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Strong current in Big Rapids with Ferris State

Thursday, 03.01.2012 / 9:00 AM / On Campus

By Bob Snow - NHL.com Correspondent

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Strong current in Big Rapids with Ferris State
Fans who don't know where Ferris State is better learn fast, as the Bulldogs have arrived as a powerhouse program this season.
While some hockey fans might not know exactly where Ferris State University is located, they should start to learn.

The school, located in Big Rapids, Mich., saw its hockey team rise to the top spot in the NCAA rankings last week, and currently is third, behind Boston College and Minnesota-Duluth.

Road to the NCAAs



Hockey East and the WCHA end regular-season play this weekend; the Atlantic, CCHA and ECACHL begin first-round league playoffs.

The road to the 2012 NCAA Tournament and Frozen Four starts with three leagues beginning tournament play Friday night.

The 12-team Atlantic Hockey Tournament has byes for its top four teams: Air Force, Niagara, Mercyhurst and RIT. In best-of-three series on home ice, Sacred Heart is at Bentley, Army visits Holy Cross, Robert Morris hosts AIC, and Connecticut hosts Canisius.

The 11-team CCHA sees byes go to Ferris State, Michigan, Western Michigan, Miami and Michigan State. Best-of-three first-round play has Alaska at Lake Superior State, Ohio State at Notre Dame, and Bowling Green at Northern Michigan.

In the 12-team ECACHL, byes go to Union, Cornell, Harvard and Colgate. Best-of-three action pits Rensselaer at Clarkson, Brown at Quinnipiac, Dartmouth at St. Lawrence, and Princeton at Yale.

All three leagues will re-seed for second-round action next weekend for eight teams.

The 10-team Hockey East Tournament begins next weekend with eight teams qualifying for the best-of-three series on home ice. It's the only league with some teams not qualifying for postseason play.

The first round will feature the top-four seeds hosting the bottom-four.

The 12-team WCHA Tournament also begins next weekend, with No. 1 vs. No. 12, etc., in best-of three series on the home ice of the top six seeds. 

The five winners of the league tournaments will be determined Saturday, March 17, and receive automatic invitations to the NCAA Tournament; 11 other teams will earn at-large bids based on the final PairWise power rankings.

That field of 16 teams will be announced March 18, along with the seedings for the four regionals, set for March 23-24 or March 24-25 in Bridgeport, Conn., Green Bay, Wisc., St. Paul, Minn., and Worcester, Mass.

The winner of each regional advances to the Frozen Four, which will be held April 5 and 7 in Tampa, Fla.

NHL.com projects the following 16 teams for the NCAA Tournament: Minnesota-Duluth, Boston College, Michigan, Ferris State, Boston University, Massachusetts-Lowell, Minnesota, Miami, Union, Maine, Denver, North Dakota, Merrimack, Michigan State, Cornell and Rochester Institute of Technology.

-- Bob Snow
Add being a pretty good bet for only its second NCAA Tournament invitation since 2003 -- when the hockey team's most-recognized alum, Chris Kunitz, helped lead the Bulldogs to a second-round exit against Minnesota after taking down North Dakota -- and it all adds up to an exciting month ahead for 20-year coach Bob Daniels and his no-name roster, which features no NHL draftees and a load of players committed to staying all four years.

"I've been checking them up every weekend," Kunitz told NHL.com, "and they've got some great goaltending, good seniors, and things like that."

Kunitz's advice for his alma mater? 

"Just play their game," he said. "When it gets down to the hunker times, sometimes you don't feel as worthy as some of those big schools that go (to the NCAAs) every year. Know it's special and take your time to challenge the opportunities and enjoy it."

"It's been quite a year and we've been building this program since Chris was aboard here in 2003," Daniels told NHL.com from his office 48 hours after Ferris took home its second-ever CCHA title Saturday despite a 3-0 loss to Western Michigan. "We thought we had the potential to be an upper-division team, actually, the past four or five seasons in the CCHA. But not in my wildest dreams a championship team."

The dream began to morph into reality New Year's Day.

"Our last regulation loss was to Vermont in the Catamount Cup (Dec. 30)," he said. "We then strung out 15 games without a loss (in regulation). The weird thing is it never got talked about. But the weekend we swept Michigan State (Jan. 27-28) was the first time we said, 'You know, we've got an actual shot at this thing.'"

Make that things.

Like a bye in this weekend's first-round CCHA playoffs. Or a possible first-ever Mason Cup for winning the CCHA tournament. Then, the likely NCAA Tournament invitation based on the power rankings.

Does anyone dare go beyond that list to add a date at the Frozen Four in Tampa two weeks later?

"He always recruits quality kids who love their school and love the guys they're with as teammates," Kunitz said of Daniels. "They stress building a good bond. That's the key to a successful team. My year, we brought everybody together and had 25 or 26 guys who wanted to be there."

"Our players stay the four years," Daniels said. "We never try to run a kid out. We try to direct them back in when decisions are made. We try to find a way to make each kid succeed here. It builds a four-year class that is really close-knit. There's a common DNA that runs through our team now."

Construct a DNA double-helix across the Bulldogs' roster and it shows several key links to keep the 2012 drive alive.

"(Jordie) Johnston and (Chad) Billins are two key leaders, as well as our goaltender, Taylor Nelson," Daniels said. "And then there's Tom Hill, who doesn't have a goal or even a point on the season -- a co-captain, too.

"It's a collective body of kids with leadership that oozes from five or six players and not just one or two."

Billins, the anchor on the Bulldogs' blue line, is second behind Johnston for team lead in overall scoring with 29 points. He leads the team with 22 assists.
 
"And to have good leaders you need good followers who understand their roles," Daniels said. "We have those in our freshmen and sophomores."

That cast includes freshmen T.J. Schlueter, Simon Denis, Jason Binkley, Nate Milam, Justin Buzzeo, Dominic Panetta, C.J. Motte and Travis White, and sophomores Garrett Thompson, Scott Czarnowczan, Andy Huff, Cory Kane and Justin DeMartino

NHL.com's Top 10

1. Boston College 23-10-1
2. Minnesota-Duluth 22-7-5
3. Ferris State 22-9-5
4. Boston University 20-11-1
5. Minnesota 23-11-4
6. Michigan 21-11-5
7. Union 20-7-7
8. Mass.-Lowell 20-10-1
9. Denver 19-11-4
10. Maine 19-11-3
"And then add other upper class," he said of seniors Derek Graham, Brett Wysopal, Aaron Schmidt and Mike Trebish, as well as juniors Matt Kirzinger, Kyle Bonis, Travis Ouellette and Eric Alexander.

"We never know the magic recipe," Daniels said, "but when it happens, just sit back and enjoy it. One area we had to address was discipline. The first half we were very disciplined with a good start and then had a miserable December. Ridding needless penalties was a key. It was both emotional and systems discipline.

"I believe we crossed the line to deserving to be up there with Michigan and Miami and Notre Dame. That has now permeated the program. I have to thank Chris Kunitz and those kids for starting it."

Where does it finish in this remarkable season in Big Rapids?

"We took two days to celebrate the CCHA championship," Daniels said, "but now it's time to look at the second season."

It's time to hunker down for Ferris -- with no days off until, hopefully, April.

Quote of the Day

He seemed to thrive on his own and didn't really need any push from me. I certainly don't want to get in the way of the coaches. You see how that goes sometimes. I never really worried about it and just enjoyed the ride.

— David Ekblad on his son's [Aaron Ekblad] journey to the NHL, signing with the Florida Panthers