This Week in the CCHA: Nov. 29, 2001

Who Let the Dogs Out?

Once again, the CCHA is shaping up to be a two-tier kind of place — in spite protestations of parity — and once again, Michigan State tops the conference followed by yet another team from Michigan.

But the second-place team isn’t the Michigan, not the Maize-and-Blue, not the Wolverines. In second place is Northern Michigan, with three teams tied for third.

Sure, you expect to see Nebraska-Omaha near the top of the heap, and maybe you expect to see Ohio State there as well. But in the mix is a team from Michigan that many people often overlook.

Tied for third with UNO and OSU and with 11 points of their own in the early going, the Ferris State Bulldogs are impossible to ignore. Head coach Bob Daniels says that the secret to FSU’s success is simple: “We’ve had outstanding goaltending, and we got the bounces.”

After the late-summer departure of Phil Osaer, the Bulldogs were entering the 2001-02 season with little idea of would happen between the pipes. Enter John DeCaro and Mike Brown, the hottest goaltending tandem in the CCHA.

Rookies DeCaro (2.19 GAA, .923 SV%) and Brown (2.57 GAA, .915 SV%) have been a delightful surprise in Big Rapids, providing the Bulldogs with that
proverbial opportunity to compete in every game. “They’re both playing
very well,” says Daniels. “We went into the season and goaltending was a real concern at the start — not that we didn’t have confidence in the position, but it was a real question mark.”

Daniels says he hates to admit it, but Osaer’s early departure “did impact the morale of our team” at first, but any concerns “have been put to rest.”

“I’m cautious,” says Daniels, “but I’m really happy.”

Daniels says that the guy who deserves credit for the successful goaltending transition is FSU assistant coach and former Bulldog goaltender Jeff Blashill. “He recruited them, and he works with them.”

Solid netminding is just one part of Ferris State’s success this season. Daniels alluded to those mysterious “bounces,” but every coach knows that a team that works hard can force its own luck, especially around opponents’ nets. Topping the CCHA in scoring so far this season is Rob Collins (9-16–25), who also leads the league in plus-minus (+17) and shorthanded goals (3) — and he does it all by staying out of the penalty box (six minutes, total).

“He’s playing well, and he’s got the complete game going for him,” says Daniels, who adds that Collins leads the team in “the things that don’t show up” in stat charts going for him as well, things like taking “key defensive faceoffs” in the Bulldog end, and his play on FSU’s top penalty-killing unit.

Daniels says that he was reluctant to put his best offensive player on the PK during the second half of last season, but the role has helped Collins become the player he is this year. “With him getting more ice time, he has a better feel for the overall game,” says Daniels.

Not far behind Collins is Chris Kunitz (13-5–18, +14), another player who is benefiting from penalty-killing experience. “They’re our two best offensive players, and now all of a sudden we’ve got our top two forwards on the bench not sitting for six or eight minutes a game while we kill off penalties.”

Given that Ferris State spends a lot of time in the box — averaging 22.23 minutes this season, and always among the league’s leaders in penalty minutes — the Bulldog PK gives Collins and Kunitz a chance to stay warm during long games.

Things are looking up for the Bulldogs, but Daniels says that there’s room for improvement, especially in “greater depth in offensive talent.” FSU has already begun to address that with a talented rookie class that helps provide support for DeCaro, Brown, Collins, and Kunitz.

“In the long run,” says Daniels, “I think you’re going to see contributions from other players.”

Those players include Mike Kinney (4-1–5), Jeff Legue (1-6–7), Derek Nesbitt (1-4–5), and Carter Thompson (0-1–1). “It’s a year when we have four freshmen players that are all in the lineup, and three of the four are on the power play, and all contribute,” says Daniels.

Having such a young team is a bonus, says Daniels because “we don’t have too much time to emphasize” opponents. “We aren’t as caught up in facing the other team so much as we are improving our own.”

Focusing solely on the Bulldogs may lead Ferris State right back home in March, something that would undoubtedly be good for the league and bolster the CCHA’s parity argument.

It would also be a fitting reward for Daniels, Blashill, and assistant Drew Famulak, the nicest guys in college hockey.

Games of the Week

Who would have thought that at this point in the season, it would be Michigan trailing Ferris State in the standings?

No. 13 Michigan (6-5-2, 4-3-2 CCHA) vs. Ferris State (7-5-1, 5-5-1 CCHA) Friday, 7:35 p.m., Ewigleben Arena, Big Rapids, Mich. Saturday, 7:35 p.m., Yost Ice Arena, Ann Arbor, Mich.

“We could be in second place on Monday,” says Michigan head coach Red Berenson, or we could be in seventh.”

Such is the current state of the CCHA. The Wolverines, tied for fourth in points (10) with Western Michigan, have two games in hand on Ferris State, and by the looks of things, Michigan won’t have an easy time gaining ground.

“We’re in the pack,” says Berenson. “We’re like everybody else. We’re beatable.”

Ninth in goals per game (3.08), fifth in goals allowed (2.77), with the league’s seventh-best power play (.143) and third-best penalty kill (.867), the Wolverines are indeed part of “the pack,” and victims of their own success; were it not for early departures, this Michigan squad would also include Mike Comrie, Andy Hilbert, and Jeff Jillson.

Michigan still retains the fabulous Mike Cammalleri (8-7–15) and has recruited a slew of talented freshmen — Jason Ryznar (5-4–9), Eric Nystrom (5-3–8), Dwight Helminen (4-2–6) — but Berenson says he’s doubtful that the newcomers “are going to score a lot of goals” this season and adds, “I don’t know if any of them [the rookies] are going to replace Andy Hilbert.”

