Team Michigan Juniors and Seniors have spent the past two weeks prepping for the CCM NIT in Plymouth, Minnesota, where they will compete against teams comprised of the top high school players across the country including those from Minnesota, Massachusetts, North Dakota and Wisconsin.
A process that began in March with more than 250 of the top juniors and seniors in the state congregating at the Arctic Coliseum in Chelsea following the conclusion of the winter season, now culminates with the Minnesota showcase later this weekend.
For an eighth consecutive year, teams are assembled and put on display not just for the individual exposure of the players in attendance but to also showcase the strides and growth that Michigan high school hockey has made overall on a national stage in front of junior, NCAA and professional scouts.
Overall, Team Michigan has seen more than 70 players go on to compete in high-level junior and college hockey with some reaching the game’s highest level in the NHL. The 2018 Senior Team promoted eight players off last year’s squad to the NAHL and BCHL alone, serving as a premier launching point for those embarking on junior careers after high school.
This year’s senior team returns 12 players from the 20-man roster from a year ago; a then-junior team that went 2-2-0 at the 2018 NIT.
“It helps knowing what you’re getting yourself into, knowing what scouts are out there and how the tournament works,” said goaltender Sam Evola. “Second time coming around, you’re gonna have more experience. You’re gonna be better.”
The 2018 Mr. Hockey recipient, Evola is coming off of back-to-back Division-III state titles with Detroit Country Day and is currently tendered by the NAHL’s Minot Minotauros. Still, he said there’s plenty to prove in front of the scouts that will be in attendance and that this talented group is capable of turning some heads.
“The NA is great but I’d like to get drafted into the USHL and obviously get in front of some schools and get some school exposure and there’s a lot [at the tournament],” he said. “Guys like Joey Larson, Cam Blanton, Luke Evo. They’re solid players. It’s kinda cool to get to play with these guys before they go to their respective junior programs one last time is pretty cool to finish off your high school career.”
Of the 40 players heading to Minnesota, almost all are involved with the Michigan Developmental Hockey League (MDHL), TPH’s Top 80, Copper Country or Elite Brigade off-season programs. While each provide unique opportunities, Team Michigan is a chance for high school hockey to assemble two teams of the best players regardless of region or affiliation. This year, players were plucked from 20 different programs around the state, from across metro Detroit to the west side, mid-Michigan and the U.P., bringing them together for a two-week span presents unique challenges.
“Some of us knew each other just through high school hockey, MDHL, TPH Top 80 but we bonded really fast,” said Team Juniors defenseman Brendan Miles. “We’re just a great group altogether.”
Miles, a standout D-man in the MIHL for Detroit Catholic Central, battled it out against several of his fellow junior teammates during the regular season, including the likes of Seth Lause (Livonia Stevenson), Nick Marone (Brother Rice), Joey Cormier (Trenton) and Cristian Bronzino (Warren De La Salle) among several others. Now teammates, that comes as a bit of a relief that once opponents now come together to compete on the same side.
“Playing against him, it was difficult for me as a forward to go against him on a rush because he’s just a smart defenseman,” said Bronzino. “Playing with him, makes me feel safe on the back end because if I get beat by my guy — which I hope doesn’t happen — then I know that he’s back there to help us out.”
Miles helped anchor a CC defensive corps that went a near-perfect 29-1-1 this season and he’ll be expected to provide similar support on the back end for the juniors.
One advantage the senior group typically has to their advantage over the juniors ahead of the tournament is having players who know what to expect from the speed and competition level that the NIT is known for.
“You have an idea of what the two weeks is gonna be like and what you have to do to get the group together as a team,” said Tim Erkkila. “Having a lot of guys back from last year is big in the sense that we know what we have to do to build that chemistry so we can be as good as possible in Minnesota.”
A four-year letter-winner for Brighton, Erkkila is one of the most decorated defensemen in high school hockey. With back-to-back Division-I state championships in 2017 and 2018 as well as being named to the Michigan High School Hockey Coaches’ Association (MHSCHA) Dream Team his junior and senior years, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound defender has seen plenty of high-level hockey during his high school career.
