Defender of the League
Ferris State head coach Bob Daniels gets straight to the point. “I’ll go on record as saying that I think our league is one of the premier leagues in college hockey.”
Daniels’ assertion comes after a the CCHA’s respectable early-season nonconference record, one that includes a sweep in last week’s College Hockey Showcase.
Always a soft-spoken man and an optimist, Daniels says that critics of the league don’t understand the league’s parity. It’s an old line, but one the league’s coaches keep repeating. “Anyone can beat anybody in our league on any given night.”
Daniels should know. His Bulldogs have just one conference win to their credit so far this weekend, and it’s against the No. 5 Wolverines.
A quick look at the league’s record both in-house and around the D-I rinks may lend credibility to the parity argument for the first time in two years.
No. 1 Michigan State has one loss, to Nebraska-Omaha, a team tied for seventh place in the CCHA.
No. 5 Michigan has three losses: one to Michigan State, one to the last-place Bulldogs, and one to middle-of-the-packer Alaska Fairbanks.
No. 14 Northern Michigan — currently in second place in the CCHA standings — has two losses to Michigan State, a loss to the tough Buckeyes, and a loss to last-place Notre Dame.
OK, so No. 6 Western Michigan — tied with Michigan for third place in the league — throws a monkey-wrench into the equation, as the Broncos are undefeated in league play and have just one loss on the season, to Alabama-Huntsville.
Still, the “anyone can beat anybody on any night” theory seems plausible, at least this season, and the CCHA’s nonconference record (29-18-7) is looking as though it may shape up to be better than last year’s record of 33-38-3.
So far this season, the only conference that can truly claim dominance over the CCHA is — surprise, surprise — Hockey East, a league that has owned our homeboys for some time now. CCHA teams are 5-11-1 against HE teams.
But when you look at a breakdown of those wins and losses, the record of the CCHA’s “top-tier” teams who have faced Hockey East opponents — Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State — is 2-1-1.
Lake Superior State and Miami each lost two games apiece to Providence and New Hampshire, ranked Hockey East teams. Nebraska-Omaha dropped two one-goal games to Merrimack, and lost to Boston College. The Mavericks did, however, handle UMass-Amherst twice.
In fairness, UNO’s losses to Merrimack can be used to argue the point that Hockey East’s middle-tier teams may be better than those in the CCHA, but I don’t think anyone right now — perhaps not even Daniels himself — would dispute that Hockey East is also one of the “premier” leagues in college hockey.
But the CCHA is 8-4-3 against the WCHA, 5-0-2 against the ECAC, and 11-3-1 against the CHA.
And three of the top six teams in the country call the CCHA home. Previous bristling about the league’s inferiority aside, perhaps this season the Central Collegiate Hockey Association will be able to back the claim that top to bottom, this is one tough league.
You Can’t Get There From Here, Part 87
Call them acts of Nature. Acts of God. Cosmic snafus. Fate. Whatever you call it, “it” has prevented and delayed the publication of this column in the past two weeks.
Last week, as I was lounging in my pajamas, watching the Colorado-Nebraska football game, seated in a comfy chair in front of both the television and the wood stove in the living room of my best friend’s house in Western New York, it occurred to me that I should probably check up on USCHO.com. I logged on. No CCHA column.
After an email exchange with my editor, we figured out that he had never received the column, which I sent on Nov. 20. Unfortunately, the column was in Columbus, I was in Brocton, and the week was lost.
A glitch of the virtual world.
This week, the column has been delayed by a glitch of the gastrointestinal world (mine, not that of my editor).
What did you miss last week? Let me tell you, folks, it was brilliant! A masterpiece of sports writing! A subtle marriage of wit and wisdom, comparable to an aria by Verdi or the sketches of Da Vinci!
You’ll never know, will you?
All right, I confess. It was a little column giving thanks for what gives me pleasure about my job. I won’t give you the whole thing, but I would like to share with you a few things for which I am genuinely grateful:
The way David Gove finds the back of the net.
