It’s Lonely at the Top…and the Bottom
Perhaps it’s the same every year, in every league. A couple or several teams stand out, look to make a run for the regular-season title, and leave everyone else in the dust.
Then there are programs that can’t get their feet out of the mud, perennially anchoring their conferences like the guys with cement shoes who hold down the ocean floor.
For years, the CCHA had a two-tier set-up, four or so teams that rose to the top and the rest who chased them. Now it seems the league is a three-level affair; there are three teams near first, six or so in the dramatic mid-pack race, and a few on the bottom who are either mired there or working hard to dislodge a center-league team, to secure that last playoff spot.
Last week we looked at what made the middle of the league so exciting, and why Western Michigan, Ferris State, Notre Dame, Nebraska-Omaha, Miami, and Lake Superior are middling teams this season.
This week, it’s time to look at the top of the crop. Next week, we’ll explore the (n)ever-changing underside of the CCHA.
It’s No Mystery
This season, the three usual suspects top the league. With 28 points, Michigan has sole possession of first place, while Michigan State and Northern Michigan–each with 24 points–share second place.
"There’s no mystery to it," says Bowling Green head coach Buddy Powers. "You either do or you don’t. If you get three [goals] a game on average in this league, you stand a pretty good chance of winning most of your games. If you score less than three goals a game, you stand a pretty good chance of losing."
Michigan is averaging 4.22 goals per conference game; Northern Michigan averages 3.44, while Michigan State is scoring 3.18.
Miami and Western Michigan are each averaging more than three goals per game (3.06), while Ferris State is close (2.96). It’s no surprise that each team is vying for postseason home ice.
Michigan’s machine-like offense is third in the league in power-play conversion (.180) and leads the league in shorthanded goals with seven. The Wolverines owe Ohio State for four of those shorties.
The Wolverines score by committee–but what a committee! Nine Michigan players have 10 or more league points: league-leading Mike Comrie (11-22–33); Mark Kosick (10-9–19); Jeff Jillson (4-15–19); Josh Langfeld (6-12–18); rookie Andy Hilbert (10-5–15); rookie Mike Cammalleri (8-6–13); Geoff Koch (6-6–12); the underrated Scott Matzka (5-7–12); and Jed Ortmeyer (3-7–10).
By comparison, there are five Wildcats and four Spartans scoring 10 or more points. There are also seven Broncos and seven Bulldogs, but they’re grouped a bit lower than are the Wolverines. Nice committees all, but not quite as productive.
If the Wolverines have a weakness, it’s on defense. Michigan allows 2.28 goals per game, and while Michigan usually holds opponents to two or fewer goals per game–the Wolverines have kept opponents to one goal or less in nine contests this season–there have been some memorable game where Michigan has coughed up a bunch of scores, even in winning efforts.
The Wolverines have lost 3-0 and 4-2 to Lake Superior, 4-2 to Bowling Green, 4-2 to Alaska-Fairbanks, and twice this season in wins over Ohio State have given up four goals. In wins.
The Wolverines received solid goaltending from Kevin O’Malley (.881 SV%, 2.70 GAA) and L.J. Scarpace (.939 SV%, 1.46 GAA) when they needed it, but they are surely happy that Josh Blackburn (.921 SV%, 1.89 GAA) is back in net.
Another weakness of the Wolverines–and one that may seriously hurt them in the NCAA tournament–is their love of rough play. Yes, Red Berenson said after last weekend’s debacle at Ohio State that his squad was provoked, but you simply do not average 29.83 penalty minutes per game–leading the league–by merely taking the ice and being provoked.
Jillson and Comrie–the team’s #2 and #1 scorers, respectively–lead the Wolverines in penalties. Jillson has 59 to Comrie’s 61 minutes. Perhaps each could take a lesson from Kosick, who is tied with Jillson in points, but who has been penalized just four times for eight minutes this season.
