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2016 West Regional: Ferris State accepts the underdog role

The fourth seed Bulldogs come into the West Regional having won the WCHA autobid.

Ferris State Athletics

ST. PAUL, MN- Entering the WCHA Final Five as the fourth seed, Ferris State head coach Bob Daniels had a good feeling about his team's chances.

Needing two wins to extend its season, Ferris State (19-14-6, 13-11-4 WCHA) has already accomplished the feat once. The Bulldogs now look to continue its season, embracing the underdog role as the #15 seed and #4 in the West Regional, by upsetting #2 overall seed St. Cloud State.

Ferris State defeated Michigan Tech and Minnesota State at Van Andel Arena in nearby Grand Rapids last weekend to claim the conference's automatic bid into the 2016 NCAA Tournament.

By defeating the two co-winners of the MacNaughton Cup (given to the WCHA regular season champion), the Bulldogs enter the weekend with a lot of confidence.

"It does a lot for us. Obviously we have seven seniors on our team and we're very aware that any game could be our last, and that was big going into last weekend," said senior defenseman Simon Denis. "We've really driven home the fact that this whole second half of the season we've been playing really good hockey."

One reason for Ferris State's success this time of year has been goaltending. Behind four senior defenseman, WCHA Final Five MVP Darren Smith stopped 43 of the 44 shots faced last weekend.

Replacing longtime goalie C.J. Motte, who helped lead the Bulldogs to the Frozen Four championship game in 2012 and nearly back to the Frozen Four in 2014, Smith as a freshman shares some similarities with his predecessor.

"The fact too that Darren's personality - at least in my opinion, the guys might differ with my opinion - but C.J. Motte, the previous goaltender, and Darren, their personalities are strikingly similar," Daniels said about Smith, who has a .923 save percentage and has started the past 18 games. "They're both very cool, calm, collected guys. Nothing really rattles them. They're both really quiet. I think their style in goal is similar where they're very technically sound goaltenders."

The Bulldogs will be challenged defensively against a St. Cloud State (31-8-1, 17-6-1 NCHC) school that is known for its firepower this season. The Huskies sit second in the nation behind Michigan in goals per game (4.28) and power play (28.8%).

It's a classic battle of offense versus defense for the Bulldogs, whose focus is on staying out of the box and limiting shots. (In the WCHA Final Five championship, Minnesota State, averaging 33 shots per game, had only one shot on goal in the third period and 14 total.) And that's okay, says junior forward Kyle Schempp.

"It's a trend we're looking to continue and have to continue to be successful," he said.

"People might look at Darren Smith, he's a younger guy, but we have all the confidence in the world in him," added Denis. "He's playing like he's been here before and that's the kind of goaltender you need in this situation.

Being aware of recent success by number four seeds, Daniels said the hardest part of the tournament is getting in. That part has already been achieved.

For now, the Bulldogs look to build upon the confidence it received being 45 minutes away from Big Rapids, facing a team that is coming down Interstate 94 having won the NCHC Frozen Faceoff.

"You have to give St. Cloud a lot of credit. They've been a national power this entire season and there's a reason they're the number 1 seed in this region," said Denis. "We don't overlook it by any means.

"We accept the underdog role. Gladly. We're happy to be in that role. St. Cloud is a very good hockey team, but we feel like if we play our game we'll be just fine."

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Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter --