by Paula C. Weston
Although it’s too early to say for certain, CCHA fans may be witnessing the end of the unofficial "two tiers" in the CCHA. For several seasons, the first tier consisted primarily of Michigan, Michigan State, Bowling Green, and (more recently) Lake Superior State and Western Michigan. The rest of the CCHA teams have languished in the second tier, each fighting the other for the privilege of being beaten by first-tier teams in the playoffs.
At the start of this week’s action, Miami is undefeated in CCHA play, and alone at the top of the standings, yet only ranked eighth in this week’s Around the Rinks/USCHO poll. While Michigan and Michigan State are tied for second in the CCHA, Notre Dame is close behind, followed by Lake Superior State, Ohio State, and Bowling Green. Yes, that’s Ohio State ahead of Bowling Green in the standings — for now.
The three teams at the bottom, each with one CCHA win, are Western Michigan, Ferris State and Alaska-Fairbanks. While the latter two teams in this hockey heap may stay there for some time, look for some interesting movement in the middle of the standings. Each team — including the once-lowly Buckeyes — can contend with the rest of this field.
Michigan State (6-3-0, 5-1-0 CCHA) at Michigan (8-1-0, 5-1-0 CCHA) Friday, 7 p.m., Yost Arena, Ann Arbor, MI
On paper, there’s no better matchup in all of college hockey this weekend than Friday’s Michigan State-Michigan game. The teams are tied for second place in the CCHA; each team is 5-1-0 in conference play, and the rivals boast nearly identical numbers in the goals-for and goals-against categories (30-17 and 32-18, respectively). The teams also feature similar power play statistics. So why isn’t this the best matchup in all of college hockey this weekend? Because Michigan travels to Bowling Green for a Steel Cage Grudge Rematch on Saturday.
But we get ahead of ourselves. Friday’s game at Yost should be a fine game. Michigan should come out on top, in spite of being short several players because of injury and disqualifications. Michigan players Bill Muckalt (right wing, junior), Jason Botterill (left wing, senior) and Bubba Berenzweig (defense, sophomore) were each given disqualifications for fighting toward the end of last Saturday’s game against Bowling Green in Yost. In addition, sophomore left winger Greg Crozier will be out indefinitely with a broken arm.
So who does that leave suited for Michigan? Brendan Morrison, Warren Luhning, Matt Herr, Mike Legg, John Madden, Marty Turco…you get the picture.
Obviously, home ice means more to Michigan than to any other team in the CCHA. With the National Championship banner swinging from the rafters and the fans of Section D wreaking havoc — or, do the fans swing while the banner…oh, never mind. The Wolverines will clearly have the adrenaline edge.
PICK: Michigan 5-4
Bowling Green (6-4-0, 2-4-0 CCHA) at Miami (7-2-0, 5-0-0 CCHA) Friday, 7 p.m., Goggin Arena, Oxford, OH
Miami is going to be very aggressive in its first game since receiving its national ranking. Sophomore center Randy Robitaille is hot for Miami, with 9 goals and 7 assists in 9 games this season. The goaltending duo of Trevor Prior and former UIC Flame Adam Lord have made it tough for opponents to score on this team-formerly-known-as-the-Redskins. Prior’s save percentage going into this weekend is .944, while Lord’s is .935. Miami has outscored its CCHA opponents 19-7.
Last week’s loss against Michigan hurt more than just Bowling Green’s pride. Three Falcons will be out for this game because of disqualifications: Todd Kelman (defense, senior), Dan Price (right wing, sophomore), and Kelly Perrault (defense, senior). In addition, two key Falcons suffered injuries that will keep them from playing; freshman winger Antti Ilvonen separated a shoulder, while senior left winger Brett Punchard broke an ankle.
The loss of Punchard is huge for Bowling Green. He was part of a nearly-indefensible line with senior center Curtis Fry and senior right winger Mike Johnson. With disqualifications and injuries, Bowling Green will be playing with untested lines and perhaps shaky confidence. This game should belong to Miami.
