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Happy, independent, loquacious hockey writer with an eye for the underdog seeks committed, goal-oriented winner. Game players and defensive types encouraged. Ability to hold on to No. 1 for more than a week a plus. Ah. A girl can dream, can’t she?
Two weeks ago, Michigan head coach Red Berenson put the Wolverines’ USCHO.com Poll ranking in perspective. “We’ve been there before,” he said, “only to be knocked out immediately.”
If Berenson ever decides to leave coaching, he could easily establish himself as a psychic.
That very week, Michigan State beat the number-one Wolverines, opening the top spot in the poll for Minnesota. Then the Sioux took three points from the Golden Gophers, and this week the Spartans find themselves the ones to beat. Having difficulty following the line of succession? You’re not alone. There have been five number-one teams in the USCHO.com Poll since the start of the season, and not one of them has been able to stay there for more than one week of games. After being named No. 1 in the preseason and after the first week of play (Oct. 16), North Dakota split with Michigan Tech, and Wisconsin (Oct. 23) became the team supreme.
As the top team, the Badgers beat Boston College but lost to Northeastern, setting up a brief Michigan reign (Oct. 30).
After the Wolverines lost to Michigan State Nov. 4, Minnesota was named number one (Nov. 6). And if you’ve been reading along, you know what happened next. Now the Spartans (Nov. 13) will try to become the first team in the country to be named number one two weeks running, and they won’t have an easy time of it.
This brings us immediately to the…
Game of the Week
No. 8 Western Michigan (8-1-1, 3-0-1 CCHA) at No. 1 Michigan State (7-1-1, 6-1-0 CCHA)
Friday, 7:05 p.m., Munn Ice Arena, East Lansing, Mich.
There are three teams from the CCHA in the USCHO.com Top 10. While no one is surprised that two of the three teams are Big Ten schools in Michigan, the third-ranked team — Western Michigan — may be the year’s Cinderella story in the making.
“It’s exciting for our players,” says head coach Jim Culhane.
The Broncos may seem like an overnight success to some, but Culhane says that deliberate and prolonged work is behind the team’s quick start this season.
“There was development from our program from last year. We hadn’t been in the postseason tournament in three years, and then finished ninth.”
Although the Broncos lost to the Wolverines in the first round of the CCHA playoffs, Culhane says, “I felt the team handled it well and gave Michigan two pretty good games.”
Culhane says that the “some of those experiences for our upperclassmen carried over and transcended this season, and our upperclassmen are leading our team.”
If you don’t know what two upperclassmen, David Gove and Steve Rymsha, are doing this season, then you’ve been paying way too much attention to the Florida vote recount. Gove has 12 goals and 14 assists in 10 games — and no penalties. Rymsha has 13 goals and seven assists in the same number of games.
Add Mike Bishai’s five goals and 19 assists, and you’ve got two powerful lines of offense. Rymsha is the left winger on the Bishai line, and Gove plays on the Bronco first line.
“I won’t play them together. If you play them together, then you get a checking line that can shut them down.”
Then there are rookies Jeff Campbell (9-5–14) and Mike Jarmuth (0-11–11), and you have even more depth.
At this point, the Broncos have the top offense in the country. Only North Dakota’s Bryan Lundbohm (11-6–17) rivals Gove and Bishai in terms of goal production (and it should be noted that Lundbohm has played just eight games).
The Broncos are averaging 5.40 goals per game, with a power play that clicks along at 29.2%. In fact, five of Gove’s goals and six of Rymsha’s are power-play tallies.
But don’t think Western isn’t scoring five-on-five. The team is +72, second in the league (behind Northern Michigan’s +73), and is outscoring opponents 54-31.
Granted, the Broncos haven’t exactly been knocking off college hockey powerhouses. Alaska-Fairbanks, a disappointing Lake Superior team, Dartmouth, Niagara — these are the teams Western has swept. The Broncos split with Alabama-Huntsville.
So this week’s single match is the true litmus test for Western Michigan, especially since it pits the nation’s leading scorer against the Michigan State sophomore who is arguably the nation’s best goaltender.
“In the beginning of the year, people were asking me who our go-to guy was, and it’s clear now that it’s Ryan Miller,” says Michigan State head coach Ron Mason.
