Much like the team they’ll be playing Thursday, the Ferris State Bulldogs had their fair share of doubters. Coming out of nowhere to win the CCHA regular-season title, no small feat in what was probably the nation’s toughest conference, didn’t put those doubts to bed.
Were they simply benefiting from everyone beating everyone in the CCHA? Getting bounced from the CCHA playoffs by 11th seeded Bowling Green did nothing to quiet the naysayers. Then in the NCAA tournament, the Bulldogs proved that this season was no fluke at all, dispatching Denver and Cornell thanks to tremendous defense, stellar goaltending and timely scoring.
Ferris State will be participating in its first Frozen Four in school history, meeting fellow newbie Union on Thursday. It will be a battle between two great defensive clubs, with a pair of potential All-American goaltenders going head-to-head. The game isn’t getting a ton of buzz, but it’ll be a good one at 4:30 p.m. ET Thursday on ESPNU.
Prior to the 2011-12 season, Ferris State was picked by CCHA coaches to finish ninth in the 11 team conference. Really, it wasn’t a far-fetched prediction. After all, the Bulldogs had no NHL Draft picks, no really big names and finished the previous season with a respectable, but unspectacular 18-16-5 record.
During the flurry of realignment in college hockey over the summer, Ferris State was one of the teams left holding the bag when Miami, Western Michigan and Notre Dame decided to leave the CCHA, already maimed by the departure of Big Ten schools Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. FSU eventually decided to join the new WCHA, which will become a mishmash of WCHA and CCHA teams that weren’t deemed like-minded by the newly formed National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
Most people believed that when realignment finally takes hold in 2013-14, that is when the Ferris States of the world would be able to compete for conference championships and NCAA Tournament berths. No one expected the Bulldogs to win the CCHA’s regular-season crown, much less make it to the Frozen Four.
Head coach Bob Daniels, now in his 19th season at Ferris State and his players didn’t buy into any of that, even though no one was really ready to buy into the Bulldogs.
After a strong start to the season, Ferris State rattled off a 15-game unbeaten streak (there were three shootout losses in the stretch, but those are recognized as ties outside of the CCHA) beginning January against Colgate. The Bulldogs even ended up being ranked as the No. 1 team in the country for the first time in school history after FSU was the first team in the nation to reach 20 wins this season.
Finally, the respect they deserved.
It all came crashing back down when Ferris lost to Bowling Green in the CCHA playoffs. Having earned home ice, and the No. 1 seed, most figured the Bulldogs would dispatch the Falcons rather quickly, but a Game 1 loss in overtime caused a few snickers. Then the Bulldogs rolled to a Game 2 victory, 7-4. However, in Game 3, the Falcons shocked FSU with a 4-3 OT win, knocking the Bulldogs out of the CCHA tournament.
Some wondered which was the fluke. Ferris State getting hot in the regular season or Bowling Green getting hot for a couple of weeks and pulling a few upsets? Most teams that go unbeaten in 15 straight wouldn’t have to answer such claims.
After back-to-back 2-1 wins in the national tournament, some faith was restored. It probably shouldn’t have taken the NCAA Tournament wins, but that’s what teams thought of as mid-majors have to endure.
Despite one ill-timed bad weekend, the Bulldogs have been consistently good all season. Strong defensively, good enough offensively.
If awards are any proof of the Bulldogs getting some due national respect, Bob Daniels was named national coach of the year earlier Wednesday. At the very least, the coaches across the country think a great deal of Daniels and his team. And the rest of us are as well.
Even though FSU will continue to have doubters, you just can’t count out the Bulldogs. Now they’ll have the biggest stage to prove their detractors wrong.
Don’t Need Many, Just One More Than Them
If you’re looking for a big reason the Ferris State Bulldogs are in this position, you don’t have to look much further than senior goaltender Taylor Nelson.
On top of his stellar senior campaign, in which Nelson posted a 20-6-3 record, 2.10 goals-against average, and .923 save percentage, the Regina, Sask., native allowed just two goals total during the regionals.
Ferris State didn’t need much, just one more than the other guys, earning back-to-back 2-1 victories to clinch the Midwest regional crown. Nelson made 53 stops over the two regional tilts and made sure his team didn’t need to get too fancy trying to break the game open.
Ferris averages just under three goals-per-game, so it helps that Nelson is allowing an average of just over two.
Nelson has decent size for a goaltender, but he looks pretty fundamentally sound between the pipes. Having that calm demeanor and keeping things simple gives the guys in front of him plenty of confidence.
Nelson will go head-to-head with one of the two best goaltenders in the nation in Troy Grosenick. It should be one of the more exciting head-to-head match-ups of the entire tournament. Union has a little more skill than Ferris State, so Nelson will have to be sharp to give his team a chance. He’s been doing it all year, so there’s no reason to believe it will stop now.
Players To Watch
Taylor Nelson — Obviously.
Jordie Johnston — After three years of minimal production, Johnston exploded as a senior for a team-best 20 goals and 36 points. With strong skating ability and a sturdy frame, Johnston has shown a goal-scorer’s touch this year. He’s also come through in the clutch on more than one occasion with a team-best five game-winning goals this year. He’s not necessarily big, but he gets the job done and will need to be at the top of his game against Union’s strong defense.
Matthew Kirzinger — Perhaps a big reason for Johnston’s senior success was having Kirzinger on his line. The junior forward finished second on the squad with 34 points including a team-best 24 assists. Having these two together gives Ferris State a pretty consistent offensive unit.
Kyle Bonis — After starring in the North American Hockey League, Bonis began to show that offensive punch he used to pack back in the Junior ranks. The junior forward is second on the team with 18 goals. He usually won’t play with Johnston, which gives FSU a nice one-two punch offensively. For a team that doesn’t score a ton of goals, guys like Johnston and Bonis have to be bringing the heat offensively.
Chad Billins — The senior co-captain also happens to be Ferris State’s top point-producer among defenseman. With 22 assists and seven goals, Billins offers the Bulldogs a strong two-way game. He doesn’t have great size, but thinks the game well and has put his experience to good use. Billins already has 13 more points than his previous career best.
Scott Czarnowczan — While undersized for a defenseman, Czarnowczan has become a defensive stalwart, blocking shots, clogging passing lanes and making things difficult for opponents in his own end. He’s also put up 20 points this year from the blue line. The sophomore defenseman can do a little bit of everything. He also has championship experience, which helps in situations like these. Czarnowczan won the USHL’s Clark Cup with the Green Bay Gamblers in 2009-10.
Ferris State By The Numbers
Goals For: 120 (2.9 per game)
Goals Against: 89 (2.2 per game)
Power Play: 37-193 (19.2%)
Penalty Kill: 158/184 (85.8%)
Offensive Leaders: Jordie Johnston (20-16–36), Matthew Kirzinger (10-24–34), Kyle Bonis (18-11–29)
Class Breakdown: Seniors – 8; Juniors – 4; Sophomores – 6; Freshmen – 8
NHL Draft Picks: None.
How They Got To Tampa
Midwest Regional Champions
Regional Semi: Defeated Denver — 2-1
Regional Final: Defeated Cornell — 2-1
For more Frozen Four info, including storylines, notes, stats and more, visit College Hockey, Inc.
Coming up Next: Minnesota