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This Week in the CCHA

College Hockey:
This Week in the CCHA: Jan. 4, 2007

Happy New Year!

Welcome to 2007, the Official Year of the CCHA!

Yes, I just made that up. But it’s catchy, isn’t it? And every year has to have a slogan. It’s a rule.

Sure, there were other candidates for this year’s slogan. There was “2007: Better Than 2006!” Has a nice ring to it, but not quite to our specific point.

“2007, The Year of Notre Dame!” might have worked, were it not for the Sugar Bowl.

“2007 — The Year Everyone Gets Corporate Sponsorship!” had potential, but think about the repercussions. While I’ve found it increasingly difficult to keep from personally selling out — tempting though the “Mr. Bubble This Week in the CCHA by Paula C. Weston” was — giving sponsorship to everyone for everything would not only be a bit of overkill (or redundancy, depending on your perspective), but who needs the new mental lexicon that would accompany such a move? Think of what would happen if ordinary citizens sported corporate logos on a regular basis.

Well, you know what I mean.

So after much market research and several adult beverages on the lanai at Hacienda Weston in Beverly Hills, Fla., during the holiday break, I came up with the perfect slogan for the dawning year.

2007: Official Year of the CCHA!

It’s a hard sell, to be sure. The league does have going for it the college hockey story of the year, Notre Dame. Three of the nation’s top 10 teams play in the CCHA, including No. 2 Notre Dame. (Say it with me: “Number two Notre Dame.” Sounds nice.) And the league is 37-29-9 in nonconference play, which includes a perfect 16-0-0 record against the AHA.

The league has players in all the top national stats categories. Michigan’s T.J. Hensick (third) and Kevin Porter (sixth), Miami’s Nathan Davis (fourth), and Alaska’s Kyle Greentree (seventh) are among the top 10 players in the country for points per game. Greentree is tied for second in goals per game and power-play goals per game, and Hensick is first in assists per game.

Davis and Northern Michigan’s Mike Santorelli are among the players tied for first in number of shorthanded goals scored per game. Michigan State’s Bryan Lerg, Miami’s Ryan Jones, and Notre Dame’s Ryan Thang are among the players tied for first in game-winning goals.

We have Lake Superior’s Jeff Jakaitis at No. 2 in the nation for save percentages, and Notre Dame’s David Brown is third in winning percentage.

Michigan, Nebraska-Omaha, and Notre Dame are Nos. 4, 5, and 6 respectively in scoring offense, while the Irish are No. 2 defensively.

None of the CCHA’s teams graces the top 10 among average minutes per game, although Ferris State knocks on the door at No. 11 with 22.2. (The Bulldogs are in good company. That’s what Minnesota averages.) Even Ohio State, which has in the past been the league’s — and the nation’s — top offender, is down to No. 45 on the penalty minutes list, averaging just 15.9 per game.

The CCHA has so much to offer college hockey, the nation, the planet. But we need a little faith here, people, to sustain us in 2007. The league hasn’t placed an also-ran in the Frozen Four since 2003, and in the past 10 years, the only non-Michigan and non-Michigan State representative in the Frozen Four has been Ohio State.

And while it was nice covering superb teams from other leagues in Milwaukee, Columbus, and Boston, this girl reporter will be singing the blues in St. Louis if the CCHA doesn’t represent.

Congratulations, Notre Dame

With a two-game sweep of Northern Michigan last weekend, the Fighting Irish have moved into sole possession of first place in the CCHA.

This is the latest the Irish have ever been first place in league standings, the last latest time having come in early December of 2003.

Note that the top two teams in league standings hail from a state other than Michigan, which is home to half the league’s teams.

And the Winners Are…

…Michigan State and Ohio State. Congratulations to the league’s two midseason tournament champions.

The Spartans earned their 11th title in the 42nd annual Great Lakes Invitational tournament in Joe Louis Arena in Detroit by beating Harvard 5-2 and Michigan 4-1. Spartan Bryan Lerg was the tournament MVP.

