This Week in the CCHA: February 28, 1997

CCHA PREVIEW: Feb. 28-Mar. 2, 1997 CCHA Preview: Feb. 28-Mar. 2, 1997 by Paula C. Weston

For weeks, the top four teams in the CCHA have known that they’ll be hosting the first round of playoffs. Last week decided which teams among the bottom four would advance to post-season play. All that remains to be seen is the final order of the standings — determining who plays where.

It was no surprise that No. 1 Michigan clinched the regular-season CCHA title last week. With just two losses all season, the Wolverines have proven to one and all that they are contenders for back-to-back national titles. For emphasis, Michigan drubbed Lake Superior 8-0 in Ann Arbor last week.

To the Lakers’ credit, they tied Michigan the next night, taking some of the charm away from Michigan’s seniors’ night. Michigan swings through Ohio this week, stopping in Oxford and Columbus.

With 34 points, Lake Superior will remain in sole possession of third place only if Michigan State earns no points this weekend. Last week’s tie against Michigan in Yost was the Lakers’ last game of the regular season. Not a bad way to end the year.

Michigan State gained two points last weekend, and not the way most CCHA fans could have predicted. The Spartans beat Miami in Oxford, 7-3 on Saturday. On Sunday, their hosts in Columbus were less hospitable: Michigan State lost to Ohio State, 8-3. The two points the Spartans gained give them 33, and put them in a good position to catch second-place Miami.

Miami needs three points to lock second place in the CCHA. If the Spartans take four points and Miami takes two, Michigan State and Miami will tie for second place, with Michigan State owning the tie-breaker. With 35 points, Miami has done better than anyone has expected — anyone, that is, except for Miami. Miami hosts Western Michigan and finishes the season with a home game against Michigan.

Western Michigan and Bowling Green are tied for fifth. Each team has 24 points, but Western has a game in hand on Bowling Green. Western split a home-and-home series with Notre Dame last week, and travels to Ohio to finish the season. The Broncos play Miami on Friday, and Ohio State on Saturday.

Bowling Green lost to Miami and tied with Ohio State last week. The Falcons will host the Spartans Saturday for their final game of the regular season.

Ohio State is the hottest team in the CCHA right now. With a six-game unbeaten streak (5-0-1), the Buckeyes have moved from obscurity to seventh place. The Bucks tied the Falcons last week in the tiny OSU Ice Rink, and won the rubber match of their series with Michigan State at the Expo Center. The Buckeyes finish their season with home games against Western Michigan and Michigan.

Alaska-Fairbanks has a lot to brag about. After starting the season 0-7-0, practically no one thought the Nanooks would make the CCHA playoffs. By taking five points last weekend in a three-game home series against Ferris State, the Nanooks eliminated the Bulldogs from the playoffs, and vaulted themselves into eighth place. The next time Alaska-Fairbanks plays will be in Yost Ice Arena, in the first round of the playoffs.

Notre Dame has one game remaining in its schedule. Michigan State will play in South Bend on Friday night.

Ferris State has finished its season.

Last week’s (dismal) record in picks: 6-5 Overall record in picks: 93-67

It’s better than flipping a coin!

Western Michigan (14-15-4, 10-11-4 CCHA) at No. 6 Miami (23-10-1, 17-7-1 CCHA) Friday, 7 p.m., Goggin Arena, Oxford, OH

When these two teams met in Big Rapids in December, Miami beat Western 5-2, and Western took the second game, 7-6 in overtime. This game against Miami is the first of two rubber games Western plays this final weekend of the season.

Western wants to finish up strong to have some momentum going into the playoffs on the road. Miami needs three points to clinch second place in the conference.

Western head coach Bill Wilkinson knows that this won’t be an easy game. "Miami is vying for the second-place slot. They have Michigan on Saturday, so they’re probably looking at us for two points Friday. They’re going to play with intensity, and we’ll have to match that intensity."

Western split with Notre Dame last weekend, losing 5-4 in OT in South Bend, and returning home in a big way with a 6-1 win. In that 6-1 win, six different Broncos — Justin Cardwell, Steve Duke, Mike Melas, Corey Waring and Joel Irving — scored a goal apiece.

Tim Leahy was the most consistent player for Miami last weekend. Leahy had a goal and an assist each night. Randy Robitaille also had a goal in each game.

The goaltending for each team is solid, if a little inconsistent. Trevor Prior, who looked nearly unbeatable in the beginning of the season, has played well for Miami, and has settled into a very nice .884 save percentage. Prior is allowing just 2.89 goals per game.

Matt Barnes has stepped up for his Broncos just when they needed him most. He’s raised his save percentage to .881, and his GAA is 3.36.

