This Week in the CCHA: Jan. 30, 2003

Slump? Whatever You Do, Don’t Call It That

After bolting out of the gate at the start of the season, going 12-3-1 through October and November, the Miami RedHawks were 1-3-0 in December and have been 2-5-1 in January.

But it’s not a slump. Just don’t call it a slump. “We’ve been playing all right,” said Miami head coach Enrico Blasi. “It’s not like we’re out of games, or being outplayed.

“The other team wants to win, too.”

Last weekend, the RedHawks lost a league game at home for the first time this season, a tough 4-2 decision to CCHA-leading Ferris State, one night after beating the Bulldogs 6-3.

“It was a good series,” said Blasi. “Ferris State is for real, and they gave us two really good games.”

Miami’s recent woes –- the loss to FSU excluded -– are linked to scheduling; the RedHawks simply do not play well on the road. Miami is 1-7-0 in road league games, and with games remaining at Michigan State and Alaska-Fairbanks, the RedHawks had better solve the road problem, and fast.

“I was joking at the beginning of the season that we’d get the Spartans when they got hot,” said Blasi. He was right.

“At this time of year, every play is crucial,” said Blasi. “You’ve just got to keep plugging away. We need to tighten up, limit our mistakes.”

A very bright spot for the RedHawks has been the play of Greg Hogeboom, especially on the power play. The junior forward has five power-play goals in his last six games, bringing his season total to 13 -– best in the CCHA and second in the country.

On the downside, Hogeboom and classmate Mike Kompon are the only two RedHawks with point streaks going into this weekend’s series against MSU –- and those streaks are short, at two games each.

Blasi said that he’s watched MSU on tape. “They look like a good team. They’re playing hard and getting good goaltending.”

If the RedHawks want to beat the Spartans in Munn this weekend, they’ll need good goaltending themselves, something that’s been in short supply outside of the confines of Munn Arena.

Defending the Realm, In Style

Last weekend, the Northern Michigan Wildcats snapped the longest undefeated streak in D-I men’s ice hockey when they swept Alabama-Huntsville, 7-3 and 2-0.

The wins were just what the ailing Wildcats needed.

“Any time you get a couple of wins, it’s positive,” said head coach Walt Kyle. “They’re a good team. The first night, we got fortunate. We got a five-minute power play in the first and we scored a couple of goals there.”

Kyle’s ‘Cats have been struggling of late because of what he calls a “quirky” schedule, and because of the absence of leading scorer –- and playmaker extraordinaire –- Chris Gobert.

Gobert was injured in the Dec. 13 game against Michigan Tech, and his team has been hurting ever since. Through November and the two games in December prior to Gobert’s injury, the Wildcats were 7-1-0. The two wins immediately before the game in which Gobert was hurt were the home victories over Michigan.

Since then, however, NMU has been 4-4-0, with two road losses to Bowling Green.

“Honestly, I think we struggled early,” said Kyle. “We had four or five of our losses in our first seven or eight games. A certain degree of that is acclimation to me…then we were on a good roll.

“Then we played seven games in eight weeks. In that time, we had to take three and a half weeks off. It took a lot of momentum away from us.”

He added that the Wildcats haven’t been a good team on the road. It’s less an overall “consistency” problem, said Kyle, than just not being able to perform well away from home.

Travel won’t be an issue this weekend, as NMU faces Alaska-Fairbanks for two at the Berry Events Center. Than Nanooks are another team that struggled early on.

“I know Guy [Gadowsky] very well,” said Kyle. “They’re a really well-coached team.

“Any team, when you have an issue with what happened to [Aaron] Voros, that’s going to affect the team.

“And they had some big losses from last year. When I was a coach with the Rangers, we signed Bobby Andrews, so I know what he meant to them.”

Ice size won’t be an issue, as both teams play on Olympic sheets at home. “I can tell you they compete every night,” said Kyle. “They have very good speed and transition.”

What may be a factor is goaltending. The Nanooks allowed six goals in each of their losses to Western Michigan last weekend, and UAF has surrendered six goals six times this season. The Nanooks are allowing on average 5.45 goals per game in their 11 losses this year.