As one of the 12 seniors returning to the lineup from last year’s squad, Erkkila said the Team Michigan experience is a unique one for him.
“Honestly, I just had a lot of fun,” he said. “At the end of the day, hockey’s all about having fun. It’s an unbelievable tournament, tons of exposure and I don’t think you can get enough of that. It’s always fun to play with guys from CC — we hate ‘em during the season — then guys from the U.P., I’ve got a lot of connections there. My cousin Sam, he’s on the team so that’s a lot of fun as well.”
Tim’s cousin and senior teammate Sam Erkkila finished up his final season, concluding a three-year career with Calumet. The showcase presents a rare opportunity for the Erkkila family to support both boys on the ice at the same time.
“I’m sure they have a lot of fun watching,” Tim said. “Any time you get to play with a family member that lives 500 miles away, that’s pretty cool.”
Coach Ryan Ossenmacher will coach the Seniors for a seventh time, joined by Jeff Fleming and Jay Thompson. A dozen returners provide a wealth of experience and familiarity for the squad with not one, but two Mr. Hockey recipients in Evola and 2019 honoree Joey Larson (Hartland). Newcomers and first-timers like Gabe Anderson (Hartland), Kevin Bostwick (Houghton), Patrick Donnelly (Houghton), Carter Korpi (Detroit Catholic Central), Anthony Mollica (Jenison), Daniel Nelson (Grand Rapids Catholic Central), Gage Thrall (Davison) and Jack VandDenBeurgery (Plymouth) breathe some fresh air and newness into the group as well.
While the seniors will rely on past experience, the juniors will be flying blind in a way, preparing for the idea of an unknown opponent.
“I honestly have no clue what they’re gonna be like,” said Will Jentz. “Our game yesterday, the coaches said it was gonna be two, three times faster than it was out there. That should just be a lot of fun going out [to Minnesota]. We won’t know, we’ll just have to bring whatever we have and just show them what we have to do and not adapt to what they do.”
Coach Dave Mitchell returns behind the bench for the juniors alongside Joe Ford and Kyle Zagata. A diverse and dynamic group that’s represented by 15 different schools, an obvious challenge for the younger of the two teams is preparing for the unknown and bringing a group together in such a short window of time.
The general consensus among juniors was that cohesion happened quickly with the mood in the locker room and team meetings coming naturally.
Lack of familiarity lends itself more to surprises but Bronzino suggested that the unforeseen can be a good thing too.
“Actually, one of the kids on our line, Brady [Rappuhn] from Saginaw Heritage,” he said. “I haven’t seen them play or really seen him play ‘til now. He’s fitting in real well and you know that those guys that come from areas out there want to work real hard and work their butts off for spots on the power play or the penalty kill, whatever it may be and just want to fill their role and be the best at it.”
Rappuhn is one-of-six juniors from outside of metro Detroit, coming off of an ‘18-19 season in which he scored 24 goals and 62 points in 25 games for the Hawks.
With offensive firepower upfront, there has been a clear focus in training camp and attempting to prepare the juniors for an unfamiliar opponent.
“We’re very strong offensively,” said Miles. “We’re trying to be just as strong defensively and I think in practice that’s what we’ve really tried to work on so I think we’re going to be a really hard team to compete against.”
The Junior and Senior teams will head to Minnesota together on Wednesday morning by bus, before games get underway Thursday afternoon. The two teams will compete in opposite pools, playing in three round-robin games. Playoff and consolation games will bring the tournament to a close on Sunday. Follow @TeamMichHockey on Twitter for updates all weekend long and keep tabs on both squads!
Ah, what an exciting and action-packed opening week of playoffs! From starting with 138 teams, to only having eight remain in each Division as we enter the State Tournament on Tuesday. Be sure to check out this year’s Regional Champs HERE.
