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This Week in the CCHA

College Hockey:
This Week in the CCHA: Feb. 10, 2005

So, I’m sitting here on a Wednesday afternoon wondering how the Scooby Gang is going to stop an out-of-control-with-grief Willow, thinking about whether my 16-year-old Jetta will strand me on the West Side again, and contemplating the nature of college hockey in mid-February, when we have eight weeks before the playoffs and every coach on the bubble takes his PairWise frustration out on this humble servant, when it hits me:

I really should go with I’m Not Really a Waitress.

It’s a nail color made by OPI, a sparkly red that suggests stardom rather than menial labor, and given that every 40-year-old divorcee’s favorite holiday — Valentine’s Day — is less than a week a way, I think we have a winner.

And you thought this column was about college hockey. Fool.

Like Kissing Your …

In a man’s world, a tie is likened to kissing one’s sister, provided you’re the brother and you’re both heterosexual.

Believe me, likening a tie to a kiss from one’s brother is so high on the creepy factor that I do not believe it’s a comparison that a woman would make.

Regardless, even double-X types like me get the underlying frustration of back-to-back ties.

Last Friday in Ann Arbor, Michigan State’s Drew Miller scored two goals in the final four minutes of regulation to tie Michigan 2-2, and Dominic Vicari — who made 41 saves while still not fully recovered from flu-like symptoms — held tight through overtime to preserve the point for MSU … and for Michigan.

“We should have won the game and we should have won 2-0,” said Michigan head coach Red Berenson. “It’s disappointing to give up the first goal and that gives them life. Michigan State is a good hockey team. We gave them that chance to get back in the hockey game and they took advantage of it.”

The following night in Joe Louis Arena, it was Jim McKenzie, at 16:42 in the third, tying it for the Spartans. Again, Vicari stopped 41 shots.

“I think that our players feel like nobody would have given us a chance to tie both games going in,” said MSU head coach Rick Comley. “It’s funny that two points are two points, but these ties are better than a split.

“We were able to get a point in their building, and then in a building where you’d love to come back to.”

The Wolverines — gracious young men that they are — have made games interesting for their own and opposing fans by giving up goals late in the game in this second half of the season.

In their Jan. 8, 6-5 win over Western Michigan, the Wolverines held a 5-2 lead until the last minute of the second period, when they allowed two goals 32 seconds apart to make it 5-4. After Jim McNamara scored to tie it for WMU on the power play midway through the third, it took Brandon Kaleniecki’s last-minute goal to save the game for Michigan.

Up 5-0 against Alaska-Fairbanks Jan. 15, and two late third-period goals — one at 19:57, playing five-on-three — made it 5-2.

Up 5-0 against the Buckeyes Jan. 22, the Wolverines allowed three third-period goals to make it a 5-3 contest — and you got the feeling that OSU wasn’t really out of it — before scoring on the empty net to make it 6-3.

A week later, they were up 3-0 against Northern Michigan Jan. 29 when Jamie Milam scored even strength at 11:54 to make it 3-1.

Last weekend’s ties marked the first time in the long Spartan-Wolverine history that the teams had tied back-to-back in a single weekend.

Not only did the games give Michigan fans collective heart failure, but the resulting two points — along with a whole lot of other action that involves math so hard that it would baffle a 1980s-era Barbie — lifted Michigan State to 18th in the PairWise Rankings to give the Spartans a glimmer of hope for postseason play.

And you thought that only the fairer sex could tease.

Three Little Words

Technically, one’s a phrase.

Power play. Penalties. Goaltending.

These have been the undoing of the Ferris State Bulldogs in recent weeks, a team that went from being the CCHA’s hottest in December and early January to downright ice-cold; FSU is riding an eight-game (0-6-2) winless streak into its series with Notre Dame this weekend.

“Throughout the losses that have been piling up lately, it’s not like we’re playing poor hockey,” said head coach Bob Daniels. “We’re not scoring goals, and every time we make a mistake it seems like it winds up in the back of our net.”

In spite of netting one power-play goal in each of the last five games, the Bulldog PP has suffered lately, dropping to 10th in the league (.135). “I take full responsibility for that,” said Daniels. “It hasn’t been good all year, and even though we’ve got a power-play goal in each of the last five, I don’t know that we’ve solved our problem there.

