Gifts of the Season
You have to wonder about a weekend where so many CCHA fans got to see their teams win at home. Every single home team won this weekend, with the exception of the Wildcats and Lakers, who swapped a pair of road wins in a home-and-home series.
The week before Thanksgiving, nearly every team in USCHO’s Poll dropped at least one game. For the College Hockey Showcase, each team went 1-1-0. Wackiness abounds this season, and this most recent weekend–which included upsets by Notre Dame, Bowling Green, Lake State, and Ohio State, in the midst of the holiday season–could only mean one thing.
The guy in the red suit has been answering letters from CCHA fans.
We caught up with the Jolly Old Elf in Detroit ("No photos, please. It’s a trademarked image, you know."), where he had just finished delivering Desmond Howard to the Lions.
"This was really the ideal weekend to grant the wishes of every fan in the league," said Claus. "Everyone wanted home wins this weekend, and we found it easy to oblige.
"Of course, the elves dropped the ball on that whole Upper Peninsula thing," sighed Claus. "We have to keep after them all the time about geography."
So, every team in the league won this weekend except for Alaska-Fairbanks. What about the Nanook fans?
"Oh, I think we took care of them for the entire century with that win over Michigan early in the season." Claus shrugged. "Scheduling really isn’t my department."
There were happy fans all over the league, some of the happiest–one would think–in Bowling Green, where the Falcons beat the Wolverines 4-2 Friday night, snapping a 10-game losing streak against Michigan, the team everyone seems to love to hate.
Michigan returned the favor by winning 3-1 Saturday.
"You know," said Claus, "they’re nice boys on both teams. But those fans at Yost have been naughty, naughty, naughty. That win wasn’t for the fans so much, but for that very nice junior goaltender."
Tyler Masters had 29 saves for BG, while junior transfer L.J. Scarpace stopped 33 shots Saturday.
Notre Dame fans were treated to the first Irish shutout of Michigan State in more than 20 years. "Oh yes," said Claus, "that was a special request, a hard one to grant, but you know Notre Dame– they’re very well connected."
Tony Zasowski notched his second shutout of the season in the 1-0 Irish win.
Michigan State fans were treat to yet another home win (aren’t they just a bit spoiled, Santa?) when the Spartans won 4-1 Sunday.
On Friday night, few fans at Goggin Arena were surprised when Miami beat Ohio State, since the Buckeyes haven’t won in Oxford since 1991. But the 5-0 shutout was nice, the third of the season for freshman David Burleigh.
On Sunday, the Buckeye fans were given an unexpected Christmas gift–a natural hat trick by Eric Meloche, a goal and four assists by Jean-Francois Dufour, and a convincing 4-1 win over bitter in-state rivals, the RedHawks.
"Well you know, those faithful Buckeye fans sent letters for years and years," said Claus, "and we had few ways of answering them, for the longest time. It’s a little easier when we get cooperation from the players."
Both Western Michigan and Ferris State fans were pleased to see their teams win–and score a lot of goals. In the 7-3 Bronco win Friday night, David Gove (is he a household name yet?) had two goals and an assist, moving him within one point of Michigan State’s Shawn Horcoff and Michigan’s Mike Comrie for the CCHA scoring lead.
On Saturday, Bulldog fans were treated to a 6-0 win over the Broncos and Phil Osaer’s first shutout of the season.
After watching their Lakers lose 3-2 at home to Northern Michigan–in spite of Jayme Platt’s 46 saves–the Lakers were treated to a road win over the Wildcats, where Platt was again outstanding, saving 35 of 36 shots in the 4-1 win.
But the happiest fans in the league had to be those of Nebraska-Omaha, who witnessed the Mavericks’ first series sweep of conference opponents–just six weekends into the season.
"That was special," said Claus. "Nice folks in Omaha, you know. Heartland and all that."
UNO head coach Mike Kemp said, "It was fun. You take anything you can get.
"Our fans deserve to see us play well. They’re there for us all the time. They liked it, obviously."
Kemp said that playing clustermate Alaska-Fairbanks made him more anxious than his upcoming trip to Ann Arbor.
"Let’s be honest I’m more nervous with a team like Fairbanks than I am with a team that you’re not expected to beat. Games when you’re playing a like opponent, there’s more pressure.
"I’m always nervous before a game. You never know what’s going to happen."
Still, with the sweep, the Mavericks were anything but flawless, said Kemp.