FULL DISCLOSURE follow-up to last week’s Regional Playoff Predictions…
The Favorites: 17 Champions
Under The Radar: Four Champions
The Darkhorses: One Champion
Total Misses: Two Champions
All-in-all, a great week of worthy champions; some mainstays like DCC, Hartland, Stevenson, Trenton, Big Rapids and FHNE as well as some first timers in Petoskey, Cap City and the Bay Reps. Big shoutouts to Rochester United and Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard; two teams that proved me wrong and made us all pay for looking past them in Regionals, congrats on your well-deserved Wooden Mittens.
As we shift focus to the eight-team State Tournament, I wanted to change things up a bit and introduce Confidence Picks to the playoff projections. With so many great teams still remaining, it would be virtually impossible to limit potential contenders to just three teams in a Favorite, Under The Radar and Dark Horse format like last week. So this time around, I’ll rank teams in each division not by talent, skill or program history but by their likelihood of winning the entire tournament, given the potential matchups and path to a championship. Eight points to the ones I’m most confident in and one point to the longest shot of the division. Let’s get started…
Rochester United: They’ve got a major challenge in the Quarterfinals and an even bigger giant in the semis, should they survive OLSM on Wednesday. RU has had a tremendous run at 25-3-0 overall but I just don’t think there’s enough fight left to run with the big dogs.
Cap City: The Cinderella of D-I, Heritage (No. 4) will be the toughest team the Capitals will have faced all year long. Jenison (No. 47) was their biggest test thus far, and that was a 5-1 loss back in December, however, if they shock the world in the Quarters there’s a chance CCC could qualify for the D-I Final.
Orchard Lake St. Mary’s: I could be overvaluing the Eaglets here, as I don’t know that this is one of the stronger OLSM teams we’ve seen in recent history. However, I’m confident in their ability to get to the semis with a chance to play CC and of the eight teams in D-I, I think they’ve got the best shot — albeit a small one — to take down the favorite.
Byron Center: They’ve never been “out” of a game this season. At 22-5-1, the Bulldogs have been one of the best west-side teams in ‘18-19 and all of their losses are by two-goals-or-less, so I’m confident they’ll compete with anyone they take the ice with. It’s not an easy road but a winnable game in the Quarters and another one in the semis, so look out for BC.
Bay Reps: I said Byron Center could win at Ewigleben Ice Arena and they can, but I’d definitely lean towards the Bay Raps in the Wednesday matchup. I really like this Reps team and I think they’d give Heritage a better fight in a potential semifinal matchup than they did when the Hawks handled them 6-1 back in December.
Saginaw Heritage: I fully expect them to be one-half of the D-I finale for a second consecutive season. I don’t think the outcome will be different than 2018 but hey, get to the title game and anything can happen! With three skilled lines, they’ll get up and down the ice with anyone left in the tournament.
Detroit Catholic Central: There’s really no reason why the Shamrocks shouldn’t win the D-I title. Honestly, I think they’re three goals better than the other seven teams remaining. No disrespect meant to the field, this CC team is just that good. No team in the state has solved the Shamrocks this season and I don’t believe anyone will.
Forest Hills Northern-Eastern: They’ve been living on the edge! Back-to-back overtime thrillers in the Regional semis and championship game but I think the well runs dry on Tuesday against Hartland. There’s plenty of offensive firepower in D-II and I highly doubt FHNE has the guns to go up and down the ice with the likes of Hartland, Rice and others.
Port Huron Northern: Like the Husky-Hawks (is that what FHNE calls themselves?), I don’t know if PHN can score on Rice in their Quarterfinal matchup, let alone a Hartland or Trenton. It’s been a great run for Northern but a road to the finale gets real rocky here in the Elite Eight.
Petoskey: They’re in unchartered waters. By my count, the program hasn’t reached this stage of the tournament in more than 20 years so they’re gonna have to elevate their game if they want to compete with the blue bloods. I think they have a small chance against Marquette in the Quarters, but they’ll need some more postseason magic to get to a title.
Trenton: On paper, they’re intimidating but after watching their Regional Final I think talented squads like the ones below can out-class the Trojans. The 6-0 loss to Stevenson a month ago raises a red flag, even though I expect a closer game in the Quarterfinal rematch. Trenton is certainly capable of winning the whole thing but they could just as easily be eliminated by Tuesday.
