This Week in the CCHA: March 6, 2003

In Like a Lion

So, it’s March. Big deal, you say? It means you survived February, a wretched month by most accounts, short in days but the rent remains the same with that goofy Hallmark Holiday sandwiched right in the middle.

March heralds spring, otherwise known as The End of Life As We Know It. While millions of the less informed are glued to the tube watching roundball, those of us who live in rinks from late September through early April eagerly anticipate conference playoffs, NCAA regional action, and the Frozen Four — all of which are designed to make us temporarily forget what we dread the most.

The offseason. Friday and Saturday nights free. No excuse not to clean the gutters. No reason to avoid the latest chick flick (or — to be fair-minded — the latest action movie). Hour upon hour which may, in fact, be spent with a spouse. You may even have to cook for your family.

But I’m getting ahead of things here. For the next six weeks, we’re all preoccupied with the PWR, travel plans, and the occasional Cinderella story.

Blessed March, that interlude between true winter and the abyss. Worth celebrating, don’t you think?

Welcome to the Union, Nebraska!

Nebraska joined the Union on March 1, 1867. Nebraska-Omaha joined the CCHA on June 24, 1998.

Coincidence? No. The two dates have nothing at all in common, and I’m reaching for a way to lead into talking about UNO.

UNO concluded league play last week, and this weekend the Mavericks contend for “The Spirit of the Mavericks” trophy. The what, you ask? Well, UNO ends its season every year with a two-game series against Minnesota State-Mankato, the Mavericks of the WCHA.

Unfortunately for the Mavs — our Mavs, that is — Mankato is the No. 9 team in the country right now, so UNO will have its hands full defending the realm.

And UNO fans will say goodbye to the Omaha Civic Auditorium Saturday night. Next year, the new Omaha Convention Center and Arena will become UNO’s home barn.

It Ain’t No Folly

On March 30, 1867, the United States bought Alaska from Russia, giving us the Land of the Midnight Sun, Jewel, Tommy Moe, “Northern Exposure,” and — of course — baked Alaska.

This weekend, Alaskans everywhere will be intensely interested in one of Alaska’s most prestigious sporting events. No, we’re not talking about the Iditarod. The Governor’s Cup is at stake, and don’t you even dare think that the Nanooks are taking this lightly.

Alaska-Fairbanks is hosting Alaska-Anchorage for two games this weekend, the outcome of which will determine who takes the Governor’s Cup. Why is this a big deal?

For starters, the two hockey teams represent the sum total of Division I sports in the entire state of Alaska.

“It’s bragging rights,” said UAF head coach Guy Gadowsky. “A lot of people care about the CCHA and the WCHA, but here in Alaska if you win the Governor’s Cup, it means more for them.”

Gadowsky said he was surprised by the intensity of the games when he first became head coach. UAF and UAA play each other first and last in the season, and usually such early nonconference games give a coach a chance to evaluate players who don’t see a lot of time.

“Boy, was I surprised,” said Gadowsky. “They threw everything they had at us. We had to reevaluate the situation.”

These games probably mean a little more for the Seawolves than they do for the Nanooks. UAA has a single win to its credit this season.

Of course, there’s the revenge factor for the Nanooks. That single win came at UAF’s expense.

“You can’t get a ticket,” said Gadowsky. “These games are so important. Right now, in Anchorage, this is their season.”

So the race for the Governor’s Cup is tied at one game each. The Seawolves won the opener 4-2 Oct. 11, and the Nanooks roared back the next night to blank their intrastate rivals 4-0.

Should the teams split this weekend, there will be a five-minute, sudden-death minigame after Saturday’s contest. Should that end without a goal, there’s a five-goal shootout.

In net for the ‘Nooks will likely be my new favorite player, Keith Bartusch. Bartusch, a walk-on, is 5-0-3 in his eight decisions, and sports a .924 goals-against average. And he’s incredibly down to earth. In fact, when I met him when UAF swept Columbus, he didn’t seem to realize that he was, in fact, playing D-I hockey.

“That’s the way he is,” said Gadowsky.

And that’s one of several reasons why the Nanooks — who will travel for the first round of the CCHA playoffs — may be going to The Joe.

Luck of the Irish

March 17 is St. Patrick’s Day, which brings to mind the Irish, and the luck — or lack of luck — thereof.

Four teams are currently tied for fifth place in the CCHA: Northern Michigan, Western Michigan, Notre Dame, and Alaska-Fairbanks. The four-way tie prompted Notre Dame head coach Dave Poulin to remark to the South Bend Tribune, “Wow, is she tight or what?” after Notre Dame’s 5-2 win over Western last Saturday.

