HERE TO STAY

FSU hockey cements itself in the national scene with another great season

Saturday night at US Bank Arena in Cincinnati, Ohio, two teams clawed and scratched their way to a 1-1 tie after 60 minutes of regulation in the NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament Midwest Regional Final.

One of those teams was looking to earn its 20th trip to the Frozen Four in program history while the other was looking for its second berth in three years after earning its first Frozen Four berth in program history just two seasons ago.

DEFLECTION: Ferris State’s Jared VanWormer (right) tries to deflect the puck in front of North Dakota’s Zane Gothberg during the NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Midwest Regional Final at US Bank Arena in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Saturday. The Bulldogs fell, 2-1, in double overtime to bring their season to an end at 29-11-3. (Pioneer File Photo)

DEFLECTION: Ferris State’s Jared VanWormer (right) tries to deflect the puck in front of North Dakota’s Zane Gothberg during the NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Midwest Regional Final at US Bank Arena in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Saturday. The Bulldogs fell, 2-1, in double overtime to bring their season to an end at 29-11-3. (Pioneer File Photo)

Those two teams were Ferris State and North Dakota, but hockey fans watching Saturday’s regional final would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between which team was the one with two decades worth of NCAA Tournament experience and which one was only making its third trip to the national dance.

But with just one shot in the first minute and a half of a second overtime, North Dakota punched its ticket to its 20th Frozen Four appearance with a 2-1 double overtime victory over the Bulldogs. It wasn’t an easy loss for the Bulldogs to digest, but Saturday’s game and the entire 2013-14 season proved the Bulldogs have evolved from a team that was just getting used to being on the national scene during the 2011-12 Frozen Four run to a team that has now firmly established itself as one of the premier college hockey programs in the country.

There were some questions coming into the season, with the Bulldogs moving over from the disbanding Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA), but Ferris State immediately had the attention of its new league when the preseason media poll had the Bulldogs tabbed to finish second behind league powerhouse Minnesota State.

The Bulldogs battled to a 3-2 record through their first five contests this season before beginning conference play, but that’s when the team really showed it was going to be a force on not only the WCHA front, but the national scene as well.

FSU would go on to reel off a school-record 16-game unbeaten streak and wouldn’t suffer a loss in its first 12 WCHA games to sit at No. 2 in the country in the national polls at the end of 2013 as they headed off for the holiday break. But unlike the season they made their first Frozen Four run, no one seemed too surprised to see the Bulldogs among the top teams in college hockey.

While the Bulldogs were riding high when their record unbeaten streak finally came to an end on Jan. 4 with a loss to Colgate in the finals of the Mariucci Classic, it was the adversity the Bulldogs faced in the second half of the season that proved they were the real deal.

Ferris State swept Michigan Tech the weekend following the Mariucci Classic, but a sweep at the hands of Minnesota State amid a three-game losing streak over the next two weeks would cut the Bulldogs’ cushion atop the WCHA standings to just a two-point lead over the charging Mavericks.

The Bulldogs showed their mental toughness by winning their next five games, but a Feb. 15 loss to Bemidji State left the Bulldogs tied atop the standings with Minnesota State.

At a time the Bulldogs could have wilted under the pressure and allowed the Mavericks to remain the top dogs atop the WCHA, FSU finished the regular season with a 4-2 mark in its final six games to come away hoisting the MacNaughton Cup as the WCHA regular-season champions, including having to sweep Lake Superior State in the last regular-season weekend while getting some help with the Mavericks tieing Michigan Tech in their final game of the season to give the Bulldogs the outright regular-season title.

That emotional end to the season spring-boarded the Bulldogs to a 2-0 sweep of Bemidji State in the first round of the WCHA Playoffs and a berth in the WCHA Final Five Championship at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, something the Bulldogs had listed as their first goal of the season knowing they couldn’t let the opportunity to play their conference’s postseason tournament in their own backyard.

FSU won a wild 5-4 overtime contest against Alaska Anchorage to move on to the Broadmoor Trophy Championship game against Minnesota State, but a 4-1 loss to the Mavericks left the Bulldogs just short of season sweep of the WCHA titles.

Rather than dwell on the loss, the Bulldogs shifted their focus to the NCAA Tournament, where they were named a two seed in the midwest regional.

Like the entire season, the week leading up to the first round of the NCAA Tournament showcased the confidence and the business-like attitude that has turned the FSU program into one of the best.

From head coach Bob Daniels down to the players, the message continued to be the same that it was all season. The Bulldogs had gotten to the NCAA Tournament by not getting too excited for the victories and not getting too low when the losses came, and that even-keeled approach has become one of the defining traits of the Bulldogs under Daniels’ direction.

So it was appropriate when the Bulldogs beat Colgate, a team the Bulldogs had lost two out of three to already this season, by a score of 1-0 in the first round of the national tournament on Friday, that message stayed constant in the following press conference. The Bulldogs were obviously happy to be advancing, but they knew the job wasn’t done.

That hard-nosed, business-like style of play had the Bulldogs on the cusp of their second Frozen Four berth in three years Saturday, but a cruel bounce of the puck to start the second overtime of Saturday’s game dashed those hopes.

But just like in 2002-02 and 2011-12, the Bulldogs once again showcased their unselfish brand of physical, grinding hockey on the national stage during the midwest regional this weekend.

That style of hockey is known as “Bulldog Hockey” to the players and coaches on the team, and it’s a style of play and a set of values that has turned the Bulldogs into one of the most successful programs in the country and cemented FSU as one of the perennial powers in the college hockey world.

From junior goaltender CJ Motte being a top-10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Award to the Bulldogs being in the top 10 of both national polls for the past 17 weeks, there are plenty of signs the Bulldogs now have the full attention of the college hockey world.

Saturday’s loss somewhat signaled the end of an era for the Bulldogs, with the senior class of Garrett Thompson, Cory Kane, Scott Czarnowczan, Andy Huff and Justin DeMartino leaving the program as the winningest four-year class in Bulldog history with 89 victories.

But for a team that had 14 players compiling double-digit point totals this season and used a combination of experienced veterans and young playmakers to get back to the NCAA Tournament, “Bulldog Hockey” should be alive and well next season with 21 of the 26 players from this year’s squad returning next season after leading the Bulldogs to their second-most victories in a single season with 29 this year.

Big Rapids is familiar with “Bulldog Hockey,” but this weekend proved the entire nation should get comfortable seeing it on the national stage for quite some time.

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