Brother Rice: I fully anticipate a rematch in the semis from the MIHL-KLAA Showcase when Hartland defeated Rice 5-1 in December. However, I expect that rematch in Plymouth to be much, much closer the second time around. If the Warriors are to make a serious run at a title, they’ll need next-level goaltending to give themselves a chance against the firepower they’d face in Elite Eight action.
Livonia Stevenson: It’s gonna be boom-or-bust with the Spartans. Another team with a legitimate chance at the D-II title but could just as easily be knocked out by Trenton on Tuesday. They’ve already beaten the Trojans and Hartland — twice — but throw that out the window in playoff rematches. I like their chances a lot but it’ll require three intense games to get it done; a much tougher grind than I think other contenders would have.
Marquette: I said before the tournament started, if there’s one team in D-II I don’t want to face, it’s the Redmen and I’m sticking to it. They’re “U.P. tough” with a stingy defensive effort that allows less than two goals against per game and will bring the support of an entire peninsula with them to Plymouth. They’re not the best team in the division but Marquette may be the hungriest, most balanced team in the field with a great path to the title.
Hartland: Maybe they shouldn’t be the favorite. Losses to Trenton and Stevenson, I don’t know… Literally 4 through 8 could be interchangeable in D-II but the Eagles are the most talented of the group, with the best goalie among the eight, arguably the easiest road and a title to defend in a fourth straight trip to Plymouth. Why WOULDN’T they be the favorite?
East Grand Rapids: It’s not so much their Quarterfinal matchup that hinders their chances but the potential Semifinal draw that has me concerned about the Pioneers’ title hopes. Big Rapids will be a tall task on Wednesday and the winner of Country Day/U-D at Plymouth would be monumental. I just don’t know if East has enough gas left to get to a title, let alone bring it home.
Big Rapids: Same concerns as above, but the Cardinals won me over with their Regional Championship run so much so that I’m looking at them to knock off EGR in the Quarters. I didn’t think they had enough firepower to make it this far… and then they hung a six-spot on Dow and an eight-spot on Powers. Their top is really good but depth may be what holds them back in Plymouth.
Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard: Their path isn’t as rough as some others in D-III, and the Irish have played stellar in the playoffs so far. The Quarterfinal matchup is pretty balanced and could go either way but if they survive the Battle of Gabriel Richards, coach Clint Robert will have to push his kids to the next level if they’re going to hold their own with the competition at USA Hockey Arena.
Riverview Gabriel Richard: I’m giving the Pioneers a slight edge in that Quarterfinal, as they’ve played a tougher slate in ‘18-19, priming them for this time of year. I still don’t think there’s enough steam to get over the next hump but GR has played Alpena and Country Day — twice — tough enough to prove they can skate with everyone remaining in the D-III playoffs.
U-D Jesuit: I like the Cubs a lot. I hate their Quarterfinal matchup more though. This is another boom-or-bust as U-D could potentially win it all or they could be cut out of the playoff picture by Wednesday. I do believe whoever wins that tilt will be one-half of the D-III finale and most likely be the favorite to win against whoever comes from the other half of the bracket.
Houghton: Their top is really good and may be the best among the eight teams remaining but a path to a title would involve going through the two best goalies in high school hockey. This time of year in a matchup between high-powered offenses and stingy goaltending, I’m giving the nod to the netminders here but you could swap 5-6-7-8 and wouldn’t get an argument from me.
Alpena: I’ll admit, I’m picking with my heart on this one. They’ve been a great story all year long but they have certainly earned every bit of it on the ice, building up an impressive resume. If the Wildcats get to the D-III final, we could end up playing all night long because I don’t know if anyone’s scoring in a Cooper Black v. Sam Evola showdown.
Detroit Country Day: If there’s a reason why they shouldn’t be the favorite, please let me know. For starters, they don’t have to play Woodhaven, a team that’s handed the Yellowjackets two of their four losses, so that’s a big plus! In all seriousness though, I think they’re one of the most complete teams I’ve seen this season playing in front of the best goalie in the state. That U-D matchup is certainly the biggest concern but I think that game could be quite similar to DCD’s’ low-scoring affair with Cranbrook earlier in the playoffs.