Desire will decide this game. Each team has something to earn. Miami can finish second in the CCHA, behind the number-one team in the country. Western wants to end on an up note and erase the doubts of the beginning of the season.

PICK: Miami 4-3

No. 8 Michigan State (14-15-4, 15-7-3 CCHA) at Notre Dame (9-24-1, 6-19-1 CCHA) Friday, 7 p.m., Joyce ACC, South Bend, IN

This game means one thing in terms of the CCHA standings: points for Michigan State.

The Spartans are two points behind Miami, and can only catch Miami if Miami takes only two points this weekend. Notre Dame is finished after this game — quite literally. With 13 points, the Irish will have to wait until next year for a chance to play in the postseason.

It should be noted that 11 of the 24 Irish losses were by just one goal. It seemed throughout the season that Notre Dame was the bridesmaid of the CCHA. Goaltender Matt Eisler has had a very good season. While his GAA in league play is 3.88, Eisler’s save percentage in league play is .883. Don’t expect to see the Irish back down because they won’t be playing next week.

Michigan State had an odd time of it last weekend. After taking their season series with Miami by beating them 7-3 Saturday, the Spartans allowed the Buckeyes to score at will in an 8-3 loss on Sunday. The Spartans outshot the Buckeyes 45-28, and kept the Buckeyes from scoring on the power play; but goaltending was the problem for the Spartans in this game. The usually-excellent Chad Alban had an off day.

The Spartans are an experienced team that learns from its mistakes. One off day from Alban, a week of practice, and the desire to take advantage of any Miami slip-up will motivate the Spartans in South Bend.

PICK: Michigan State 3-2

No. 1 Michigan (29-2-4, 20-2-3 CCHA) at No. 6 Miami (23-10-1, 17-7-1 CCHA) Saturday, 7 p.m., Goggin Ice Arena, Oxford, OH

Each team would like to undo a little of the psychological damage done last weekend. Miami beat Bowling Green at home, but lost what was through two periods a close game to Michigan State by the score of 7 to 3. Granted, the "damage" to Michigan was just a tie with Lake Superior, but it was home ice, and it was the seniors’ last home game, and just remember what the Wolverines did to poor Alaska-Fairbanks after tying Cornell in a non-conference game.

If the Lakers can skate into Yost and spoil seniors’ night for the Wolverines, you can be pretty darned sure that the Wolverines can skate into Goggin with intention of doing the same.

Even if Miami beats Western Michigan on Friday and the Spartans lose Friday, this game will be hard-fought. With a point in Friday’s game, Miami would lock second place in the CCHA. Michigan’s been in first place half the season, and it’s been clear they’d stay there until the end. If Miami takes that point Friday, there is absolutely nothing at stake in terms of standings in this game. There is, however, some serious pride on the line.

When these two teams met in January in Yost, Miami led the Wolverines through two periods in the first game. This was such a big deal — even though Michigan came back to win 5-2 — that the press led the post-game questions with, "So, how did it feel to trail at home?" Clearly, even the threat of being beaten in Yost was enough to shock the local press and move Michigan head coach Red Berenson to comment, "We didn’t anticipate being behind by two goals in the game. I think it was a good sign for our team to go through that."

It was a good learning experience for Miami as well, who played Michigan tough the second night, losing 3-0.

This should be a great game to end Miami’s regular season. While Michigan clearly has more firepower than Miami (or any other team, for that matter), both teams are threats on the power play, and both have outstanding goaltending. On the power play, Brendan Morrison leads all forwards in the CCHA with 27 points; with 24 points, Miami’s Dan Boyle is tied with two others for overall power-play points among defensemen.

In net for Michigan, Marty Turco has looked like a pro. His save percentage is .892, and his GAA is a remarkable 2.37 — and all this from a guy who’s spent over 1300 minutes in net. For Miami, Trevor Prior has had a career season. With a save percentage of .894 and a GAA of 2.89, Prior is a big part of the reason for Miami’s storybook season.

This game shouldn’t be missed.

PICK: A 3-3 tie

Western Michigan (14-15-4, 10-11-4 CCHA) at Ohio State (12-22-1, 9-15-1 CCHA) Saturday, 7 p.m., OSU Ice Rink, Columbus, OH

Ohio State surprised Western Michigan two weeks ago, beating them 6-2 at the Ohio Expo Center. That game — played just after Ohio State’s weekend sweep of Notre Dame — may have been the game that ignited this Buckeye team. Since the Western game, Ohio State has been 2-0-1.

The Buckeyes take a six-game unbeaten streak into the tiny little OSU Ice Rink, a place Buckeye players affectionately call "The War Memorial." Any game played in the little rink is going to be more physical than usual; because of the rink’s size, it’s hard for players to avoid contact, even when skating on the open ice.