The Buckeyes earned their first title in the third annual Ohio Hockey Classic in Nationwide Arena in Columbus by beating Minnesota-Duluth 4-1 and Miami 5-3. Buckeye Sean Collins was the tournament MVP.

Of course, in each of these tournaments, the CCHA had a fair chance of capturing the title, given that five of the eight teams participating were from the CCHA. But odds alone have not been enough to guarantee league success in recent years.

In this new millennium, the GLI has been dominated by the one team that isn’t a regular part of the tournament: North Dakota (2001), Boston University (2002), Boston College (2003), and Colorado College (2005). The sole defender of the CCHA in the past six years has been MSU, which also captured the GLI title in 2004.

The first annual Ohio Hockey Classic in 2004 went to those overachieving Colorado College Tigers. CC and OSU actually tied, 2-2, in the title game, but the championship was decided by a shootout. Last year’s OHC crown went to Miami, which also tied OSU (1-1) and won the tourney by means of a shootout.

(So the Buckeyes, two-year bridesmaids of the tournament they co-founded with the RedHawks, will finally get to see what kind of honeymoon a midseason tournament title can bring.)

The Lake Superior State Lakers made a good run of the Badger Showdown, beating Providence 2-1 before losing to Clarkson 3-2 in the title game. (Perhaps the Badgers themselves should rethink their commitment to their own midseason tournament…but I digress.)

It was great to see Ferris State attempt to recreate midseason magic at the Dodge Holiday Classic (see “Badger Showdown” in the annals of history for details), but there was no way that FSU was getting by Minnesota in the title match. A valiant effort, to be sure.

And next year, Anchorage, the Nanooks are bringing home the Governor’s Cup.

Observations from the OHC

For the third annual Ohio Hockey Classic, all three of Ohio’s D-I schools participated, and for the first time in the tourney’s short history, the title was not determined by a shootout.

I have mixed feelings about this tournament. It’s too young to be what it should be, a great celebration of hockey in the state of Ohio. It has the potential for that, as hockey in Ohio is growing faster than most people realize.

Of course, I love covering a tournament in an NHL rink just a few short miles from my apartment. Nationwide Arena is beautiful, and the hometown fans (read “Buckeye fans”) must love it because OSU has never lost there (6-0-2 all-time). But another part of me misses the Great Lakes Invitational, which I covered before the OHC came to town.

It was such a disappointment to see so few fans in Nationwide Arena. There were less than 4,000 fans there each day, and it seemed to me that there were actually fewer fans this year than last, regardless of what official numbers say. The crowds seemed less enthusiastic, yet for the third year in a row the title game provided first-rate college hockey.

The atmosphere did, however, provide one of the best quips I’ve heard in a while. “You know it’s quiet when you can hear the penalty box door shut,” said my colleague, Jeff Svoboda, during the UMD-OSU game. The press box at Nationwide is a few stories above ice level.

The growing rivalry between Miami and Ohio State is fun to watch and can only foster more interest in college hockey throughout Ohio. With Miami and OSU meeting in the OHC title match for the second consecutive year, the RedHawks and Buckeyes will have met five times during the regular season for the second straight year, also, and while I see that as a good thing — the games between these teams are always entertaining — I wonder if the local sports fans have the necessary attention span to care.

Given that Miami and OSU play each other four times per year, guaranteed, the field itself isn’t much of a draw for local fans. Bowling Green? Even if all three Ohio teams were top 10, it would still be a tough card to sell. These Midwesterners want something more exotic, like any team from east of Pittsburgh. Mid-Pennsylvania and east — now that’s exotic.

I also have to wonder why more wasn’t done to get Blue Jackets fans in the seats the second day. Columbus was on the road the night before, but given how few bodies were in seats, perhaps the franchise could have done more to get people in the building the second day. How many towns have brothers that play for the local professional team and D-I college squad, as do Dan and Tom Fritsche?