Well, this is it folks! Whether you win or lose, it’s the final week of the season for everyone remaining. I wish all teams nothing but the best down the stretch here. Take some time to truly enjoy the little moments this week and appreciate what you’ve accomplished. Only three teams earn the privilege of ending their seasons — and in some instances, careers — with a victory, so make the most of final practices, bus rides and memories with the boys while you can!
Feel free to connect with me on Twitter and argue my picks 140 characters at a time!
Regional playoffs concluded on Saturday evening, as we've crowned 24 new champions bound for the State Tournament slated to begin on Tuesday. Check out all of our champions as they enter the Elite Eight.
The Reps carried their late-season momentum into regionals, allowing just one goal against in each of their three playoff games. It has been nine games since the Reps have allowed more than one goal in a game and that stingy defensive effort has mounted 11 consecutive wins. That streak has led to the co-op program’s first regional title (I think? Feel free to call me out if I’m wrong).
The Bulldogs scored three unanswered goals to cap off the come-from-behind 5-3 win in the regional championship against Jenison. Byron Center relied on five different goal scorers in the finale and have now gotten strikes from 12 different players already in the postseason.
In its first year as a co-op, Cap City is heading to the Elite Eight after a thrilling 3-2 victory over Lowell/Caledonia. the Capitals have won two different one-goal games in the final moments of regulation, as senior defenseman Cam Van Tighem has led the charge with three goals and 10 points in the playoffs.
An offensive surge led the Hawks to a second consecutive regional title, scoring 23 goals in their three-game run. Matthew Cole and Brady Rappuhn lead the way for Heritage with eight points apiece and 15-of-18 skaters have picked up at least a point thus far in the playoffs.
Multi-point nights from Preston Hazelton and Bryce Kallen propelled the Eaglets past Brighton 2-1 in the regional semifinal, both credited with a goal and an assist en route to knocking off defending D-I state champ. OLSM rolled in the final to claim its first regional championship since the 2011-12 season.
The biggest shocker in D-I, Rochester United upset Utica Eisenhower in Round 1 and then shocked regional favorite Macomb Dakota in the championship with a late third-period goal. Domenico Munaco has been strong between the pipes, turning away 35-of-37 shots faced in those two games with Mantzios, Streng and Zyrek leading the offensive attack.
The Shamrocks outscored regional opponents 21-to-3, posting back-to-back shutouts in the semis and championship game. In fact, DCC hasn’t surrendered a goal against since the 13:38 mark of the third period in Round 1 and has gotten contributions from plenty of guys up front, with Zach Borchardt leading the way with seven points.
The Rocks return to the State Tournament in dramatic fashion, as senior Logan Sowa scored the game-winning goal in overtime to eliminate Northville and claim the program’s first regional title in four years. Salem will face its biggest test of the season next week in a rematch from when DCC eliminated the Rocks in the first round of last year’s playoffs.
The Redmen are rolling! It only took two wins to claim the regional title but they did it in impressive fashion, posting consecutive shutouts against Kingsford and Escanaba. Tanner Phillips kicked off the postseason with a hat trick and Marquette will look to him to continue that success in the State Playoffs.
They survived Traverse City Central the first night of the tournament with a come-from-behind third-period victory thanks to Kyle Hebner’s three-point night. Petoskey then rolled in the championship game, eliminating Mona Shores 7-3 to win the first title in the players’ lifetime (MHSAA records indicate no regional championships for the program since 2000).
Well, well, well… Make it four consecutive trips to the State Tournament for FHNE, as they pull off back-to-back OT thrillers to keep their season alive. Gabriel Gunneson scored in quadruple overtime to knock off Portage Northern 2-1 in the semis and Reed Almaissian scored the lone goal in double overtime to defeat Grand Rapids Christian in the championship game.
The defending D-II champs are a runaway train right now and poised to repeat, flexing on the region with a 25-to-1 goal differential in three tournament games. No stats on The Hub for the boys, but it’s a talented squad and I’m sure there’s a wealth of contributors to that offensive onslaught.