“Another area of concern is our untimely penalties. I guess I’m being generous here. It’s our dumb penalties.

“And finally, our goaltending isn’t as consistent as it could be. We’re not giving up many shots — 25 or 26 a game — and we could tighten up a little more.

“It’s not any one of those things by themselves.”

One bright spot on the team has been Jeff Legue, who has 17 goals and 11 assists. “He’s just a very talented player,” said Daniels. “He’s really a difficult player to check. He’s so quick and so fast … .bang, the acceleration. He’s pretty dangerous shorthanded. One little slip-up and he’s in and he scores.

“He’s going to be a painful loss to graduation.”

Daniels said that the toughest challenge the Bulldogs currently face is to avoid getting down on themselves. “The problem we have … is to not let these guys wallow in self-pity, and not to let the coaching staff wallow in self-pity.”

FSU travels to Notre Dame this weekend to play the only team colder than the Bulldogs. The Irish haven’t seen a win since Jan. 2, and since then have gone 0-9-2.

And while Daniels isn’t taking Notre Dame for granted — the Bulldogs take no one for granted — this weekend is more about FSU than ND.

“We really have done a lot less worrying about opposition lately than we have about our own selves.”

Love Hurts

Bulldog captain Matt York, who earned his bachelor’s degree in law enforcement from FSU in the spring of 2004, is a police officer.

Honest.

After graduating, York worked in the Michigan town of Ludington as an officer. York’s father and older brother are members of the Dearborn police force.

And he leads the CCHA in penalty minutes, with 119.

The only other guy who comes close is OSU’s Nate Guenin (108), who could be my boyfriend — he did ask me out for Valentine’s Day — if Chad Hamilton were ever to give me up.

Not a Game Player

There are no games of the week this week, but if I were to pick a series to watch — and if my Jetta would oblige — I’d be in Goggin Arena to see the RedHawks host the Lakers.

Okay, so these aren’t two ranked teams, but each is contention for home ice for the first round of the CCHA playoffs. With 19 points, Miami is tied for sixth place in the league standings with Michigan State and Alaska-Fairbanks, and the Lakers, just two points behind, are ninth.

“I think they’re really good,” said Miami head coach Enrico Blasi of the Lakers, who lost two close ones to OSU last weekend. “They play a good team game, they don’t give you much, and they have good goaltending. Obviously this year, they’ve been able to score some goals. I’m glad we’re at home.”

Home hasn’t been spectacular for the RedHawks, who are 7-5-1 in Goggin, but it certainly beats being on the road where Miami is 3-8-2. Last weekend, the RedHawks split with the Broncos in Kalamazoo.

“Every weekend is so big for us right now,” said Blasi.

Last year, the ‘Hawks — with a large, talented senior class and many fewer injuries — were battling Michigan for the regular-season title. “Every year is unique,” said Blasi. “This year, our championship is home ice.”

Blasi said that the team has come together through a difficult season that has seen countless — well, not countless, but there’s the math thing again — man-games to injury.

“I give our team all the credit in the world. They’re never pointed fingers. We remain positive, they’re a good group, and they’ve stayed together. One of the things that we’ve always preached is that we’re a family.”

The positive attitude comes from the top down, said Blasi. “I think it starts with Andy Greene and filters through.”

Greene, a junior defenseman, is the RedHawk captain. His mother wrote to tell me that my mother’s cutout cookie recipe was a big hit in the Greene household last Christmas.

I Feel Love

I finally caught UNO head coach Mike Kemp on the phone this week, and although Kemp is a terrific guy with a wonderful wife — and is, therefore, somewhat aware that communication can depend on geography and scheduling, and not merely feminine whim — the coach chided me for being out of touch.

“I thought you might call this week, given that we can do something this week to help out your Buckeyes.”

If I had a heart, that would hurt.

Kemp, of course, was referring to the fact that the Mavericks are hosting the Wolverines this week, the team that — by virtue of those ties — is hanging onto first place in the CCHA standings by one slim point over second-place Ohio State.

This series would merit game-of-the-week attention, were it not for having Michigan featured for the past three weeks running and if I had time to write such things in between coats of nail polish. These games can potentially affect the regular-season title as well — and this is far more interesting, far more important in many ways — the order in which as many as nine teams may finish the season.

