The Pick of the Litter
"It’s not an exact science," says Sherry Skalko. "Actually, I wish it was."
Skalko, in her second season as Director of Communications for the CCHA, laughs as she explains the selection process for league Players of the Week.
"There are a lot of factors, when you’re dealing with positions across the board."
The goalie-to-defenseman ratio for CCHA Defensive Player of the Week–three-to-one–has looked a bit lopsided this season, but Skalko says it’s no different from last year, when four defensemen received the award.
Each week, the Players of the Week are chosen from among the nominations sent by Sports Information Directors from each school. Those who aren’t selected but who performed well are mentioned in the "Notable Performers" section of the league’s weekly press release.
Picking the best player in any of the three categories–offense, defense, rookie–is difficult, says Skalko, partly because of the sheer number of weekly nominees, and also because a player’s performance is measured against a variety of factors.
"Obviously, in the offensive category, you look at points scored. That’s not the only thing we look at, though. What were those points? Were they game-winners? Were they fluff points in a seven-nothing blowout? Was it a great performance against a good team playing at home? Was it a fifth-place team playing a sixth-place team?
"When you look at it that way, you may think that the top teams are going to be handicapped because they have to work harder, but that’s not true. Just because you’re on the top team doesn’t mean you have to perform harder [for recognition]."
Skalko says that players from every position are eligible in each category. Theoretically, if a goalie has three assists in a game, he’d be a good candidate for Offensive Player of the Week. Conversely, a forward who has a great defensive series is eligible for the D-side.
"The very first question about Defensive Player of the Week is whether it goes to a defenseman–i.e., a goaltender or a defenseman–or does it go to someone for overall defensive play?
"This past week, we got a lot of defensive nominations. At the same time, you look at a goaltender, and when you get guys making 70-90 saves in a weekend, it’s difficult not to pick them.
"A defenseman doesn’t necessarily have to score a point, but he’s got to be on the plus side of the ledger. Let’s say he goes up against one of the league’s top players, and shuts him down."
That, says Skalko, would get notice.
Skalko also makes the point that a team can be riding a wave of success, and not be guaranteed a single Player of the Week.
"Each week exists in a vacuum, in my opinion. Each week everybody starts from zero.
"Last year, that was kind of funny, because we had Michigan State–which was by far the best defensive team in the nation–and only had one Defensive Player of the Week [Joe Blackburn].
"At the same time, that doesn’t hurt anyone in postseason awards. Mike Weaver was named the league’s Best Defensive Defenseman."
A dozen goaltenders and four defensemen have won CCHA Defensive Player of the Week honors so far this season. Lake Superior State’s Jayme Platt is the only multiple-honoree, having captured the award three times this season. Platt’s .936 conference save percentage is just a hair behind that of Michigan State’s Ryan Miller (.937).
The Rookie-of-the-Week award has been split between forwards and goaltenders, with 10 of the former and six netminders recognized.
All 16 Offensive Players of the Week have been forwards.
Calling All Psychics
This ain’t no bunny league.
With one month of regular-season action left (can you believe it?), it’s time to turn our attention to the playoffs.
It may interest you to know that, mathematically, Michigan and Northern Michigan can finish no lower than 10th.
Michigan State, Lake Superior, Notre Dame, Nebraska-Omaha, Miami, and Ferris State can finish no lower than 11th.
Western Michigan, Bowling Green, Ohio State, and Alaska-Fairbanks, however, are guaranteed nothing.
Tenth clinched. Eleventh. Or nada, yet. Just eight, nine, or ten games left in the regular season, and absolutely nothing is concrete.
It’s that old bugaboo, parity.
"Almost a dirty word," says Skalko. "You look at the pro level in any sport. They like the Yankees and the Braves, but they need the Milwaukee Brewers of the world to do well.
"You look at college sports…and parity ends up hurting you. Nobody will argue that Michigan, Michigan State, and Northern [Michigan] aren’t three of the top teams in the nation. But Michigan gets beaten by Ferris State. Michigan State gets beaten by UNO. You look at their [Nebraska’s] record, see that they’re under .500 in the league, and you think they must not be a very good team, but that’s not true.
"The CCHA teams like playing the CCHA teams because it is a battle every night."
As Skalko points out, "No more than five points separates a team from the team ahead of them this year."
It’s true. Northern Michigan, in second place, is one point behind Michigan–and the Wildcats have a game in hand.
Lake Superior and Michigan State–who split last weekend, deciding nothing–are tied for third, each with 27 points, each still able to capture the regular-season title.