In the postseason, when the Wolverines are playing in games called by officials from other leagues, officials who have yet to receive the memo about protecting Mike Comrie, Michigan may have to adjust a certain element of its style of play in order to stay out of the box in NCAA tourney play.
What makes Michigan such a good team, overall, is the Wolverines’ ability to turn it up a notch and just get the job done.
Among teams with challenging schedules, Michigan is second in the nation only to New Hampshire in win percentage. In their last 121 games, the Wolverines are 117-0-4 when leading after two periods, a streak that dates back to Feb. 11, 1995. And while there isn’t a single period of hockey that looks bad for Michigan, it’s important to note that the Wolverines are doubling up on league opponents 28-14 in the third period.
This is a team that just knows how to win. If only they knew how to stay out of the box.
Unlike the Wolverines, Michigan State is a team that builds its game from the net out. And unlike the Spartan squads of the past couple of years, this Michigan State team knows how to score. The result is the most balanced Green and White to take the ice in years.
The last wall of defense in a very defensive team is the goaltending tandem of Ryan Miller (.940 SV%, 1.22 GAA) and Joe Blackburn (.922 SV%, 1.61 GAA), netminders with the two lowest goals-against averages in the league. Miller’s save percentage is tops in the league, and his overall save percentage (.933) ties him with Niagara’s Greg Gardner for second in the nation, behind Rensselaer’s Joel Laing.
Miller, a player destined to be a Spartan, is having a magical rookie season, having posted three shutouts in his first three starts. Blackburn has become a poised, solid junior, relaxed in net and a genuine pleasure to watch.
What’s to criticize about this goaltending? Well, not to be picky, but here’s an interesting note that’s too good to pass.
With their next shutout, the Spartans will set a school record for seasonal blankings. This season, MSU has posted five shutouts (one shy of the school record of six, set in the 1997-98 season. Miller has shut out opponents four times this season, tied for second in a single season with former Spartan Chad Alban (1997-98).
Probably more interesting, though, is that the next time the Spartans themselves are shut out will also set a new school record. Michigan State has been on the losing end of the goose egg three times this season, one shutout short of the school record of four, set in 1959-60.
Ryan Miller was the goalie of record for Michigan State each time the Spartans have been shut out this season. Miller, then, has been involved in seven shutouts this year, four wins, and three losses.
Don’t know what that means, but it is pretty interesting.
Unlike powerhouse Spartan defenses of the past, this Michigan State team does not lead the CCHA in plus/minus. The team’s top two scorers–Shawn Horcoff (6-22–28, +15), Adam Hall (11-7–18, +12)–and the league’s best defensive defender, Mike Weaver (0-4–4, +12) have obvious defensive smarts.
Two rookies, John-Michael Liles (4-4–8, +4) and Brad Fast (3-4–7, +9), give the Spartans a dimension on defense they’ve been lacking in the past–offense.
What Michigan State’s defense seems to lack this year in terms of impenetrability it makes up for on the other side of the game, with better transitions and the ability to jump into offensive situations. The Spartan defense has contributed 18 goals so far this season, compared to 13 for all of last year’s campaign.
And that offense. The Spartans are outscoring their league opponents 54-24 (so that defense certainly isn’t slacking), and some games have been down-right lopsided. Wins of 5-2 and 6-2 over Nebraska-Omaha, a 6-0 win over Ohio State, a 5-1 win over Fairbanks, a 6-2 win over Minnesota–this team can spank ’em when it has half a mind to.
And it’s a team effort. Eleven different Spartans have accounted for the 12 goals Michigan State has scored in its last five games. Only rookie Brian Maloney (6-3–9) has two goals in that period, and he led all Spartans with 16 shots on goal during those five contests.
The Spartans have the second-best power play (.187) and best penalty kill (.938) in the league.
They also have a game in hand on Michigan, and one league game left against the Wolverines.
This is still anyone’s conference.
