This Week in the CCHA: February 14, 1997

CCHA PREVIEW: Feb. 13-16, 1997 CCHA Preview: Feb. 13-16, 1997 by Paula C. Weston

With just a few weeks left in the CCHA regular season, the question of which team will finish eighth is as interesting as which will finish first.

"With only four games to go," says Michigan State head coach Ron Mason, "every game is important. It’s all going to come down to the last weekend of play this year, just as I thought in the beginning of the season."

"Right now we’re at the point of the season where every game is big," says Western Michigan head coach Bill Wilkinson.

"I would say that at this point of the year, everything is big," agrees Miami head coach Mark Mazzoleni.

Can there be any doubt?

A rare thing happened to the No. 1 Michigan Wolverines last weekend — they lost a game. The Wolverines beat the Lakers on Friday, but lost the rubber game of the Michigan State series on Saturday. Nevertheless, the Wolverines are still in first place with 36 points. This weekend, they host two games against Notre Dame.

Lake Superior remains in second place in spite of the loss to Michigan. With 31 points, this weekend’s road games against third-place Michigan State and Ferris State will be big for the Lakers.

Miami had last weekend off. They remain in third place with 29 points. Miami travels to Michigan State and Ferris State.

Michigan State is tied with Miami for third place. Last weekend the Spartans lost to Western Michigan, but won that series with the Wolverines. This weekend, it’s a battle for second place as the Spartans host both Miami and Lake Superior.

The "second tier" in the CCHA is just as interesting as the battle of the Titans. Western Michigan is the hottest team in the CCHA. With 22 points, the Broncos are in fifth place, just a point ahead of Bowling Green. The Broncos are 4-1-2 in their last seven games; they’ve won four in a row, and that loss was to Michigan. The Broncos meet the Buckeyes in Columbus on Thursday, then travel to Bowling Green for a mid-field match-up.

Given the way the Falcons slumped in the early part of the season, it’s mildly surprising to see them in sixth place, just behind Western Michigan. The Falcons split a pair of games at home last weekend to the UAF Nanooks. Thus, their single conference game this weekend — against visiting Western Michigan on Saturday — matters. The Falcons also play a non-conference game at Ohio State on Sunday.

Nothing is guaranteed for the remaining four teams, including Ferris State. The Bulldogs are playing good hockey lately, but other teams have managed to gain some ground at the bottom of the standings; for instance, via their loss to Western last weekend. This weekend, the Bulldogs (in seventh place with 15 points) host Lake Superior and Miami.

At the moment, Ohio State hangs on to that all-important eighth spot, just a point behind the Bulldogs. The Buckeyes have won three of their last six games, including back-to-back wins over Notre Dame last weekend, and a rare road win at Munn Arena against the Spartans. Thursday, the Buckeyes host Western Michigan; Sunday, the Falcons come to Columbus for a non-conference game.

Notre Dame sits uncomfortably in ninth place with 12 points. Last weekend the Irish lost a pair to Ohio State — including another one-goal defeat. This weekend, Notre Dame travels to Yost to play Michigan for two.

With 11 points, the University of Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks anchor the bottom of the conference, but have shown recent improvement. Before splitting a pair of road games in Bowling Green last weekend, the Nanooks took four consecutive nonconference matches at home. UAF’s only remaining CCHA contests are a three-game series at home with Ferris State

This weekend, however, UAF hosts two games with the St. Norbert College Green Knights, a Division III school from Wisconsin that just clinched its first-ever regular season title in the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association.

Don’t blink, CCHA fans. You don’t want to miss a moment of this weekend’s action.

Last week’s record in picks: 5-3 Overall record in picks: 80-58

Western Michigan (13-12-4, 9-8-4 CCHA) at Ohio State (9-22-0, 7-15-0 CCHA) Thursday, 7 p.m., Ohio Expo Center, Columbus, OH

This game pits the two shortest CCHA goaltenders against each other. At 5′ 4" and 5′ 6", respectively, Western Michigan’s Matt Barnes and Ohio State’s Ray Aho have been showing some of the taller guys on the ice the way a net should be minded.

Both Barnes and Aho have been the goaltenders of record for their teams’ recent winning ways.

"Ray Aho is playing extremely well in goal," says Western Michigan head coach Bill Wilkinson. "We’ve played Ohio State up here twice, and both of them were great games. They took us to overtime."

Wilkinson is not taken in by Ohio State’s position near the bottom of the CCHA. "They beat Michigan state in Munn, and not too many teams can do that. It’s a pretty big accomplishment for John’s [OSU head coach Markell] team."

The Buckeyes are coming off their first back-to-back wins of the season, and Markell says it’s given the team welcome confidence.

"We needed both of those wins," says Markell. "Western is the hottest team in the CCHA. We have to realize that the team we play this weekend is better than the team we just beat. We have to prepare our team. If you prepare, there’s no room to panic."

