Well, no–and no.
Two of the top teams in the CCHA play in The College Hockey Showcase this weekend, and six other teams are engaged in conference play that will definitely have some bearing on the CCHA playoffs.
No. 1 Michigan State sits on top of the CCHA as well as the college hockey world this week. The Spartans took four points from Ohio teams last weekend, beating both Ohio State and Bowling Green. Michigan State is home for The College Hockey Showcase.
Second in the CCHA, the Northern Michigan Wildcats tied with Lake Superior on the road last weekend, their only game. With 14 points, the ‘Cats can regain first place in the CCHA with a win over the Buckeyes this week.
Michigan holds on to the third spot in the CCHA with wins over Bowling Green and Ohio State last week. With 13 points, the Wolverines are one point ahead of the No. 4 Miami RedHawks, who have the week off. Michigan, like Michigan State, is home for The College Hockey Showcase.
With seven points, Notre Dame is in seventh place in the CCHA. The Fighting Irish tied with and lost to the surprising Ferris State Bulldogs last weekend. The Bulldogs are in fifth place in the CCHA with 11 points. Notre Dame hosts Lake Superior State–just one point behind the Irish–for two this week.
Ohio State travels to Northern Michigan for two games this weekend. The Buckeyes dropped two close games last weekend, including heart-breaking overtime loss to Michigan with just 31 seconds left in the game. With just four points, the Buckeyes are actually having a good start to their year.
Anchoring the bottom of the CCHA are both Bowling Green and Alaska-Fairbanks, who meet for three in Fairbanks this weekend. The teams are separated by just one point; Bowling Green has three CCHA points, while Alaska-Fairbank has two. The Falcons dropped two games last weekend. The Nanooks took a break last weekend after a five-game road trip through Michigan.
Western Michigan sits this one out altogether.
Last week’s record in picks: 5-4 Overall record in picks: 38-35
The College Hockey Showcase
Minnesota (3-7-0, 4-8-0 WCHA) at Michigan (9-3-1, 6-2-1 CCHA) Friday, 7 p.m., Yost Ice Arena, Ann Arbor, MI No. 6 Wisconsin (7-1-0, 7-1-0 WCHA) at No. 1 Michigan State (11-1-2, 7-1-1 CCHA) Friday, 7 p.m., Munn Ice Arena, East Lansing, MI
Minnesota at No. 1 Michigan State Sunday, 2 p.m., Munn Ice Arena, East Lansing, MI No. 6 Wisconsin at Michigan Sunday, 4 p.m., Yost Ice Arena, Ann Arbor, MI
Fans can’t get enough of this yearly holiday showcase which pits four of the five Big Ten schools with Division-I teams, and gives former conference rivals a chance to meet for at least this event. This year the Showcase moves to the CCHA, with Michigan and Michigan State hosting Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Minnesota vs. Michigan
There’s a lot of history between these two teams. "It’s been good competition," says Michigan head coach Red Berenson. "It’s good in terms of traditional rivalries. Certainly Michigan and Minnesota are great rivals. We have played more games against each other than any two teams in the country."
Minnesota has the edge in the overall rivalry. The Golden Gophers are 118-109-5 against the Wolverines.
Neither of these teams is the team it was a year ago. Minnesota is a team that lost seniors to graduation, and other players to the pros. Last weekend, the Gophers dropped two games to Colorado College, 5-1 and 4-3. The two losses capped a five-game losing streak. "We’ve been struggling here," says Minnesota head coach Doug Woog. "We’ve lost five in a row for the first time in years."
There are a number of factors that contribute to the Gophers’ woes, and Woog says that special teams are part of the problem. "Our power play hasn’t done anything. I think we’re one for 1997," quips Woog. Still, the coach isn’t completely discouraged. "We’ve played some good teams, and we play well some nights."
Woog especially feels the loss of Brian LaFleur, Minnesota’s top scorer from the blueline last season. "What we’re going through is that we’re a little short on defense. We don’t have an offensive defenseman."
On the other hand, Michigan has a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, and seems to have some of what it takes to win.
