With a two-game sweep over Miami, Michigan moved into sole possession of first place last weekend, leaving Michigan State and Northern Michigan deadlocked for second, and once again the CCHA looks like a three-tier league, with three teams on top, a bunch of teams in the middle, and several teams struggling to grab that last playoff spot.
And it’s only January.
This week, let’s forget about the top three and focus on where the real drama is unfolding: the middle of the pack.
"Thus with imagin’d wing our swift scene flies…"
There are three key series between teams jockeying for position in the middle of the CCHA pack this week: Ferris State vs. Miami, Lake Superior vs. Nebraska-Omaha, and Western Michigan vs. Notre Dame.
Ferris State (15-9-0, 8-8-0 CCHA) at Miami (9-9-2, 6-6-2 CCHA)
The well-rested Bulldogs–unofficial Defenders of the Realm–ride into Oxford after most recently splitting with Northern Michigan on Jan. 7 and 8. The 5-1 win on the 8th was a statement, and landed Ferris State in USCHO’s Top Ten Poll–for one week, anyway.
Out of sight, out of mind.
Kevin Swider (8-6–14) had two goals in the contest, while Brian McCullough (5-6–11) doubled his conference assists in that game, adding three on the night.
Phil Osaer–whose 1.90 goals-against average and .925 save percentage put him third in a league where the top six goaltenders have save percentages significantly higher than 90%–made 29 saves in the 5-1 win.
Miami, on the other hand, returns home after losing 5-2 and 5-1 to Michigan in Yost, a season sweep by the Wolverines. The first night, the RedHawks peppered Josh Blackburn with 39 shots; in the second game, Miami had 10 total shots on goal.
In the first game, guys named Kosick and Comrie and Cammalleri scored. In the second contest, Craig Murray (2-0–2) picked up his first two goals of the season, and other less-familiar Wolverines Mark Mink (2-4–6) and Krikor Arman (1-0–1) also tallied.
The inconsistent RedHawks are 2-4-0 in their last six games, dating back to early December. Rookie goalie David Burleigh has five wins and four losses, and a respectable 2.24 GAA. But his league save percentage of .883 is a telling stat.
Miami did an admirable job the first half of the season after losing key offensive players, and the young RedHawks have played up to their potential–and perhaps beyond.
Both Ferris State and Miami are in quasi-transitional years. Each team is young. Each team is rebuilding after losing key players. But the Bulldogs have a veteran edge to them. While having lost a huge senior class, Ferris State has good leadership from its upperclassmen, excellent goaltending from Osaer, and all-around more consistent play.
Not to mention that ability to confound nonconference opponents.
If I were a betting woman–and I’m not–Ferris State is the team I’d pick to vie for home ice down the stretch.
Lake Superior (10-11-1, 9-6-1 CCHA) at Nebraska-Omaha (7-11-4, 9-6-1 CCHA)
The Lakers are 3-2-1 in their last six conference games, most recently having beaten Alaska-Fairbanks twice by the score of 3-2. Neither win was easy, with the Lakers having to come from behind at home each night.
With the wins over UAF, Lake State climbs into sole possession of fourth place–for now, three points ahead of Ferris State, with whom the Lakers have split the season series.
The surprising Lakers, who just lost leading scorer Trent Walford, are in the thick of it in large part because of the play of junior goaltender Jayme Platt, who is second in the league in save percentage (2.18 GAA, .933 SV%), but first in saves, averaging 29.50 per game.
The lack of support may be something that’s difficult to overcome in the long run. As a team, the Lakers are on the positive side of plus/minus, but are outscoring conference opponents by just six goals this season (44-38). The top scorer on the team, Ryan Knox, has two goals and 11 assists; Ben Keup (8-1–9) leads the team in goal production, while Jeremy Bachusz (6-6–12) may be one of the more consistent Lakers.
A team can certainly ride a hot goalie into home ice, but it’s difficult to do when so little is getting done at the other end of the ice–and when that hot goalie has to face so many shots.
