Four Teams Looking For Some Mo, One Falling Off, And One Whose Coach Has Already Conceded
With just five points separating fourth-place Ohio State (facing a brutal schedule) and tenth-place Western Michigan — and Mercury still in retrograde through Feb. 8 — it’s too early to tell who will be haves and who will be have nots in the opening round of the CCHA playoffs.
In this year of parity (yes, much of the league has achieved it, but what parity means is anyone’s guess) two teams appear to be battling for first place, four teams are playing fairly consistent hockey, four more teams are looking for something to bump them up a few notches, and two seem out of the running altogether.
What will it take to secure home ice for the first round of the CCHA playoffs? “You’ve got to finish above .500, but not much above .500,” says Ferris State head coach Bob Daniels. “Knowing our league, though, and what it’s like, it could be a bounce of a puck here or there.”
The Bulldogs — just a game under .500 in both overall and league play — are the quintessential middle-pack CCHA team this season. With a developing offense fronted by two powerhouse players, two good, developing goaltenders, and a good work ethic, this team could as easily find itself hosting a first-round series as traveling to play.
“I guess I even have a hard time figuring out exactly where we’re at,” says Daniels. “I like our team.”
What’s not to like about Ferris State? Fifth in both goals scored per game (3.09) and goals allowed (2.68) in overall CCHA play, the Bulldogs have lost six one-goal games this season, including games to Michigan and Michigan State, and they swept the nationally ranked Buckeyes. Rob Collins leads league scoring (8-19–27) and is second among CCHA players in overall scoring (10-23–33). Rookie goaltenders Mike Brown (2.48 GAA, .919 SV%) and John DeCaro (2.98 GAA, .900 SV%) are solid, and Brown keeps company with guys named Miller, Betz, Kowalski, and Blackburn in the stats department.
Still, says Daniels, “If you’re not quite on as a team, you’re going to get beat. If you’re off — and it doesn’t have to be by a lot — it’s going to cost you.”
Daniels, an upbeat man, says that this year’s parity has definite pluses, even if it creates headaches for some teams in the middle. “The positive is that the way the league is now, you’re going to see some really great first-round series.”
And maybe one of them will be in Big Rapids.
The RedHawks are experiencing difficulties in every aspect of play: offense, goaltending, and team defense.
Scoring has been declining for Miami since the beginning of the season. In October, the ‘Hawks averaged 3.5 goals per game. In November, it was 2.7. In December, it was 2.4, and Miami went just 1-4-0 in the final month of the first half of the season.
Now in January, Miami is scoring 2.0 goals per game, even after scoring six on Lake State last weekend. The RedHawks have been shut out four times so far this year, the sum total of shutouts Miami suffered during its entire 2000-01 season.
“Up and down,” says head coach Enrico Blasi. “Still searching for that consistency. We’re struggling scoring, and when that happens guys start squeezing the stick a little bit. A couple of bad shifts and guys getting down.”
Finding the net isn’t the only problem the RedHawks face. Through 24 games, David Burleigh (2.98 GAA, .898 SV%) has yet to set the world on fire. (If he only played every team like he plays Ohio State…) But while his save percentage doesn’t put him among the leaders in the CCHA, neither does his goals against average, and that stat reflects on his defenders more than on him.
Add to all of this Miami’s home woes, and you’ve got a formula for a first-round road trip. The RedHawks have just three wins at home, but join UAF, Michigan, and UNO for the only CCHA teams with road records above .500.
Blasi says that Miami’s overall trouble is “probably a mind issue more than anything at this point. We’ve been in every game, for the most part. You either find a way to win, or find a way to lose.”
And how to counter this? “Stay positive,” says the coach.
Most official proclamations from the Irish camp are pretty rosy, so it has always been difficult to get a true read on this team. This season, however, Notre Dame is playing hard, tough hockey, and that gives these Irish a fighting chance for home ice.
Freshman goaltender Morgan Cey (2.94 GAA, .902 SV%) has been steady in net for the Irish, and in this league, perhaps steady is all you need for home ice. Cey is 5-5-1 in his last 11 games, compiling a 2.25 goals against average and .924 save percentage in that span.
The Irish are sort of a good-news-bad-news team. Averaging 3.04 goals per game in overall play (sixth), Notre Dame is also allowing 3.04 goals per game overall (eighth).
Senior David Inman is having a career season, with 13 goals and 13 assists to lead the Irish with 26 points.
What can the ever-enigmatic Irish do? Step it up a notch. This is the hardest-working Notre Dame squad I’ve seen, and they are capable of moving up in the standings.
The big news for the Broncos is the absence of Mike Bishai, who is having a problem with his esophagus. In fact, Bishai is in Edmonton, not Kalamazoo.
“He’s one tough kid,” says Western head coach Jim Culhane. Apparently, Bishai concealed his condition — which, in essence, prevents him from eating — from his coaches and teammates for fear that he’d be letting the team down.
Culhane is by no means upset with the senior, and everyone simply wants Bishai to get better. There’s some good news, though, says Culhane. “It’s not cancer, nothing like that.”