The Wolverines earned four CCHA points last weekend by beating Bowling Green 4-2 and Ohio State 3-2 in overtime. While the Wolverines lost The Michigan Nine, they retained goaltender Marty Turco and senior forward Bill Muckalt who has 11 goals in 13 games this season. When the Wolverine defense looks sluggish, Turco comes through, having made an impressive 289 saves overall this season. And don’t forget that Michigan can score.
Still, the adjustment to new players and the loss of its senior class has made this a different Michigan team. Michigan has a good recruiting class, but Berenson says, "It’s too big. There’s no coach in college hockey that wants to have nine freshman playing every night."
Among those freshmen are two potential Rookie of the Year candidates, center Mark Kosich and defenseman Mike Van Ryn. In 13 games in overall play, Kosich has five goals and nine assists. Van Ryn is a defensive playmaker, one of the few standout players in the Michigan defense.
In this game, as in most Michigan games, Marty Turco will be the difference. His .909 save percentage and 2.36 GAA don’t tell the whole story of this goaltender, to whom the puck must sometimes seem as big as the moon this season. This is the guy you want for the big save, and don’t tell Turco that this team is any different than it was last year; he plays for all the world as though Michigan can go back to the NCAA Championship Tournament.
The Gophers, tied for sixth place in the WCHA with Minnesota-Duluth–and don’t think that doesn’t hurt–have allowed 42 goals to just 34 goals scored. Michigan has outscored opponents by the slim margin of 30-21, but the Wolverines keep winning those close games.
With a record of 4-8-0 overall, Gophers’ goalie Steve DeBus has a GAA of 3.58 and a save percentage of .884. Like Turco, these numbers don’t tell the whole story of a goaltender who has had little help out front. And that, ultimately, will be the undoing in this close game.
PICK: Michigan 3-1
No. 6 Wisconsin vs. No. 1 Michigan State
Can see only one game this weekend? Get your college hockey butt to this game.
This is the first time that the Badgers (and the Golden Gophers) visit Munn since the 1979-80 season–Ron Mason’s first season as Spartan head coach. The Spartans split the pair of games that weekend, just in case you’re wondering.
Both of these teams bring a five-game winning streak to this game. The Badgers just completed their third sweep of the season, beating the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs 3-0 and 4-2 last weekend. The Spartans beat a pair of Ohio teams last weekend. It was Michigan State 2, Ohio State 1 on Friday, and the Spartans beat up the Bowling Green Falcons 4-2 the following night, allowing just 10 shots on goal in the game.
The Spartans and the Badgers met early in the season, when Shawn Horcoff’s third period goal gave Michigan State the win in the Team Cheerios Ice Breaker Invitational. "When we played them," says Mason, "I was really impressed with their team. This is the kind of team that’s capable of winning anywhere. They’re good. I’m looking forward to this series."
Wisconsin head coach Jeff Sauer says that playing the Spartans early in the season was a definite advantage. "They’re not an unknown. I think the key the last couple of years for them has been the goaltender."
Indeed. Spartan goaltender Chad Alban sits on top of both the overall and CCHA stats for his conference, with an incredible 1.45 goals against average overall, and a save percentage of .919 in nearly 785 minutes of play.
The Spartan defense has been nearly impenetrable this season, seldom allowing more than five shots on goal per period. Leading the Spartan defense is Tyler Harlton, the quintessential stay-at- home defenseman. Before you can even get to Alban, you have to go through Harlton.
This is a team loathe to give up goals. In overall play, the Spartans have a collective plus/minus of plus 105. That’s not a misprint. This may be the stingiest team in college hockey.
Part of the fun of this game’s pairing will be the goaltending duel. If a team can’t have Chad Alban in net, they’d be happy to have Mike Valley, whose GAA is 1.84 and save percentage is .939.
The Badgers have also have an impressive defense, with perhaps one added advantage over the Spartans. Wisconsin has a blueliner who can score. Defenseman Craig Anderson leads the team in scoring with two assists and 10 goals for 12 points.
Michigan State seems to get the better of Wisconsin lately, but not by much. The Spartans have won the last three games against the Badgers, and the last five of six. Michigan State won last year’s College Hockey Showcase game 3-1. The last nine meetings between these two teams have each been decided by two or fewer goals. That streak dates back to 1980.