This week, the Lakers head to Omaha to face a team that has put itself in a really good position at midseason, the Mavericks.
Congratulations, Mavs, on making a big ol’ statement with your first road win–a 4-3 overtime win in Munn Arena, over Michigan State. Splitting the weekend, the Mavericks lost 3-1 the second night.
"I was pleased with how our team went into Munn and gave them two hard-fought games," said head coach Mike Kemp. "The momentum and confidence the players gained from the series is something that will hopefully snowball into the upcoming weeks."
One player who had to have gained confidence from the two-game series was sophomore goaltender Rodney McLeod, who made 75 saves on the weekend. In four conference games played, McLeod has posted a 3.45 GAA and .897 save percentage.
Kemp hopes that the snowball effect will continue for the Mavs, and it just may. In cluster play this season, the Mavs are doing many of the right things, with four games against clustermates to go. UNO is 1-3-0 against Michigan State, but they had little chance of competing head-to-head with the Spartans for position within the league from the start.
Halfway through its season series with clustermates Notre Dame and Alaska-Fairbanks, UNO is 1-0-1 against the Irish, and 2-0-0 against UAF.
Then there are other middle-of-the-pack teams against which UNO may be competing for position. The Mavs finish the season 1-1-0 against Western, and 0-1-1 against Ohio State.
They’ve already beaten Miami in a nonconference game.
For a first-year team, they’re doing remarkably well, and this weekend should prove to be no exception.
"I felt coming into the season that Lake Superior had the firepower to be one of the best teams in the league," said Kemp. "It is very important that we come out and set the tone early because this is definitely one of the biggest tests our team has faced this season."
While the actual Laker firepower is questionable, there’s no doubt Lake is good where it counts, between the pipes. Nebraska-Omaha is led in scoring Allan Carr (4-8–12) and Jeff Hoggan (8-4–12), and David Brisson (5-5–10) is a player to watch.
Down the stretch, should Platt continue to carry the Lakers, Lake State has an honest chance at home ice. The Mavericks, playing consistent hockey, will probably make the playoffs–an excellent achievement for their first year in conference play.
Western Michigan (8-10-0, 7-7-2 CCHA) at Notre Dame (8-13-5, 5-7-4 CCHA)
Two points and a world of difference separate the Broncos from the Irish. Western Michigan came out of the gate at a steady pace and has continued to play just that way–steady hockey, not tearing up the league, but consistent from week to week.
The Irish, on the other hand, may be described as one of the league’s biggest first-half disappointments. Starting slowly and unable to score much in the first couple of months, Notre Dame has tied both Lake Superior and Northern Michigan recently, and the Irish are finally finding the net.
Ryan Dolder has ten points (3-7–10) in his past 12 games. Joe Dusbabek (3- 6–9) leads Notre Dame in league scoring, and that says a whole lot; the leading conference scorer for the Irish has just nine points in league play.
Fortunately for Notre Dame, the Irish defense is good, and rookie goaltender Tony Zasowski is playing very well. His 2.25 GAA and .915 SV% put him fifth in the league.
Western Michigan is also paced well, by sophomore Jeff Reynaert, a workhorse with a 2.95 GAA and .905 SV%. Reynaert sees nearly 30 shots per game, six more than Zasowski.
Western has one thing that Notre Dame seems to lack: the ability to score. David Gove (10-16–26) is the real deal, third in the league in scoring. Michael Bishai (9- 9–18) is keeping company with more familiar names, like OSU’s J.F. Dufour, and MSU’s Adam Hall.
Western’s third-leading scorer in conference play, Steve Rymsha, (6-6–12) has three more points in league play than the Irish’s top conference scorer.
The Broncos are on the cold side lately, going 2-3-0 in their last five games, which includes all of December and January so far. Last weekend, Western traveled to Ithaca and dropped two games to tough, physical Cornell, 4-3 and 3-1.
