Red hot rivalry

FSU vs. WMU showdowns critical as ever as CCHA comes to a close

BIG RAPIDS — A little more than 100 miles separate Ferris State’s campus from conference rival Western Michigan. The short distance seems fitting considering just how little has separated the two programs over the last three seasons.

The Bulldogs (13-10-3, 11-8-1 CCHA) and CCHA-leading Broncos (16-6-4, 12-4-2-1 CCHA) also are separated by just five points in the CCHA standings heading into a big weekend series that begins at 7:05 p.m. today inside Ewigleben Ice Arena, making each game equally important for both teams. The Bulldogs dropped a pair of close contests earlier this season at Lawson Ice Arena, 4-2 and 2-1.

ON THE LINE: Ferris State forward Cory Kane (8) looks to make his way through a host of Western Michigan defenders earlier this season at Lawson Ice Arena in Kalamazoo. The Bulldogs enter the weekend five points behind WMU in the CCHA standings. The two teams will face-off at 7:05 p.m. today and Saturday at Ewigleben Ice Arena. (Courtesy photo/FSU Photo Services/Ben Amato)

As the Bulldogs and Broncos face-off this weekend in their final regular season contests as CCHA foes, it has become more apparent that the rivalry has grown both in intensity and magnitude as both programs are in the midst of one of their most successful periods of hockey in program history.

The Bulldogs finished fifth in the CCHA in 2010-11, while the Broncos took fourth, allowing the teams to meet for a classic second round CCHA tournament that saw WMU defeat the Bulldogs 2-1 in the three-game series. When FSU captured its second ever CCHA title last season, the Bulldogs clinched the title at Lawson Ice Arena in a 1-1 tie, while the Broncos finished the season second in the league standings.

While Ferris State coach Bob Daniels said the hotly-contested series is more indicative of how close teams are across the CCHA, he believes the profile of the series has grown in part because of both teams’ recent success.

“I think it’s more of a microcosm of the league of a whole in that all of the games are tight,” he said. “Certainly the proximity of the two teams only being an hour and 45 minutes away from each other and the fact that both teams have had success in the recent past lends itself to some hotly-contested games.”

Senior forward Matthew Kirzinger, who returned for his first action of the season last weekend against Notre Dame, said a series against the Broncos always brings out the best in both teams.

“They beat us in the playoffs (in 2010-11) and that’s still a bit tender,” he said. “There’s a lot of bad blood between the teams, and you know every game is going to be a war.”

With emotions flowing this weekend, Kirzinger said playing it cool and sticking to the game plan will be a key for the Bulldogs.

“The thing we have to do is harness those emotions and use that to our advantage,” he said. “I think one thing we have going for us is a lot of our guys have experience from some big games.”

Daniels said while Kirzinger showed some encouraging signs last weekend against Notre Dame, he’s still not yet in “hockey shape.”

“We knew it would be a tall order for him to perform on back-to-back nights,” Daniels said of Kirzinger. “I thought he played well on Friday and then his game slumped on Saturday, which is understandable.

“Once he can play at a high level every night, he’ll factor into our top two lines and our offensive opportunities,” he added. “That will also force teams to split up their defensive pairings. But again, he’s got to be able to prove he can do that every night.”

In a series where there has proven to be little margin for error, goaltending once again figures to be key, with the Bulldogs and Broncos featuring two of the best netminders in the league.

Frank Slubowski (16-6-4, 1.78 goals against average) is the league’s leader in win percentage, while CJ Motte (12-9-3, 2.12 goals against average) was honored as the CCHA’s Goaltender of the Month, compiling a 5-1 record with a 1.34 GAA in the month of January.

Daniels said while Motte has continued to show he is one of the league’s top goaltenders, the weekend series won’t be about “Motte vs. Slubowski,” adding that top shelf goaltending is essential to compete in the CCHA this season.

“If you don’t have top 10 goaltending — and I’m talking about the country, not the (CCHA) — you don’t have a chance in our league this year. This weekend won’t be any different than going up against somebody like (Ohio State goaltender Brady) Hjelle or (Michigan State goaltender Jake) Hildebrand.”

The Bulldogs also have gotten improved play in practice from freshman Charles Williams, who made his second career start on Saturday at Notre Dame in a 5-2 loss to the Fighting Irish.

While Williams gave up a couple of goals “he’d probably like to have back” against Notre Dame, Daniels said he also was impressed with the freshman’s performance in making 24 saves.

“He’s continued to improve in practice and because of that development he’s earned the right to start or get in some games,” Daniels said.

In addition to Slubowski, Daniels had high praise for the Broncos, a team he referred to as the “strongest team in our league on paper.”

I like their goaltending and their defensive core, with a good mix of veterans and young defensemen,” he said. “I look forward to it as a test and a challenge. If we have any weaknesses in our play, they’ll exploit it.”

Ferris State and WMU also face-off at 7:05 p.m. on Saturday at Ewigleben Ice Arena.

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