But it’s not the offensive side of things that troubles Berenson. “We need to play better defensively,” he says. “If you look at our recent weekends, we’ve given up too many goals against. That’s been one of the negatives of our team.”

Two weeks ago, the Wolverines gave up six goals in Omaha and came away with a win and a tie, “something you don’t see too often,” says Berenson. Early in November, however, Michigan gave up six goals in Northern and paid for it with two losses.

It would be easy to point the finger at senior goaltender Josh Blackburn (2.81 GAA, .888 SV%), but “he’s doing pretty well,” says Berenson. “It’s not just him. It’s our penalty killing, our defense, everything.”

Still, Berenson says, “I can’t tell you he makes the difference. He’s going like our team’s going. Only after Fairbanks could we say that our goaltender won the games for us.” When Michigan traveled to UAF, Blackburn allowed just one goal on the weekend against a very tenacious Nanook team.

Berenson knows what Michigan faces this weekened. Ferris State is a “good-skating team,” says Berenson. “They’re skilled, they’ve got two good goalies their excited about. They’ve got two of the top scorers in the league.”

Michigan leads this series 46-22-2, with a 19-13-1 advantage in Big Rapids, but the Wolverines have dropped two of their last three games in Ewigleben.

Ferris State is second in CCHA overall scoring per game (3.54), fourth in goals allowed (2.38), and fourth on the penalty kill (.862). The weakest link for the Bulldogs is their power play (.125, 11th), which has, thankfully, improved.

(At one point, FSU coach Bob Daniels jokingly asked a CCHA official if his team could “decline” opponent penalties, since the Bulldogs were scoring more shorthanded than with the man-advantage.)

Given that each of these squads is known for its, um, physical play, special teams could certainly be a factor in the games.

Picks: FSU 4-2, Michigan 4-3

Grudge of the Week

You knew this was coming.

No. 11 Nebraska-Omaha (8-5-1, 5-4-1 CCHA) at Bowling Green (4-7-3, 3-6-1
Friday and Saturday, 7:05 p.m., BGSU Ice Arena, Bowling Green, Ohio

In this great big world, mysteries abound. Why do fools fall in love? How do you mend a broken heart? Who’s your daddy? Did you hear the guns, Fernando?

And perhaps the most puzzling of them all: how can two teams who have played just nine games claim to be such rivals?

Apparently, it all goes back to the first-ever meeting between the clubs, when Dan Price’s empty-netter insured victory for the Falcons in their first trip to Omaha, Jan. 2, 1999.

(Jan. 2, 1999? That’s how old this rivalry is? I’ve got lint older than that!)

In Omaha Jan. 13, 2001, David Brisson notched two third-period goals — the second one with 1:26 to go — to give the Mavericks a 3-2 victory and cementing UNO’s first-ever sweep of BGSU (Jan. 12-13, 3-2 each game).

Then there’s that note about the CCHA’s first-ever play-in playoff game.

Mavericks to watch include Andrew Wong (6-15–21), Jeff Hoggan (9-10–19), Aaron Smith (7-10–17), David Brisson (6-7–13), Greg Zanon (2-5–7), and Dan Ellis (.903 SV%, 2.83 GAA).

Falcons to watch include Greg Day (6-6–12), Grady Moore (4-8–12), Scott Hewson (3-6–9), Ryan Minnabarriet (6-2–8), Brian Escobedo (2-6–8), and Tyler Masters (.895 SV%, 3.65 GAA). Perhaps Jordan Sigalet (.901 SV%, 3.14 GAA) will also see time in the BG net.

UNO leads this all-time series 6-3-0.

Picks: UNO 3-2, 3-2

Homerism, Redefined

After the Buckeyes swept then-No. 6 Northern Michigan at home Nov. 16-17, sophomore center Scott May said that he hoped folks around the league and the nation would give OSU a little respect.

Said May, “Personally, I think this weekend goes to all the people who gave us even the split. Thanks, Paula. That includes you, too.”

Homerism and Loose Lips

May is becoming the most quotable Buckeyes since Eric Meloche. Before heading to New Hampshire for the Conference Classic, and upon hearing that Dick Umile was going to start his “back-up” goaltender Michael Ayers, Mays said, “Too bad for them. If we are going to put six goals by them, so be it. Hopefully after the first period they’ll have to put their number-one goalie in.”

Since UNH beat OSU 3-1, you can do the math. After the game, Ayers told USCHO Hockey East Correspondent Dave Hendrickson, “I got hold of an article from a newspaper out in Ohio this past week. One kid had said that they were going to pump six goals by me and then [force us to] put [our] number-one guy in. That kind of kept me motivated to keep my head in the game.”

Of course, all sources should be considered here. Mays let slip his comments to a reporter for the O-Zone, a site devoted to the Buckeyes. That reporter linked his story to the USCHO Message Board, which has become — as everyone knows and few admit — popular reading material among players, coaches, recruiters, and anyone associated with hockey.

There’s no question that May was baited. A quick look at New Hampshire’s stats shows that not only had Ayers seen game action before playing the Buckeyes, but that he’s a very good goaltender. May, however, took the bait.

It remains to be seen whether May has learned a lesson — and whether the Buckeyes will again score six in a game this season, let alone a single period.

As Barbie Once Said, Math Is Hard

This year, Thanksgiving marked Vicki Weston’s 29th birthday.

Vicki is my baby sister.

Happy Birthday, Vic, and I promise to never begrudge your youth if you continue to revere my panache.