Monday, March 5, 2007

G-B-U: CCHA First Round (OSU)

In the first round of the CCHA Playoffs, the 10th seeded Northern Michigan Wildcats pulled the upset and defeated the 7th seeded Ohio State Buckeyes, two games to one.

After losing game one by a score of 6-2, the Wildcats rebounded in dramatic fashion, taking game two in overtime, 3-2. On Sunday, NMU finished off the Buckeyes with another 3-2 victory.

While the outcome ended the season for OSU, it breathed surprising new life into a Wildcat team that seemed all but dead a couple of seeks ago. NMU will now continue their road trip as they head to Ann Arbor to face-off against the 2nd seeded Michigan Wolverines.

The Good

1) Brian Stewart

You can't say this enough in this space, but the performance of freshman netminder Brian Stewart buoyed the 'Cats in Columbus.

Entering the weekend, Stewie had played in only eight games and had a 1-2 record. He was allowing nearly 3.5 goals per game and had a .887 SV%. His lone win had come on the road against the Miami RedHawks, when Stewart stopped 39 of 41 Miami shots. the loss was only Miami's fourth loss in the last 26 home games.

Stewie turned into a brick wall this past weekend, though, and he backstopped the 'Cats into the second round of the CCHA Playoffs. After a mediocre showing in the second half of the Friday loss, the freshman made the start on both Saturday and Sunday. NMU won both games and Stewart stopped 76 of 80 OSU shots.

It would seem that at this point, Stewie has brought with him some sort of freakish BC magic and that the starting job is his to lose. A netminder is one of the most crucial aspects of any successful playoff team, and if NMU has found an efficient one (no matter how unlikely), coach Kyle will not likely be willing to tamper with it.

2) Senior Effort

For three minutes and fourteen seconds on Saturday night, the NMU season was just one Buckeye shot away from being over. Then, at the 3:15 mark of overtime, Wildcat senior Dusty Collins netted the game-winning shot to force a game three.

Time and time again over the past four years, the senior class of Wildcats has played their best with their backs against the wall. It was evidenced three years ago when they made a first-round playoff trip to Alaska to take on a heavily favored Nanook team. The 'Cats downed Alaska in two games and made the trip to the Joe.

On Sunday, the seniors stepped up again as Zach Tarkir and Darin Olver both netted short-handed goals on the way to a 3-2 Wildcat win and a first-round series victory. Over the three nights the seniors piled up six points and six assists and will need to continue to produce offensively to have any hope of keeping up with the high-powered Wolverine offense this weekend.

The Bad

1) Friday Night

The Friday game against the Buckeyes was all sorts of ugly for the Wildcats. After falling behind 3-0 early, Kyle pulled senior goalie Bill Zaniboni, who allowed three goals on 22 shots, in favor of Stewart. In relief, Stewart allowed three goals on 21 shots and NMU fell by four.

The 'Cats were out-shot 43-24 and allowed Ohio State to go 2-5 on the power-play.

On top of that, senior leader Darin Olver was whistled for kneeing in the first period. He received a five-minute major and a 10-minute misconduct. Olver headed for the locker room, but was allowed back in the game when it came to the attention of the officials that they could not hand out both penalties at once. The break may have been the only one for the Wildcats on Friday night.

2) NMU Power-play

The Wildcats have not been a serious power-play threat all season long, and that continued against the Buckeyes. Over the course of the three games, NMU was 1-10 with the extra skater.

On the bright side, the NMU PK scored two goals (both shorties came on Sunday). However, it is never good when your power-play only converts on 10% of their chances. As Walt told me before the Ohio State trip: "Special teams will be a huge component in the playoffs for everyone. If we're going to do well, we're going to have to continue with that."

The Ugly

1) The OSU Ice Arena

The Jerome Schottenstein Center is the name of the ice rink where the Ohio State Buckeyes play their regular season games. It holds 17,500 people.

The OSU Ice Arena is the name of the ice rink where the Ohio State Buckeyes practice and where the women's team plays. The men's team played there untill 1998. It is also where OSU played their first-round CCHA Playoff series against the Wildcats. It holds 1,000 people.

While the atmosphere in the hockey barn may have been loud, it was only due to the size. The official attendance never topped 800 for the weekend, but USCHO correspondent Paula Weston said that the place was packed.

The Buckeyes were forced to play in the Ice Arena after they were ousted from the Schott by a high school wrestling tournament. All other venues were reportedly filled, as well.

Ohio State earned a home playoff series in the CCHA Tournament, and in reality, they never got it.

2) Being Road Warriors

The Wildcats will have become used to living from a suitcase by the time this is all over. And they will have traveled at least 2136 miles.

After traveling from Marquette to Columbus (630 miles), NMU played three games in back-to-back nights, their most compact stretch of the year. To celecbrate the win, the 'Cats immediately headed back to the U.P., but were forced by weather to stay in Munising overnight. They finally made it to Marquette on Monday morning.

They will now leave on Wednesday and travel to Ann Arbor (438 miles), where they will play 2-3 games over the weekend. The Wildcats will certainly be challenged as they attempt to retain some momentum through it all.

And, if everything falls into place and the 'Cats can escape Ann Arbor with a victory, as well, they will then be headed to the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit (454 miles).

On a side note, I am planning on going to Ann Arbor on Wednesday for the upcoming series and should be able to keep the blog updated on my travels in Wolverine country.

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