The key to the Ohio State’s steady progress, says Markell, is a combination of good work from freshmen — such as Aho — and greater leadership from two of the team’s three seniors.

"Seniors have to take a leadership role," Markell asserted, complimenting the way that co-captain Chad Power and Pierre Dufour have stepped up. Power had two goals in the Buckeyes’ Friday win over Notre Dame, while Dufour had the game-winning goal in each game.

The leadership comes at a crucial time for the Buckeyes, who are fighting to hold on to that last playoff spot without the help of three-year senior captain Steve Brent, who is out with a knee injury.

Wilkinson says that as big as this game is for both teams, his Broncos are more concerned with bettering themselves than with outdoing their opponents. "We’re concerned [about] the Buckeyes, but you have to prepare yourself, focus on yourself."

Matt Barnes may be shorter than Ray Aho, but he has the edge in a couple of key hockey-related categories. Barnes’ save percentage is a healthy .886, and he’s allowing just 3.19 goals per game.

By contrast, Aho’s save percentage is .857, although that figure has risen during the last couple of months. His goals-against average is 4.61, down nearly a full goal from the first half of the season. Both Barnes and Aho have been playing consistently well lately, so this goaltending match-up should be something to watch.

PICK: Western 4-3

No. 8 Miami (20-9-1, 14-6-1 CCHA) at No. 9 Michigan State (17-9-3, 13-5-3 CCHA) Friday, 7 p.m., Munn Ice Arena, East Lansing, MI

"This is a crucial weekend," says Michigan State head coach Ron Mason. "We have the best shot at second place this weekend."

Michigan State is hosting both Miami and Lake Superior this weekend. The first game in the battle for the title of "The Team That Finished First Behind Michigan" is this one, on Friday night.

The Spartans are coming off a mixed weekend, but one that definitely ended on a high note. After dropping a game Friday night to Western Michigan, the Spartans defeated the Wolverines in front of more than 19,000 screaming fans in Joe Louis Arena in Detroit on Saturday. The win gives the Spartans the season series over their arch-rivals.

Mason was characteristically understated about the game and series over Michigan. "It was another good game with Michigan. During the game down at their place we didn’t play well. They won that one pretty easily.

"This game was a sell-out. Being at the rubber match, winning two out of three, it means something."

The Spartans hope to use that momentum to get the edge on Miami, who had last weekend off. Miami head coach Mark Mazzoleni knows that Michigan State’s win over Michigan could motivate the Spartans, especially at home.

"I would say that’s given them a bit of boost in confidence," he remarked.

Like Mason, Mazzoleni is aware of the importance of this weekend’s games. "The biggest thing we have to do is take each game for itself." Mazzoleni says his team just wants to play in Munn before thinking about the rest of the weekend, or even the rest of the season.

This is the second game between these two teams this season — Michigan State won the first, 4-3, in Oxford. "Miami, of course, has been solid all year," says Mason. "They’re playing with real good poise; they’re just a really good team. Of course, we came down and beat them at home earlier this year. That took them a little bit by surprise, I think. But that game was so long ago that I don’t even remember it."

Even though Miami will be looking to return the favor, few teams beat the Spartans in Munn.

PICK: Michigan State 3-2

No. 10 Lake Superior (18-10-4, 14-6-3 CCHA) at Ferris State (11-19-2, 7-14-1 CCHA) Friday, 7 p.m., Ewigleben Ice Arena, Big Rapids, MI

Both the Lakers and the Bulldogs are looking for some points as they approach the final games of the season. The Lakers are playing for position in the top tier of the CCHA; it’s almost a given that they’ll have home ice in the first round of the playoffs.

The Bulldogs, on the other hand, still need to clinch a playoff spot. Points are important to the them for another reason; the team in eighth place in the CCHA plays the team in first place, and no one wants the likely-champion Wolverines in the first round.

The Lakers own this series, having beaten the Bulldogs twice by the score of 3-2 earlier this season at the Soo. Laker head coach Scott Borek says that the Bulldogs always play his team tough.

"When we have success against them, it’s only because historically we have the edge on them." Borek says that Bulldog hockey is similar to Laker hockey in fundamental ways. "I think they’re a model of our program."

Borek is another coach who is not fooled by the difference in points between his team and the one he’s playing Friday night. The game is no given, says Borek. "When Ferris plays as defensively as they do, it’s going to be hard to beat them. When we play there, it’s extremely loud, extremely exciting, and it’s a great hockey barn."

The Lakers couldn’t capitalize on an opportunity to gain on first-place Michigan last weekend. The Wolverines beat them, 5-2, at the Joe Louis Arena last Friday night. The Lakers allowed five goals in the second period of that game.

"Frankly, I think what we did going into the Michigan game was look ahead at what that game could do for us, instead of looking at the game we had to play. As a team, that left us flat, and we were looking at the post-game before we even played the game."