It would be nice, too, simply to see Blue Jackets involvement in the event. At Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, the winner of the Great Lakes Invitational gets to raise a banner to the rafters that hangs there for a whole year. What a thrill that would be — and what a great opportunity to build the hockey community in Columbus — if the same were done for the OHC in Nationwide.

And the local media interest was next to nothing. The Blue Jackets are a distant second behind OSU football for media attention in this city, so you can guess where college hockey might be.

Of course, there was plenty of attention paid to the Columbus Dispatch. The Dispatch does more than cover the Blue Jackets; the Dispatch is part owner of the CBJs, because in the 21st Century we no longer care about conflict of interest.

The single most annoying part of the weekend was the in-house promotion showed on the big center-ice screen, ostensibly for the Blue Jackets Book Jackets, a program originated by former CBJ and Wolverine Blake Sloan to get kids interested in reading. The program’s great, but the promo was a thinly veiled attempt to promote the Columbus Dispatch.

Two Blue Jackets are talking about reading with a small child. The child asks the players what they read. One player responds, “The newspaper. It’s like reading a new book every day.”

And then the other player says, “And you can read the newspaper for the Blue Jackets Book Jackets.”

Grooming little newspaper subscribers under the guise of promoting a genuinely worthy cause. Slick. Would that they put such effort into growing the local, integrated hockey community.

Here are some impressions on each team’s performance from the Ohio Hockey Classic.

Bowling Green

The Falcons appeared to have played better than their record, but they have very little game from the circles to the net in their opponents’ end. Other than Jonathan Matsumoto — who is as pure a goal-scorer as there is in college hockey — they didn’t really have any finishers, and when Minnesota-Duluth turned up its play in the consolation game, BG couldn’t match the Bulldogs.

One very bright spot for BGSU was the play of Jimmy Sprat, who gave BG every opportunity to compete.

“Jimmy, slowly here over the last four or five games, has been finding a little groove,” said BGSU head coach Scott Paluch after Bowling Green’s loss to Miami. “I thought tonight here he was really sharp, strong and tight on some power-play chances. I thought he held his ground well, pretty composed, confident.”

While the Falcons ended the first half with a nine-goal output in Fairbanks, they really are doing almost everything but scoring. There are other little things — passes seem off, and the team doesn’t seem to play together as a team — but I never got the impression that the players are down or that they’ve given up. In fact, there appeared to be good chemistry among the players, on the bench and after the games. Being around them and watching them play, you just get the feeling that they’re this close to being much more competitive.

Miami

What to say about Miami? A solid team with depth at every position, especially now that Charlie Effinger is back from his bout with mononucleosis.

In fact, Effinger looked superb, like he’d never taken time off. With a tandem in net through the end of the season, the RedHawks will have a chance to win every single game.

But they’re more than the sum of goaltenders Effinger and Jeff Zatkoff. Miami is simply very solid at every position, with talented newcomers — Jarod Palmer comes to mind — to shore up a team that has staying power. They are emotional, which sometimes gets them into penalty trouble but also makes for inspired play, always provides excitement on the ice.

And they’re very obviously well coached.

Ohio State

The Buckeyes looked like the talented team they were last year with one exception: they can score goals.

Last year, OSU had everything but scoring going for it. The Bucks would put a gazillion shots on net and not light the lamp, resulting in an interesting but frustrating season.

They competed well against Miami in December, but the Buckeyes looked better than good at the OHC. Having Tom Fritsche back elevates their level play in immeasurable ways; not only is he one of the best players in college hockey, but he’s so happy to be back in the game after his extended illness that his enthusiasm is like a tonic for a team that was never really down on itself to begin with.

The key to OSU at the OHC, though, was the smart play of Joseph Palmer, whose maturation can only be welcome news for a team that can roll four lines, score regularly, and play defense.

And the Buckeyes are very well coached, as evidenced by the coaching staff’s diligence to put the team back on track this season.

Minnesota-Duluth

Do you really want to know what I think of a team from the WCHA? Well, based on these two games alone, I am left wondering two things: What’s happened between 2004, when the Bulldogs went to the Frozen Four, and now? Was it all Junior Lessard?