Speaking of spankings…what do you say of a team that began the season by outscoring Laurentian 20-2 in an exhibition game, only to follow up with a 9-0 routing and another 3-0 win over hapless Michigan Tech?
Admirably, the Wildcats have contended for a league title every year since returning to the CCHA from the WCHA. While the regular season was further from their grasp last year, they proved by going through Notre Dame on the road in the first round of the CCHA playoffs just what kind of team they are.
Northern Michigan is the hardest-working team in the league. Make no mistake about it.
As Bowling Green head coach Buddy Powers says, just as the Falcons are hosting the Wildcats, "They’ve pretty well had their way with everyone this year. I like their forwards. I like their defense. I like their goaltending."
Scoring 3.44 goals per game and allowing just 2.19, the reasons for Northern Michigan’s success this season seem obvious. Outscore opponents, win games. This is not higher math.
The Wildcats were the first team in the nation to reach 10 wins, and boast the fewest number of league losses in the CCHA (11-3-2 CCHA, 16-6-2 overall).
Like their neighbors from the Big Ten downstate, the Wildcats have forwards who can flat-out fly, but this season no one from Northern seems to be contending for the scoring title.
Roger Trudeau (12-4–16) and Bryan Phillips (6-10–16) lead the ‘Cats in scoring, and are tied in scoring with Ferris State’s Kevin Swider for 12th in league point production.
Other Wildcats with 10 or more points in league play include often-overlooked rookie Chris Gobert (9-6–15), Tyson Holly (3-9–12), and J.P. Vigier (3-7–10).
Trudeau leads the league in goals. Trudeau, Gobert, and another Wildcat, Jimmy Jackson (4-4–8, +11) are tied with a bunch of other players for most game-winners in conference play (three).
At a collective +118 in conference play and +160 in overall action, this team is doing something right at both ends of any rink. The Wildcats are outshooting opponents roughly 33-22 in league play, and positively dominating third-period action, outscoring the other guys 21-7 in the final stanza of play this season.
Surprisingly, Northern’s special teams aren’t that special. The Wildcat power play converts at just over 14% of the time, good enough for 8th in the league, behind 11th-place Ohio State and last-place Alaska-Fairbanks.
The Wildcat PK is effective 82.3% of the time, ninth in the league. Fortunately, Northern is a disciplined team, averaging 18 minutes in the box per game, third-lowest in the league. And the Wildcats can score shorthanded, with six tallies on the season.
One uniformly overlooked aspect of the Northern Michigan game is between the pipes. In a league where two Blackburns and a Miller get a lot of ink, Dan Ragusett seems to play in obscurity. This solid netminder with a lightening-quick glove hand is fourth in the league in goals against (1.91) and fifth in save percentage (.917). He’s a workhorse for the Wildcats, having logged nearly 700 minutes in net.
Whatever the ‘Cats lack on paper–the overpowering offense of a Michigan, the stalwart defense of a Michigan State–they more than make up for in work ethic. Anyone who saw their game against Boston College in NCAA postseason action can tell you that. Anyone who has seen them control a game with their forecheck can tell you that.
They never stop moving, and they may move all the way to the regular-season title, with two games in hand over Michigan.
Games of the Week
Miami (10-9-3, 7-6-3 CCHA) at Lake Superior (11-12-1, 10-7-1 CCHA) Friday and Saturday, 7:05 p.m., Taffy Abel Arena, Sault Ste. Marie, MI
This is the kind of weekend CCHA fans dream about. All 12 teams are playing conference games, and four of the middle-tier teams are duking it out.
With a split last weekend against Nebraska-Omaha, the Lakers remain in sole possession of fourth place in the league, a great place to be. Sitting four points behind the Lakers after splitting with the Defenders of the Realm (Ferris State, to the uninitiated) are the Miami RedHawks, a team that has proven it can play with the big boys this season, a point-hungry team that can almost smell home ice.
These are the only regular-season games scheduled between the Lakers and the ‘Hawks.
And it’s cold in the Soo this week.