Although there is little time left in the regular season, with just six points separating fifth-place Bowling Green and ninth-place Lake Superior State, what fourth-place UNO does against Michigan — just two points ahead of the Falcons, who can absolutely take points from the Buckeyes in Columbus this weekend — has far-reaching consequences.

And the Mavericks are looking not only to finish as high as they can to secure the best possible matchup in the first round of the CCHA playoffs, but to improve down the stretch to give themselves every opportunity to get to that title game in the Super Six, and its NCAA autobid.

“We’ve been pretty consistent,” said Kemp. “We’re getting some wins here in the last month that were slipping away from us early. That’s because we’ve been getting more consistent goaltending from Chris Holt.”

Holt (.914 SV%, .253 GAA) has simply been growing into his role, said Kemp, improving “how he approaches every game.” And he’s young, so he’s had some growing to do.

“I think he’s been working. Goaltending is a mental position; it’s not a physical position as much as it is a mental position. Unlike the majority of kids we recruit, he came in as an 18-year-old last year.”

The Mavericks are 7-1-2 in this calendar year — “It’s been a nice 2005,” said Kemp — with three of those wins on the road. UNO had just one road win in the first half of the season.

Looking at UNO’s remaining schedule, Kemp said, “There are no breaks, that’s for sure,” but is pleased with the way his team is clicking along, especially the play of Scott Parse (16-20–36) and Bill Thomas (14-21–35), a sophomore and freshman, respectively, who are among the top scorers in the country.

“They’re very similar in style. They’re both skilled, play the game with a high level of skill, they both have excellent speed. They have a chemistry — it’s something you can’t teach.”

Whether those guns and a steady Holt — and good, but young, supporting cast — will be enough to tame the mighty Wolverines remains to be seen this weekend. Kemp concedes that the Wolverines can be vulnerable “on a given night,” but added, “You look at them with their 10 seniors and their overall talent — they’re daunting when you look at them. You ask yourself, ‘How do you beat this team?’ They have so many weapons.”

Kemp fondly remembers the 1987 Great Lakes Invitational, when he was an assistant at Wisconsin and the Badgers beat the Wolverines 6-0. “Those were the days.”

An Early Valentine for the Man in Your Life, Omaha Style

On Thursday, Feb. 10, the Mavericks are hosting a “Hockey 101 for Women,” an event that teaches beleaguered hockey widows the ins and outs of the game.

I don’t know such women, but I guess they do exist.

Kemp said that the team will welcome 182 women to share the team meal and instruction will include “on ice, off ice, and going through the rules.” All the money will go to Liz’s Legacy, a cancer research center associated with the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Kemp also said that this will, hopefully, encourage wives to come to games with their husbands.

Which, of course, is exactly what the men want. Right?

Who Loves You?

It’s been a disappointing season — for me, that is. Only one reader has written to propose marriage, and even the hate mail has been limited mostly to those three groups who love to loathe me: UNO fans, NMU fans, and OSU fans.

The only time I’ve ever felt physically threatened in a CCHA arena was in March of 2001, when Ohio State went to the Bullpen — Civic Center? Auditorium? I don’t know — to play what turned out to be a terrific, electric first-round CCHA playoff series against the emerging Mavericks.

Although I believe that most UNO fans are sound, rational, friendly individuals, the “gentleman” I asked to be removed from my immediate vicinity during the game was simply one of the many of the Maverick faithful who has expressed their undying love of me through the years.

NMU fans despise me and let me know often, which makes me feel special and wanted in that girly kind of way.

Fortunately for me, head coach Walt Kyle is a terrific guy, and I was actually able to reach him — the whole distance and time thing — for a nice chat this week.

“We feel pretty comfortable where we are,” said Kyle, and that sums up the Wildcat season.

Few coaches — few people — are more intense than Kyle, and for him to use the word “comfortable” in conjunction with his team’s performance in 2004-05 means that he’s pretty darned happy with how things are going.

One of NMU’s going concerns is senior goaltender Tuomas Tarkki (1.88 SV%, 2.36 GAA), who has proven to be one of the top netminders in the nation. Tarkki, of course, stepped in last year when then-senior Craig Kowalski was injured during the closing moments of the season.

