The holiday tournaments are over and it’s official: Everyone Else 3, CCHA 0.
Midseason play is a tricky thing. Some players are returning after time off having relaxed their discipline a little while visiting family and friends. Some are undoubtedly still recovering from tough semesters; yes, I do believe that most hockey players are students as well as athletes.
The first games of the second half of the season always serve up interesting results. Just ask Jerry York, whose Boston College Eagles beat Alabama-Huntsville 5-2 in the first game of last weekend’s Mariucci Classic before losing painfully to host Minnesota 8-1 in the title game of that tourney.
By the way, if you haven’t heard yet, that win over UAH gave York his 925th career victory, making him the winningest coach in college hockey history. This remarkable accomplishment couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, as USCHO’s Jimmy Connelly rightly points out. Further endearing himself to the college hockey community — and to USCHO photographer Jim Rosvold, specifically — York told reporters after the win that he’d celebrate with a visit to Campus Pizza near the Minnesota campus.
But I digress.
Back to the CCHA — a league in which York earned many of his wins as head coach at Bowling Green for 15 seasons — which didn’t quite experience the highs and lows that the Eagles did in Minneapolis. No, if the holiday tournaments were a carnival ride and BC rode a roller coaster, the three CCHA teams that played last weekend rode a fairly tame carousel, perhaps one for small children.
In the Florida College Hockey Classic the sole CCHA representative, Ferris State, took third place. The Bulldogs lost 5-3 to Cornell in the first round, scoring twice after freshman Charles Williams replaced C.J. Motte in net midway through the third period. FSU went on to cream Minnesota-Duluth in the third-place contest with Williams in net.
“This is really big for us,” FSU coach Bob Daniels told the Naples Daily News. “We just went through a four-game losing streak, and you start to have doubts.”
OK, so maybe the Bulldogs experienced a ride that was more thrilling than the kiddie teacups.
Not so for the five other CCHA teams playing in tournaments last weekend. Two Ohio teams — Miami and Ohio State — traveled to Pittsburgh for the inaugural Three Rivers Classic … which host Robert Morris won, fair and square. The RedHawks did play for the title but mustered one, single, little goal for the two-game event, beating OSU 1-0 in the first round. Miami outshot RMU 51-21 in the title game but the Colonials prevailed 1-0 in that contest.
After that title contest, Miami coach Enrico Blasi told the Cincinnati Enquirer, “We broke down for one second and they were able to score a goal and that can’t happen when you’re playing against a hot goaltender.”
That hot goaltender, by the way, is Robert Morris senior Eric Levine, whose save percentage (.954) is second in the nation. But I digress.
After losing 1-0 to the RedHawks, the Buckeyes distinguished themselves by becoming the first Big Ten team to lose to Penn State in Division I play. PSU beat OSU 5-4 in the Three Rivers Classic third-place game. The Buckeyes are winless in their last six games (0-4-2), a stretch that includes a loss and tie against — wait for it — Robert Morris.
There were three CCHA teams participating in this year’s Great Lakes Invitational. You may have heard by now that not one of them won.
I am sincerely happy for former Michigan associate coach Mel Pearson and Michigan Tech on the Huskies’ first GLI title since 1980. It’s so good to see the host team win one again, finally, and hats off to freshman goaltender Pheonix Copley, whose back-to-back shutout wins were a first for the GLI.
The real CCHA story here, though, is that the Huskies positively dominated the CCHA teams they played, outscoring the conference 8-0. First Tech beat Michigan 4-0 in the first round with two goals in the first and third periods of that game. Then the Huskies blew out Western Michigan in the title game. Leading 1-0 going into the third, MTU scored three third-period goals to earn the right to raise the Huskies’ banner in Joe Louis Arena, where it will remain until next year’s GLI.
(And wouldn’t it be MTU’s luck to finally win the GLI during a season in which Joe Louis Arena is so infrequently used. Again, I digress.)
The third CCHA team playing in the GLI was, of course, Michigan State. The Spartans tied Western Michigan 1-1 in the first round and lost to Michigan in the third-place game 5-2. MSU came from behind against WMU, scoring the tying goal with an extra attacker with 16 seconds remaining in regulation, but the Spartans played for third place rather than first because the Broncos won the shootout following five minutes of overtime — something that makes me want to discuss poetic justice, but I’ve digressed enough here.
So, to sum, the two CCHA teams that played for midseason hardware each managed to score a single goal in the two games in which they played. It might be worth mentioning, too, that one of those teams is tied for first place in the league standings and the other is the league’s second-place team.