The Lakers hold a 47-13-10 lead in the all-time series, but Miami has won three of the last four meetings, and is 5-3-1 in the last nine. Last year, the RedHawks took the season series from the Lakers, winning 7-3 in Oxford on Jan. 15, and splitting in Sault Ste. Marie in mid-February.
Junior Miami forward Pat Leahy, this week’s CCHA Offensive Player of the Week and the USCHO Division I Offensive Player of the Week, is 2-5–7 against the Lakers lifetime, but Miami may miss Jason Deskins, who’s still rehabbing his torn ACL.
Should the RedHawks win Friday night, head coach Enrico Blasi will become the first Miami coach to win his debut game against the Lakers. Additionally, a Miami win Friday would give them 11 on the season–equaling their total from last year.
But should the RedHawks lose Friday, they’ll extend their road losing streak to three, and they’ll drop their record in Sault Ste. Marie to 3-30-4 all time.
On the flip side, with 10 games remaining in the season, the Lakers have already equaled last year’s win total with 11.
Eight of Lake Superior’s last ten games have been decided by a goal or have ended in a tie, and the Lakers are 4-5-1 in those games.
In addition to hoping the game isn’t close, Laker fans had better be cheering on Jeremy Bachusz (7-6–13), Lake State’s second-leading scorer. The Lakers are 5-2-0 when Bachusz scores a goal.
Each team can score, and each is strong in net, although Miami has an advantage in the former while Lake holds the edge between the pipes.
Both teams are struggling for consistency, so a split is probably the right call, for whatever my calls have been worth lately.
Pick: Lake Superior 4-2 Friday; Miami 3-2 Saturday
Grudge of the Week
Ohio State (8-15-2, 4-12-1 CCHA) at Michigan (19-6-0, 14-4-0 CCHA) Saturday, 7:05 p.m., Yost Ice Arena, Ann Arbor, MI
Need you ask?
114 penalty minutes and two disqualifications. Even without the brawling Jeff Jillson and J.F. Dufour, this game will be emotional.
Whether it gets out of hand depends largely on what these boys have learned, and who officiates the game.
In spite of three losses to the Wolverines this season, the Buckeyes remain a team that can score on Michigan. Ohio State scored eight goals in two losses to Michigan this season, and the Buckeyes are a team that rarely scores eight goals in two wins.
While Michigan has outscored Ohio State 20-9 in three games this season, interestingly enough, the Buckeyes are outscoring the Wolverines five-on-five this season, 4-3.
Fortunately for Michigan, so little of the hockey these two teams play against each other is five-on-five. Michigan has scored on 10 of its 28 power-play opportunities against Ohio State this year. On the other hand, the anemic Buckeye power play–usually clicking along at just 14.2%–converts at a rate of 20% against the Wolverines.
But, you know, all of that could just be because these two teams spend so much time in the box when they face each other. There’s very little even-strength play, and they have to score sometime.
Ohio State has scored just 13 goals on the road this season. These are the two most-penalized teams in the league.
What else do you need to know?
Also, take with several grains of salt what you hear from the Ann Arbor camp–that the Wolverines only take penalties because they’re picked on. I’m not saying the Buckeyes were choirboys in the last game, but neither were the Wolverines, and you simply do not become the most-penalized team in the league because everyone else is mean.
This is hockey. These are hockey players. Again, this is not higher math.
Oh yeah, one more thing. Buckeye goaltender Ray Aho is riding a two-game point streak into this contest. Aho–who was scoreless in his first three seasons–has assists in his last two games, three on the season.
Pick: Michigan 5-3
The Whole Yin-Yang Shebang
It struck me as I was watching the third-period fight in the Michigan-OSU game last weekend that perhaps the single most important thing we strive for as humans is equilibrium.
When Jeff Jillson had Jean-Francois Dufour’s jersey over Dufour’s head, NHL-fight-style, at first I was horrified that the game was a televised game, and that 14,000+ fans were witnessing this in person.