In fifth place, Notre Dame has 23 points–mathematically able but highly unlikely to catch Michigan.
Miami and Nebraska-Omaha are tied for sixth, each with 21 points.
Ferris State in eighth has 20 points; Western in ninth has 19.
Bowling Green–holding on to that precious tenth place, the last playoff spot–has 16 points, able to climb ahead of any number of teams, but needing to stay ahead of Ohio State. The Buckeyes are four points behind. The teams face each other twice more this season.
With seven points, it’s unlikely that Fairbanks will secure a playoff spot. But not impossible.
"I think the league is that close," said Notre Dame coach Dave Poulin after the Irish squeaked by the Buckeyes Saturday night. "You saw number eleven play number five tonight. Look at the scores around the league. Look at last night. This is a tight, tight league. I think it’s a league where everyone comes to play."
And where everyone–or nearly everyone–comes to split. Last weekend, first-place Michigan split with eighth-place Ferris State. The week before, the Wolverines were tied by the Buckeyes, in Yost. Michigan has also split weekends with Bowling Green and Alaska-Fairbanks.
Northern Michigan may have swept Western Michigan convincingly this past weekend, but the Wildcats split with the Broncos earlier in the season, and the months of December and January were Splitsville for Northern–a split with Lake Superior; a win and loss at the Mariucci; a split with Ferris; a tie and win against the Irish at home; a split with Bowling Green to end January.
You can go on down the league standings, and find split after split after split–from top to bottom.
"Unfortunately," says Skalko, "because of the strength of our league, we may be looking at just two CCHA teams in the [NCAA] tournament this year."
And a quick look at the Pairwise Rankings shows just Michigan solidly in, with Ferris State–based on out-of-conference play–ahead of Northern Michigan.
For those of you who don’t know, the CCHA has expanded its playoff format to include 10 teams, and the top five host a best-of-three series. Just as before, the top team squares off against the bottom team: #1 vs. #10, #2 vs. #9, and so on.
After the first round, the teams are reseeded based on regular-season points. The rearranged #5 team visits the #4 team for a Tuesday night play-in game. The winner of that game and the top three seeds head for The Joe.
Games and Grudges
What games aren’t Game of the Week material? Which series won’t split?
Northern Michigan may be the place for the brooms this weekend.
Games of the Week
Northern Michigan (19-7-2, 14-4-2 CCHA) at Michigan State (18-9-2, 13-7-1 CCHA) Friday and Saturday, 7:05 p.m., Munn Ice Arena, East Lansing, MI
The indecisive Spartans need something this weekend.
What they don’t need, however, are visitors from the Yoop.
Since winning the Great Lakes Invitational, Michigan State is 3-4-2–very un-Spartan-like. Michigan State has outshot opponents in each of those nine games, but opposing goaltenders are posting a whopping collective .939 save percentage in that span.
Since the GLI, the Spartans are outshooting opponents by an average of 34.8 to 22.4, but only outscoring opponents 2.22 to 2.00.
"We’ve been playing hard and putting a lot of shots on net," says head coach Ron Mason. "We just haven’t finished, and I have no answer for it."
He adds, "I’m not worried about our team right now, because we’ve got a great group of guys who all care about winning and work really hard."
That great group of guys includes Shawn Horcoff, whose 45 overall points (10-35–45) make him second in the nation behind Wisconsin’s Steve Reinprecht. Horcoff leads the nation in assists, and he’s second in conference points (7-27–34) by one point to Michigan’s Mike Comrie.
Horcoff has a had a hand in 45 of Michigan State’s 90 goals, including 19 of the Spartans’ 33 power-play goals. The senior and team captain carries a five-game point streak into this weekend’s series.
Another one of those great kids is Ryan Miller, who leads the CCHA in save percentage (.937).
Miller shut out Lake Superior State 3-0 last Friday night, his fifth of the year and the season’s sixth, tying Michigan State’s single-season record set in 1997-98. Miller is one shutout shy of former Spartan Chad Alban’s season record.
On the other end of the ice is Northern Michigan’s Dan Ragusett (.905 SV%, 2.12 GAA), a goalie who doesn’t get much press on a hard-working team that doesn’t get much press. Ragusett is making 19.1 saves per game on average compared with Miller’s 19.8
It seems that Michigan State isn’t the only team with some good blueliners.
In fact, Northern Michigan’s Sean Connolly is this week’s CCHA Defensive Player of the Week. Connolly is at +6 on a team that is a collective +150 in conference play.
Michigan State, collectively, is +74 in league games.