Sophomore walk-on goaltender Keith Bartusch played the final two periods in last Saturday’s UAF loss to WMU, allowing two goals in 22 shots. Bartusch, who earned his first win against Lake Superior State Jan. 18, has been given playing time to motivate UAF’s other two, more familiar netminders, Lance Mayes and Preston McKay.

“I think everybody in the program loves to see him get the chance to play,” Gadowski told the Fairbanks News-Miner this week. “We know the talent we have in Lance and Preston –- they have proven themselves many times -– but they had not played up to their capabilities and have left the door open for Keith.”

No matter who the Nanooks play in net, at the other end of the rink is the formidable -– if a little streaky -– Craig Kowalski. So far this season in league play, the NMU junior has posted a 2.67 goals against average and a .899 save percentage.

Brooms and Jinxes

I am not a jinx. Honest.

Last week I wrote that Ohio State junior forward RJ Umberger had zero penalties in league play. After two games in Omaha, he still has no time in the box in CCHA games.

Umberger’s 10-game scoring streak was stopped cold, however, in Nebraska-Omaha’s impressive 4-0 blanking of the Buckeyes last Friday. During that career-best streak, Umberger posted 21 points on 12 goals and nine assists.

I also called the Buckeyes to sweep. Instead, the Mavs fans got out their brooms and whisked OSU away.

It was the second time OSU was swept by an opponent this season.

“It was a little [discouraging] not scoring a few goals, but Mr. Ellis lived up to his reputation,” said OSU head coach John Markell. Dan Ellis, the junior goaltender for UNO, stopped 73 of 74 OSU shots on goal (.987 SV%) to stymie the normally highly productive Buckeye offense.

Markell said that “the guys in front of [Ellis] did a good job of tying up” the Buckeye offense as well. That’s good news for a team that’s had to move as many as three forwards to the blue line to fill in for injured defenders.

“We didn’t play that bad,” said Markell. “When you generate 74 shots on the road, some of them very good, you think you’re going to get a goal. All we needed was one goal to set them back on their heels, but we didn’t do that.

“We were in their end most of the time. The guys have to understand that at crunch time you have to bury your opportunities.”

Before last weekend, the Buckeyes were just two points behind league-leading Ferris State, and four points ahead of then-third place Michigan.

“We just lost the buffer that we had gained,” said Markell. “This league is going to be won on the road. That’s four [consecutive losses] on the road, and I’m not happy about it.”

A puzzling development for the Buckeyes has been the play of junior netminder Mike Betz. Betz -– normally a rock for OSU -– has struggled in his last three appearances, and is now splitting time with freshman David Caruso.

“I think he [Betz] has to get refocused,” Markell said. “He’s facing competition for the first time, and he has to learn that he can’t let any soft ones in. There have been games when the goals have been questionable.

“He’s mature about it. His work ethic in practice has to be better than it was last year -– and it was already excellent.”

Markell added that he’s certain Betz will respond well to the added pressure of competition, once he adjusts.

This weekend, the Buckeyes travel to Notre Dame to face the Irish, a team that put up over 40 shots in a 3-3 tie versus Michigan State last weekend.

Just for the record, the last time OSU was swept (by FSU Nov. 22-23, on the road), the Buckeyes responded with a 10-game unbeaten streak.

I’ll Bet Red Doesn’t Have This Problem

If you called Ferris State head coach Bob Daniels this week and reached his voicemail, this is the message you heard:

If you’re calling in regard to tickets for this weekend, either Friday or Saturday, please be advised that both games are sold out, and I have no tickets personally, either.

If you know Daniels, you can hear the tone in his voice during the last part of the message, even without calling.

Games of the Week

With first place on the line, this is the series to watch.

Ferris State (18-7-1, 13-4-1 CCHA) vs. Michigan (17-6-1, 11-4-1 CCHA)
Friday, 7:35 p.m., Yost Arena, Ann Arbor, Mich.
Saturday, 7:05 p.m., Ewibleben Arena, Big Rapids, Mich.

“Everybody wants a sweep. We were darned happy to get out of there with two points.”

So said Ferris State head coach Bob Daniels, whose Bulldogs did last weekend what no other conference team has been able to do this season: beat Miami in Goggin Arena.

