The View From Below
So, you’ve slept through your alarm and you’re running late for work. You’re the last one to the shower, and there is no hot water left. The coffee’s all gone, and you’re having difficulty locating a clean pair of anything.
Last night’s snowfall adds another ten minutes to your morning routine, something you could easily handle if you weren’t running late–and if your car would start. No problem since you have jumper cables, but your last neighbor has just pulled out of the driveway and you have to retreat inside to call the auto club.
You trip over your dog and your indoor-only feline escapes. It’s not that cold–certainly not much below zero–and you’re tempted to leave the rascal outside, but you know that your spouse/child/significant other/roommate will kill you if Muffin becomes a catsicle.
So, you locate the little dear, throw her into the house, and find that you can’t locate your auto club card. You call them anyway, and since every other human in your winter-encrusted world is having car trouble this morning, you’ll have to wait for over an hour, and you’d better have that card ready because the dispatcher sounds like she means business.
This may sound like the start of a bad day to you, and you can probably garner sympathy from coworkers and friends, but there is at least one phrase that can stop you dead in the middle of your rant, if you’re an aficionado of college hockey.
"Hey, at least you’re not a Nanook fan."
Alaska-Fairbanks remains rooted in last place, with just three league wins and seven points in conference play–and the 11th- and 10th-place teams each have two games in hand on the Nanooks.
Early in January, before UAF’s series with Western Michigan, first-year head coach Guy Gadowsky told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that if his squad was to make a run at the playoffs, they’d have to start then and there, at the beginning of the second half of the season.
"Every game is critical right now, but how we’re going to achieve getting into the playoffs is getting everybody on the same page," said Gadowsky to News-Miner sports editor Bob Eley. "Unfortunately, it’s easy to talk about what we need to do, but harder to achieve.
"We’re very aware of what we’re up against. We’re building for the future all the time with the intent that we accomplish success as quickly as possible."
In order to accomplish that success, Gadowsky let go of senior forward and Fairbanks native Kerry Hafele and redshirt rookie netminder Nathan Wheeler at midseason. Sophomore defender Joe Borro had already left the team on his own, and his classmate and Wheeler’s brother, forward Brandon Wheeler, chose to leave after his brother was cut.
Although the release of Hafele–who had no points in 10 conference games before getting the boot–was an unpopular move, mixing up the team seems to have worked to some extent. The Nanooks began the second half of the season riding an 11-game losing streak. They extended that streak to 12 after a 3-2 loss to Western Michigan on Jan. 7 before ending the spell with a 3-2 win over the Broncos the following night.
The Nanooks finished January 2-4-2, after perambulating through November and December pointless.
Alaska-Fairbanks has a tough road remaining (but as Notre Dame head coach Dave Poulin is fond of asking, "When isn’t it a tough night in this league?") if the Nanooks are to make a run for the playoffs. This weekend, UAF travels to Miami for two, then hosts Ferris State for two, then travels to Michigan State, then hosts Nebraska-Omaha.
The Miami and Ferris State series are one-timers for the Nanooks, but UAF is 0-4-0 against clustermates Michigan State and Nebraska-Omaha.
Even a February as good as their January may not be enough for the Nanooks to secure that last playoff spot.
Gripping the Season
Another team fighting for its playoff life is Ohio State, a team that for the past two seasons has participated in postseason NCAA tourney action.
This is tough to take for the Columbus faithful.
And, yes, there are Columbus faithful.
"It’s frustrating for the fans, I know," says head coach John Markell. "Win or lose, we want to give them a good product.
"I’m encouraged that we had over 17,000 fans for the Michigan game. We’re an 11th-place team. And we should have a good turnout for Notre Dame."
It’s not surprising that Markell is concerned with the numbers. After an abysmal OSU football season, and amid some interesting goings-on with OSU’s women’s basketball programs, the hockey team’s failure to repeat the success of the last two seasons must weigh heavily on his mind.
But the Buckeyes are giving fans a good product, a team that seems to improve from game to game–with the notable exception of a 5-0 spanking in Oxford in early December–but a team that remains in 11th place, four points behind Bowling Green, with each team facing the same number of remaining games.
The Buckeyes began the first 13 games of the season 2-11-0, a stretch that included two losses apiece to Michigan State, Michigan, Northern Michigan, and Maine.
Since then, in the last 13 games, Ohio State is 6-4-3, including a record of 1-1-1 against ranked teams.