At this point — with two regular-season games left, and some teams having played their last league contests of the year — the only thing for certain in the CCHA is that Nebraska-Omaha will finish ninth, Bowling Green 10th, and Lake Superior State 12th.

The regular-season title is Ferris State’s for the taking. Four points ahead of Michigan, the Bulldogs play two games in Bowling Green this weekend — not a lock, but the odds are in FSU’s favor.

Ohio State and Michigan play each other twice this weekend, in Columbus. The Wolverines are currently in second place, three points ahead of the Buckeyes.

Michigan State — that team once in 10th place — can finish as high as third.

Then there’s the rest of the mess. With final league standings coming down to the wire, it seems that the CCHA coaches have been right all along this season when they’ve discussed parity.

“It’s not a coincidence that the last week of the season is going to decide nine playoff spots,” Poulin told the Tribune.

(Of course, parity doesn’t mean equally good. Something to remember.)

It’s more than likely that two of the teams knotted for fifth place will host a first-round playoff series, but let’s not forget about Miami. Those four teams tied for fifth each have 27 points; Miami has 25 and hosts Lake Superior State for two this weekend.

My money is on Northern and Western for home ice. Notre Dame travels to Northern Michigan this week, so that series will have a huge impact on the final standings.

The Wildcats are 6-2-2 against the Irish in the past 10 meetings between the squads, and NMU leads this all-time series 13-7-4. The teams met five times last season, splitting the first four games; NMU beat Notre Dame 3-1 in the opening game of the 2001-02 Super Six.

The Irish need three points from this series to secure home ice, while the Wildcats need a win.

Here are some numbers for your consideration, all from league stats:

  • Goals per game: NMU 3.27 (sixth), Notre Dame 3.31 (fifth)
  • Goals allowed per game: NMU 3.04 (sixth), Notre Dame 3.23 (seventh)
  • Power play: NMU 20.0% (fifth), Notre Dame 2.30% (fourth)
  • Penalty kill: NMU 80.6% (eighth), Notre Dame 80.2% (ninth)
  • Notre Dame’s top scorer: John Wroblewski (17-11–28)
  • NMU’s top scorer: Chris Gobert (9-19–28)
  • Notre Dame’s top ‘tender: Morgan Cey (.910 SV%, 2.99 GAA)
  • NMU’s top ‘tender: Craig Kowalski (.889 SV%, 2.93 GAA)

    I’ve never really had a good grasp on what motivates Notre Dame, of how the team either succeeds or fails. For a time last season, I was impressed with how hard the Irish worked; this year, it’s not that I’m unimpressed, but I don’t see any consistency in Notre Dame’s game. Maybe that makes me a little biased — and I don’t intend to be — but I’ve got a feeling this one is going NMU’s way.

    As Wildcat head coach Walt Kyle told the Tribune, “If I have to give a rah-rah speech, this team is not going to get home ice.”

    I don’t think he’ll need to give a rah-rah speech.

    Pick: NMU 4-3, 4-2

    Warning: Rant

    Ohio Governor Bob Taft and Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman have crossed party lines to do something truly useful, finally. Taft and Coleman have declared March 1-8 Ohio Hockey Week and Hockey Week in Columbus, respectively.

    During this seven-day span, not only with the OSU men’s and women’s ice hockey teams compete, but so will the state’s seven professional hockey teams, including the NHL’s Blue Jackets. And there’s a ton of high school hockey, too.

    Yes, I can tell you’re all a-quiver.

    I live in Columbus, Ohio. I came here 13 years ago for grad school and I never left (never finished grad school, either, so I am not — contrary to popular belief — a Buckeye). It’s a livable city within easy driving distance of my beloved home state of New York.

    Most of the time, Columbus is a low-key place, almost placid in spite of its relatively recently acquired cosmopolitan attributes. The combination of the big university and the state capital insures that there’s a bit of culture here and a fairly diverse population.

    On any given night, you can take in a foreign film, see the ballet or live theatre, listen to the phenomenal Columbus Jazz Orchestra, catch an NHL game (or a triple-A ball game), sample Ethiopian food, peruse a Wiccan bookstore, walk a Metro Park trail, or avoid rioting Ohio State students.

    Oh, that last one is a special event, held only on Saturdays during football season.

    Here in C-bus, they call the week before the OSU-Michigan football game — the finale to the Big Ten season for the uninitiated among us — “Michigan Week,” as in, “Oh, it’ll be tough to find a hotel room here because it’s Michigan Week,” or, “Yeah, we doubled up on the homeowner’s insurance because, you know, it’s Michigan Week.”