“We knew we were in for a handful,” said Daniels. “In some respects, we felt like ‘mission accomplished.’ I just don’t think it’s going to be a year when someone runs away with it.”

By “it” Daniels of course means the CCHA title, and while he may be right -– it may still be up for grabs -– Ferris State has yet to relinquish the top spot in league standings.

This weekend, the Bulldogs face the Wolverines in what is absolutely a battle for first place. Michigan is four points behind FSU in league play, but the Wolverines also have two games in hand on the Bulldogs.

It’s a home-and-home series, which, said Daniels, is “a big deal” for fans in Big Rapids.

(Hence the phone message. Now leave the poor guy alone.)

Before playing in Ewigleben, though, FSU travels to Ann Arbor. “It’s a tough place to play,” said Daniels. “They have a great environment there –- which is great to see. The bad news is that it makes it very hard to play there.”

Michigan leads this all-time series 48-22-2, 27-9-0 in Ann Arbor, and 20-13-1 in Big Rapids (0-1-1 on neutral ice).

The Wolverines beat the Bulldogs when last they met (Dec. 1, 2001, a 6-1 win), and Michigan rides a four-game win streak against FSU into this weekend. But anyone who knows the history of these two teams knows that any match between FSU and Michigan is relatively unpredictable.

“We’ve usually played them pretty close,” Daniels said. “Sometimes in past years, I thought we were able to do well because of the patient, trapping style we played. But I don’t know that that’s the way we play anymore. In the past couple of years, we haven’t played a defensive style of game.”

That’s an understatement. Averaging over four goals per league game and boasting the highest-scoring player in the league, the Bulldogs now play a fast, open, offensive style of hockey. Led by Chris Kunitz (20-28-48), Jeff Legue (17-17-34), and Mike Kinnie (12-9-21), FSU has the most potent offense in the league. Eleven Bulldogs have posted point totals in the double digits in overall play.

By contrast, the Wolverines are a committee offense, with points more evenly distributed among the Michigan players. Fourteen Wolverines have overall point totals in the double digits, while the highest-scoring Wolverine, Jeff Tambellini, has 23 points on 15 goals and eight assists.

“We’ve got really good depth at forward,” said Daniels, “but they probably have better depth than we have. We maybe have an advantage on D.”

That is especially true since the Big Ten denied sophomore defenseman Eric Werner’s appeal for academic eligibility. Werner will miss the rest of the season, compounding Michigan’s blue-line woes that have included a groin injury to senior Andy Burnes. Burnes will play this weekend against the Bulldogs.

So, what to expect this weekend?

“We probably have one of the few teams that has the speed to stay up with them,” said Daniels. “We’ve got a really good goaltender, and they’ve got a really good goaltender. That’s a fun thing to watch.

“It will be two really good teams, playing pretty similar styles of hockey.”

But, win or lose, when the series is over, Daniels said, “More than anything I hope for is that people say, ‘That was a really good weekend of hockey. That was fun, that was fun to watch.'”

It should be a very fun series to watch. Here’s the match, by the league numbers:

  • Goals per game: FSU 4.28 (first), Michigan 4.06 (second)
  • Goals allowed per game: FSU 2.44 (third), Michigan 2.31 (second)
  • Power play: FSU 18.9% (seventh), Michigan 24.4% (third)
  • Penalty kill: FSU 82.8% (fifth), Michigan 89.3% (first)
  • Michigan’s top scorer: John Shouneyia (4-12-16)
  • FSU’s top scorer: Chris Kunitz (16-18-34)
  • Michigan’s top ‘tender: Al Montoya (.913 SV%, 2.17 GAA)
  • FSU’s top ‘tender: Mike Brown (.921 SV%, 2.37 GAA)

    For Daniels and the Bulldogs, it can be easy to get caught up in this specific series and lose sight of the rest of the season. There’s an advantage for Michigan in this, said Daniels, because of the Wolverines’ experience in “big” games.

    “Realistically, as a team, we’ve got to look beyond that,” Daniels said. “Shoot, when this weekend’s over, we’ve still got eight games. Yes, it’s an important series, but last weekend’s series was important to, and next weekend’s series will be important.”