Whether Bishai returns for any part of his senior season is still up in the air, says Culhane.
The rest of the Broncos, says the coach, just need to “play with some consistency.”
“I’m really pleased with the wins we’ve had against good teams. We had shutouts against Nebraska-Omaha and Michigan State, we beat Michigan, and tied and beat Maine early on.”
The Broncos are averaging 3.00 goals per game overall (seventh) but are giving up 3.15 (ninth), a recipe for disaster if Western can’t turn it around.
With eight goals and 18 assists through 22 games, Bishai still leads WMU in overall scoring, but Jeff Campbell (7-18–25) and Dave Cousineau (8-15–23) will overtake him soon enough should Bishai remain out. Cousineau leads all CCHA defenders in points so far this season.
On the other end of the puck, the Broncos are -59 overall, -67 in league play, evidence that Western’s defensive woes from last season have carried.
Culhane remains optimistic, and he should be. “What we’ve talked about as a team, as a program, is that there’s plenty of hockey to be played.”
Head coach Buddy Powers knows what’s wrong with the Falcons this season. “We’re not scoring goals.”
With just 10 league points, Bowling Green has a mathematical chance of gaining home ice in the first round of the playoffs, but it’s highly unlikely.
Scoring 2.50 goals on average per game overall and allowing 3.54 won’t help the Falcons claw their way up in the standings. “It’s mighty hard to win when you can’t score goals,” says Powers. “We went through a spell when just all the things involved in the game weren’t going; our PK was struggling, and we were giving up goals on the power play as well.
“Greg Day isn’t the only guy on the team. Other guys need to step up.”
Day (13-11–24) is the Falcon to have scored more than six goals this season. Six.
“Our forwards have to do things better,” says Powers, “make better reads, pass better, shoot more. We keep working with them. We’ve gone back to basics: get the puck, move the puck, shoot the puck.”
The Falcons face the Wolverines this weekend.
Get the puck. Move the puck. Shoot the puck.
Lake Superior State
In Sault Ste. Marie, where the Walleye Festival opens on Munuscong Bay Friday, things don’t look good for the Lakers. If you have any doubt that the Lakers are a last-place team, just ask their coach.
After Lake Superior State went home with one point from the nationally ranked Buckeyes two weeks ago, Anzalone said, “There’s a reason we’re in twelfth place.”
Before the Lakers took on the visiting RedHawks last weekend, Anzalone said, “We’re just not at their level yet.”
The Lakers split with Miami, losing 3-0 Friday night and winning 6-3 (could the win have anything to do with Anzalone’s back-thumping “pep” talk on the bench Friday night?), bolstering their season league point total to nine.
In spite of the head coach’s frequent — and public — insistence that his team lacks talent, seniors Tyson Turgeon, Will Magnuson, and Chris McNamara have shown league fans for years that they possess talent. Other players on the team — Jeremy Bachusz, Aaron Davis, anyone named “Nightingale” — also belie the notion that no one on this squad can play hockey. And don’t forget rookie goalie Matt Violin.
When the Lakers played the Buckeyes, LSSU played with character and heart, and they played 125 minutes that weekend. But when your coach seems more interested in denigrating his current players and reciting a resume-like list of his former collegiate accomplishments during postgame interviews, it might be difficult for a player to keep his head up.
That’s just a guess on my part.
If It’s Friday, We’re Probably Trying To Catch You
How would you like to play four consecutive games against Michigan State? How about following that up with a trip to Fairbanks, followed by two games with Ferris State, then two with Michigan State?
In other words, how would you like to be playing eight of your next ten games against the three teams ahead of you in the standings?
Well, if you’re Ohio State head coach John Markell, it’s a glass-half-full, glass-full-of-scary-stuff kind of scenario.
“We’re at a point in the season that’s going to reveal a lot about the character of this hockey team,” says Markell.
The Buckeyes are playing solid team defense, have good-to-excellent goaltending from Mike Betz (2.17 GAA, .918 SV%), but haven’t been scoring any goals. R.J. Umberger leads the team with just 21 points (10-11), and the only other Buckeye to have reached the 20-point plateau this season is Scott May (9-11–20). Averaging 2.79 goals per game (2.62 CCHA), now would be a really good time for OSU to find the back of the net.
“If they [OSU players] were comfortable coming here to compete for third, fourth, fifth place, then they’re in the wrong place,” says Markell. “We wanted to be in this position, to compete for the top spot in the league in the end, and we are.
“The competition is stiff in this league every night. The thing that worries you as coaches is whether [the team] is going to be complacent on a given night.”
Markell is especially unhappy with the game-to-game inconsistency of the Buckeyes, who seem to have just one good contest in them during any two-game set. Earlier in the year, OSU came out on fire Friday nights, then took part or all of Saturday night off. Against Lake Superior State two weeks ago, OSU was lackluster Friday before putting away the Lakers Saturday.
Last weekend, with an odd Friday-Sunday two-game set against Yale and that Saturday off in between, the Buckeyes gave two relatively uninspired performances, losing Sunday’s game 6-2.
