHawks have been shut out, tying a school record. This is especially mind-boggling when you consider that Miami is the 3rd-ranked team in the country and enjoying a highly successful season, scoring 99 goals, good enough for fourth in the CCHA. (Fun fact: Five of those seven shutouts have come on Friday nights. Should Miami end up in the Toledo regional, it won't play another Friday night game for the rest of the year.)
After that aberration, the Miami team we've seen for most of the season showed up on Saturday and Sunday, handing the Spartans back-to-back 4-1 defeats. On Saturday, the RedHawks were paced by First Team All-CCHA players Austin Czarnik and Riley Barber. Czarnik had two goals (one of them shorthanded), both assisted by Barber. On Sunday, it was freshman Sean Kuraly, who notched his first multi-goal game of his career, including the third goal about halfway through the third period that was the real dagger. The win makes this senior class for Miami the first to make it to Detroit all four years, something coach Enrico Blasi called a "[t]ough thing to do."
Ryan McKay started in net all three nights, which leads me to believe that Blasi has decided to go with him for the remainder of the season. As I mentioned in a previous post, despite Jay Williams' great season, McKay has put up better numbers than anyone else in the country, so the decision makes sense. After playing three straight games on consecutive nights, McKay will be happy to rest until the Saturday evening semifinal.
Western Michigan was not as fortunate. Coming off a disappointing loss to Michigan State to end the season, the Broncos came out flat against a red-hot Michigan team on both Friday and Saturday, and lost 4-3 and 5-1, respectively. They had only lost two home games all season, and then lost twice in two nights. The Broncos picked a bad time to start playing their worst hockey of the season, and now their tournament chances are up in the air.
North Dakota blogger Jim Dahl has an incredible look at each team's tournament/seeding chances. The Broncos can only finish as high as 13th, and make the tournament in just over half of the possible scenarios (56.5%). As with any other bubble team, this means hoping that no teams outside the top 16 win any of the conference tournaments. To play with all the possible outcomes, check out USCHO's Pairwise Predictor and CHN's You Are the Committee.
Also of note from that chart, Miami is guaranteed to make the tournament, and even if it loses on Saturday, still has a 95% chance of finishing in the top 5. A CCHA Tournament championship guarantees the RedHawks a 1-seed, and realistically, any position in the top 5 will put Miami in the Toledo regional. The difference between finishing 3/4 and 5 would be playing a much better team (theoretically) in the first round. Realistically, Miami just needs to worry about taking care of business and they should be fine. That starts with a matchup against Michigan on Saturday.
The Wolverines, undefeated in their last eight games and winners of four straight, might be playing as well as anyone in the country. I thought Western Michigan's stingy defense might be able to slow them down, but clearly that wasn't the case. Perhaps the idea of being part of the first Michigan team in 23 years to not make the dance has lit a fire under them, or maybe it's deer antler juice. We have no way of knowing. Whatever it is, this team is clicking at the right time.
The two teams played early in the season, at the end of October. Miami took the Friday game 4-2, and Michigan won 4-3 on Saturday. The Friday game was notable, because McKay started in net for Miami before coming out with an injury after only five minutes, and he wouldn't play again until December. So the Wolverines never got a real good look at the freshman, which could pose some problems. But I don't think they really care who is in net, they'll likely just plan on continuing to play the way they have for the last month.
Miami also holds an 0-7 all-time record against Michigan in the CCHA tournament, so they'll be itching to get that monkey off their back, and I'm sure they would like nothing more than to end Michigan's NCAA streak. If they can cool down the Wolverines and win, it will likely be due to good defense. In Michigan's four CCHA tournament games, they've put up 18 goals, and given up 8. A low-scoring affair favors McKay and the RedHawks, because at the rate Michigan is scoring, I don't think Miami wants to get into a shootout with them.
Should Miami win, they'll advance to play the winner of Notre Dame and Ohio State. Miami's game is the second semifinal, scheduled to face off at 4:35 est, but if the first game goes to multiple overtimes, that time could be pushed back. The game can be seen on Fox Sports Detroit Plus. The championship game is scheduled for Sunday at 2:05, and will be aired on Fox Sports Detroit.