In the past, the Spartans have relied upon game-dominating players like Mike York and Shawn Horcoff, men who carried the puck rather than blocking it. But this season, Miller (.943 SV%, 1.54 GAA) has proven than he can stop more than a dozen shots per game, and he gives Michigan State the opportunity to win every game.
Mason is well aware of the almost high noon, showdown-like potential for this game.
“They’re maybe the best offensive team in the country, and I don’t know that we’re the best defensive team in the country,” says Mason.
In fact, the Spartans are at just +6 this season, a far cry from the dominating defensive squads they’ve had in the past.
“They’re [Western] certainly putting up unbelievable numbers,” says Mason. “They’re power play is phenomenal, and that’s where a lot of their scoring comes from.”
The Broncos have the best PP in the league, but the Spartans are no slouch in that department themselves, second in overall play (.246), and Michigan State’s penalty kill (.902) is the best in the CCHA.
Factor in the Broncos’ propensity to take penalties (25.60 minutes per game) and the Spartans loathing of the lockbox (14.67 minutes), and special teams could play a huge role in this game.
“Our power play has been extremely good,” says Mason, “and it’s given us a chance to win almost every night. We have areas of our team that are core Michigan State values–good power play, good penalty kill, good defense–and maybe we rely a little bit more on our goaltender, but you play to the strength of your team, and this year it’s our goaltender.”
Rustyn Dolyny (4-6–10), Adam Hall (5-4–9), Jeremy Jackson (3-6–9), and Brian Maloney (3-6–9) are the top four scorers for the Spartans, and Dolyny, Hall, and Jackson have each registered three power-play goals.
Culhane knows that Michigan State is more than the sum of one goaltender.
“I agree that Ryan Miller is outstanding — and obviously has a bright career at Michigan State and has a bright career ahead in pro hockey — but the likes of Adam Hall, Rusty Dolyny — they have some terrific players and a lot of depth.”
He adds, “What else can you say about the winningest coach in college hockey?”
The Broncos, says Culhane, are looking forward to his challenge.
“We understand we’re going in as tremendous underdogs and we have to find a way to win.”
Given the history of No. 1 teams this season, it would be easy to pick the Broncos to knock off the Spartans. In fact, I want to pick them, but I just can’t. Perhaps Miller is due to have a bad game. Perhaps the Broncos are due to lose to a better team.
Pick: Michigan State 3-2
Grudge of the Week
When these two Ohio rivals meet, it doesn’t matter who holds the better record. There is absolutely, positively, without a doubt, zero love lost between them. And while neither coach seems to care, the quest for the Ohio Cup is about to begin.
Bowling Green (1-5-2, 1-3-2 CCHA) at Ohio State (6-3-0, 4-2-0 CCHA)
Saturday, 7:05 p.m. and Sunday, 3:05 p.m., Value City Arena, Columbus, Ohio
Do you remember the last meeting between these two teams? It’s the one that put the Falcons into the playoffs, one that the Buckeyes would like to forget.
The 7-1 Falcon win in Bowling Green Feb. 26 was an ugly, penalty-filled game, with a third period of nothing but odd-man rushes for the Falcons. Both teams were trying desperately to make the CCHA playoffs, and I’ve never felt sorrier for a goaltender in my life than I did for Ray Aho that day, hung out to dry as the Buckeyes threw everything they had into their lackluster offense. The night before wasn’t much prettier, as the Buckeyes squeaked by with a 4-3 win at the Schott.
The teams split an earlier set of games last season, with each club winning at home. BG won 3-0 Jan. 14, followed by the 4-1 Buckeye win the following night.
The Falcons lead this series 88-50-5 all-time, but the series is closer in Columbus, where Bowling Green has a one-game edge (31-30-2). The Buckeyes have taken six of the last ten meetings.
The games this weekend mark the first contests for the Ohio Cup. The traveling trophy, sponsored by The Buckeye Sports Bulletin, is awarded yearly to the CCHA school in Ohio (OSU, BG, or Miami) with the best record against the other Ohio teams. Ironically, the Buckeyes — the one Ohio CCHA team that didn’t make the playoffs last year — are the defending champs. The Falcons lead with 12 titles.