“He’s doing a hell of a job,” said Kyle. “Last year, when he won that string at the end when Craig was out, he was just outstanding. As a coach you have to wonder if he’s a short-term deal.”

When the season began, Tarkki had to compete for the starting job with freshman Bill Zaniboni, and Kyle said that the Wildcat coaching staff wanted to give themselves the opportunity to make the right decision. “We actually gave Billy some of the tougher starts … but Tuomas emerged as the top guy. If you look at Billy’s numbers, he’s certainly capable. Tuomas is our guy, barring injury and barring fatigue.”

As good as Tarkki is, the defensive corps in front of him contributes to his stats. “In my opinion, I have yet to see a pair of defensemen in our league as good as [Nathan] Oystrick and [Geoff] Waugh. They’re big strong guys, and their strength is their ability to play defense.”

The juniors are two of five blueliners who started together, and the remaining duo, John Miller and Jamie Milam, round out a foursome that does just what good defensemen should do — block shots, keep opponents to the perimeter, and allow Tarkki to see what’s coming at him.

“Johnny is a smaller guy who competes like hell,” said Kyle. “Jamie is the kind of guy [that] you don’t know who he is … but at half-ice he is dangerous.” Milam, who has played forward as well as D, is fifth on the team in scoring with seven goals and nine assists.

Last weekend, the Wildcats lost for the first time at home this season, a 2-1 Saturday loss to Alaska-Fairbanks, after beating the Nanooks 6-3 the night before.

“They played hard,” said Kyle. “It was a good, hard weekend of hockey.”

Kyle said that the 13-game home-ice undefeated streak was somewhat of an anomaly. “At some point we were going to lose at home. We weren’t going to run the table. I’m proud of our guys. They’ve worked hard.”

This weekend, the Wildcats host Western Michigan for two. “Western has a real, real dangerous group of forwards,” said Kyle. “They’re a scary team when they have the puck.”

How’s this for love? The Wildcats are 5-1-0 against the Broncos in the last six meetings between the squads, all of which have been played in Marquette.

Love Means Never Having to Say — Well, You Know

One of the more interesting things about this job is learning about how people take what you say. I’m just one person, with one opinion about the CCHA and college hockey.

And yet …

At the beginning of January, I wrote that I didn’t know why OSU and UNO weren’t playing well on the road. At the time, the Mavericks had, I think, one road win, and the Buckeyes were .500 on the road — not bad, but the Bucks were second in the league and the Mavs third, so I thought this was something that could portend bad things for either team, as the season progressed.

Buckeye associate head coach Casey Jones — a calm, laid-back kind of fellow — read me the riot act for saying that OSU had “one of the worst” road records in the league. I reminded him — gently, as our exchanges often are sweet in nature — that I had written no such thing.

Regardless of Casey’s Ivy League education and obvious intelligence (and that’s sincere — he’s a very bright guy), he persisted in his belief — to which he’s entitled — and we agreed to disagree.

The bon mot was used by the Buckeyes as motivation on the road (I’m sorry, Dave Poulin), and I realized something important:

With all due respect to my ex-husband, being the CCHA columnist is far more rewarding than marriage. Why inflame just one man, when you can tick off an entire hockey program, some 30-or-so men, most of whom are half your age?

Is this living, or what?

Kyle implored me to pick against the Wildcats this weekend, and it’s a request I’ve had from coaches and players throughout the years, for different reasons. Like Casey, the gents in Marquette sometimes use my picks — picks against — as motivation.

Sometimes, a player will write to gloat over proving me wrong, when his team has won after I’d called them to lose. On a much rarer occasion, a coach will tease me for being wrong about picks.

All of it reminds me that even though I live in one CCHA city and am not at liberty to travel the league the way I’d like — the conference is geographically far-flung — I am part of a great big community that I genuinely love. Every coach in this league has my respect, and I wish every team could win every night.

I’m a sap, I know.

And just to prove how much I love them all, I’d like to say this to every team in the CCHA: You’re losers. You’re going to lose this weekend. You can’t buy a win this Friday and Saturday. You stink.

I hope that helps.

USCHO covers the CCHA all week long on the CCHA Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.


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