    This weekend, Ohio State hosts Michigan for two games, back-to-back, and there hasn’t been a peep out of the local media, and — as far as I know — the Ohio State student body couldn’t give a fig. After all, this isn’t Minneapolis.

    Not that I’m complaining. About the potential for rioting, I mean. But you’d think that a city as gaga about Ohio State sports as is Columbus might show a little interest in what’s shaped up to be a barnburner of a series. This OSU-Michigan hockey rivalry may not be what it is between Michigan State and Michigan, but — rest assured — the players, at least, know who they’re facing this weekend.

    The game will be cablecast by College Sports Television (CSTV), a concept whose time has definitely come. It will be the second event carried by the fledgling cable network, whose first game coverage was Notre Dame-Connecticut women’s basketball game Feb. 23.

    CSTV is free to cable and satellite providers, and seven markets will be able to view the game in Michigan.

    Of course, in Ohio, not one cable or satellite provider has picked up CSTV. But it’s Hockey Week.

    Michigan head coach Red Berenson told the Ann Arbor News that CSTV’s interest in Division I hockey is a good thing. “It may be the start of more and better coverage whether it’s in our league or college hockey in general.”

    But not in Ohio.

    The Columbus Dispatch did something completely out of character in the March 6 sports pages. The men’s ice hockey team got nearly half a page of ink, and the women’s team — a team that never gets a mention in local media — earned a small story at the bottom of the men’s piece.

    (Thanks to my esteemed colleague, Craig Merz, who fights to cover Buckeye hockey.)

    It is more space than the men have seen most of the season — and they’ve been a top-10 team all year — and it’s the first time I’ve seen a piece on the women this year (although I could have missed an earlier one).

    I told you this was a rant.

    Back in the day — when the men played in the teeny, tiny OSU Ice Rink, before there was a women’s team — I was often the only coverage in the very cold press box. I thought that when the Schott was built, things would improve.

    Don’t think I’m grousing only about coverage of Buckeye hockey; I’m grousing about coverage of college hockey in Columbus, period. With such a great sport, such great entertainment — and incredibly cheap — I just can’t imagine why the local media doesn’t do a better job of covering OSU men’s and women’s ice hockey.

    Of course, this is Columbus, where the term “OSU fan” means nothing without the word “football” attached.

    At least we’ll be able to drive through campus safely Friday and Saturday nights, no matter the outcome of the big games against Michigan.

    Games of the Week

    Two teams battling for … second place?

    Michigan (24-9-1, 18-7-1 CCHA) at Ohio State (22-10-3, 16-8-2 CCHA)
    Friday 7:05 p.m., Saturday 8:00 p.m., Value City Arena, Columbus, Ohio

    Being from New York State, I simply don’t understand the “rivalry” between Ohio State and Michigan. Of course, most Michiganders don’t, either. (OSU fans would be shocked to discover that, north of the border, most Wolverines don’t give much thought to this alleged rivalry.)

    But, it does exist, to a certain extent. OSU fans — and OSU hockey players — hate Michigan. At the end of every period, when the announcer at Yost says there’s a minute left to play, the fans respond with, “Thank you.”

    At the Schott, when the announcer says there’s a minute left, the fans say, “And Michigan still sucks,” no matter who the opponent.

    It all goes back to the Ohio-Michigan border dispute. Yes, there was such a thing. A native of Syracuse, I can’t imagine fighting, say, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, for either Erie or Binghamton.

    But in 1835, Ohio and Michigan went at it for Toledo. It’s true. The Toledo area was part of the Michigan Territory, and Ohio wanted it for its own. (Had something to do with canals — ah, the foresight!).

    Believe it or not — I mean, this is true — Toledo residents wanted to be part of Ohio, but Michigan was reluctant to let the Maumee area go. Michigan Governor Stevens T. Mason actually sent troops to the area, prompting Ohio Governor Robert Lucas to do the same, and thus the Toledo War of 1835 was born.

    Well, President Andrew Jackson got involved and gave the area to Ohio, compensating Michigan with the Upper Peninsula and admission to statehood.

    And the resentment has brewed ever since.

    As someone who respects and likes both Red Berenson and John Markell — making me even more of an oddity than you think I am, at least here in Columbus — I’ve just been cruising along this week, looking forward to two good games of hockey.

    Leave it to my buddy Merz to remind me — in print, in the Dispatch — that although the alleged hockey rivalry seems to be fueled entirely from this point on the map, history tells us otherwise.

    And we’re not talking ancient history, either.

    Merz claims in his article dated March 6 that Berenson “… pushed for the Buckeyes to be booted from the CCHA in the early 1990s when the program hit rock bottom.”