Northern is riding a three-game win streak, its longest streak since recording a season-high seven straight wins from Nov. 12 through Dec. 4. Over the last six games, the Wildcats are 4-1-1.
Over the last six games, Michigan State is 2-2-2.
Northern Michigan’s 30 league points after 20 league games is ahead of last year’s pace, where the Wildcats had just 22 points after the same number of games. Last season, Northern finished with 33 points, tallying its 30th point in its 26th league contest.
Almost uncharacteristically, Northern head coach Rick Comley sounds like he’s chomping at the bit for the home stretch–well, as excited as Comley ever sounds, anyway.
"Over the next two weekends, we play two of the best teams in the country [Michigan State and Michigan], and everybody will be ready to go. We’re coming off a very positive weekend and we’re looking forward to the challenge that Michigan State presents. We know how tough it’s going to be down there, and with us coming off our first series sweep since Thanksgiving, it sets up for a great series."
Mason knows his team is facing a challenge, too, but somehow his quote doesn’t sound as enthusiastic about the prospect.
"We are facing a team which is the best team in the league right now. They just beat a team 6-3 and 7-1 which we couldn’t get a win against and struggled to get goals. We are going to have to be at our very best to be able to compete with them."
To compete with them. Holy moly.
Northern Michigan averages 3.75 goals per game compared with Michigan State’s 2.95. The Spartans, however, have the better power play, the better penalty kill, and allow just 1.52 goals per game to Northern’s 2.40.
This one is tough. The Spartans must feel any chance of taking the regular-season slipping away, and they’re down in the Pairwise. The Wildcats could smell the regular-season title and psych themselves out.
It’s in Munn, but the edge belongs to Northern Michigan.
Picks: Northern Michigan 3-2, 3-2
Grudge of the Week
Lake Superior State (14-13-1, 13-8-1 CCHA) at Ohio State (9-16-3, 5-13-2 CCHA) Friday 7:05 p.m., Saturday 8:05 p.m., Schottenstein Center, Columbus, OH
Anyone who doesn’t understand the grudge here has a short memory.
There were long stretches of time when the Lakers owned the Buckeyes.
The Lakers have had two huge undefeated streaks against the Buckeyes, from Nov. 1992 through Dec. 1997 (17-0-3), and before that from Oct. 1987-Jan. 1992 (17-0-3).
For those of you playing at home, that means from the 1987-88 season through the middle of the 1997-98 season, Lake Superior dominated Ohio State to the tune of 34-2-6. Those two losses to the Buckeyes came back-to-back in February 1992, but one of them was on Leap Year Day, so I’m not sure it counts.
That Laker domination ended in spectacular fashion during Ohio State’s miracle season. Less than one month after dropping a pair of games in the Soo, in Dec. 1997, the Buckeyes turned it around at home–turned everything around at home–and trashed the Lakers 7-0 on Jan. 9, 1998. That was the first win of Ohio State’s ten-win streak, during its incredible run for the Frozen Four.
At the end of that season, the Buckeyes hosted the Lakers in the first round of the CCHA playoffs, in the teeny, tiny, OSU Ice Rink (now called the Ice Arena), beating them 2-1 and 6-0.
Last year, Ohio State beat Lake 4-1 in the Soo, and then trounced them again 8-2 at home later in the season. That was the infamous night without a handshake, when OSU head coach John Markell complained that LSSU head coach Scott Borek slighted him when he left the ice without shaking hands.
Borek said later that he was just really upset with his own team in the loss, and hadn’t intended to slight Markell.
The next night, the Lakers beat the Buckeyes 3-2, a loss that took some of the wind out of OSU’s sails, and probably took Ohio State out of the running for the conference title.
All right. So Jayme Platt is a net-minding god for the Lakers. Ray Aho allowed just three goals last weekend for the Buckeyes and got one win.
We know we can expect a goaltending duel, and it’s likely that Lake will score more than Ohio State, because nearly everyone does.
But the Buckeyes are fighting for their playoff lives. The Lakers are in contention for the regular-season title.
OSU’s defense is shallow, with the loss of captain Ryan Jestadt, who is probably out for the season with a hand injury. Additionally, Ryan Skaleski left the team for reasons of his own.
Scott Borek is quick to point out that this sort of thing can galvanize a squad. Look how the Lakers have done since losing Trent Walford.
This is high drama, a passion play on ice.
You know, some weekends, it’s just good to be me.
If the Buckeyes are going to steal points–and there’s no guarantee they will–it’ll be Friday night.
Picks: Ohio State 3-1; Lake Superior 4-1