5,400 miles of travel later, the Ferris State hockey team is no longer in control of their WCHA regular season championship destiny.
4-1 and 5-3 losses to the Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks dropped the nationally ranked No. 7 Bulldogs into a first place tie with the Minnesota State Mavericks, who currently own the tiebreaker with Ferris.
With four games to play, prior to the Feb. 28-March 1 series with the Nanooks, Ferris needed to finish 2-1-1 to guarantee a regular season championship.
“I have to laugh just a little bit,” Head Coach Bob Daniels said. “Because when you say that you only have to win two, it sounds like it’s as easy as chewing gum. Every single win is really hard. There’s no such thing as easy wins.”
Since the Bulldogs started that stretch 0-2-0, Minnesota State now controls the Bulldogs’ destiny. If the Mavericks sweep Michigan Tech in Mankato, Minnesota, they clinch the regular season conference championship and sole possession of first place.
If both Ferris and Minnesota State sweep their opponents, they share the conference championship, though Minnesota State wins the first seed.
The senior weekend series with eighth place Lake Superior State now takes on a magnified meaning. The Lakers cannot afford to be swept if they wish to keep their playoff hopes alive. A desperate team will come to Big Rapids on March 7-8. The series is a must win for the Lakers and could be a major boost for the Bulldogs.
The status of ace-junior defenseman Jason Binkley, who underwent an appendectomy on Feb. 23, is listed as “Probable,” from Daniels.
The Lakers are in dire straits; ninth place Northern Michigan will take on the 10th and last place Alabama-Huntsville Chargers, who are 2-33-1 overall, in Huntsville.
Northern Michigan may have the easy pass into the playoffs with Lake Superior State drawing first place Ferris in Big Rapids.
Lake Superior State had a chance to clinch a playoff spot but were swept by the Mavericks on their own ice on Feb. 28-March 1. The Lakers were ranked as high as No. 14 in the nation early in the season, but they are now struggling to find their way into a playoff spot.
“They gave us a couple of hard fought games back in November,” freshman forward Chad McDonald said. “However, it’s no secret we are now down to the wire and this weekend will determine the rest of their season.”
The playoff picture is still not solid headed into the final weekend. Three points separate fifth and ninth place, and Ferris is guaranteed to play the seventh or eighth seed in the first round.
The conference has taken on an identity that reads more like the Wild-Wild-Western Collegiate Hockey Association in the final three weeks.
“I expect nothing but their best shot this weekend,” McDonald said. “At this point, it’s do or die for both teams.”
The do or die mentality runs deep since the Mavericks control the MacNaughton Cup race for the WCHA’s best regular season team.
“I think we all have in the back of our minds the possible outcomes that can come at the end of the weekend,” McDonald said. “We know for us to be able to take back control of the race, we need to win both games this weekend against LSSU. The rest will play itself out.”
The final weekend of the 2013-14 regular season will see the end of an era of seniors that have had a major impact on the hockey program’s prominence in the last four years.
Ferris will honor five seniors this weekend: forwards Andy Huff, Cory Kane, Justin DeMartino and Garrett Thompson, as well as defenseman and captain Scott Czarnowczan. Each of the seniors have 13 or more individual points this season, with Kane and Thompson combining for 49 total points.
Kane was praised by Daniels as being one of the most versatile players on the team. Kane sees time on the penalty kill, powerplay, and every single forward line. When the Bulldogs have lost lower line centers in the past, Kane has double-shifted and played with two different lines in a game to fill the gap.
Thompson was the first and only Bulldog in Ferris history to score in the Division I National Championship game, which he did during the team’s historic 2011-12 season in Tampa Bay.
Puck drop is set for 7:07 p.m. for both March 7-8 against Lake Superior State.