HEADED FOUR TAMPA: FSU wins; next stop Frozen Four

GREEN BAY, Wisc. – Every Dawg has its day. March 24 will likely be remembered for a long time as the day the Ferris State hockey program got its due.

Ferris State defeated Cornell 2-1 on Saturday in the NCAA Hockey Tournament’s Midwest Regional final, reserving a spot in the NCAA’s Frozen Four for the first time in school history.

The win will stand as one of the most significant in the history of Ferris State athletics, but also leaves the Bulldogs two victories away from the university’s first national championship in collegiate athletics.

ELATION: Ferris State's Matthew Kirzinger celebrates with fans before heading into the lockerroom following a 2-1 win over Cornell on Saturday. The win sends FSU to the Frozen Four for the first time in school history. (Courtesy photo/Brock Copus, FSU Torch)

Senior forward Jordie Johnston provided the game-winning goal on a pass from Andy Huff with 13:06 remaining in the game to give the Bulldogs a 2-1 advantage, sending FSU to Tampa Bay, Fla., where they will meet Union on April 5.

The team, which drew a number of parallels to the 2002-03 squad by capturing the CCHA regular season title and making the NCAA tournament, now claims something that is all theirs, said senior goaltender Taylor Nelson, who was named the Midwest Region’s Most Valuable Player, making 22 saves on 23 Cornell shots.

“It’s pretty special,” he said. “Coming in as a freshman, there’s memorabilia of that 2002-03 team in the dressing room hung up in the facility and the weight room. To say that we surpassed what they had done that season is pretty special.”

Ferris State coach Bob Daniels said reaching the Frozen Four proves that Ferris State’s hockey program belongs at the table with some of the country’s more respected programs.

“This is our fourth winning year in the last five, where we’ve finished in the upper division of the CCHA,” he said. “Some people say it’s a shot in the dark. I think we’ve been pretty good for a while now and this is kind of validation for that.”

Johnston, who earned All-Tournament honors along with Nelson, Garrett Thompson and Chad Billins, said he was only 50 percent satisfied with reaching the Elite Eight following the team’s win on Friday over Denver. He admitted that Saturday’s victory gave both him and his teammates something they could be proud of for a long time.

“I guess you could say I’m satisfied with how the weekend went completely,” he said. “We’re going to enjoy it for a little bit, but we’ve got some bigger things to get going on.”

After two periods with neither team able to generate many scoring chances, it was Johnston’s goal on a beautiful pass from Huff that proved to be the game’s ultimate highlight.

The lamp-lighter came at a critical junction of the game. Cornell had scored to even the game up at 1-1 on a backhander by Dustin Mowrey with 18:20 left in the game – a little more than a minute after FSU scored to make it 1-0 on a goal by Thompson on the power play.

FREEZE FRAME: Ferris State hockey players celebrate their win in the NCAA Tournament's Midwest Regional final on Saturday. (Courtesy photo/Brock Copus, FSU Torch)

The Big Red looked to have momentum swinging in its favor when FSU took a five-minute major penalty for checking from behind. The Bulldogs killed the penalty, however, and provided the go-ahead goal just 15 seconds later.

“(Cory Kane) made a nice chip out along the boards and Andy Huff picked up the puck,” Johnston said. “I just kind of looked up and saw there was only one (defenseman) back there, so I just tried to get up the ice as quick as I could. Andy made a beautiful pass and I just hung on to the puck for a little bit and put it in the empty net. It was a good feeling.”

The goal deflated any momentum Cornell had built up in the third period, coach Mike Schafer said.

“I felt we had a couple of opportunities that we passed up on a wide open net that we passed instead of shooting it,” he said. “We relaxed instead of being intense with it. When you kill that five-minute major and score 15 seconds later, it’s obviously a huge turning point.”

The six minute stretch turned what had been a game without many highlights up to that point into a complete frenzy.

“It was really a difficult penalty for us to take,” Daniels said. “I thought our penalty killers did a great job. The guys did a great job of keeping them to the perimeter, blocking shots that they took and limited scoring chances.”

Outside of that period of time, Daniels admitted the game wasn’t pretty, but he didn’t expect it to be coming in.

“It was to be expected that it would come down to a one goal game,” he said. “For us, the game played out kind of the way we expected it to. There weren’t a lot of scoring chances for either teams, but both teams prided themselves in playing very well defensively.

“All in all, it probably wasn’t a thing of beauty, but we got the job done,” he added “We were going to have to earn the chances that we got.”

Ferris State carried the play early, out-shooting the Big Red 11-0 in the first 10 minutes. Cornell would not get its first shot on goal until 7:13 remaining in the period. FSU had a 12-5 advantage in shots in the first.

Cornell, which defeated No. 1 seed Michigan the night before in overtime, didn’t execute the way Schafer wanted it to, but continued to battle in the second and third periods.

“I didn’t think we were very crisp in the first period,” he said. “The shots at one point were 11-0. We did a good job of surviving the first period. We had our chances throughout the course of the game. I’ve loved the character of our kids all season long.”

Ferris State opened the second period with a pair of penalties, allowing the Big Red to establish some offensive rhythm. The Bulldog defense proved up to the task on the penalty kill, however, blocking anything the Big Red attack attempted to put on net. In the first 12 minutes of the second period, the Bulldogs took four penalties.

Scoring opportunities remained sparse throughout the second period. Junior center Matthew Kirzinger had a shot to clean up an errant puck in front of the net with 4:57, but Andy Iles proved up to the task. Iles, who stood tall in the regional semifinal against Michigan on Friday, was equally impressive on Saturday, stopping 15-of-15 shots through two periods before giving up a pair of goals in the final period.

Capturing all of college hockey’s attention is the result of a remarkable season to date for FSU. Exceeded expectations, a mid-season slump, a 15-game unbeaten streak resulting in the school’s second conference title and a surprising early exit from the CCHA tournament all led up to the season’s high point on Saturday.

“I thought early on, we felt we were going to have a good team this year, but certainly not to this level,” Daniels said. “This is a team that is really student-athlete driven. The coaching staff has been involved with everything, but realistically, since Christmas it’s been such a self-directed, mature bunch of kids.”

Reflecting on the season to date at the postgame press conference, Johnston said he couldn’t think of a more deserving group of seniors and teammates to share the experience with.

“In my four years here, I’ve had times when it wasn’t that easy,” he said. “The rest of the senior class was right behind me, and that’s just the kind of guys they are. It’s almost beyond a friendship that we have. It shows on the ice, because we don’t want to let each other down. It’s a bond that’s so strong – I think that’s what is so special – that ‘it’ factor on our team.”

Daniels also saw the Frozen Four berth as a victory for the smaller schools like Ferris State, but also as a tribute to developing a team with good athletes and people.

“College hockey has a place for small schools,” he said. “Union is going to be in the Frozen Four – we’re there. College hockey has always thrived with the small schools.

“It’s a team sport,” he added. “You can have your star athletes, but if you have a roster full of good athletes and good kids, all schools can have success. You don’t have to be a mega-school to have success.”

 

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