The way Ryan Miller fills the net when opponents approach.
The way R.J. Umberger drops a pass.
Scott Matzka’s effort on the PK.
The way every Nanook hockey player introduced himself to me in Columbus.
Buddy Powers’ sense of humor.
The fact that Rick Comley is coaching full-time again.
The Bulldog mascot costume.
Ay Ziggy Zoomba.
The Ohio Cup banner that hangs in Goggin Arena.
The number of quality Division-I coaches who played for Ron Mason.
The fact that Josh Lampman played for Illinois-Chicago.
The bell outside of Taffey Abel arena.
Any hockey played on a Great Lake.
The way the OSU Ice Rink smells.
The blue and yellow knit tooks (with earflaps) the Lakers wear. Names like Vigilante, Bonk, Nails, Chipchase, Rumble, Lightfoot, and
Of course, there are many people no longer with the CCHA whom I miss, including Bill Beagan, Nate Ewell, John Patterson, and especially Brian Fishman.
I also took the opportunity to thank my colleagues at USCHO.com, the best group of people I’ve ever met, and to the fans who keep reading. That’s it. Hardly a keeper. But I meant every word.
Game of the Week
Miami (7-5-2, 4-3-1 CCHA) at No. 6 Western Michigan (10-1-2, 5-0-2 CCHA) Friday and Saturday, 7:05 p.m., Lawson Arena, Kalamazoo, MI
“Everyone seems to playing hard, and we’re working together, and good things happen.”
That sums up the season so far for Enrico Blasi, coach of the second-hottest team in the CCHA, the Miami RedHawks.
The ‘Hawks began the season in a promising way with three points from Clarkson at home. Then came three consecutive road losses to ranked teams — Providence, New Hampshire, Michigan — and a home loss to Notre Dame to cap a four-game losing streak.
“After those games, we were 1-5-1, and out of those seven games, we probably played poorly in maybe two of those games,” says Blasi. “Then we went to Bemidji — and won two in what felt like a difficult road trip.”
Blasi says that during the trip to Bemidji State, which resulted in a pair of 4-2 wins, the RedHawks felt as though “we were loading and unloading the bus the whole time.” The trip was a flight with a two-hour bus trip attached at the end.
Since then, Miami is undefeated, with those two wins against Bemidji, a pair of wins against Nebraska-Omaha, and a pair against Lake State.
“We’re playing the same way we did early, but we’re concentrating,” says Blasi. “We seem to all be on the same page. Our seniors have stepped up and are leading the team.”
That veteran leadership includes senior Gregor Krajnc (8-6-14) and junior Jason Deskins (7-7-14), two of Miami’s top forwards who missed all of last season because of injury. Seniors Ernie Hartlieb (3-4-7) and Pat Leahy (2-8-10), and junior Evan Cheverie (6-2-8) have combined with Krajnc and Deskins for 17 of Miami’s 26 goals during the RedHawks’ current six-game win streak.
The same group of upperclassmen notched just nine goals through the first eight games of the season. Krajnc and Deskins each enter this weekend with four-game scoring streaks on the line.
Miami’s most productive line over the last two weekends is a group that spent some time apart recently. Deskins, Hartlieb, and Leahy have contributed six goals and 14 assists since forming their line two weeks ago. Deskins and Hartlieb had played together since their Pee Wee days, but Hartlieb was forced to spend some time on the blue line recently as the Miami defense was thin because of injury. Another reason for the recent Miami success is sophomore goaltender David Burleigh. The streaky netminder has been more than simply solid during the win streak. His goals-against average during his last nine outings is 2.32.
While a core of veterans playing up to their potential and a hottish goaltender are helpful, Blasi knows what he and his RedHawks are up against this weekend in Kalamazoo.
“They’re pretty skilled up front. Pretty good balance, pretty good goaltending. It’s going to be a big-time challenge. We’re the underdogs, we know.”
Understatement aside, the level-headed Blasi has the right formula for a couple of competitive games in Lawson.