    Another thing weighing on the minds of the Bulldogs: “Our focus has changed from, ‘Let’s get home ice,’ to, ‘Hey, we have a chance to win a title,'” said Daniels. That’s a nice change of pace for any league team without the word “Michigan” in its title.

    Picks: This is tough, as these two teams are so evenly matched and I have been known to have the kiss of death. But, as Bob Daniels assured me, I’m damned by either or both teams no matter how I pick. As Daniels put the unenviable task of having to pick winners and losers in this or any league, “If you pick us to win, you jinx us. If you pick us to lose, you’re not giving us any respect.” Thanks, Bob. Michigan 4-3, FSU 4-3

    Notes From The League

    UAF: The Nanooks scored four first-period goals on 24 shots against WMU last Friday, but allowed four on 15 shots in the third period and wound up on the short end of the 6-4 final score.

    BGSU: Junior defenseman Kevin Bieksa, who notched three goals and two assists in his last four games, leads the Falcons in scoring with 18 points. In its 34-year history, the BGSU hockey program has never been led in scoring by a defender.

    FSU: Until the RedHawks beat them 6-3 Friday night, the Bulldogs had won 13 consecutive games in which they’d scored the first goal. But FSU kept another streak alive Saturday, when it beat Miami 4-2 to improve to 7-0-0 this season following a loss.

    LSSU: The Lakers suffered their seventh blanking of the season when they lost 5-0 to the Wolverines at Joe Louis Arena last Saturday. LSSU was shut out 11 times during the 2001-02 season.

    Miami: Miami’s 6-3 win over Ferris State last weekend marked the first time in nearly two years that the RedHawks have defeated a nationally-ranked opponent. The last time Miami did so was Feb. 21, 2001, against then-No. 9 WMU.

    Michigan: A pair of freshmen lead the Wolverines in goal scoring. Jeff Tambellini has netted 15, while Brandon Kaleniecki has 10.

    MSU: Former Spartans Ryan Miller (Buffalo Sabres) and Adam Hall (Nashville Predators) have been selected to play in the Topps/NHL YoungStars game Feb. 1 in Sunrise, Fla., as part of the NHL All-Star weekend.

    UNO: If the planets are aligned, and if everyone in Omaha crosses his or her fingers and throws salt over every available shoulder, and if all the correct talismans are in place, and if the proper offerings to the hockey gods and goddesses are accepted and said deities are so inclined, defenseman Greg Zanon may –- just may — be back in the lineup for the Mavs against Bowling Green this weekend. Zanon has missed eight games following knee surgery which was complicated by a minor staph infection. Knock wood.

    NMU: Junior netminder Craig Kowalski earned his eighth shutout against Alabama-Huntsville last weekend, and is now tied with former Wildcat Dan Ragusett (1999-2000) for most shutouts in NMU history.

    Notre Dame: Senior defenseman Evan Nielsen and senior forward John Wroblewski are closing in on the “Irish Ironman” streak of 103 consecutive games played, a record held by Ryan Dolder. Nielsen has suited up for 100 straight games, while Wroblewski has seen action in 99 straight contests.

    OSU: While their 10-game unbeaten streak was brought to a resounding halt last weekend (I am not a jinx) in Omaha and the Buckeyes have lost four straight league road games, OSU is undefeated 15 consecutive CCHA games (12-0-3) at home, dating back to last season.

    WMU: The Broncos are 6-1-0 in 2003, and are riding a season-high five-game winning streak, thanks in part to freshman Vince Bellissimo, who has scored seven goals on 15 shots during the run. WMU is idle this weekend.

    Can’t Let This One Pass …

    Newly elected Alaskan Senator Ralph Seekins of Fairbanks took a puck to the forehead during Friday’s game against WMU, a gash that required 50 stitches. Of course, the senator -– the father-in-law of former Nanook standout Ryan Reinheller –- was back in his seat for Saturday’s game.

    Senator Seekins, here’s a little piece of advice: take the puck in the side of the head. I only needed two staples when I did that in 1998, and I was back from ER before the end of the third period.

    All joking aside, I’m glad you’re OK. Carry some ibuprofen for the time being. It will come in handy.