And then, as I realized it was quite possibly the loudest hockey crowd to date at the Schottenstein Center, it dawned on me that a little evening of the scales was occurring. I’d seen rude fans in nearly every arena in college hockey, but I’d never seen anyone throw anything onto the ice (other than a hat, and only very rarely) at Ohio State. I’d seen fights in college hockey, but I personally had never witnessed the kind of knock-down-drag-out airing-of-the-emotions displayed in the right circle at 10:54 in the third period at Value City Arena on Jan. 21, 2000.
No, I am not advocating fighting in college hockey, nor am I by any means condoning the behavior of the fans who became–for lack of a better term–part of the action. I’m just saying that perhaps it was a long time coming, between two teams that really don’t like each other at all, in a building that has been accused since its opening of being too corporate, too sterile.
For perhaps only the fourth time since its opening–the first and second times being last year’s home games against Michigan, and the third home playoff series against Ferris State–the cavernous Schott borrowed a little of the little old Ohio State Rink’s electricity. I miss that place more and more.
If only there were some balance.
Balance is something that has eluded me for the duration of this season. In fact, since breaking my leg four months ago, the weekend before the season began, I have been trying to find balance in my life and have failed miserably.
Many of you have written to complain about the lateness of my weekly column, and you have every right to be upset. You’re not alone. I’m sure my editor and the USCHO GM are displeased; I know I’m not happy.
Every week this season I struggle with time, unable to balance my life so that I can write, teach, get adequate sleep, practice tae kwon do. It seems that I am forever playing catch-up, getting up at 4 a.m. to grade papers 24 hours after staying up until 4 trying to write. Every week I fail, and no one–including myself–is getting anything resembling my best.
So I am hoping that this rare mid-season weekend away from hockey will help me restore some equilibrium in my life. I’m heading to a state park for tae kwon do camp, four months to the weekend after I snapped my right fibula at our studio’s September outing.
September’s camp was beautiful and the training was difficult and rewarding. We had already finished two practice sessions–one late Friday night, and one early Saturday morning–and the Saturday afternoon session was just beginning when I stepped sideways into a gopher hole during basic movements, inverting my ankle and breaking the bone, my first-ever fracture. I thought it was a high ankle sprain; I didn’t even seek medical help until the following Tuesday.
I’ve been practicing since late November, first tentatively and with a brace, and now less tentatively and sometimes all-out, and without a brace. This will be my first camp since that injury, and I’m apprehensive but excited.
The beauty in this kind of weekend retreat is the attention paid to basically one activity. For the next 48 hours or so, I’ll be practicing tae kwon do–and trying to keep warm, trying to get enough protein, and spending time with friends from the studio. There will be no hockey, no papers to grade, no cats to rescue, no telephone, no television, no city noise.
(OK, so I’ll be trying to pick up the OSU-Michigan game on my transistor radio Saturday night. I’m half-hoping I can’t.)
When I return home Sunday afternoon, providing I haven’t suffered another serious injury, I’ll be exhausted and every muscle will begin to let me know that a hot bath is a the only thing that matters. If my body and brain react to this camp as it has to the last four, I’ll sleep like the dead Sunday night, and awaken Monday feeling ready to take on the world.
And balance will be less elusive.
Thank you, readers, for your patience this season. I’ll do my best to reward your loyalty in the coming weeks.
And thanks to everyone who wrote about Moxy, who is doing remarkably well. The vets and I expect a full recovery.
Of course, during the time it’s taken for me to write this, I’ve had to wrestle away a paper clip from Moxy, and also had to encourage her to get down from the curtain rod that tops the windows in my office. ("Moxy, get down. Moxy, get down. Moxy, get down.") Last night, she shredded the last of the bark on the trunk of the fig tree in my living room.
Do you know how difficult it is to find long thermal underwear in the department stores in January? In the retail world, it’s already 80 degrees and balmy.
Have a good weekend, everyone.