Clearly, defense isn’t all that’s needed to win games. Let’s hope that this was a midseason glitch because a lack of offense will be a killer in the postseason.
Thank you, Falcons
It should be noted that while so many CCHA teams were struggling against nonconference foes, Bowling Green dispatched visiting Niagara 3-0 last Saturday night. Senior Andrew Hammond made 38 saves in his second shutout win of the season, the sixth of his collegiate career.
The view from below
The CCHA was 25-20-8 in nonconference play heading into the holiday tournaments; after last weekend’s play, that record is 27-25-8. That’s hardly an indication of world domination, and I’d make the argument that the league isn’t having the same kind of season that it did in 2011-12, when the CCHA went 56-26-5 against opponents from outside the conference.
In fact, at midseason I was becoming nostalgic for the CCHA of a year ago, that conference that was even from top to nearly bottom, the kind of hockey I was hoping the league would maintain for its final season.
But midway through my 18th season covering the CCHA — and as a hardened middle-aged divorcee — I’m a cynic. I may not be your typical CCHA fan. I certainly lack the faith of the CCHA true believers.
True believers like Northern Michigan coach Walt Kyle.
“In my opinion, I think we have the best league in the country.”
That is what Kyle told me on New Year’s Day, and he is sincere. He also may be right. This midseason hiccup could be a glitch. Right?
“I think the best league in the country is breaking up,” Kyle said. “Last year we had five teams in the [NCAA] tournament. Last year, we [the Wildcats] were the 16th team in the country and we got bumped by an AQ. That would have given the CCHA six teams in the NCAA tournament.”
An AQ is an automatic qualifier and, indeed, the Wildcats were No. 16 in the final PairWise Rankings for 2011-12.
It is surprising, therefore, to see Northern Michigan vying for last place in the CCHA as the second half of the season begins. Kyle doesn’t mince words when he talks about why the Wildcats are tied with Bowling Green at the bottom of the league’s standings, each team with 10 points and three points behind Michigan State.
“I tell our guys all the time, you are our record,” Kyle said. “It’s up to them — and it’s up to us, the coaches — to turn that around.”
Like many of their CCHA counterparts, the Wildcats are suffering from a sluggish offense, scoring 2.05 goals per game in the first half, off the pace of 2.86 goals per game from last season.
“We were one of the lowest teams in the league in terms of returning goals,” Kyle said. The Wildcats lost Tyler Gron and Justin Florek — and their 36 goals — to graduation at the end of 2011-12. “We needed some guys to rise and fill some of those roles.”
So far this season, not one of the Wildcats has reached the 10-goal mark and only one NMU player — sophomore Ryan Daugherty — has more than five goals. Daugherty has six.
Another factor in NMU’s first-half woes was scheduling. “We had a real difficult schedule in regards to travel,” Kyle said. “When we bus, we bus everywhere. We bused to Omaha. We had back-to-back weeks to Ohio State and Miami.”
The team is 3-2-2 at home with only one win on the road (1-8-1). Three of those eight road losses were one-goal losses in CCHA play, if you discount empty-net goals.
“That right there is the most glaring thing,” Kyle said, “our inability to do anything effectively on the road. We were in a lot of close games, but we didn’t give our team the goal support that we needed to be successful.”
More than the lack of scoring and tough schedule, though, is the defense that hasn’t yet found its feet. “Along with that,” Kyle said, “where we thought we were going to hang our hat, defensively, we haven’t done a very good job.”
NMU is tied with MSU for 38th in the country defensively, allowing 2.84 goals per game; last year, the Wildcats were 28th (2.76).
Then there are the combined special teams, 57th best in the country. “That comes to us as coaches,” Kyle said.
Still, Kyle is optimistic. Not only does he believe in the parity of the league, but the Wildcats begin conference play in the second half with home series against Miami (Jan. 11-12) and Ohio State (Jan. 18-19).
“You never know who’s going to win those games,” Kyle said. “Every night there are games that are close throughout the league.”
Before resuming conference play, though, the Wildcats take on St. Cloud State Jan. 4-5. And they’re playing on the road.
2. Boston College
3. Notre Dame
4. New Hampshire
7. Boston University
8. North Dakota
11. Western Michigan
13. St. Cloud State
14. Minnesota State
17. Robert Morris
18. Ferris State
20. Holy Cross
USCHO covers the CCHA all week long on the CCHA Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.