The RedHawks, however, are the only team among the three with banners in Goggin proclaiming their titles.
Awarding the Cup will be a little tricky this season, thanks to the cluster system. Ohio State and Miami meet four times each, while Bowling Green plays its Ohio opponents only twice, each time a two-game series on the road.
Steve Helwagen, editor of the BSB, says he’s not certain how the Cup will be decided, and suggests that the publication will eliminate one home-and-home Miami-OSU series to even out the number of games played.
Bowling Green head coach Buddy Powers complains — tongue-in-cheek — about the toughness of his team’s schedule against the other Ohio teams.
“They should compensate us for playing all of our games [against OSU and Miami] on the road. We never get to play home games.”
The Falcons come off a bye week, while the Buckeyes return to Columbus after a long and productive trip to Sault Ste. Marie, having swept the Lakers 2-1 and 3-0.
“I don’t like to have any bye weeks, personally,” says Powers, “but at this stage academically, it comes at a good time. Players had the opportunity to concentrate on their school work.”
As for the Buckeyes, Powers says, “I think they’re feeling pretty darned good about themselves, and we’ve got our work cut out for us. It’s no easy thing to go into Sault Ste. Marie and sweep.”
In fact, it’s no easy thing for Ohio State to sweep anyone. The two wins represent the first two-game series sweep of the season for the Buckeyes, and the first time since Nov. 27-28, 1998 on the road against UAF that Ohio State has been able to take games on back-to-back nights from an opponent.
For John Markell, head coach of the Buckeyes, history is history.
“Those games are done. Each weekend is different in this league.”
Markell says that he and his young team have a healthy respect for Bowling Green — “they tied Northern Michigan in Marquette” — and that the Buckeyes can’t afford to take any opponent for granted.
“Just because we have some success we can build on we can’t regress.”
“It’s nice to win,” says Markell, “but I just want our team to play well, play hard. That’s my first goal is to get these young guys playing consistently.”
He adds that the Falcons “give us a good game every time. They have the reputation for playing hard.”
What the Falcons don’t have a reputation for is lighting the lamp.
“We just can’t score–that’s our problem,” says Powers. “We get chances, and we don’t make it happen.”
The Falcons are last in the league in scoring, averaging 1.75 goals per game, while allowing 3.00.
Powers is quick to point out that goaltender Tyler Masters (9.18 SV%, 2.80 GAA) is doing his job.
“He’s been playing well, he’s not the problem. Our problem is our offense. There are probably some guys white-knuckling it, that’s inevitable.
“The biggest thing for us is for guys to play the game right. Once they do that, the scoring will come.”
Powers welcomes the return of Doug Scheuller, who was expected to be out until after Christmas with an injury.
“He’s making strides, and that’s a big part of our D. Because we have a lot of young guys and those guys need leadership, it helps that he’s back.”
Aside from the rivalry, there’s some shared history between the two schools. Markell played his college hockey at Bowling Green, and BG assistant Dave Smith was a standout for the Buckeyes back in the day.
The Buckeyes return to Columbus with two of the league’s Players of the Week, forward Jean-Francois Dufour (4-5–9) and the frontrunner for the league’s Rookie of the Year Award, goaltender Mike Betz (9.39 SV%, 1.96 GAA), but the Buckeyes are a squad of role-players and unsung heroes.
The most impressive Buckeye on the ice right now has received little attention, but at this point appears nearly peerless. Senior captain and defenseman Andre Signoretti (2-5–7, +8) leads all CCHA defenders in plus-minus, but that’s only half the story. The speedy, solid D-man may be the league’s best defenseman: impossible to take off the puck with a forecheck of his own that can change the flow of play; a wicked hard shot and point anchor on the power play; the guy you want back if you’re on the wrong end of an odd-man rush.
Like Western Michigan, Ohio State has a chance to prove something this weekend. A home sweep, combined with a concentrated and disciplined effort, may go a long way toward solidifying the Buckeyes’ claim to being a top-tier team.
Picks: Ohio State 3-1, 4-2
Speaking of Buckeyes, Nick Ganga had no penalties and no points last weekend, so Ganga still has six goals and an assist, and three penalties for six minutes. It’s still 25 games and 44 minutes to go.