The Broncos have split the four conference games they’ve played since early December, beating and losing to both Notre Dame and Alaska-Fairbanks. In fact, that’s the Broncos’ M.O. Before December, they split with Miami (loss and a tie); beat OSU twice; split with Bowling Green (win and loss); split with Lake State (win and loss); split with Northern Michigan (loss and win); split with Nebraska-Omaha (loss and tie); split with Dartmouth (win and loss).
If they continue to win half their games, Western will absolutely make the playoffs. In fact, home ice is not at all out of the question.
Notre Dame, however, is a long shot to play at home in postseason, very long. And the Irish will probably need help from a couple of other teams–namely Ohio State or Bowling Green–to make the playoffs at all. If either of those teams gets hot and the Irish falter, they could be golfing early.
The Play’s the Thing
After a home win over Ohio State 3-0 on Jan. 14, and before heading to Columbus to face the Buckeyes the following night, Bowling Green head coach Buddy Powers prophesied, "We need points. Everything else is the game within the game."
The game within the game. Indeed.
For a few of these middle-tier teams, the season has already been decided. Repeatedly splitting points with other middle-of-the-packers will only insure that there’s little movement among these six clubs.
Lake Superior State
The Lakers get a "C" for offensive output so far this season in conference play. Lake State averages 2.75 goals per game, tied with Bowling Green for seventh in conference scoring. The one big gun is gone, and if Lake Superior is to take home ice, a lot of different committee members will need to score.
Lake State is fourth in goals allowed, however, letting in 2.38 per game. The credit for that goes almost exclusively to Jayme Platt. For having a hot goaltender, the Lakers earn "B-" in defense.
Not surprisingly, the Laker power play is 11th in the league, while their penalty kill is third.
The Bulldogs are sixth in the league in offensive production, averaging a nice-but-not-great 2.88 goals per game in conference play. They’re an above-average team, offensively, and their power play is fourth in the league (16.5%). Grade: "B."
Defensively, they’re about the same. Nothing fancy, nothing wonderful, but a hard-working team that never underestimates opponents. Ferris State is allowing 2.69 goals per game, which is 5th in the league, but second among middle-tier teams, behind Lake Superior.
Their PK is right there as well, fourth in the league at .861. Defensively, they too deserve a "B-."
The Bulldogs, however, get bonus points for staying out of the box. Ferris State is the second least-penalized team in the league, averaging 17.25 minutes per game.
It may surprise some folks that the Broncos are third in the league in point production, averaging over three goals per game (3.19). Only Michigan and Northern Michigan are scoring more goals. And the Western power play is second in the league, converting at 18.3%. The Broncos lead every middling team in offense. Give the Broncos an "A-" on offense.
But defensively, Western Michigan shows signs of needing improvement. In conference play, the Broncos are giving up nearly as many goals as they score (3.13). And the Western PK is effective only 83.2% of the time, 9th in the league. That’s not good for a team that averages 23 minutes in the box per game, fourth-most penalized in the league.
The Bronco defense–and hotheadedness–gets a "C."
Still, Western has as fair a chance as anyone in this group to host a playoff series. Of course, that probably means hosting someone else in this group who just missed hosting a series of their own.
This team is the enigma of the league right now.
Miami does respectably well offensively, fifth in the league in goal production, just behind Michigan State (2.93). But the Miami power play is converting at just 14.1%, sixth in the league.
Miami has done well to compensate for the loss of key players, but whether or not other players have stepped up for good remains to be seen. Grade for offense: "B-."
Defensively, this team has its ups and downs. David Burleigh can be a wall in net, or he can have a really bad game. The RedHawks are square in the middle of the league in goals allowed, averaging 2.71 per game. The Miami PK is effective 85.7% of the time. Grade for defense: "B-."
Miami has a shot at home ice, but the RedHawks need to play consistent hockey to achieve that.
