HERE COME THE BULLDOGS

Taking a look at FSU’s chances and how they arrived at the Frozen Four

In the past week I’ve been receiving a lot of questions about Ferris State hockey.

In case you were living under a rock and hadn’t noticed, interest has heightened around this team, not only in Big Rapids but throughout the state and country.

The Bulldogs have reached the Frozen Four for the first time in school history and will be in the college hockey spotlight on Thursday when they take on Union in the national semifinal at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

HEADED FOR TAMPA: Ferris State’s Garrett Thompson (far left) celebrates a Bulldog goal by Jordie Johnston (far right) in the Midwest Regional semifinal against Denver. The Bulldogs are expected to arrive today in Tampa, Fla., for the NCAA men’s Frozen Four, which will take place on Thursday and Saturday. (Courtesy photo/Scott Whitney)

So here is your opportunity to catch up: Learn more about this year’s team, how they got to the Frozen Four, who Union is and what all of this means to Ferris State.

The following are some of the questions I’ve been asked the most in the past week. I hope you find them helpful leading up to Thursday’s national semifinal.

So how good is Ferris?

They won the regular season conference title in the toughest league — top to bottom — in the country. They are in the Frozen Four with three other conference champions. They were ranked No. 1 in the country for two weeks during the regular season for the first time in the program’s history. They’re pretty good.

In fact, no other Ferris State hockey team has matched its success — in the regular season or postseason. Not even the 2002-03 team that featured future NHL standout Chris Kunitz — its most famous Bulldog. Those guys also won the CCHA and made the NCAA tournament. This year’s team has gone one game further, however, by reaching the Frozen Four in Tampa, Fla.

In other words, they’ve accomplished what no other team in school history has accomplished and will be playing in one of the most exclusive tournaments in collegiate athletics. This is a big deal.

Yeah, but how did they get so good, all of a sudden?

Well, they’ve actually been pretty good for a while. FSU has finished with a winning record in four of the past five seasons, finishing among the top five teams in the league in almost all of those seasons. They’ve advanced to Joe Louis Ice Arena for the CCHA semifinals. They’ve produced a pair of all-Americans during that time period. This didn’t come out of nowhere.

But it did seem to hit pretty suddenly, didn’t it? Usually teams knock on the doorstep of greatness before they actually achieve it. This year’s FSU team kind of beat the door down. They started the season with six straight wins. They had a 15-game unbeaten streak during the heart of the conference season. There was one month that the team slumped leading up to Christmas, but other than that, it’s been a consistently solid and sometimes downright fantastic hockey team.

To answer the question, though, the Bulldogs got so good because so many different players stepped up for them at different times during the season. What the team lacks in star power, it makes up for two-fold with great leadership, tremendous drive, good fundamentals and 26 athletes that each understand their role on the team.

Basically, they’ve overachieved. Jordie Johnston scored a lot more goals than most expected he would. Taylor Nelson has been much more spectacular in net than anticipated: He was a first-team All-CCHA selection and the MVP of the Midwest Regional, saving 47-of-49 shots, many of which came in the game’s most perilous moments for the Bulldogs. Chad Billins was supposed to be solid. Instead, he’s been spectacular, anchoring a defense that ranked second in the CCHA with seven goals and 22 assists.

There are countless other examples and reasons as to why they’ve been so good: Kyle Bonis, Matthew Kirzinger, Scott Czarnowczan, Derek Graham, Garrett Thompson, Brett Wysopal … the list could go on. All of these players have had career years and are a big reason Ferris State has reached the Frozen Four.

Who are Union? Are they any good?

Union is a small college located in Schenectady, N.Y., northwest of Albany. The school has an enrollment of just 2,200 students: about six times fewer than Ferris State enrolls system-wide. And yes, they are good.

The Dutchmen, who operate their program without hockey scholarships, have one of the best goaltenders in the country on their side in Troy Grosenick, a Hobey Baker Award finalist. He has the nation’s second best goals against average (1.64) with a .936 save percentage and holds a 22-5-3 record in net this campaign. Union also has the nation’s fourth-best team offense, averaging 3.55 goals per game. Their defense ranks number one in the country and is only allowing 1.80 goals per game. They are the champions of the Eastern College Athletic Conference with an overall record of 26-7-7. They have been one of the most consistently good hockey teams in the country all season.

Does Ferris State have a shot? What about winning the whole thing?

In a one-game scenario, Ferris State can play with any team remaining in this tournament. They limit scoring opportunities for opposing offenses, allowing them to have more scoring chances of their own throughout the course of the game. They capitalize on scoring opportunities of their own — particularly on the power play, which has gone from an area of weakness to one of the team’s greatest strengths. With a great defense and great goaltending, you always have a chance, and Ferris has those.

Union seems like a daunting matchup on paper, but they actually are probably the best matchup the Bulldogs could have gotten. They, like Ferris, are appearing in their first-ever Frozen Four, so both teams will be nervous. Both teams are content playing defensive hockey and grinding it out, rather than getting into a fast-breaking affair. The more comfortable Ferris is in this game, the better odds they have of wining. This matchup has the makings of being just that.

As far as winning it all … like I said, it’s a one-game scenario. Either Boston College or Minnesota would be the most talented team Ferris has seen all season, with the possible exception of Michigan. It is a tall order to win a national championship in Division I athletics, and Ferris State would certainly have to earn it.

Well what if they do win it? What would that mean to the school and hockey program?

Winning a national championship on ESPN obviously would be monumental. The attention the university already has received leading up to this point has been unprecedented at times. That recognition would only multiply in magnitude should Ferris State win it all. Get ready for an array of “little guy,” “small school,” “David vs. Goliath,” “little engine that could,” “blue collar hockey stars” references if they continue their success.

But really, the impact already has been felt. Fans from across the country are rallying to support what has been a truly unique story. These stories don’t come along very often in college sports, let alone college sports in Big Rapids, Michigan. So enjoy at least 15 minutes of fame, with the promise of bigger things if the Bulldogs advance.

Hope this answered some of the questions you might have had … or at least helped you recall what has made this season so special. See you in Tampa!

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