"It’s going to be another dogfight Saturday night," says Bill Wilkinson. "It’s in the smaller building, so it’s going to be a little bit more in the trenches. It’ll be a little bit more physical, with less room for skating."

Wilkinson knows the Buckeyes are hot right now, and playing with a lot of confidence. "If you’re faint of heart," he quips, "you’d better call in sick for this one."

Western split with Notre Dame last week, losing 5-4 in overtime in South Bend, but rebounding strong the following night at home, beating the Irish 6-1.

"I think you want to finish as high as you can going into the playoffs," says Wilkinson. If we can win two on the road, that takes us into the playoffs in a good frame of mind. If not, then you’re scrambling again."

The Buckeyes tied with Bowling Green in the little rink last Saturday, and stunned Michigan State 8-3 at the Expo Center Sunday. They are riding the best streak this Buckeye senior class has ever seen.

A huge part of the Buckeye success is goaltending. The combined efforts of freshmen Ray Aho and Tom Connerty have kept opponents to just three goals per game in each of the last six games. Aho, the starter, is 3-0-1 during this stretch. Connerty is 2-0-0. One win was a non-conference game against Bowling Green, and the other was last Sunday’s win over Michigan State, a game in which Connerty turned aside 42 shots on goal.

This game is going to be physical, and quite possibly nasty. The Buckeye fans fill the little rink, giving the place real college hockey atmosphere.

It’s hard to bet against the Buckeyes right now.

PICK: Ohio State 5-3

No. 8 Michigan State (14-15-4, 15-7-3 CCHA) at Bowling Green (15-15-4, 10-12-4 CCHA) Saturday, 7 p.m., BGSU Ice Arena, Bowling Green, OH

This game means so much more to Bowling Green than it does to Michigan State, even though it’s unlikely that BG will move up in the standings this weekend. It’s a matter of finishing this injury-laden season with some self-respect, and gaining some momentum going into the playoffs on the road.

This is a Falcon team that expected to finish among the top four in the CCHA. "We started 6-0 and we had our full lineup," says Falcon head coach Buddy Powers. "Ever since that first loss, we’ve had injury after injury."

The tone of Powers’ voice borders on disappointment. He’s certainly not disappointed with his talented team, but in the past few weeks, the realization that the only way the Falcons will get an NCAA invitation is to take the CCHA tourney has tempered his view.

"We just have to try to do the best we can," he says. "The situation we put ourselves in, we just have to try to win the playoffs. Whether we going to play Michigan State, Lake or Miami, it’s going to be a huge battle."

Powers says the hope of postseason play has kept his players and coaching staff going during the more trying times of the season. "You’ve got to look to the playoffs to get excited."

Powers thinks the outcome of this game will depend a lot on whether Miami wins Friday. If Miami takes [the game], Michigan State can’t catch them. Power says he’s not sure how hard Michigan State is going to play Saturday.

He’s also not sure how hard his own team will be able to play. Three Falcon forwards and a defenseman are injured, and Powers says he won’t make the decision about playing them until Friday night. "We’ll just have to see what state of repair [Adam] Edinger, [Dave] Faulkner, [Kelly] Perrault and [Curtis] Fry are in. If they’re not 100 percent, we won’t play them.

"The key thing is the playoffs. We have to be strong enough mentally and physically for the playoffs.

"We’re trying to get through a game without any more guys hurt."

PICK: Michigan State 5-3

No. 1 Michigan (29-2-4, 20-2-3 CCHA) at Ohio State (12-22-1, 9-15-1 CCHA) Sunday, 1 p.m., Ohio Expo Center, Columbus, OH

The very last game of regular season CCHA play pits Big Ten rivals Michigan and Ohio State. Last season, the Buckeyes were able to tie the Wolverines twice — one of those at Yost. This season, the Buckeyes have experienced two trouncings at the capable hands of the Wolverines. The Wolverines beat the Buckeyes 7-2 at their home opener; more recently, Michigan beat Ohio State 6-1 in a game that made the Buckeyes look like Pee Wees.

This is the last home game for three Ohio State seniors — three-time captain Steve Brent, co-captain Chad Power and Pierre Dufour — who have never beaten the Wolverines. In fact, Ohio State hasn’t beaten the Wolverines in the last 29 meetings of these two teams — since Nov. 19, 1989.

The Wolverines are going to be looking to keep that streak alive. In spite of the Buckeyes’ recent success, their seniors’ last game will probably be par for the Michigan course.

The Buckeyes are getting much better goaltending from Ray Aho and Tom Connerty, who’ve given up no more than three goals in each of Ohio State’s last six outings. The Buckeyes also want to take some respect with them when they travel to either Oxford or East Lansing next week for the first round of the playoffs.

PICK: Michigan 4-3

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

Copyright 1997 Paula C. Weston . All Rights Reserved.

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