Expect nothing different in this game. This is ground-’em-out, wear-’em-down hockey. Says Jeff Sauer of the Spartans, "They certainly know how to close people down. Friday night we have to wade through the trees to get to the goal, so to speak."
With all that green and white around, that’s not a bad analogy.
State has the advantage defensively, and with the Horcoff line can click.
PICK: Michigan State 2-1
Minnesota vs. No. 1 Michigan State
"Our fans are inundated with the Big Ten in all the other sports, and it [The College Hockey Showcase] satisfies their need for Big Ten exposure," says Michigan State head coach Ron Mason. "We just don’t take for granted the kind of fans we have who fill Munn night after night. We need things that they get excited about."
Here’s a thing or two that Spartan fans can get excited about:
Last season Minnesota ended Michigan State’s quest for an NCAA title. The final score was 6-3.
Oh, and the Gophers won the College Hockey Showcase last season, with a 5-3 win over Michigan State.
And Minnesota leads the series 96-38-6, and 40-23-2 in East Lansing.
And Michigan State hasn’t beaten Minnesota since the 1987 NCAA Championship Tournament, seven games ago.
Forget all that. Michigan State is going make it all seem like ancient history.
While the Gophers have lost six games by one or two goals and have beaten Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Maine, they have yet this season to play the terror that is Chad Alban, to meet the defense that allows well fewer than 10 shots on goal per period, on the average.
This is a Spartan team with a mission. Sean Berens has said that the only thing that matters this season is a banner in the rafters. Who cares if the two points that Michigan State will undoubtedly take from this game don’t count in the CCHA standings? A win here counts for something else, perhaps even something more.
Just as a loss here will count for much more than just no points overall for Minnesota.
"It would help if we could beat teams that are definitely going to be in there at the end of the season," says Minnesota head coach Doug Woog. "If we lose these games this weekend, we’ll have to take the conference to get a bid."
He means it. The Gophers are bringing a five-game losing streak into this Showcase, and for the first time in many years, the Gophers are not favored to take even a point.
Minnesota is a team that is a bit disjointed, a team that’s not functioning as a team. Says Woog, "We’re not doing little things together. There’s too much one-on-one hockey going on."
Woog explains that his upperclassmen, especially his forwards, are all trying to win games single-handedly. This has lead to mistakes and penalties that Minnesota has not been able to afford. "We can skate. The games will be good. We’ve made more errors, but we can move. If we couldn’t skate at all, I wouldn’t like that."
Woog says that his teams have always "had good games in the circumstance" of the College Hockey Showcase. One advantage his players have, he says, is that "they’ve become accustomed to playing this." A good showing in the Showcase could spur a Minnesota redux.
However, Woog admits, "In other years we’ve been more successful coming into these games than we are right now."
The Spartans are sick–literally. There’s a ‘flu that’s going around the team, and such illness could be a bigger factor in the Spartans’ second game of the weekend, rather than the first.
But don’t count on the upset. Michigan State is tough, solid, and not easily shaken. Such a strong front may lead to exactly what Woog doesn’t want his players to do–commit mistakes, take penalties, give the Spartans even more of an advantage.
PICK: Michigan State 4-1
No. 6 Wisconsin vs. Michigan
Both Jeff Sauer and Red Berenson know what this Showcase means to college hockey.
"Ever since the four schools split off into different leagues," says Sauer, "we’ve always looked for ways to get this back. Our fans are the same. They like to see Michigan and Michigan State."
Berenson says, "When you get to play those teams back to back, it’s great. It’s great for our fans. When you look at the last four years of this tournament, it’s been good competition."
While the Friday night game of Wisconsin vs. Michigan State tends to overshadow this game, don’t be mislead into thinking this one won’t be a show-stopper. The Badgers come to Yost for the first time since 1980, when they lost 3-1. But this Badger team is different; under head coach Jeff Sauer, the Badgers have never played at Yost.
There’s some history here. Wisconsin is 1-3-0 against Michigan in the Showcase. These teams have played 109 games between them, the first of which was way back in 1922 (Michigan won then, too). Overall, the Wolverines lead the series 55-47-6.