"I thought we played very hard in spurts. At times I was disappointed with some of the attention to detail, but overall we played well. We were able to muster an awful lot of shots on goal."
In fact, the Mavericks put 36 shots on goal Friday, and 48 Saturday.
But don’t think Kemp and the Mavericks–who are 4-1-3 in their last eight games–are going into Yost without at least a little fear in their hearts.
"There’s a handful of programs in the country that you can always say, no matter what the circumstances are, they’re always going to be good," said Kemp.
"No one slides into and out of Michigan, Michigan State, Boston University, North Dakota. You’re lucky if you escape with point."
"That’s Mike Kemp for you," said Claus. "A real nice guy. It was our pleasure to deliver that sweep."
As for Nanook fans?
"Well, after the first of the year, you know that Wayne State visits Fairbanks for two," said Claus, a twinkle in his eye.
Ho, ho, ho.
So, you’re stunned by the seasons the Irish and Buckeyes are having, given recent history? Think they’re struggling, do you?
"It’s been coming. Who else isn’t going through it right now?" said Notre Dame head coach Dave Poulin. "There’s a lot going on in college hockey right now."
He’s right, of course. CCHA fans have already seen Miami sweep Michigan State on the road, and the Lakers take it to Michigan twice in Yost.
In fact, Michigan State–arguably one of the best teams in the country–has dropped four of their last six. Michigan, ditto.
Northern Michigan had its seven-game win streak snapped by Lake Superior, a team that has won four of its last six.
And those Irish and Buckeyes? Notre Dame is also 4-2-0 in its last six, while Ohio State is 3- 2-1 recently.
In fact, the Irish had nearly identical point totals for November 1998 and 1999, going 3-2-2 last year, and 3-2-1 this season. "But we had the great October last year to back that up," said Poulin.
Poulin said that the length of the college hockey season, and the quickness of its start, are bigger determinants than some of what happens in the middle.
"You skate four times, play an exhibition or conference game. Then you’re in your league and it’s going, and all of a sudden you’re fully immersed."
Poulin said the fast start leaves little time to adjust. "I just think we went through some difficulties we had to go through. You can’t predict them.
"It’s the meshing of the team. The team comes together. You lose some players, you hope you can compensate."
Poulin remains optimistic about the Irish chances–about every team’s chances–this season. "Whoever gets hot in the stretch will have a chance at home ice."
There may be something to Poulin’s theory. Or maybe not. After a lousy start to last season, the Buckeyes looked good in November, December, and January, had a mediocre February and a terrible March, and went to the NCAA tournament.
"Hot in the stretch" is exactly what both Notre Dame and Ohio State need. The Irish have a full plate of nonconference opponents in December, while the Buckeyes don’t play again until the end of the month.
Given the nature of the league this season, it’s going to take more than just heat for either team to get home ice.
Ryan Miller isn’t the only rookie goaltender to register three shutouts this season. Miami’s David Burleigh earned his third of the year–and his second in a row–with the RedHawks’ 5-0 win over Ohio State.
Burleigh is now fourth in league goaltending stats, with a 1.70 GAA and .915 save percentage. The Michigan State duo of Miller and Joe Blackburn continues to top the charts. In addition to his impressive three shutouts–which were consecutive–Miller’s GAA is 1.15, and his save percentage of .945 leads the league.
That slacker Blackburn, by comparison, has just one shutout, a 1.29 GAA, and a mere .938 save percentage.
Northern Michigan’s Dan Ragusett has two shutouts, a 1.64 GAA and .925 SV%.
Other goalies with one shutout each include Ferris State’s Phil Osaer (2.00 GAA, .918 SV%); Notre Dame’s Tony Zasowski (2.27 GAA, .917 SV%); BG’s Tyler Masters (3.00 GAA, .896 SV%); and Northern’s Duane Hoey (3.35 GAA, .853 SV%).
Sometimes, what goes around comes around. Ryan Miller–the league’s best goaltender–was the goalie of record in the two shutouts suffered by the Spartans this season.
According to the CCHA, the two shutouts Saturday–by Osaer and Zasowski–were the 13th and 14th of the season, making this current 1999-2000 season fourth among shutout seasons in the CCHA. 1997-98 saw 20 shutouts, and 1995-96 and 1998-99 saw 18 each.
Games of the Week and Grudge of the Week will return when the league plays a full conference schedule after the first of the year.