What’s not to love about this team? First year in the league, and tied with Miami and Notre Dame for points, and probably going to travel somewhere in postseason to play some extra hockey.
UNO averages just 2.69 goals per game, ninth in the league and second-to-last among the middle-tier teams. There’s no one Maverick who stands out as a pure goal-scorer or playmaker, which isn’t a bad thing, but if scoring is to be done by committee, more members need to contribute.
The UNO power play is not terrific, converting just 13.1% of the time.
The Maverick offense gets a "C." In a league as good as this, as large as this, average is good enough.
Defensively, the Mavs don’t fare quite as well. They’re dead last–or should we say first?–in goals allowed among these six teams, averaging 3.56 per game. Their penalty kill is 11th, effective 77.8% of the time.
What really hurts the Mavs this season is their inability to win on the road. I think they’ll make the playoffs, barring a huge drop-off in play. A little help from UAF, Bowling Green, Ohio State, and/or Notre Dame wouldn’t hurt.
This may be a team heating up when it’s most prudent to do so.
On paper, the Irish are the worst of the middling teams. Notre Dame’s offense is languishing in the cellar with that of Ohio State (who would have thought that about either team, a year ago?), averaging under two goals per game (1.88).
The Irish power play is dead last, converting at 12.0%.
Grade? Oh, this is difficult….but a "D" is all they can muster.
Defensively, though, the Irish are a bit better, allowing 2.88 goals per game, 7th in the league. A good goaltender and decent defense will do that for you–but they’re nothing if you can’t put the puck in the net.
The Irish PK is also seventh (.843). Grade for defense: "C+."
If the Irish defense continues to play well, if Zasowski continues to play well, and if the Notre Dame offense wakes up, the Irish will make the playoffs, earning the right to play Michigan, Michigan State, or Northern Michigan in the first round.
Help from Ohio State and/or Bowling Green may be necessary. Otherwise, Notre Dame could be sitting this one out.
Next Week: Prologue and Epilogue, or the Top and Bottom Tiers
The well-established top tier includes Michigan, Michigan State, and Northern Michigan, the CCHA’s three ranked teams. What a shame that each team anchors a different cluster.
The bottom tier may change from week to week, but certainly includes at this point Alaska-Fairbanks, Ohio State, and Bowling Green. Fairbanks seems unable to break out of the cellar. Both Ohio State and Bowling Green are capable of playing very good hockey, but whether either can overcome its significant and significantly different troubles remains to be seen.
Notre Dame and UNO flirt with the bottom tier.
The Cat That Lives Up To Her Name, or The Near-Tragedy
As responsible people, we all know enough to keep harmful substances away from children and pets.
Until this week, I considered myself a responsible person.
I have no children. I’ve owned cats my whole life. Until this week, I kept my cleaning supplies in a bucket by my bathtub. It’s a small apartment, with little storage space.
On Tuesday, one of my 10-month-old kittens, Moxy, somehow spilled a household cleaner, walked through it, and apparently ingested some of it. I acted as soon as I figured out what was wrong, but I almost lost her anyway. She was touch-and-go all night Tuesday. Her upper respiratory system was affected (the vet thinks she may have got a snoutful, somehow), and there were chemical burns in her mouth.
I am lucky, and Moxy is lucky. She must not have ingested a large quantity. By mid-day Wednesday, her breathing had become regular, and she was showing interest in food.
Last night, she ate half a can of albacore tuna and drank a lot of a commercially-treated milk product for cats.
Her purr is still raspy, and she coughs a bit when she eats, but the vet says she’ll be fine. She’s already shredding the trunk of my fig tree, and terrorizing the curtain in the living room.
I never thought that any cat of mine could be accidentally poisoned, but now I know. The cleaning supplies are now in a space that’s very difficult to get to, even for me. Moxy can’t even walk by them now.
Consider this a public service announcement. I’m just sorry that this kitten had to spend one of her lives to drive home something I should have already known.