PICK: Miami 5-2
Michigan (8-1-0, 5-1-0 CCHA) at Bowling Green (6-4-0, 2-4-0 CCHA) Saturday, 7 p.m., BGSU Arena, Bowling Green, OH
If you live within twelve hours’ driving distance of Bowling Green, this is a game you have to see live. These two teams were pretty darned mad at each other last weekend in Yost. Michigan won 4-1, and the crowd was chanting "four straight losses" — and there’s nothing to indicate that they won’t be as mad again. In addition to the normal hostilities, disqualified players from both teams — all the guys who got tossed when these teams met last week — will be back on the ice. Add into this mix the fact that Bowling Green just lost its top-ten ranking, and may very well have lost the night before to a newly ranked Miami team, and you’re in for the ride of the weekend.
Although each team will be down a man or two because of injuries, expect to see Bowling Green set back more than Michigan. Punchard’s contribution to the Falcon offense cannot be underestimated, and Bowling Green lacks the veteran depth that Michigan has.
Still, the BGSU Arena is almost as hostile a place for opponents to play as is Yost. The Falcons will play aggressively, but Michigan’s experience will prevail.
PICK: Michigan 5-3
Ohio State (2-7-0, 2-3-0 CCHA) at Lake Superior State (4-5-1, 2-2-0 CCHA) Friday & Saturday, 7 p.m., Taffy Abel Arena, Sault Ste. Marie, MI
Here are two teams battling for position in the middle of the pack. Each team has four points in CCHA play, but overall records show that the Lakers are a team more used to winning than are the Buckeyes.
As a matter of fact, Buckeye Coach John Markell said after last week’s victory over Ferris State that his team will have to become accustomed to winning if they are to claim more games. With nearly half of the Buckeye roster consisting of rookies, including two goaltenders, Ohio State has much adjusting to do before finding its feet. The veterans on this squad have never experienced a winning season at Ohio State. In contrast, the youngsters are not used to losing, having come from teams that were, to some degree, successful. It will take some time for this talented team to find a balance.
Lake Superior, on the other hand, is a team used to winning. However, they’re still adjusting to coaching changes and the loss of several key players. The Lakers have plenty of offensive talent, but no one seems to be stepping up. Three Lakers — junior center Bryan Fuss, sophomore right winger Jason Sessa, and junior left winger Joe Blaznek — lead the team with three goals apiece in CCHA play.
For the Buckeyes, assistant captain Chad Power, a senior wing, is the offensive player to watch. On a line with freshmen center Hugo Boisvert and right winger Eric Meloche, Power has come alive this season after seeing little play last year because of "attitude" problems. Still, despite being the leading scorer for the Buckeyes, Power has only 3 goals and 2 assists in CCHA play.
The Buckeyes will start Connerty in goal Friday night, and Aho in goal for Saturday’s non-conference game. Coach Markell also suggested that seldom-used players (senior center Jarrett Whidden, maybe?) will see time in Saturday’s game.
PICKS: Lake Superior 4-1 Friday; 3-3 tie Saturday
Michigan State (6-3-0, 5-1-0 CCHA) at Ferris State (4-6-1, 1-4-0 CCHA) Saturday, 7 p.m., Ewigleben Arena, Big Rapids, MI
In spite of junior defenseman Andy Roach and senior left winger Gordy Hunt’s excellent play for Ferris this season, this game will be all Michigan State. Ferris State just doesn’t have the firepower at this point in the season to beat an outstanding Spartan defense. The Spartans are outscoring CCHA opponents 30-17, while the Bulldogs haven’t scored more than a dozen goals total in CCHA play this year.