    Merz’s article also reminded me of the game in 2000 when Berenson — justifiably so — criticized the Schottenstein Center for not having enough security around the Michigan bench. That was a game during which beverages were thrown on the ice by idiots in the stands, and during which the Michigan bench was physically harassed by spectators.

    This was also the game after which Michigan players accused Ohio State players of being goons, prompting OSU forward Eric Meloche to say of his opponents, “They’re little weasels out there, always hooking and slashing, then they call us chippy.”

    Yes. Now I feel the love.

    Perhaps there is no love lost between these teams, but don’t think there’s no respect. Berenson said that even though Michigan is three points ahead of Ohio State in league standings, the Wolverines are underdogs going into the weekend.

    “It seems like it’s going to be a showdown series,” said Berenson. “We’ve been trying to catch Ohio State all season. Obviously this is their opportunity.

    “In the past, you could say we had the advantage in net with the more experienced Josh Blackburn. You can’t say that anymore. You could say we had the advantage in scoring, but you can’t say that anymore. You could say we had the advantage on special teams, on defense, but you can’t say that anymore.”

    Berenson’s Wolverines, who were bitten by the injury bug throughout the first half of the season “but not the second,” he hastened to point out, do everything but mind the net by committee.

    “They [the Buckeyes] have Umberger. We’re without a top player like [Mike] Cammalleri or [Mike] Komisarek,” said Berenson. “We don’t have a single player in the top ten in league scoring.”

    What the Wolverines do have, however, is depth. Only two Wolverines — Jeff Tambellini and Jed Ortmeyer — have 10 or more goals in league play this season, but 18 different Wolverines have tallied at least one goal. Defensively, Michigan has a resounding +121 team rating in league play.

    The Buckeyes seem to have recovered from their four-game skid in decisive fashion, beating Northern Michigan in Marquette last Saturday, with four different players accounting for the goals in the 4-1 win. Even more heartening for OSU fans, Mike Betz faced just 12 shots on goal, so perhaps the Buckeye defense has recovered from its temporary insanity.

    Berenson mentioned Umberger several times when I talked to him, and why not? The junior is the kind of playmaking player that the Wolverines currently lack, but that doesn’t make him the key to the game, nor does that lack of “superstar” offensive talent put the Wolverines behind the proverbial eight-ball in this series.

    Here are the numbers, according to the league:

  • Goals per game: OSU 3.19 (seventh), Michigan 4.00 (second)
  • Goals allowed per game: OSU 2.15 (first), Michigan 2.50 (tie third)
  • Power play: OSU 19.9% (sixth), Michigan 2.20% (third)
  • Penalty kill: OSU 89.6% (first), Michigan 87.7% (second)
  • Michigan’s top scorer: Jeff Tambellini (17-11–28)
  • OSU’s top scorer: RJ Umberger (14-22–36)
  • Michigan’s top ‘tender: Al Montoya (.904 SV%, 2.41 GAA)
  • OSU’s top ‘tender: Mike Betz (.907 SV%, 2.05 GAA)

    The Buckeyes will be without Dave Steckel (knee). Milan Gajic (knee) may be ready to play, but may have lost a spot on the roster to Charlie Henderson, who filled in for Gajic rather nicely last weekend.

    Michigan leads this all-time series 55-22-9, including a 3-2-1 record at the Schott. The teams haven’t met in Columbus since Jan. 13, 2001.

    Picks: Michigan 4-3, OSU 3-2

    Notes From The League

    UAF: The Nanooks were unbeaten in February, posting a 4-0-2 record for the month. UAF will head into the CCHA playoffs — on the road — with a seven-game conference unbeaten streak.

    BGSU: Freshman forward Mike Falk has two game-winning goals this season, both last-minute endeavors. Falk scored with nine seconds left in overtime last Saturday to give the Falcons a 3-2 win at Lake Superior State. His earlier game winner was against Wayne State, Jan. 21 at Joe Louis Arena — with 13 seconds remaining in regulation.

    FSU: The Bulldogs need just one more victory to tie the school record of 26 wins in a season (1979-80), their first season in the CCHA. One victory will also give FSU the league’s regular-season title.

    LSSU: The all-rookie line of Adrian Kremblewski, Nathan Ward, and Alex Dunn netted three of the Lakers’ four goals and were a combined +9 in LSSU’s split last weekend with Bowling Green. That’s the best plus-minus by a Laker unit in conference play this season.