Not a fan of the stoic faces here, boys! I know you’ve got other aspirations but you just won a wooden mitten, it is okay to enjoy the moment. Reserving a spot in the State Tournament for a fifth consecutive season, the Warriors are a serious contender for a title in 2019. With wins of 8-2 and 6-1, Rice handled their region with ease but competition is sure to pick up next week, as D-II is yet again the most competitive of the three divisions.
Back in the State Tournament after a five-year absence, the Huskies claimed the regional title in stunning fashion, a 3-2 double-overtime victory against Stoney Creek. That sets the table for an MIHL grudge match in the quarterfinals, as PHN will look to get its first win of the season against Rice on Tuesday.
Make it five straight Regional Championships for the Spartans with consecutive wins over fellow KLAA schools Plymouth and Howell. FOUR different players have recorded multi-point games already in the postseason, and Stevenson will square off against Trenton (again) in what is sure to be a battle of postseason heavyweights.
The program’s first back-to-back regional championships since 2009 and 2010, Coach Chad Clements has the Trojans back in a big way. They survived a first-round hiccup with Ann Arbor Pioneer but Trenton has plenty of sharp shooters like Nolan Szczepaniak, Brandon Clark and Ethan Holt to score goals in bunches, especially against the top teams at the State Tournament. Also, someone’s gotta explain the bleached blonde hair to me. I know its tradition this time of year but there’s gotta be an origin story behind it and how it started, no?
It’s a damn shame one of these two powerhouses have to be eliminated from the playoffs so soon. The eighth ranked team in the state, Houghton, had just enough left to stave off a late comeback by the fifth-ranked team in the state, Calumet, as the Gremlins win the Regional Final 3-2. The win sets the table for a big quarterfinal against Alpena.
Can anyone crack Cooper Black? The Wildcats goaltender has allowed just seven goals against in his last 11 games and has given up three goals just once all year. With offensive contributions from Colby Plowman, Kyle VanDusen and Owen Limback, Alpena is gonna be one tough out in the State Tournament next week.
Big Rapids with the big upsets! First, the Cardinals eliminated regional contender Midland Dow in impressive fashion 6-2, and then handled regional favorite Flint Powers with an 8-goal onslaught. Coach Tim Blashill has quietly built a Northern Michigan powerhouse with their third straight regional title, as they get set to face East Grand Rapids in the quarters.
The Pioneers pulled off a 5-4 thriller to defeat Grand Rapids Catholic Central in the semis and then rolled in the regional finale to claim their first title since the ‘12-13 season. Credit senior Colin Stecco and his 13 multi-point games for EGR as they look to continue their playoff run.
Last year’s Mr. Hockey, Sam Evola, gets all the attention for the Yellowjackets but this is one of the most complete teams in the entire state, as they look poised to return to Plymouth. Credit coach Frank Novock with a fantastic job; a great goalie can take you a long way but having systems and structure in place leads to a big win over Cranbrook in the semis and back-to-back regional titles.
Taking care of business like none other this week, U-D posted back-to-back shutouts to get to the championship and then handled University Liggett 9-1 to punch the Cubs’ ticket to the State Tournament. It is their first regional championship since 2016 and U-D looks to carry that momentum into next week’s matchup with defending D-III champ Country Day.
After a big upset in Round 1, knocking off Allen Park 4-3, the Irish dominated their next two games — both by a score of 6-0 — against Chelsea and Cabrini. Quite possibly the biggest surprise of D-III, first-year coach Clint Robert’s squad looks to continue the role of spoiler at States next week.
Top dogs getting it done for the Pioneers, as Nathan Vazquez and Chance DeSana lead the boys to a second consecutive regional championship. Don’t look now, but they’ve won seven of their last eight and will be itching for a return trip to Plymouth.
Only eight teams remain in each of the three divisions with the Final Four and Championship games in sight. We are in the home stretch of the season and just three teams will get to end their '18-19 season with a victory. Best of luck to all remaining teams!