Don’t expect the Lakers to make that mistake again on Friday night. This should be a good defensive battle. Ferris State has the home edge, the Lakers have the experience.

PICK: Lake Superior 3-2

No. 10 Lake Superior (18-10-4, 14-6-3 CCHA) at No. 9 Michigan State (17-9-3, 13-5-3 CCHA) Saturday, 7 p.m., Munn Ice Arena, East Lansing, MI

The second game of the weekend for the Spartans pits third-place Michigan State against second-place Lake Superior. "These games this weekend will be very highly contested," says Michigan State head coach Ron Mason. "All three of these teams [including Miami, the Spartans’ Friday opponents] are relatively equal in the standings."

Lake Superior head coach Scott Borek is well aware of this implications of this weekend’s little round-robin between the second- and third-place teams. "Both State and Miami have two games in hand on us . There’s points to be had for them. If one of them stumbles, however, we could end up higher than we were picked to finish in pre-season."

Mason said early in the week leading up to this game that he couldn’t even think about Lake Superior until his team had played Miami. He wasn’t kidding. The only comments Mason made about Lake Superior were general ones; he acknowledged the Lakers’ physical style of play, tough defense, and overall competence.

Borek knows what he’s up against in his second road game of the weekend. "These are two very difficult buildings to play in. Michigan State is playing very well. They were slumping a little bit, but they’re coming out of it; they’ve played us three times, so we’re familiar with them."

This series couldn’t be more even. In conference play, the teams skated to a 4-4 tie, two nights in a row in Sault St. Marie. The Lakers beat the Spartans in the first round of the non-conference Great Lakes Invitational Tournament.

The edge in this game may be Munn Ice Arena.

PICK: Michigan State 3-2

Western Michigan (13-12-4, 9-8-4 CCHA) at Bowling Green (14-13-3, 9-11-3 CCHA) Saturday, 7 p.m., BGSU Ice Arena, Bowling Green, OH

Bowling Green head coach Buddy Powers no longer has any illusions about gaining ground on the upper tier for home-ice advantage in the CCHA.

"Our situation for big games has gone by the board here until the playoffs," says Powers. "I don’t think we can get fourth place, so we’ll be on the road. If we’re going to win all of our games, are we going to catch western? Our focus is going to be on ourselves."

The Falcons were surprised by last-place Alaska-Fairbanks in Bowling Green last weekend. The Falcons won Friday, but lost Saturday. Powers says that his players need to reexamine what they’re doing on the ice. He says needless mistakes contributed to the loss, and calls the loss a team effort.

"We have execute in our end of the rink, and we have to do it consistently. It was different guys on every goal in that loss," Powers says.

Much of the resurgence of the Falcons can be traced to the improvement in net by goaltender Bob Petrie. "He’s played pretty well since coming back from Christmas," says Powers. The Falcons are 6-2-2 so far in 1997.

Western Michigan’s tour through Ohio is crucial for the Broncos. "Both of them are key games," says Bill Wilkinson.

"If you focus on the far, you lose sight of what you have to do right now. We’re looking at Ohio State first, then we’ll think about Bowling Green."

This should be one of the better games of the season. It’s tough to play at Bowling Green, but Western may have an attitude edge.

PICK: Western 4-3

No. 8 Miami (20-9-1, 14-6-1 CCHA) at Ferris State (11-19-2, 7-14-1 CCHA) Saturday, 7 p.m., Ewigleben Ice Arena, Big Rapids, MI

"Ferris is a good team," says Miami head coach Mark Mazzoleni. "I watched them play the other night. They only gave up 17 shots. They play with tremendous heart and intensity. They’re capable of beating any team at any time."

That’s something that Mazzoleni knows firsthand. This series is tied. Each team has a win by two goals at home; the most recent game went to Ferris, just a few weeks ago.

"The core of their team is their sophomore class," says Mazzoleni. "They’re going to be someone to reckon with in the future." Or, perhaps, right now.

It’s unlikely that Ferris will repeat against Miami — not because the Bulldogs aren’t good enough, but because Miami is hard to surprise twice. Add to that the outstanding goaltending of Trevor Prior, the offensive power of Randy Robitaille, and the offense and defense of Dan Boyle, and Miami is just a hard team to beat on any given night.

This will both teams’ second game of the weekend, but Miami had a full weekend off. "We’ve got a couple of players who were banged up, so the rest is good," says Mazzoleni.

PICK: Miami 4-2

Notre Dame (8-21-1, 5-16-1 CCHA) at No. 1 Michigan (26-2-3, 17-2-2 CCHA) Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m., Yost Arena, Ann Arbor, MI

The University of Michigan Wolverines have lost just two games this season. Both of those are to Michigan State, the most recent being last Saturday.