Going into Michigan State, Markell says that he shouldn’t be “worried about” his players “getting up” for the series. “I should be holding them back from the door. If they’re not up for this place, they’re in the wrong league.”
This is a first trip to Munn Arena for many on this young squad; Markell says just four Buckeyes have played Michigan State in Munn prior to this weekend.
The team mood of the Buckeyes is quiet, calm, not too cocky — very unlike OSU teams of years past. The one thing this team lacks (aside from goal scoring) is any sense that the players are enjoying themselves.
“I think that’s the case,” says senior Yan Des Gagne. “We know what’s at stake. Maybe we’re gripping the stick a little too tight.”
“We’re going through the maturing process with a bunch of young kids,” says Markell, whose team is more than half sophomores and freshmen. “They’ve got themselves in this position, and they have to assume the responsibility for what’s happened the last couple of weekends, and they do. They’re teaching themselves how to win. If we had four more seniors, three more seniors…it’s tough.”
Four consecutive games against Michigan State? Yeah. That’s tough. But as Markell stresses, “Our fate is in our own hands. We control our own destiny.”
Again, The Game Is The Grudge
Two of the hardest-working teams in college hockey, and the only two teams in the CCHA that play on Olympic sheets. Expect a fast, open game, fans in Fairbanks!
No. 10 Northern Michigan (15-7-2, 8-6-2 CCHA) at No. 13 Alaska-Fairbanks (14-8-2, 10-8-2 CCHA)
Friday and Saturday, 7:05 p.m. AK, Carlson Center, Fairbanks, Alas.
It seems that the Nanooks have a score to settle with several CCHA teams. Last year, UAF broke Michigan’s all-time undefeated streak against the Nanooks; now Fairbanks has a chance to do the same against the Wildcats.
Northern Michigan has never lost to Alaska-Fairbanks, holding a 10-0-2 record all-time against UAF, and a 3-0-1 record in Fairbanks. This is the first Wildcat visit to Nanook land since 1999, when NMU beat UAF 4-3 and 7-3, Nov. 26-27. Last season, Northern beat Fairbanks 3-0 in Marquette before tying the Nanooks 4-4 in their annual two-game set.
The Nanooks score by committee, with just one player, Aaron Voros (10-6–16), breaking the double-digit goal mark so far this season. Everyone, however, seems to contribute to the UAF offensive effort. Ryan Campbell (7-15–22) and Cam Keith (7-15–22) lead the team in scoring; the only player who’s logged at least 20 games who has yet to score a goal is Cramer Hickey (0-3–3).
Both Nanook goaltenders are solid, but UAF relies too much on its offense to compensate for a defense that could be tighter. Lance Mayes (2.77 GAA,.902 SV%) and Preston McKay (2.66 GAA, .910 SV%) have each played 14 games this season.
By contrast, the Wildcats pack an effective one-two punch in Chad Theuer (10-25–35) and Bryce Cockburn (14-16–30), with significant offensive contributions from Chris Gobert (8-17–25) and Mike Stutzel (10-11–21). Team defense is a way of life for the Wildcats, who are +134 overall, +71 CCHA.
And Northern has one of the best netminders in the league pacing it through this season. Craig Kowalski (2.39 GAA, .912 SV%) has the third-best goals against average in the league, sixth-best save percentage in overall play, and is capable of spectacular play.
The Wildcats have the advantage over the Nanooks in nearly every statistical category except for conference points, and that may be because NMU has played four fewer games than has UAF. Here’s the drop on how these two squads match up:
Pick: The Nanooks break the Wildcat curse, and Hickey gets his first goal. UAF 4-3, NMU 4- 3.
A Dead Horse, Resurrected
News flash! Many people find student “spirit” in Yost Arena offensive!
A Jan. 22 article in the Detroit Free Press reported that Michigan athletic director Bill Martin asked student fans at Yost to stop targeting specific visiting fans and families of visiting players for personal insults and taunts.
Martin also said that some of the current chants used by Michigan student fans border on an X rating.
Border? Am I the only one who can discern words that would make a trucker blush in the latter part of the “C-Ya!” penalty-box chant? Didn’t chanting any form of the F-bomb in unison lose its vogue for most people after, say, sixth grade?
The university’s intervention is long overdue. The chants that include mild vulgarity — your garden-variety, PG-13 vocabulary — are not at issue here (although, Yost fans, they are old and stale); what’s disturbing is the way in which visiting players’ families, friends, and girlfriends are often singled out by people sitting in the student section.
Over the years, I’ve had many parents write — off the record — that they’d been verbally abused in very personal ways during games at Yost, but that they were hesitant to say anything for fear of making it worst the next time they went to see their kids play there.
If the Wolverine student hockey fans are as bright as students should be at an institution with Michigan’s reputation of academic excellence, they should be insulted to be thought of as nothing but uncreative, unoriginal, and childish, but perhaps that is the standard they have set for themselves, and they’re happy to have met it.
USCHO covers the CCHA all week long on the CCHA Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.