The Bulldogs looked absolutely lackluster in their game against Ohio State, from the listless way that the starters took the blue line before the national anthem to the way they fought for puck possession. They seemed at least a step or two behind the Buckeyes.

Duluth started backup goaltender Josh Johnson, but it wouldn’t have mattered who they started against Miami. They were outmatched.

Head coach Scott Sandelin, as usual, was down to earth and quotable, a reporter’s dream.

It is absolutely in college hockey’s best interest to see this tournament grow into something bigger and better. Miami is becoming increasingly recognizable for all of its athletics, and Ohio State is a name brand.

Making Sean Collins Look Good, One Game at a Time

OSU senior defenseman and captain Sean Collins doesn’t actually need anyone to make him look good, but having junior forward Tom Fritsche back in the lineup doesn’t hurt at all.

Collins registered two gorgeous goals in the Ohio Hockey Classic last weekend, one each against Minnesota-Duluth and Miami, and Fritsche was the set-up man each time. For both goals, Fritsche’s patience was key to the play. On Friday, he waited for both a UMD defender and Duluth goaltender Josh Johnson to commit before feeding Collins across the crease. Saturday, he broke in and waited for Collins to catch up to center the pass that led to the goal.

“I don’t know what happened,” said Collins the second night. “I think I passed out for a second. I don’t remember. That’s exactly what it was; he put it right on my stick. I figured I was right there [and] I might as well put it in.”

For once, I’m not arguing with the league’s pick for Defenseman of the Week. Sure, Collins scored two pretty goals, but he was a monster defensively and a clear leader on the ice, and earned his OHC MVP award for play on both sides of the puck.

Games to Watch

The two series to watch this week are the Alaska-Ohio State series and the Ferris State-Northern Michigan set.

Alaska and OSU are tied in the standings, but each team seems to be poised to have dissimilar second halves. The Nanooks are bringing a three-game losing streak to Columbus, and they are 1-5-2 on the road this season, having been outscored 30-19 in those games.

The Buckeyes are 2-1-1 in their last four games, with three of those games played against No. 6 Miami, against whom they compiled a 1-1-1 record. If their play in that span is any indication, they may be on the verge of making a Michigan-State-esque second-half turnaround.

The Nanooks and Buckeyes are tied for sixth place, each with 13 points, each only three points away from third-place Michigan.

The Bulldogs and Wildcats are both underachieving this season, and each team has a chance to gain ground this weekend. Like the Nanooks and Wildcats, these two teams may be on opposite courses. Even though FSU is three points behind NMU in league standings and both are inches away from the cellar, the Bulldogs have much more momentum than do the Wildcats.

FSU ended the first half of the season with a loss and tie to ranked LSSU and a first-round tie with its shootout win gave FSU a shot at No. 1 Minnesota in the Dodge Classic, while the Wildcats dropped two league games last weekend to Notre Dame, capping a December that saw six league losses.

In all likelihood, neither series will change the face of league standings much, but each may be an interesting character study.

Happy Birthday

Happy birthday to Alaska freshman Dion Knelsen, who turns 18 the day this column is published. I’m eager to see the Nanook wunderkind — who puts the “scholar” in scholar-athlete — play this weekend in Columbus.

Apologies to the League

Before the holiday break, I took the CCHA to task for naming Nebraska-Omaha’s Scott Parse as “Defensive Player of the Week.” No such award exists. As the league’s Director of Communications (and FSN Detroit analyst) Fred Pletsch emailed to remind me, the weekly award is for Defenseman of the Week.

My apologies. My mislabeling of the award was more than a momentary brain lapse on my part. It was false advertising of the highest degree.

How Can We Pass Up This Note?

According to this week’s CCHA press release, Commissioner Tom Anastos has moved from No. 81 to No. 68 on The Hockey News’ eighth annual list of hockey’s top 100 people of power and influence.

Maybe he can use his influence to promote “2007, the Official Year of the CCHA!”

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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