Early in January, the Wolverines tied Cornell in Yost, a game the Wolverines fully expected to win. The Wolverines don’t take such games well. Just ask the Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks, who were the next team to play at Yost. To make themselves feel better about the Cornell tie, the Wolverines pummeled the Nanooks 13-1.

Should the Irish be a little concerned? Perhaps.

In many ways, these games — these points — mean more to the Irish than to the Wolverines. It’s true that Michigan’s pride is a little wounded, but with just a handful of games left in this season, few people doubt that Michigan will tumble from the top of the CCHA. Conversely, few people believe Notre Dame can make the playoffs. Notre

Dame had a great opportunity to put the Buckeyes away last weekend in South Bend. Two wins over the Buckeyes would have meant a season sweep of the Bucks — important in the playoff picture — as well as four crucial points, and an eighth-place spot in the CCHA.

Instead, Notre Dame lost two games at home, practically handing the Buckeyes the privilege of losing in the first round of the CCHA playoffs to … the Wolverines.

It’s starting to sound a bit like a soap opera. At any rate, it feels personal enough to all parties involved.

One single point taken from the Wolverines in Yost this weekend would be an upset.

PICKS: Michigan 7-2, 5-2

Bowling Green (14-13-3, 9-11-3 CCHA) at Ohio State (9-22-0, 7-15-0 CCHA) Sunday, 3 p.m., Ohio Expo Center, Columbus, OH

This non-conference game probably means more to Ohio State than it does to Bowling Green. The teams play again next weekend in a conference game in Columbus, and the Buckeyes need those points more than the Falcons do. The Buckeyes have yet to secure a playoff spot, and they’ll be looking for anything that will give them an edge over the Falcons next week.

They may not have a lot to look at. Each coach has said that he’ll play some guys who haven’t seen much action lately, so it’s unlikely that either goaltender who will appear in the conference match-up will see action in this game.

"We’ll get the kids in there who haven’t been playing very much," says Buckeye head coach John Markell. This means that freshman goaltender Tom Connerty will probably start in net for the Buckeyes. Connerty hasn’t seen action since being pulled from an 8-2 loss to Miami in Columbus several weeks ago. Since then, Ray Aho has earned the starting job for the Buckeyes, and was named CCHA Defense Player of the Week for two consecutive weeks.

Connerty’s league save percentage is .812, and he’s allowed 6.06 goals per league game. A Connerty-Mike Savard match-up may be a high-scoring game for each team. Savard’s league GAA is 4.02, while his league save percentage is .848.

Markell is a little concerned about playing men who haven’t seen much time this season. "We intend to do well on Thursday, and we don’t want to stop any momentum Sunday," says Markell.

Powers acknowledges that the Falcons’ place in the standings affects how little this game actually means for his team. "It’s a different scenario at other times in the season, even in other seasons. At other times, we’d be concerned about the NCAA and power rankings…" Powers doesn’t finish his sentence. If the Falcons were doing better in CCHA play, this game could be a prime opportunity for the Falcons to show the NCAA why they should be invited to the tournament.

Expect a high-scoring game. You may even call this by the number of goals each netminder allows on average.

PICK: Bowling Green 6-4

St. Norbert (20-4-1, 16-4-0 NCHA) at Alaska-Fairbanks (10-20-0, 6-18-0 CCHA) Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m., Carlson Center, Fairbanks, AK

The Nanooks won four consecutive home non-conference games before traveling to Bowling Green last weekend, where they split with the Falcons. The non-conference wins and the important road win bolster the Nanooks’ spirits, but with just three games left in CCHA play, moral victories have to be wearing a little thin.

Still, a win is a win to the heart of team. Several weeks ago, a discouraged-sounding Nanook head coach Dave Laurion said before the scheduled four home non-conference games that wins in those games could help his team salvage some dignity for the season

The Nanooks don’t need to salvage their dignity — they are a team whose dignity in the face of hardship can be an inspiration to others. But they’ll take a couple more non-conference wins, no matter how you package them.

They’ll have a chance this weekend against the St. Norbert College (WI) Green Knights, but it won’t be easy. This Division III team just finished first in its conference, the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association, in regular-season play for the first time ever, and is currently tied for first place with St. John’s University in the NCAA Division III ice hockey poll.

The Green Knights have one of the best goaltenders in the NCHA. Junior Roby Gropp has a save percentage of .919 and a GAA of 2.56.

This should be a very good series. Teams from the NCHA have played D-I teams well this season, so Nanook fans shouldn’t expect easy wins. In fact, good games against the Green Knights will prepare the Nanooks for their final series of the year, three home games against Ferris State next weekend.

PICKS: Alaska-Fairbanks 4-3, 5-3

Paula C. Weston is the CCHA Correspondent for US College Hockey Online.

Copyright 1996 Paula C. Weston . All Rights Reserved.

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