Usually, Yost Ice Arena is an advantage in itself for Michigan, but this season the Wolverines are 3-2-0 at home. Perhaps after this game, it will be 3-3-0.
The game between the Badgers and the Wolverines provides another outstanding goaltending duel. Rather than Wisconsin vs. Michigan, perhaps this game could be called Valley vs. Turco. Mike Valley brings his 1.84 GAA and his .939 save percentage to meet Turco’s .909 save percentage and 2.36 GAA.
Both teams are capable of scoring, with the Badgers led by Craig Anderson (2-10-12) and the Wolverines led by Bill Muckalt (11-9-20). Wisconsin plays a little rougher than does Michigan, racking up a total of 181 penalty minutes in just eight games played, to Michigan’s 119 minutes in 13 games played. However, both teams take more penalties than their opponents do, so the penalty stats may indicate absolutely nothing.
Sauer says that while his team will have to wade through a solid–almost immovable–defense against the Spartans, against Michigan, "we’ll see a much more wide-open style of hockey."
Michigan is still without Matt Herr, who’s been out since the beginning of October with a groin injury. The senior forward just started skating this week, but won’t return until December 5 or later.
Even without Herr, Michigan has offensive firepower enough to match Wisconsin. The Wolverine team may have dropped out of the polls, and they may owe their success in large part to three players–Turco, Muckalt, and Bobby Hayes–but what other three players would you rather depend upon?
This one is nearly too close to call. Could go either way.
PICK: Michigan 3-2
Bowling Green (2-10-1, 1-5-1 CCHA) at Alaska-Fairbanks (2-9-1, 1-8-1 CCHA) Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, 3 p.m. AT, Carlson Center, Fairbanks, AK
The Falcons head north and west for the big trip to Alaska for three over the Thanksgiving weekend, after a disappointing two games at home. The Falcons lost 4-2 to Michigan, and 5-2 to No. 1 Michigan State. "Against Michigan State, we made some big mistakes again. We had two turnovers and gave up two goals. With them, you get up the ice, you dump it in."
While Michigan State dominated the Falcons on Saturday, holding them to just 10 shots on goal for the game, the Falcons made a game of it with the Wolverines.
"We played a bad ten minutes against Michigan," says Bowling Green head coach Buddy Powers. Those ten minutes would be the second ten minutes of the first period, in which the Wolverines scored twice. After regaining their composure, the Falcons made it a back-and-forth game.
Although the trip to Alaska is long, Power says the road trip will take some pressure off of his young team. "I think our guys are feeling the heat at home. We’ve been ok on the road so far. We played well at Notre Dame and BC.
"We just need that goal when the game’s on the line. We haven’t had the guy to get the goal in the third period to get us ahead."
The Falcons’ biggest problems have been on-ice discipline. This is a frustrated team, one that tends to make mistakes or, well, brawl a bit when the scoring isn’t easy. And for the Falcons this season, the scoring is never easy.
Fairbanks, on the other hand, is happy to be home. The Nanooks played seven of their last nine league games on the road, and had last weekend off after a grueling five-game, mid-semester trip through Michigan during which the Nanooks went 1-4. The Nanooks look forward to this weekend to jump-start their quest for the playoffs. This Nanooks will be home for 10 of their next 12 CCHA games.
The Nanooks have an offensive edge in this series, with players like Jeff Trembecky (5-8-13), Sjon Wynia (6-6-12), and Kerry Hafele (3-8-11), each of whom can turn up the heat to make the difference in a game.
In a strange but definite advantage, Trembecky also likes to shake things up, which could prove ill for the Falcons, who seem to lack control in that department.
The Falcons have the edge in the net. Mike Savard is performing consistently. His stats aren’t great–a 3.85 GAA and a save percentage of .864–but he isn’t getting much help, and he is capable of making the big save.
In net for the Nanooks, Ian Perkins and Chris Marvel have a combined team save percentage of just .832–a liability in this league.
The Nanooks have rest and the Falcons’ ability to self-destruct on their side. The Nanooks also remember the last time the Falcons were in town–Thanksgiving 1995, a three-game sweep for Bowling Green that could be avenged this weekend.
