Big Rapids, Mich. – Following up perhaps the most historic season in school history, regardless of sport, is certainly no easy task.
That was the scenario facing the Ferris State University men's ice hockey team entering the 2012-13 season following a season in which the Bulldogs staked their claim among college hockey's elite by winning the CCHA Regular-Season Championship, the NCAA Midwest Regional crown and advancing to the national championship game at the 2012 Frozen Four for the first-time ever.
Not only did the Bulldogs lose eight talented seniors to graduation following last season's historic run, but a rash of injuries throughout this season have also kept several key pieces out of the lineup at various stages.
In their place, a young nucleus, including eight freshmen, have been asked to play significant roles as the Bulldogs faced one of the country's most challenging schedules in the final season of the CCHA.
Despite all those factors, however, the Bulldogs have managed to remain at the forefront of both the conference and national picture as they embark on what they hope is yet another impressive postseason run.
Ferris State opened the year early by hoisting championship banners inside the Ewigleben Ice Arena before enthusiastic fans in a 7-3 non-league October romp over Mercyhurst in the home opener. That same support, which carried over from a year ago, was certainly evident throughout the year as the Bulldogs sold out six times at home this season and drew near-record crowds, including the final home game in CCHA history that resulted in an exciting 4-3 win over Bowling Green on Feb. 16.
Behind the play of senior captain Kyle Bonis and a veteran core, the Bulldogs won three consecutive road games in month of November and followed it up with a 5-0 shutout at home over Michigan on November's final day to remain in contention in the league race and included in the national rankings once again.
After a four-game slide in December, the Bulldogs caught fire again after the holiday break. FSU closed the month of December with a 6-2 romp over 2011 NCAA National Champion Minnesota-Duluth at the Florida College Hockey Classic and then began the month of January by winning five of six games, including three wins over Michigan State and a 3-1 series-opening triumph on the road at Notre Dame, with sophomore goaltender CJ Motte leading the charge en route to receiving CCHA Goaltender of the Month accolades.
The month of February provided fans with plenty of action as the Bulldogs battled near the top of the conference standings. A highlight was Ferris State's overtime shootout win in a penalty-filled battle at home versus Western Michigan (Feb. 2) along with the final home win over BGSU, which had knocked the Bulldogs out of the CCHA playoffs a year ago in Big Rapids and denied FSU a trip to Joe Louis Arena.
Not only did the Bulldogs face a challenging schedule, but they also did so with increased television exposure following last year's historic run and an ever-increasing fan base behind them. Six games were carried live nationally across the country, including five late in the year in which the Bulldogs left their mark on fans around the world by winning games over Michigan State, Notre Dame and Bowling Green along with an exciting 1-1 overtime deadlock in the final CCHA regular-season tilt at Michigan (March 2).
All told, the end result was yet another first-round playoff bye for the Bulldogs and an opportunity to keep the season alive by winning the CCHA Tournament. This year marks the fourth-straight campaign in which the Bulldogs have earned a playoff bye, joining Miami (Ohio) as the only two league members to accomplish the feat over the final four seasons of the CCHA.
"It's hard to believe how fast this year has went and we're excited about the opportunity to continue our season in the playoffs," said FSU head coach Bob Daniels, a two-time national coach of the year award winner. "We take a great deal of pride in being one of the two teams who've earned a bye the last four years. As we say goodbye to the CCHA, it's wonderful to know that we've been as good as anyone in the league over the last few seasons."
Ferris State's playoff hopes will continue to hinge not only on the play of Motte in net and one of the nation's top special teams units, but also on an ever-improving back end that has saw the emergence of high-scoring sophomores Jason Binkley and Simon Denis along with the return of veteran junior Scott Czarnowczan. Up front, the veteran line of Bonis, senior Travis Ouellette and junior Garrett Thompson has continued to build upon last season's success and developed into the team's top three scorers while leading the offensive charge.
With the league's tournament champion receiving the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, the 2013 CCHA Playoffs not only provide the Bulldogs with an opportunity to make another memorable push, but also a chance to claim the last-ever Mason Cup and make the program's fifth-trip to The Joe, something not accomplished in last year's historic postseason run.
"With this being the final year, this tournament and being able to get to Joe Louis Arena certainly means a great deal to those who have been involved in the proud history of the CCHA," Daniels said. "We're looking forward to the opportunity to compete in the playoffs and keep our season alive."