When the 2015-16 Ferris State Bulldogs came to represent the 2015-16 WCHA season as a whole, they fulfilled a dewdrop of deferred gratification for their league.
Had they hung in for another five minutes, they could have scooped up a second helping, but that was not to be. They followed a 5-4 overtime thriller over St. Cloud State with a 6-3 shortcoming via Denver in the NCAA West Regional.
Through Sunday afternoon’s first 55 minutes, FSU never trailed by more than a goal, recompensing three deficits. But the potent Pioneers broke away with three unanswered tallies in the final quarter of the closing frame.
Still, the 1-1 finish to their tournament run was more than the Bulldogs should have logically attained. And it cements a foundation for them and their new-look home circuit of the last three years to regain respectability.
Each of FSU’s opponents in St. Paul were longtime WCHA bigwigs who bolted for the newfangled NCHC in the summer of 2013. The new league has since nabbed five Frozen Four passports, including three in a row for North Dakota.
If not for the NCHC, the still-rebuilding senior circuit would have had a winning record in interleague action this season. But a collective 5-20-2 transcript in head-to-head action brought the WCHA down to 28-36-9 in nonconference play.
With that shoddy showing, the WCHA’s only hope was to send a secretly battle-tested ambassador to the national bracket via the automatic bid. For the longest time, that role appeared reserved for the winner of a Michigan Tech-Minnesota State showdown in the conference tournament final.
But the Bulldogs — losers of 7-3 and 5-2 decisions to Harvard and Michigan, respectively, earlier in the year — crashed that presumptive party. Backed by not-so-freshmaneqsue first-year goaltender Darren Smith, they upset the Huskies and Mavericks alike for the Broadmoor Trophy.
Those 1-0 and 2-1 wins over the WCHA’s standard-bearing pre-realignment holdovers gave the CCHA refugees the right and responsibility to raise their new league’s bar. Following Saturday’s overtime upset of the top-seeded SCSU Huskies, forward Jared VanWormer confirmed they were comfortable with that task.
Answering a query from Denver Post reporter Terry Frei on their “Cinderella” status in the postgame presser, VanWormer offered, “We’ll take that role. I mean, someone’s gotta do it.”
Perched on the .500 fence with an 8-8-4 record at midseason, FSU’s best-case options were limited to just that down the stretch. They would remain in that .500 range for their first three games post-New Year’s, then barely edged out Northern Michigan for home ice in the WCHA quarterfinals.
But, VanWormer continued after bagging Saturday’s sudden-death strike in St. Paul, “I think all year we were kind of, I don’t want to say, maybe underperforming. But I think ever since Christmas, and after the Mariucci Classic, we turned it up as a group, kind of came together.”
Indeed, it was there on the first weekend of 2016 that the Bulldogs brooked a 7-3 clubbing by the Crimson in their Mariucci Classic semifinal. Senior netminder Charles Williams, who was still vying for the dynamic C.J. Motte’s vacancy with Smith, took the full drubbing that day.
But upon returning to the rookie the following day, FSU started rising to its peak. The 5-2 thrashing of Connecticut in the consolation game kickstarted an eight-game unbeaten streak. For the balance of the season, Smith would scrape the blue paint for all but one period.
It did not hurt to have four senior defensemen in Brandon Anselmini, Simon Denis, Zach Dorer and Sean O’Rourke before him. But Smith rightly garnered the WCHA’s tournament MVP laurel upon winning a pair of staring contests with MTU’s Jamie Phillips and MSU’s Cole Huggins.
In his first two encounters with NCHC tenants this past weekend, Smith proved that he has not quite exhausted all of his growing pains. But the first 115-plus minutes of tournament action also unveiled his skating mates’ readiness to bail him out the same way he often did for them in league play.
Where Motte was the saving grace in an 18-20-2 run a year ago, Smith was the seamless successor. Per Peter J. Wallner of M Live, Bulldogs bench boss Bob Daniels opined on the starters of past and present, “They have similar style and similar personalities. I think that has really helped Darren’s transition and our defensemen’s transition to Darren.”
The program’s next transition will come with replacing two-thirds of the blue-line brigade. Anselmini, Denis and Dorer mark four of the six regulars set to graduate. But Tyler Dorantes and Ryan Lowney will both be upperclassmen next season, while the strike force will be the new senior-laden sector.
VanWormer, reigning top gun Gerald Mayhew, New York Islanders prospect Kyle Schempp and Chad McDonald — who missed the last three games due to injury — are all primed to return up front. They will do so having gone an aggregate 2-2 in a pair of career NCAA tournament appearances.
With the help of Smith’s swift assimilation, the Bulldogs current core proved that it can still cultivate its 2013-14 power. The intervening 2014-15 downturn and slow start to this season looks like a genuine fluke.
As long as Smith’s freshman breakout avoids the same label going forward, there is no reason not to build on this run.