Not surprisingly, senior goaltender Ray Aho (.897 conference SV%) seriously improved his game in those last 13, compiling a .925 save percentage and a 2.33 GAA in those starts. He’s also allowed two or fewer goals in 10 of those 13 contests.
While Markell says he’s not making any excuses, he wants people to remember that the Bucks lost two key players early, Hugo Boisvert and Jeff Maund, a move that he says, "didn’t allow the team to mature the way it should have."
Additionally, half the OSU roster is made up of freshman and sophomores, many of whom started out as or remain recruited walk-ons. The Buckeyes may not be making rookie-of-the-year waves, but no one can deny that freshman like forward Luke Pavlas (4-4–8) and defender Peter Broccoli are part of what looks to be a bright future for Ohio State, especially given the buzz about next year’s recruiting class.
Ohio State’s biggest problem right now is offense, as evidenced by its 35 conference goals. Scoring picks up in spurts; Eric Meloche (8-7–15) is finding the net more, but kids with natural ability like redshirt rookie Ryan Smith (2-1–3) seem to find nothing but posts.
When a team takes a nose-dive on offense, the snowball effect can be crippling, says Bowling Green head coach Buddy Powers, whose 10th-place squad knows a little about scoring slumps–and breaking them.
"You grip the stick too tight. You work hard, and get nothing for it," says Powers.
The Falcons struggled through November, going 1-6-0 before beating Michigan early in December. Last weekend, BG beat Northern Michigan 7-4 and then lost to the Wildcats 3-2.
The hot-and-cold nature of the team is evidence of the streakiness of the Falcon offense, a team that either turns it up or leaves it in the locker room.
"We told the team this," says Powers. "If guys are going to be so wired [from lack of production] that they’re going to beat themselves, then there’s no way we get points.
"The seniors have just a few games left. We told them, ‘Go out and play hard and enjoy it. Have some fun.’"
That lack of fun contributes to the ever-perpetuating cycle of negativity when a team is down, says Powers. And when the team is slumping, Powers looks in the mirror.
"The coaches are probably as much to blame as anyone. We put too much pressure on the players. Then the upperclassmen put to much pressure on themselves.
"You’ve got to hop along and go for the ride, and just go. Remember when you were a kid, when you were just playing because you loved it."
Markell says that he knew his team was playing well in the 1-1 tie against Michigan not only by the lack of on-ice theatrics that have accompanied every Wolverine-Buckeye matchup this season, and not only by the score.
"In the third period," says Markell, "Eric Meloche said out loud, out loud and to the whole bench, ‘Isn’t this fun?’ And he meant it."
Downish, But Not Out
There are two coaches in the league who openly admit to inconsistency, but like that inability to score, it’s difficult to finger.
Miami head coach Enrico Blasi and his Wildcat counterpart, Rick Comley, point to time off as the reason their squads can’t seem to get it all together.
"We’re kind of both in the same position," says Blasi. "We both had a long break. I think we lost them and it’s tough to get them back. It’s not that we’re not playing well, but we’re making mistakes.
"It’s not that the effort’s not there. On our power play Friday, we hit four posts. How do you coach that?"
"It was just a long break," says Comley, "and we have not been able to get back to the consistency that we had before the break.
"I thought we got it back with our 6-0 win over Notre Dame, then we were forced to take that mandatory week off, and that threw us again."
In January, the ‘Cats won, lost, tied, won, lost, and won. Last weekend, nationally-ranked Northern Michigan gave up seven goals–in a single game–to Bowling Green.
The frustration of each coach is evident. For Blasi, having a good first season as head coach is obviously important; with 17 points and a dozen games remaining, home ice seems unlikely.
Says Comley, "Are we playing as well as we did in November? I don’t think so."
Blasi sounds as though he’s been checking with his Ohio colleagues, Powers and Markell, when he talks about the RedHawks’ recent goal production.
"When you hit the post and stuff like that, you start clenching the stick too hard, and nothing good happens.
"We’ve got to somehow find some other scoring, without making mistakes. Every mistake we make winds up in the net.
"There’s two ways of doing this. You either kill them, or you stay positive and hopefully get it back."
Both coaches have theories about why their teams slump, why any team slumps, and why scoring seems to be down in general.
"Ten years ago you had two good lines that could score," says Blasi. "That was pretty much a given.
"It’s the parity in hockey, a lot of people playing, more teams. At the junior ranks there’s so many players, so many teams that the talent level is diminished. They are not playing at a high level, so when they come to college they haven’t played at a high level and they have to adjust."
