The Envelope, Please
That’s right, CCHA fans. As many surprises as the Academy Awards but lacking the pageantry of the Tonys, it’s the annual Girl Reporter League Awards.
Ballots? We don’t need no stinkin’ ballots.
Team of the Year: Michigan State. The Spartans take this award from last year’s winner, the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks. A gripping performance by a gutsy team that scores by committee. A major-league goaltender backed by an All-American. A defensive mentality that turns the trap into art. Four losses on the season, and a squad that will be very tough to beat in post-season play.
Surprise of the Year: Western Michigan. Picked 11th in both the coaches and media polls (and dead-last by this chagrined Girl Reporter), the Broncos breathed life into an offense-hungry league, lighting the lamp so often in the early season that stock in General Electric jumped 20%. Gove, Bishai, and Rymsha became household names — finally.
Surprise of the Year, Take Two: Alaska Fairbanks. This season, it wasn’t a question of if the Nanooks would make the playoffs, but where they’d travel — and for a while there, it looked like they might vie for home ice. Took points from every league opponent except Michigan State. Darned nice guys, too.
Tank of the Year: Lake Superior State: It’s cruel to give the Lakers this award, but they unfortunately meet the criteria: biggest finish differential the wrong way. More on the Lakers in a moment.
Defenders of the Realm: Michigan State. An award established last year in honor of the Ferris State Bulldogs, who compiled the best record in the CCHA against nonconference opponents in 1999-2000. This season, Michigan State is 7-0-1 out of conference. Honorable mention: Western Michigan (7-1-0).
Team Most Likely to Surprise Folks in the Post-season: Alaska-Fairbanks. The Nanooks have a knack for earning at least a point on the weekend.
Perseverance Award: Lake Superior State Lakers. How many man-games have the Lakers lost this season to illness or injury? And through it all, head coach Scott Borek has said that this has been his most rewarding season of coaching, given the gracious way his team has persevered.
Attaboy Award: Jason Deskins and Gregor Krajnc Like fellow RedHawk Dustin Whitecotton before them, these two Miami players have bounced back from year-long injuries to lead their team.
The Chris Richards Man-Most-Likely-To-Be-Overlooked Memorial Award: Dan Carlson. This Notre Dame player is having a career season while no one is looking. Eighth in league scoring with 17 goals and 14 assists, and a plus-minus rating of +10, Carlson will likely be overlooked in favor of one or two Western Michigan players (namely Steve Rymsha and Mike Bishai) whose plus-minus is at zero and who both have more penalty minutes. And in the greater scheme of things, Carlson was much more important to his team than was either of these Western players, who were surrounded by much more scoring help.
Most Likely to Leave Early Award: Andy Hilbert. Will Hilbert follow in the footsteps of fellow Wolverine Mike Comrie, last year’s award winner (and early departure?). Honorable mention: Dave Steckel.
The Aniket Dhadphale Garbage Man Memorial Award: Steve Rymsha. No one picks up the trash like Rymsha, who’s impossible to move from the front of the net, especially on the power play.
Wow Award: Ryan Miller. This repeat winner needs no explanation.
Best Offensive Goalie Award: Josh Blackburn. The Michigan netminder has five assists this season, the most points for any goaltender in the CCHA.
2000-2001 Goon Squad: The Western Michigan Broncos. Why pick individual players when an entire team stands out head and shoulders above the rest? The Broncos have amassed 850 minutes in the box this season.
“We’ve talked about it,” says Western head coach Jim Culhane. “We want to play a physical game, the way we forecheck and pursue the puck. At times, it’s cost us. We have to become more disciplined as a team. Again, that’s a learning experience for us.”
The biggest offender is Brian Pasko, who has a staggering 187 minutes in 31 games played, and whom Culhane says is “a super young man.”
“He brings a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm to the game, which is something we knew coming in. His competitiveness … is something you can’t instill in somebody. He’s a super young man.”
With two games remaining in regular season and at least a couple playoff games, there’s still time for Steve Rymsha to hit the century mark in minutes this season. The Bronco has 97 in 33 games.
