The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 20, 2014

Coaches expect Final Five to mirror season

MSU, Bowling Green rivalry started in November

By Shane Frederick
The Mankato Free Press

---- — GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. — Looking for some advice on which team to pick in the WCHA Final Five this weekend? Don’t ask the four coaches involved.

“There’s no way to handicap this tournament,” Ferris State coach Bob Daniels said.

The tournament begins Friday at Van Andel Arena with Minnesota State playing Bowling Green at 1 p.m. Ferris State and Alaska Anchorage will play at 6 p.m. Both games, as well as Saturday’s championship, will be televised on Fox Sports North.

“Everyone’s had something to fight for each and every night,” said Daniels, whose team edged MSU by one point for the WCHA’s regular-season championship. “It’s been a playoff atmosphere over the second half of the season. The teams are sharp.”

The four coaches — Daniels, MSU’s Mike Hastings, Bowling Green’s Chris Bergeron and Anchorage’s Matt Thomas — echoed each other during a conference call on Tuesday.

“The grind of this season was no different than any other time,” Hastings said, comparing the first year of the revamped conference to previous ones.

Even those who hadn’t experienced the old WCHA agreed.

Thomas, the Seawolves’ first-year coach who came out of the ECHL minor pro level, said he quickly learned that “every single weekend matters,” in college hockey.

“Every single team has looked back and said, ‘Oh, man, did we ever blow it that weekend or that game,”” he said. “But that’s what makes our league great.”

Daniels’ Bulldogs, who came over from the now-defunct CCHA, looked like they were going to run away with the MacNaughton Cup after the first half of the season. But they found themselves in a race with the Mavericks that came down to the final night of the regular season when Ferris State edged Lake Superior State 2-1 and MSU tied Michigan Tech 1-1.

“I thought Minnesota State had an unbelievable second half of the year,” Daniels said. “That race benefited us greatly, and I think (MSU) benefited greatly. There was zero margin for error.”

Ferris State swept Bemidji State in the first round of the playoffs, winning 8-0 in the opener but taking the second game in double-overtime 3-2. The Mavericks defeated Northern Michigan 3-2 and 5-4 in overtime.

Located just 60 miles away in Big Rapids., Mich., Ferris State might have the home-ice advantage. The university has made a push to sell ticket packages and arranged five buses to transport fans to Grand Rapids.

“What that crowd is remains to be seen,” Daniels said.

Bowling Green advanced with 2-1 and 5-2 victories over Michigan Tech. Anchorage pulled off the only first-round upset on the road, defeating rival Alaska in Fairbanks two games to one. The Seawolves lost the first game of the series, and all three games were decided by one goal.

Now it’s single-elimination, and the coaches expect more close games.

The Mavericks and the Falcons, another former CCHA team, played four times in a three-week stretch in November, and the teams split both weekends with three games going to overtime. Bergeron said the players got “a little crusty with each other” by the final game, “which was good.”

“For two teams that didn’t have a history of a rivalry, we developed one real quickly,” Bergeron said.

Of Bowling Green, Hastings said: “They’re one of the more aggressive teams in college hockey, not just the WCHA.”