Comley thinks that goaltending compounds the scoring situation.
"I think the real reason is that everyone relies on goaltending too much because scoring is down."
As a rule, a team’s fortunes are dependent on its goaltending, but Notre Dame head coach Dave Poulin says that his team’s early-season slump and subsequent signs of life have practically nothing to do with who paces the pipes.
"Our goaltending wasn’t the issue. Our defense played well, too."
Poulin, whose squad is second-to-last in league offense, says it came down to the forwards finally playing better, and not just offensively, either.
"Our overall team defense improved, and [we’re getting] overall better play for our forwards.
"We’d had a little bit of a difficult time putting a full lineup together, and it wasn’t one player, but three or four a night. What it does not give you the ability to be consistent."
Notre Dame, averaging 2.15 goals per league game, travels to Columbus for two this weekend. The Buckeyes are averaging 1.94 goals per league game.
"Watch the first game be 10-9," quips Poulin.
With lots of posts.
Games and Grudges
These are no-brainers.
Games of the Week
Michigan State (17-8-2, 12-6-1 CCHA) at Lake Superior (13-12-1, 12-7-1 CCHA) Thurs., 7:05 p.m., Taffy Abel Arena, Sault Ste. Marie, MI Sat., 7:35 p.m., Joe Louis Arena, Detroit, MI
Each team is tied for fourth. The Lakers are hot, while the Spartans are anything but.
Last weekend, Lake Superior swept Miami, and the Lakers went 5-2-1 in January.
Michigan State, on the other hand, was 2-3-2 in January, and last weekend tied and lost to Western Michigan. During that stretch, the Spartans lost the hard way, averaging 33.9 shots on goal per game while holding opponents to 21.7 on average. The Spartans averaged 2.29 goals per game in January, allowing 2.57.
Michigan State leads the Lakers 44-28-8 all time, with a 14-12-6 edge in the Soo, and a 6-4-0 advantage at JLA. The Spartans have dominated the Lakers in recent years, 9-0-2 in the last 11 meetings.
The Spartans have won 11 of their last 12 at JLA. However, the last time Lake Superior beat Michigan State was on Dec. 27, 1996, when the Lakers handed a 5-0 loss to the Spartans–at the Great Lakes Invitational, at Joe Louis Arena.
The Lakers are 7-6-0 at home this season.
Fans of both teams should see at least interesting hockey this weekend. Laker goaltender Jayme Platt (.933 SV%, 2.15 GAA) holds the second-best save percentage in the league. That category is topped by Michigan State’s Ryan Miller (.936 SV%, 1.29 GAA).
In spite of the January slump, statistics say the Spartans are averaging 3.05 goals per game to Lake Superior’s 2.70.
The teams will probably split, deciding nothing.
Pick: Lake Superior Thursday, 3-2; Michigan State Saturday, 3-1
Grudge of the Week
Bowling Green (10-14-0, 7-11-0 CCHA) at Nebraska-Omaha (9-12-5, 7-8-5 CCHA) Fri. and Sat., 7:05 p.m. CT, Omaha Civic Auditorium, Omaha, NE
How it happened is anyone’s guess, but the fans of these two teams really, really dislike each other.
Last year, before the Mavericks entered the league, BG and UNO split a pair in Omaha, with Bowling Green winning 4-2 the first night, and Omaha getting the 6-1 win the next.
UNO fans said that the Falcons played chippy hockey. A lot of squabbling took place on the USCHO Message Board. BG fans said that UNO fans were babies. UNO fans said that BG fans were barbaric.
OK, so I’m paraphrasing. But you get the point.
Now, both teams need points. Bowling Green needs to maintain that lead over Ohio State, while the Mavericks–a delightful surprise this season–are tied with Western Michigan for sixth in the league, and the playoffs seem almost assured. Almost.
Bowling Green feels pretty good about beating up Northern Michigan for one game last week. UNO feels really good about taking three points from Ferris State, my erstwhile Defenders of the Realm.
Expect a split, unless UNO sweeps.
Picks: UNO 4-2 Friday; Bowling Green 3-2 Saturday
So Awful I Can’t Even Title It
Perhaps the saddest thing about the scandal in Vermont is this statement that team captain Kevin Karlander gave to the New York Times:
"The governor made a political move to end our season so he could say, ‘Hazing will not allowed.’ The governor? The attorney general? Are you kidding me? It’s a college! We’re getting hung out to dry. We’re being made an example of."
I’m beginning to think that suspending the season was a lenient move.