FSU hockey prepares for matchup with Wolverines

No. 9 Ferris State hosts No. 8 Michigan in high-profile season opener

BIG RAPIDS — While some college hockey teams start out the season with an easy game to build a little early confidence, the ninth-ranked Ferris State Bulldogs are kicking off the 2014-15 season with a bang with a top-10 home matchup against eighth-ranked Michigan on Saturday.

EYES UP: Ferris State’s C.J. Motte (center) stays on the lookout for any shots coming his way during the Bulldogs’ practice at Ewigleben Ice Arena on Thursday. The No. 9-ranked Bulldogs will open the 2014-15 season at home on Saturday by hosting No. 8-ranked University of Michigan. (Pioneer photo/Greg Buckner)

EYES UP: Ferris State’s C.J. Motte (center) stays on the lookout for any shots coming his way during the Bulldogs’ practice at Ewigleben Ice Arena on Thursday. The No. 9-ranked Bulldogs will open the 2014-15 season at home on Saturday by hosting No. 8-ranked University of Michigan. (Pioneer photo/Greg Buckner)

With three appearances in the NCAA Division I Tournament in the last four seasons, including a run to the Elite Eight last season and the memorable Frozen Four National Championship appearance in the 2011-12 season, the reigning Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) regular-season champion Bulldogs have cemented themselves as one of the key players in Division I college hockey.

For FSU head coach Bob Daniels, who’s entering his 23rd season at the helm, Saturday’s contest at an already sold-out Ewigleben Ice Arena is not only exciting for the FSU faithful, but a sign of how far the program has come.

“We’re finding ourselves in more games that are more meaningful and that’s fun for everybody,” he said. “Fans, ourselves, the players; to be involved in games that are meaningful, it just brings the experience up a notch. That’s why a game against Michigan at home says a lot about our program and we’re excited to be able to host them this weekend.”

As former rivals in the now-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA), the Bulldogs and Wolverines are plenty familiar with each other as they get ready to square off for the 105th time, with U-M holding a 68-29-7 series advantage. However, the Bulldogs are 1-0-1 in their last two contests with the Wolverines, including last season’s top-five showdown at Yost Ice Arena that ended with U-M winning a shootout after battling to a 2-2 tie after three regulation periods and an overtime session.

Michigan comes into Saturday’s game with plenty of offensive firepower with the return of junior forward Andrew Copp and sophomore forward JT Compher. Compher led the Wolverines in scoring last season with 31 points (11 goals, 20 assists), followed by Copp with 29 (15 goals, 14 assists).

The Bulldogs are looking to replace the contributions of one of the most successful senior classes in program history with the loss of defenseman Scott Czarnowczan and forwards Garrett Thompson, Cory Kane, Andy Huff and Justin DeMartino, who combined to score 130 of the Bulldogs’ 360 points last season and had the most victories of any four-year class with 89.

Luckily for Daniels, he has 21 players returning from last year’s roster, including the Bulldogs’ leading scorer in senior forward Justin Buzzeo (14 goals, 18 assists) and junior

forwards Kenny Babinski (9 goals, 10 assists) and Matt Robertson (12 goals, 7 assists).

Add in a group of sophomore forwards including Kyle Schempp (10 goals, 15 assists), Chad McDonald (9 goals, 11 assists) and Gerald Mayhew (8 goals, 11 assists) who gained plenty of valuable experience last season and FSU has the pieces to be successful on offense; it’s just a matter of putting those pieces in the right places.

“We’re going to miss those guys like Czarnowczan and Kane and what a class that was, but the good news is we return a lot of players and they’re very mature,” Daniels said. “Like anything, it’s going to take a while to see a finished product from this team because the guys are all emerging in new roles.

“Last year, we did it seamlessly and hopefully we can do that again.”

That process might take a few games, but Daniels has an experienced defensive corps and one of the top goaltenders in the nation in senior C.J. Motte to lean on throughout the early going.

Motte, the WCHA Coaches’ Preseason Player of the Year, returns after posting a 28-9-3 record between the pipes with a save percentage of .928.

He’ll be backed up by a defensive lineup that returns seniors Jason Binkley (3 goals, 21 assists) and Travis White (3 goals, 5 assists) and sophomore Ryan Lowney (1 goal, 13 assists). Redshirt junior defenseman Simon Denis also returns after suffering a season-ending spinal injury early last season.

“Obviously, (Michigan) is a good team and we’ve played them almost every year in my four years here,” Motte said. “We know they’re a real fast team and they’ve got a lot of skill. It’s going to be a good game. It’s going to basically be mid-season form right away because it’s going to be a high-intensity game.”

The matchup will also mark the second time C.J. will be playing his brother Tyler, who tallied 18 points (9 goals, 9 assists) last season as a freshman forward for the Wolverines.

The two even squared off in the shootout in last year’s game between the Bulldogs and Wolverines, with C.J. making the save against his younger brother.

“I’m looking forward to it, but before the game, even now, I’m not really paying much attention to that right now,” C.J. said.

Out of all the storylines for Saturday’s game, having home-ice advantage could be the biggest advantage the Bulldogs have after recording a 16-1-1 record at home last season.

“I would hope we would match last year’s home record,” Daniels said. “That’s a hard standard to live up to. I think that this year’s team can be similar to last year’s team. I don’t know that we’ll get there as quickly as last year’s team did, though.

“We get a great home-ice advantage from our fans and our student section is unbelievable and hopefully we can capitalize on the enthusiasm they bring.”

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