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Hockey: CCHA playoff matchups are set

Kyle Cassily | Tuesday, February 28, 2006

When Ferris State junior forward Zac Pearson beat Michigan goalie Billy Sauer 42 seconds into overtime for a 4-3 win on Saturday night in Ann Arbor, he not only scored the game-winning goal – he also saved his team a 3,500 mile road trip.

Pearson’s goal launched the Bulldogs into sole position of seventh place in the CCHA. The goal also had far reaching implications on the rest of the conference. Fifth through eighth place receive opening round home ice, while the first four seeds gain a bye in the 12-team league.

Alaska-Fairbanks head coach Tavis MacMillan followed the Ferris State game via computer from the Joyce Center press box after his team’s 2-1 victory over the Irish on Saturday night with vested interest. A Michigan-Ferris State tie would have allowed MacMillan’s Nanooks to remain tied with the Irish and the Bulldogs at the season’s conclusion. Tiebreakers would have given the Irish seventh place and the Nanooks eighth – and sent the Bulldogs on a plane to the Land of the Midnight Sun for the first round.

Instead, Alaska-Fairbanks will stay in South Bend for another week in preparation for this weekend’s match up between the No. 8 Irish and the No. 9 Nanooks.

Such was the way of the parity-rife CCHA in its last regular season weekend. When the ice spray settled, only four teams remained unchanged in league standings – three of which were the top seeds.

Those three teams are No. 1 Miami, No. 2 Michigan State and No. 3 Michigan.

“Michigan State is the hottest team in the league right now,” Irish head coach Jeff Jackson said. “Just from the teams we played in the second half, I think Michigan State is playing the best hockey at the right time of the year.”

Northern Michigan jumped into the last bye slot at No. 4 with a weekend sweep of Ohio State, while Nebraska-Omaha lost its bye and slid into fifth after a loss and tie to lowly Western Michigan.

Lake Superior State maintained the No. 6 spot despite being swept by Michigan State. Ferris State, Notre Dame and Alaska-Fairbanks emerged from the tiebreaker scuffle to finish at No. 7, No. 8 and No. 9, respectively.

Ohio State plummeted from No. 7 to No. 10 after being swept by Northern Michigan, and Western Michigan swapped places with Bowling Green to escape last place.

No. 5 Nebraska-Omaha will host No. 12 Bowling Green in a series less lopsided than the pairings suggest. UNO has a duo in Hobey Baker hopeful junior Scott Parse (19 goals, 40 assists) and Bill Thomas (25 goals, 21 assists) that Jackson describes as the two-man combination in the league.

“The biggest thing will be how the goaltending holds up for both teams,” Jackson said. “Bowling Green’s got a pretty good one-two punch too in [Jonathon] Matsumoto and [Alex] Foster. I’d expect Bowling Green to give Nebraska a little bit of trouble, but it’s all going to be based on them getting solid goaltending.”

Bowling Green has two goalies who split time in net – John Horrell (3.36 goals against average) and Jimmy Spratt (4.44). Freshman Jerad Kaufmann holds a 2.77 goals against for Nebraska-Omaha.

No. 6 Lake Superior State will take on surging Western Michigan at home. Western Michigan forward and CCHA rookie of the week Jeff Lovecchio must help his team navigate through a strong Lakers defense. Junior Jeff Jakaitis boasts a stellar 2.25 goals against average and a save percentage of .919 for Lake Superior in 33 appearances.

“Usually defense beats offense, and that’s the nature of that series,” Jackson said.

No. 7 Ferris State welcomes No. 10 Ohio State to Big Rapids, Mich. in a surprising role reversal of fortunes. The fallen Buckeyes look to ride goaltender Dave Caruso and his 2.16 goals against average over a Ferris State team fresh off a 3-point weekend against Michigan. Ohio State must neutralize senior center Greg Rallo (16 goals, 21 assists) and get offense from sophomore Tom Fritsche (11 goals, 19 assists) and junior Andrew Schembri (12 goals, 11 assists) if it hopes to survive the first round.

“Ohio State’s really had a tough year,” Jackson said. “They’ve had a lot of injuries and I think that that puts them at a disadvantage. But there’s always the X-factor and that’s [Caruso], in my opinion he’s probably the best goalie in the league.”

The final pairing of the first round is No. 8 Notre Dame versus No. 9 Alaska-Fairbanks in a rematch of last weekend. The Irish had a chance to move up to sixth place with a sweep of Fairbanks, but remain satisfied with the last home spot.

“We were in 12th place at Christmas time, and our team deserved with their efforts in the second half, to get home ice,” Jackson said. “But now we have to take advantage of it.”