    Miami: Senior goaltender David Burleigh became the RedHawks’ all-time record holder for career saves with 30 more in Saturday night’s 1-1 tie at UAF. Burleigh surpassed Mark Michaud’s record and now has 2,866 career saves.

    Michigan: The Wolverines, who finish on the road this weekend in Columbus, have only been swept in a regular-season ending series on three occasions during Red Berenson’s tenure. The setbacks all came in the first three year’s of Berenson’s career as a coach at Michigan.

    MSU: Lee Falardeau has recorded goals in four straight games for the Spartans, who have secured home ice for the first round of the CCHA playoffs for the 12th consecutive year. The scoring streak comes on the heels of an 18-game drought.

    UNO: The Mavericks will finish the season in 10th place in standings, after finishing their first three seasons in the CCHA fifth, fourth, and seventh respectively. As the 10th-place team, UNO faces the third-place team, on the road, in the first round of the CCHA playoffs.

    NMU: Senior defenseman and Marquette native, Jimmy Jackson, registered his first career two-goal game last Friday as the Wildcats beat visiting OSU 5-2.

    Notre Dame: Sophomore goaltender Morgan Cey stopped WMU freshman Vince Bellissimo’s penalty shot last Friday. It was the third time this season Cey faced a penalty shot, and the third time he stoned the shooter.

    OSU: The Buckeyes have clinched home ice for the first round of the CCHA playoffs for the first time since the 1998-99 season. Home ice, however, doesn’t mean Value City Arena, the real home of the Buckeyes; because of a scheduling snafu, OSU will “host” the first two games of the best-of-three series at Nationwide Arena, the home of the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets.

    WMU: The Broncos, who have matched their win total of 13 from the 2001-02 season, can boast of 17 players with a cumulative grade-point average of 3.00 or better. Senior defenseman Dave Cousineau tops them all with a 3.70 GPA.

    There Are Gary Soto Fans in the House!

    Imagine my delight when I received no fewer than a dozen responses identifying the following snippet of verse:

    I peeled my orange
    That was so bright against
    The gray of December
    That, from some distance,
    Someone might have thought
    I was making a fire in my hands.

    It is, over course, the end of Gary Soto’s poem, “Oranges,” a gorgeous story about a boy walking a girl home in December.

    The first to write in was Gary Ford. Congrats! You win dinner at Dave’s!

    Dr. Ford is an OSU hockey fan (heaven help him). Interestingly enough, the second person to write in to identify the verse was Jim, who identified himself as a “disgusted OSU fan.” Jim wrote:

    My son’s fiancé recited part of this a week or so ago when I was complaining loudly about being sick of the color white when I looked out the window. I remembered the part about “the orange” so I cheated; I called her and asked her. Do I still get credit?

    Jim, sweetheart, you may not have been the first to write in, but you certainly get credit for being smart enough to consult a woman who knew. You may not get dinner at Dave’s — and who’s really the winner there? — but the first beer’s on me. Where, I don’t know, but it is.

    And I was equally delighted to know that there are several Cake fans out there. The following lyrics are from “Stickshifts and Safetybelts,” on the Fashion Nugget CD:

    Well a lot of good cars are Japanese.

    But when we’re driving far,

    I need my baby,

    I need my baby next to me.

    The first to write in was a fan who identified himself simply as “doug,” lower-case “D” included. He wrote that Fashion Nugget is one of his “all-time favorite albums!!” Exclamation points included.

    (And me too, doug!!)

    Now That You’ve Restored My Faith in Humanity …

    … let’s try another poem. (Let Hendrickson deal with the prose — and the throng of CCHA fans demanding dinner!)

    This is from one of my favorites. Name the poem and the poet.

    The imperfect is our paradise.

    Note that, in this bitterness, delight,

    Since the imperfect is so hot in us,

    Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

    And for your bonus, name the artist and the song:

    Well I never went to college, babe,

    I did not have the luck.

    Stole out of Indiana

    on the back of a pickup truck.

    With no education higher

    than the streets of my hometown,

    I went looking for a fire

    just to burn it all down.

    If you get this one right and you’re male, single, between the ages of 30 and 40, gainfully employed, and not living with your mother, you may have to come to Columbus to take me out to dinner (an archaic practice formerly known as a “date”). Marriage may follow in short order.

    And from the Master Himself

    Of all the email I received last week, this was by far my favorite.

    Erstwhile reader Dave Hendrickson wrote, “If a busload of CCHA fans shows up in my driveway, you are in deep kaka.”

    I think that’s Dave’s way of telling me how much he appreciates the ink.

    Actually, I’ve tried to impress upon the “winners” that Dave himself will be the cook. That ought to give anyone second thoughts about dinner at Dave’s.