PICKS: UAF 5-2, Bowling Green 4-2, UAF 4-1
Lake Superior State (3-6-2, 2-4-2 CCHA) at Notre Dame (6-5-1, 3-4-1 CCHA) Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m., Joyce Arena, South Bend, IN,/P>
It was clear from last week’s results that neither of these teams may be what they at first appeared to be.
Lake Superior–in the "not-quite-dead-yet" category–tied first-place Northern Michigan 2-2 at home last weekend. Jason Sessa scored both goals in the game, his fifth and sixth of the season, with some help from Terry Marchant on both goals. Sessa and Marchant lead the Lakers in CCHA scoring.
Rookie goaltender Rob Galatiuk had 25 saves on the night. Galatiuk has done his part for the Lakers this season, with a tidy save percentage of .911 and a GAA of 2.64.
Inconsistency seems to be the Lakers’ biggest problem. This series, so early in the season, sees the Lakers fighting already for their playoff lives. With a record of 2-4-2 in CCHA play, the Lakers are keeping close company with other middle-of-the-pack teams Ohio State and Notre Dame.
Notre Dame stalled temporarily last week, skating to a 5-5 tie at home against the new contender Ferris State, then losing 4-3 at Ferris in their second game of the weekend. The weekend was the first one-point weekend in Notre Dame’s season.
Ben Simon is the big story for Notre Dame. Simon leads the team in overall and league scoring, with four goals and six assists in eight CCHA games. Simon is a break-away threat at any time, even shorthanded.
Goaltender Matt Eisler has put up some respectable stats for the Irish this season. With a save percentage of 90.6 and a GAA of 2.84, Eisler has proven that he can play with anyone in the league.
Both of these teams need these points to break away from what will certainly become the "bottom tier" of the league–the few teams that won’t make the playoffs. Notre Dame is playing more consistently than Lake Superior is, but the Lakers really, really want to win.
PICKS: Lake Superior 4-3, Notre Dame 4-1
Ohio State (5-6-1, 2-5-0 CCHA) at Northern Michigan (7-2-3, 6-1-2 CCHA) Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m., Lakeview Arena, Marquette, MI
Neither of these teams is what anyone expected the season.
The perennial cellar-dwelling Buckeyes–always in danger of not making it into the playoffs, have showed some spirit, some offense, and some goaltending this season.
Led by The French Connection of Hugo Boisvert, Eric Meloche, and Jean-Francois Dufour, the Buckeyes now have the ability to break open a game, as No. 4 Miami discovered several weeks ago.
The Bucs are coming off a no-point weekend, their first of the season, dropping games to both Michigan State and Michigan. But Ohio State was in both of those games, losing by a goal to each team, in overtime to the Wolverines.
The loss against Michigan marked the first time this season that the Buckeyes have lost when The French Connection scored three points in any combination.
Solid for the Buckeyes in net is Jeff Maund, who seems to have moved into the starting position over Ray Aho. Maund lowered his GAA from over 4.00 per game to 2.97 last weekend. His save percentage overall is .908. Aho is no slacker, either, and can provide a different look in net if the Bucs need him.
Northern Michigan is getting outstanding goaltending from Duane Hoey, whose 2.20 GAA and .902 save percentage puts him fourth in the league among goaltenders who have played a full game, and second behind Michigan State’s Chad Alban among goaltenders with more than 100 minutes.
Northern appears to have the whole package, with solid defense and scoring ability. With 15 players with at least one goal, this is a team with depth–surprising when you consider that there are 20 freshmen and sophomores on this squad.
Both teams are unknown to each other. This is just the second long road trip for Ohio State, who has performed well on the road, taking three points from Clarkson after many hours on the bus. Northern Michigan has lost only to Michigan at home.
Ohio State has the distinct advantage of being underestimated by most opponents; also, these Buckeyes don’t yet know how good they are. The Wildcats have lots of advantages–goaltending, offensive depth.
The fine fans in Marquette will, doubtless, greet the Buckeyes with their "Oh How I Hate Ohio State" chant. Some may even dig out their buttons with the same slogan.
This series will be closer than Northern fans will expect.
PICKS: Northern 4-2, Ohio State 4-2