Honorable mention: Nanook and genuine nice guy Ryan Reinheller (73); Falcon Kevin Bieska (82); Bulldog Phil Lewandowski (79); Laker Chris Thompson (114!); Spartan Brian Maloney (80); Mavericks Jeff Hoggan (70) and James Chalmers (88); Wildcat Brent Robertson (74).
And three Notre Dame players give new meaning to the school’s mascot. Brett Lebda (105), Neil Komadoski (98), and Ryan Clark (77) have combined for roughly a third of Notre Dame’s penalties.
My boyfriend, UAF’s Chad Hamilton, is no longer a goon, earning just 28 minutes in lockdown this season.
Quote of the Year: “There was a fan right next to us telling us Michigan sucks, and we agreed with him.” That’s Michigan State head coach Ron Mason on the atmosphere during the Spartans’ first-ever game at Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
League’s Best Fans: The Good Folks of Omaha. For the second year in a row, fans of the Mavericks continue to amaze the rest of the league with how many people they can pack into a weekly luncheon, let alone the Civic Center. Honorable mention: the Puckheads, who know sexy when they see it … and who will travel anywhere.
League’s Most Juvenile Fans: Bowling Green, Michigan, and Western Michigan This shameful award goes to the most obscene. It’s easy to argue that repeat offender, the Wolverine student section, has also grown boring.
League’s Most Proficient Emailers: Nebraska Omaha. The bulk of my weekly email comes from UNO fans, most of whom think I don’t give their team or fans enough credit. They are, of course, correct.
League’s Stupidest Fans: Ohio State. Once again, I saw an Ohio State fan fling an object onto the ice this season, this time an orange that could easily have injured a player. Save it for the ^ÑShoe, will ya?
Best Small Barn: Western Michigan and Northern Michigan. Lawson Arena is the kind of place you’re happy you’re a Western fan, and scared if you’re wearing opponent colors. No, there’s no violence involved, but you’re going to take grief just the same.
The Berry Events Center is the most gorgeous building in the league, hands down. A beautiful venue. Makes me want to move to Marquette.
Best Large Barn: The Bullpen. Jury duty prevented my trip to Omaha this year, but the stories I heard about the place have me convinced.
Best Rink Food: Michigan State. For the second year in a row. It’s the ice cream sandwich. Yum.
Worst Rink Food: Michigan. Hot dogs. Bad. Very bad.
Best Uniforms: None. Once again, no one gets my nod. There are elements of some uniforms that stand out, but there’s nothing original. Even the traditional lacks tradition, in most places. I do like Michigan State’s away sweaters, but they don’t blow me away.
Games of the Week
Fresh from the not-quite-dead-yet files, each of these teams has so much at stake that this series is arguably the most important of the weekend.
Notre Dame (9-21-7, 6-14-6 CCHA) vs. No. 15 Western Michigan (18-10-6, 11-9-6 CCHA)
Friday, 7:05 p.m., Joyce Center, South Bend, Ind.
Saturday, 7:05 p.m., Lawson Arena, Kalamazoo, Mich.
The setting couldn’t be more dramatic. Seven seniors will be honored in South Bend Friday night, five (including the graduating J.J. Weaks) in Kalamazoo Saturday.
Notre Dame, the team that anchored the CCHA for so much of the season, currently holds onto the last playoff spot by one slim point. Western Michigan, who for so much of the season flirted with first place, is tied for fifth and battling both Ohio State and Northern Michigan for a first-round, home-ice advantage.
Notre Dame has 18 points, Bowling Green 17. The teams have the same number of league wins, the first tie-breaker. Notre Dame owns the second tie-breaker, head-to-head competition. Should the Broncos sweep the Irish, Bowling Green would have to do more than tie once — get more than one point — this weekend against Ferris State to knock out Notre Dame. Bowling Green is playing at home.
Notre Dame has two more points than last-place Lake Superior State, who plays a home-and-home series with Northern Michigan this weekend. The Lakers, however, have both the first and second tie-breakers over the Irish, with two more league wins and two victories against Notre Dame this season.
Should the Lakers win one game and Notre Dame take no points, the Lakers could leap-frog from last place to the last playoff spot, depending on what happens about 30 miles south of Toledo.