“You’ve just got to be smart about how you play. You’ve got to be sound defensively and disciplined. The bottom line is you’ve just got to play.”
The coach of the No. 6 Broncos is taking nothing for granted as the ‘Hawks come to town. Jim Culhane has an uncanny way of putting his team’s success into perspective.
“We’ve only played a quarter — 25% of our league games — there’s a ton of hockey to be played. We know that. We need to get better.”
How can a team that averages 5.08 goals per game (5.57 in league play) improve on its game?
“We’ve fallen behind here in recent games,” says Culhane. “The concern to the guys on the team and us as a staff is as the games become more and more important, we realize we can come back from a two-goal deficit, but eventually that may be our undoing.
“It’s a double-edged sword. We realize that when we’re down by two we can come back — .but it can cost you the game. We were fortunate to get a point against Michigan State. It’s hard to score on Ryan Miller.
“There will come a game or two when we won’t be able to come back.”
The Broncos are scoring nearly six goals per game conference play, and it’s no secret that David Gove (11-8-19), Mike Bishai (7-10-17), Steve Rymsha (7-9-16), and rookie Jeff Campbell (4-6-10) are the bulk of that equation. In conference play, that foursome is responsible for 29 of the Broncos’ 39 goals.
Much of the Western Michigan offense comes on the power play, which one anonymous coach recently described as “a thing of beauty.” Converting at 30 percent, the Bronco power play is Gove’s five power-play goals and the four each of Bishai and Rymsha.
The success of the Bronco power play is a “tribute to the guys that are out there,” says Culhane.
“There are some pretty skilled kids on that power play. The big thing in those situations is to get the puck to the net. That’s the big message-you’ve got to shoot. It doesn’t have to be the big one-timer.”
He adds, “As a defensive defenseman, who am I to tell these guys how to put the puck in the net?”
(Note to the RedHawks: stay out of the box.)
As good as is the Bronco offense, there is still room for improvement at the other end of the ice. The Broncos are +55, hardly an over-the-top figure for a team with such a high-powered offense. But Jeff Reynaert seems to have found his feet in net this season, improving to a .904 league save percentage and a 2.95 GAA.
Culhane says that as the Bronco tendency to win has a positive, snowballing effect on Reynaert and his teammates.
“The more and more you can win, the more confidence you can start to gain. Jeff is undefeated and he plays really well for us, and he’s maturing as a player. He’s settled in and he’s maturing as a player. You can say that about more and more of our players.”
The success of the Broncos has more than one reporter — including yours truly — reaching for the cloth to remove the egg on face. I picked the Broncos dead-last in the CCHA this season. Culhane says that such predictions are meaningless (God bless ‘im).
“I don’t put any weight into those preseason polls, and I don’t put any weight into where we are nationally. That’s a nod and a pat on the back for how we’ve started. But it doesn’t mean a hill of beans.
“It’s obviously great for our institution, our alums, and our fans. It’s exciting for us. Look at the end of the year if you’re still ranked as high as that, then great. It’s early.”
Culhane knows that this weekend’s games against the RedHawks provide fans with the unique opportunity to see two hot teams fighting to stay that way.
“It’s going to be a very exciting weekend. With their streak and our streak — something’s got to give this weekend. They got three out of four points in our building last year. They’re a pretty dynamic group. One thing we’re pleased about is that we have an opportunity to stay in our comfort zone at home.”
Western Michigan leads this all-time series 43-23-6, but Miami’s current players have been consistently successful versus these current Broncos. During the past four seasons (11 meetings), Miami is 6-2-3 over Western, including a three-game unbeaten streak (1-0-2). The RedHawks are, however, 1-1-3 in their last five games in Lawson, and Western leads the series in Lawson 23-15-5.
Picks: As hot as Miami has been, Western is hotter. Miami has beaten other middle- and lower-tier CCHA teams, but Western came back to score two third-period goals to tie the top team in the country in Munn Arena. Western may indeed be poised for its first league loss, but perhaps not this weekend. Western Michigan 5-2, 5-2.