Don’t expect the Spartans to lose again to an opponent they should clearly beat. After last Friday’s home loss to Alaska Fairbanks, Coach Ron Mason gave his team a little talk which junior center Sean Berens described as a "tongue-lashing." The Spartans handled the Nanooks easily Saturday, even with Nanook senior center Cody Bowtell’s successful penalty shot in the third.
PICK: Michigan State 5-0
Alaska Fairbanks (1-8-0, 1-6-0 CCHA) at Western Michigan (3-3-1, 1-3-1 CCHA) Friday & Saturday, 7 p.m., Lawson Arena, Kalamazoo, MI
Even though the overall records of these two teams indicate a distinct difference, Alaska Fairbanks proved last week that it has the ability to win tough road games, when the Nanooks beat the Spartans in East Lansing.
Still, the Broncos are better than their record indicates; surely, the loss of a single player — goaltender Marc Magliarditi — won’t cripple them for a whole season. After all, the Broncos were better than just one player last season, right? Right?
Western Michigan clearly has the defensive edge in this series. While only scoring 17 goals so far in CCHA play, the Broncos have kept opponents to just 20, which is to say the Broncos have been losing very close games. UAF has been outscored 31-19 this season; neither team looks particularly promising on offense.
Western’s senior right winger Justin Cardwell leads the team with eight points in league play (six goals, two assists). Behind him are a couple of players with seven points each, but no other Bronco has scored more than two goals. Nanook senior center Cody Bowtell has clearly come to play this season, with five goals and five assists in seven CCHA games. His situation is little better than Cardwell’s; several Nanook players have scored three goals.
These two teams should split a couple of low-scoring games.
PICKS: Friday, Western 3-2; Saturday, Alaska-Fairbanks 3-2
Ferris State (4-6-1, 1-4-0 CCHA) at Notre Dame (3-3-1, 2-2-1 CCHA) Friday, 7 p.m., Joyce ACC, South Bend, IN
This may be the upset game of the week. Maybe. Notre Dame has relied heavily this season on junior goaltender Matt Eisler, who has practically stood on his head in the net for the Fighting Irish. Eisler’s .914 conference save percentage is the sole reason that Notre Dame occupies the No. 4 spot in CCHA standings.
There’s little going on offensively for the Irish. Team point-leader Aniket Dhadphale has a total of six points in CCHA play. Senior defenseman Brian McCarthy scored the lone goal for Notre Dame as the Irish lost 6-1 at Boston College last week. Still, the Irish had just one game last weekend, and the Bulldogs have yet to play consistently. If Eisler plays well and the luck of the Irish prevails, Notre Dame should win.
PICK: Notre Dame 3-2
Mankato State (3-4-1, independent) at Notre Dame (3-3-1, 2-2-1 CCHA) Sunday, 2 p.m., Joyce ACC, South Bend, IN
If Notre Dame had trouble with Boston College last week, what will Mankato State bring to South Bend? A largely untested Mankato team has beaten Ferris State twice, but it’s also lost to Ferris, as well as to Michigan Tech and Army (think about it).
The Irish don’t have to travel for this one, and they’ll be relatively well-rested after a day off. Don’t bet against them.
PICK: Notre Dame 3-1
Western Michigan (3-3-1, 1-3-1 CCHA) at Ferris State (4-6-1, 1-4-0 CCHA) Tuesday, 7 p.m., Ewigleben Ice Arena, Big Rapids, MI
Both teams play a full weekend of hockey just two days before this game, and they’re duking it out for the rights to the CCHA basement. However, at this point in the season, Western has more of a chance of climbing out than does Ferris. With relatively little offense — remember, only 12 goals scored in CCHA play this season — Ferris will have trouble with the Broncos. This could be a no-point, three-game-long weekend for the Bulldogs.
PICK: Western Michigan 4-1
Paula Weston is the CCHA Correspondent for U.S. College Hockey Online.
Copyright 1996 Paula C. Weston. All Rights Reserved.
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USCHO covers the CCHA all week long on the CCHA Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.