Additionally, in a perfect Irish world, Notre Dame could catch Alaska Fairbanks. The Irish are three points behind the Nanooks, who play inter-conference rival Alaska Anchorage twice this weekend. Should Notre Dame sweep Western Michigan, the Irish will finish ninth, period.
Should the Irish tie with the Nanooks in points, the Irish would also be tied with UAF in wins. Notre Dame holds the next tie-breaker, having defeated and tied the Nanooks earlier this season.
Bear in mind that Notre Dame took three of four possible points from Western Michigan Jan. 12- 13, and the Irish were 3-2-2 in February.
With 28 points, Western Michigan is tied with Ohio State for fifth place. As it stands right now, even though the Broncos beat the Buckeyes three of four games this season, OSU has the first tie- breaker in league wins.
Should the Broncos be swept by the Irish, Ohio State wouldn’t have to lift a finger to take fifth, providing that Northern Michigan doesn’t surpass OSU in points. Both the Broncos and the Buckeyes currently have the first tie-breaker on Northern Michigan, but the Wildcats can catch the Broncos in both points and wins. (They cannot, however, catch Ohio State in wins.)
Northern Michigan owns both the second and third tie-breakers against Western Michigan.
So this series affects nearly every team in the league, the entire CCHA playoff picture, and the natural universe as we know it.
“The good thing is that we’ve been playing playoff hockey for the past three week,” says Notre Dame head coach Dave Poulin. “That’s exactly what it’s felt like.
“I feel good about my team. We’re playing pretty well right now. The team is pretty loose. I think there’s a tremendous respect for how difficult it’s been to get here.”
It has been a struggle for the Irish this season, a team that lost four key defensemen and a stand-out forward to graduation at the end of last season. In November and December, the Irish earned six points in 10 league games, going 2-6-1 in those two months. Since Jan. 1, Notre Dame is 4-6-4 in conference, hardly a hot streak but enough to give the Irish some hope of making the playoffs.
In contrast, the Broncos came out of the gate with guns a-blazin’, taking the CCHA and college hockey world completely by surprise. Western’s first league loss was to Miami on Dec. 1. In the first half of the season, the Broncos were 7-2-2 in league play, and had outscored opponents 51-39 in those games.
Since Jan. 1, however, Western Michigan and Notre Dame have nearly identical records, and identical league points. The Broncos are 4-7-4 in games this calendar year.
“During that stretch of games when we couldn’t find a win, at times we played pretty well and at times we didn’t,” says Jim Culhane, Western Michigan head coach. “It’s frustrating at times, but you continue to try to make improvements in areas of weaknesses in your team.”
The Broncos returned to form in a game described as “electric” by Michigan State head coach Ron Mason, when Western beat the top-ranked Spartans 4-2 on Jan. 16 in Lawson Arena, snapping a 10-game winless streak.
“It was a very special moment for our program,” says Culhane. “Hockey is the only sport in which we as an institution play Big Ten and other larger schools consistently, and those games are very exciting for us.
“It was a special moment for us to beat the number-one team in our league and the country. The whole student section stood the whole time.”
Home crowds in each barn will rise to the occasion this weekend. The Irish have hired a new promotions director, Brian Kegler, a man whom Poulin says has made an immediate and positive impact on the home atmosphere. “We’ve been totally sold out the last few games. He’s [Kegler] made some road trips and he’s seen some things around the league, done his homework. The only drawback is that he wasn’t with us from the end of last season.”
As you might expect the last weekend of the season, neither coach is looking beyond these games to the playoffs; there’s too much at stake. Each says he’s focusing on his own team as much as the competition.
“Our focus right now is to play our immediate opponent. That’s a team that’s playing well,” says Culhane. “To get three out of four points against a Fairbanks club that’s much improved, in Fairbanks, is quite an accomplishment.”
Culhane also says that the Broncos are “obviously concerned” about the number of points the Irish took from Western this season as well.
Western Michigan leads this all-time series 26-16-3, and is 15-5-2 against Notre Dame in Lawson Arena, 12-1-1 since 1992-93. The Irish are 11-10-1 against the Broncos at the Joyce Center, and are 9-3-1 there against WMU since rejoining the CCHA.
What else can be said at this point? Drive to South Bend and Kalamazoo and find the scalpers!
Picks: Notre Dame 4-3, Western Michigan 4-3