Not Down, Not Out
“It’s hard to practice when you don’t have enough players.”
Those are the words of Lake Superior State head coach Scott Borek, who speaks from unfortunate experience. This season, the Lakers (9-13-4, 5-10-3 CCHA) are currently without six players — including all three captains — because of injury or illness. Another player, Adam Nightingale, just returned to action after breaking his hand Oct. 13.
“It’s been a rough year, but we have an unbelievable group of guys,” says Borek. “I mean no disrespect to any other team when I say this, but I think a lot of teams would go through what we’ve gone through and they’d pack it in.”
What the Lakers have gone through resembles the triage sheet at your local ER. Junior Jeremy Bachusz is out for the year with Epstein-Barr. Senior Klemen Kelgar will sit this season out with ruptured discs in his back. Senior Ryan Knox is out indefinitely with a pulled hamstring. Sophomore Trevor Weisgerber is still feeling the concussion he sustained in early December. Freshman Chad Dahlen is still out with a leg injury suffered in October.
And the latest bad news is that Jason Nightingale, Adam’s older brother, is sidelined indefinitely — maybe permanently — with a congenital heart condition.
As a result, the Lakers are so short that they barely have enough bodies to dress for any given game. In January, Lake State went 0-5-0, dropping two games against Michigan, then three consecutive against Michigan State. For the month, the Lakers were completely shut out, except for one goal against the Spartans on Jan. 14 — and they didn’t really score that one. The puck went in off MSU defender Brad Fast’s skate.
Still, Borek remains very upbeat. Concerned about his sidelined players, certainly, but upbeat. “I have so much respect for our players … who are trying to make a positive out of the situation.”
Borek says that despite the shortened bench, his players have never hung their heads, even when facing Michigan State in East Lansing for the third time in two weeks.
“With everything we’ve had going against us, that’s probably the best I’ve been going into that building [Jan. 23]. I’ve taken more talented teams in there not knowing what I was going to get. On Tuesday I knew what I was going to get from our guys.”
What Borek got from his players was an effort that even Spartan head coach Ron Mason lauded. “They worked very hard. That was no easy win.”
MSU won that match 3-0, but says Borek, “That game wasn’t over until the final buzzer. We played as hard as we could. We didn’t make it easy for Ryan [Miller]. I’m very proud of this team right now, maybe more proud of this team than I was last year. There have been no positive bounces yet they keep trying to create them.”
It isn’t all doom and gloom in Sault Ste. Marie. Borek says that he’s “hopeful” that Knox will return soon, and that with Dahlen it’s “wait and see.”
Even Nightingale may return — although the coach stresses the term may. “There is some congenital defect in his heart, and he’s in no imminent danger. His situation may change. Just having him back, having him dress, would be such a positive thing for our locker room.”
In the meantime, Bachusz will redshirt and return next year. The jury is out on everyone else.
Borek maintains his positive outlook as he and the Lakers face the remainder of this campaign. “The way our players are working, I think our season is still ahead of us,” he says.
Still on tap for Lake Superior State are two games in Bowling Green, two at home against Ferris State, a single home game against Niagara, two more at home with Michigan, and a home-and-home series versus Northern Michigan.
Borek says that regardless of the season’s outcome, coaching this specific group of players have been “one of the most rewarding” experiences of his career.
“It’s been an incredibly challenging year, but not a difficult year. I think we’ll have some good things happening for us if we keep working like we’re working. I think they can be proud of themselves.”
The Game Is The Grudge
Yes, CCHA fans, it’s that time again, and the suspense going into Saturday’s game is mounting! Will Ryan Miller record yet another shutout? Can the Wolverines break his streak? Can anyone derail Michigan State? Will the center hold?
No. 1 Michigan State (21-1-4, 14-1-3 CCHA) vs. No. 7 Michigan (18-6-4, 12-4-2 CCHA)
Saturday 7:35 p.m., Joe Louis Arena, Detroit, Mich.
January has been a good month for the Wolverines. So far, Michigan is 4-1-1 for the month, most recently having pounded the Fighting Irish 9-0 on Tuesday of this week.
January has been an even better month for the Spartans. Michigan State is 7-0-0, and in those seven games has allowed just one goal. The Spartans downed the Lakers 3-0 Tuesday.
Spartan goalie Ryan Miller is riding a shutout streak of 207 minutes and 12 seconds. His goals-against average has dropped to an astonishing 1.13, and his save percentage is up to .956.
Lest we forget, there’s an entire team playing in front of Miller, a team that Ron Mason says deserves more than a little credit for this season’s success. The Spartans are plus-122 overall (plus-76 CCHA), and have allowed just 29 goals total this season.
This game pits the highest-scoring offense in the league against the NCAA’s best defense. Michigan is averaging 4.21 goals per game, while the Spartans are allowing 1.12.
Here’s all you need to know about this Clash of the Titans:
The Spartans are unbeaten in their last 23 games (20-0-3), and Coach Mason celebrated two milestones last weekend: his 400th CCHA regular-season win behind the MSU bench, and coaching his 700th CCHA regular-season game.
The Wolverines got a boost last weekend from the return of assistant captain Dave Huntzicker, who had been out since Nov. 17 with a torn MCL.
In their last meeting on Nov. 4 in Yost Arena, Ryan Miller recorded one of his bazillion shutouts, stopping all 34 shots he faced in a 1-0 victory. Rustyn Dolyny notched the only goal of that game.
What else is there to say? This is your proverbial dogfight. Both teams will be up for this game. The Wolverines know enough to keep their cool against an opponent the caliber of Michigan State, and the Spartans nearly always keep their cool.
Would you pick against Ryan Miller? I’m not going to pick against Ryan Miller.
Michigan State 2-1
USCHO covers the CCHA all week long on the CCHA Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.