This Week in the CCHA: Oct. 9, 2003

It’s a great opening weekend for college hockey. Don’t want to take my word for it? Maybe Rick Comley can convince you.

“It’s a great opening weekend for college hockey,” says Comley, whose Spartans host this year’s Ice Breaker.

In addition to the four-team field in East Lansing, there’s the fourth annual Maverick Stampede, the first round of play for Alaska’s Governor’s Cup, and four great CCHA series.

In fact, those league pairings are so sublime that, says Comley, “Come Monday morning, there might be something to see.”

Breaking the Ice

As Comley enters his second season as head coach at Michigan State, he says he has “much more of a comfort zone,” and adds that now he’s “familiar with everything.”

Even though Comley spent nearly 30 years building the hockey program at Northern Michigan University and is seventh on the all-time win list for D-I men’s coaches, he still had his share of adjusting to do at MSU, and in many ways — having inherited this program from another legend — he’s in his sophomore season.

“We have some very good players, and a lot of them were recruited to play a different style of hockey,” says Comley. “You can’t just expect them to make changes overnight.

“There was an awful lot of human nature last year, an awful lot of transition.”

In addition to making the change from head coach and now athletic director Ron Mason, the Spartans had to adjust to life in the post-Ryan Miller world.

“I say this and mean it: there was a tremendous reliance on a goaltender,” says Comley. “Losing him late, not having recruited really to replace him, there was a lot of adjusting to do.”

The Spartans began 2002-03 on the slow side, but climbed from below the middle of the CCHA pack to finish the season fourth.

A goaltender “can buy you time, especially at the beginning of a season,” says Comley, and it remains to be seen how solid the Spartans will be in net this year from the get-go. Junior Matt Migliaccio and freshman Dominic Vicari split time in MSU’s 6-0 exhibition win over Windsor last week, but Migliaccio faced just eight shots and Vicari three, so neither was tested.

Another question for the Spartans right out of the gate is defense — and offense. When you lose your two best blueliners who also happen to be your key players on the other side of the puck, things are more than just a little up in the air.

Comley is, however, quick to point out that losing key players on the defensive side of things is nothing new, and MSU certainly has guys who can score.

“Over the past few seasons, I think five or six defensemen have gone on to pro contracts. We need the ability of three freshman defensemen every night.”

So there’s Migliaccio on the spot, three rookie defenders to shore up the defense, and a program “in transition,” says Comley. And this early in the season, Comley says, “You’re continually assessing your team, the maturity of it — none of us has had a ton of practice time.

“We have uncertainty because of people in new positions. We all know Jimmy Slater is a tremendous player [and] Mike Lalonde … has taken the steps need toward being a very good player.”

Everyone coaches differently, and CCHA fans know that Ron Mason was a defensive coach first. “I’m an offensive coach without wanting to sacrifice any defense,” says Comley, laughing. “I guess that’s an oxymoron.”

The field at this year’s Ice Breaker is interesting. Boston College — “the cream of the field,” says Comley — Minnesota-Duluth, and Findlay round out the tourney.

Boston College, which opened the season with a 5-3 win over Vermont last weekend, is without question the team to beat in East Lansing this weekend. The Eagles are dangerously deep up front, with the likes of Ben and Patrick Eaves, Tony Voce, Ryan Shannon, and Dave Spina leading the way — familiar names on a squad that is 7-0-1 against CCHA teams in the past three seasons.

Minnesota-Duluth is the third ranked team of the field, a team that is looking to repeat the success it had last year. The Bulldogs are picked high this season, but — much like their namesakes in the CCHA — they have a lot to prove after returning to the WCHA’s Final Five last season for the first time since 1998.

Offensive threats for Minnesota-Duluth include Junior Lessard and Tim Stapleton, but like the Spartans, the Bulldogs — backstopped by Isaac Reichmuth — need more consistency in net.

The fourth team in the field, Findlay, is coached by Pat Ford, who served as an assistant coach under Comley at Northern Michigan from 1992-94. The Oilers return just half their roster from last year, leaving this young squad with some catching up to do in the experience department. Look for sophomore Andrew Radzak to make some noise up front.

“It’s very exciting for our fans,” says Comley. “They have the opportunity to see teams from three other conferences, and to see some terrific hockey.”

Games of the Week

There’s nothing better than jumping into league play right from the start, and within a tough cluster as well.

No. 3 Michigan (1-0-0, 0-0-0 CCHA) at Miami (0-2-0, 0-2-0 CCHA)
Friday and Saturday, 7:35 p.m., Goggin Arena, Oxford, Ohio

“I think our team will be a lot better a month from now than it is now,” says Miami head coach Enrico Blasi. “That’s a matter of getting used to each other and building some confidence.”

The RedHawks opened their season with two losses in the Lefty McFadden Invitational in Dayton last weekend, dropping the first game to St. Lawrence 3-1 before losing the consolation game to Ohio State Saturday, 5-3. It was the first time the RedHawks have begun a campaign with two losses since 1994-95, under head coach Mark Mazzoleni.

“Last weekend I saw some things that are very positive and we’re really looking forward to the next couple of months,” says Blasi. “I think a lot of the new guys got a chance to play and contribute and feel their way around in Division I. We played some pretty good opponents, and that was good for us. We now have a reference point.”

Blasi characterizes his team as young “with some firepower and some solid defensemen.” The RedHawks return eight defensemen and welcome one newcomer, Jon Saunders. This was a blueline that was ranked 11th in the nation in goals allowed per game last season, something upon which the Miami team can build this year.

Kicking off regular-season play against Michigan is tough enough, but the task is doubly daunting — for both the RedHawks and the Wolverines, really — because Miami and Michigan are clustermates, with Michigan State and Ohio State rounding out the foursome.

It’s a little early in the season for a point-by-point analysis of the pairing, but here are a few things to consider:

  • 2002-03 goals per game: Michigan 3.96, Miami 3.07
  • 2002-03 goals allowed per game: Michigan 2.97, Miami 2.36
  • 2002-03 power play: Michigan 22.7%, Miami 23.5%
  • 2002-03 penalty kill: Michigan 87.1%, Miami 82.8%

    Last weekend in Michigan’s game against Mercyhurst, Eric Werner, T.J. Hensick, and Andrew Ebbett each had a goal and an assist, and Milan Gajic had two helpers.

    For Miami, Matt Christie had two goals against OSU, Todd Grant had two assists in the contest, and Mike Kompon had one assist in each game in Dayton. Steve Hartley made 39 saves on the weekend.

    Blasi says that his RedHawks are eager to play the team picked to take the league this year. “Any time you play Michigan, you’re going to get better. I know one thing: regardless of the outcome of the games this weekend, we’re going to be a better team come Monday morning.”

    In addition to hosting the Wolverines — an event in itself for every team in the league — it’s Parents Weekend in Oxford. “This place is going to be jammed,” says Blasi.

    Michigan leads this series 58-14-2 all-time, with a 20-12-1 edge at Goggin Arena. The RedHawks have dropped 14 straight to the Wolverines, dating back five seasons, and if history repeats Miami will start its season 0-4-0, its worst opening since the 1979-80 season. That team went on to a 22-13-3 season record.

    Picks: Michigan 4-2, 5-2

    Jumping In, Right Away

    There are three other great CCHA series this weekend. Here’s a quick look at each.

    Bowling Green at Northern Michigan

    The Falcons and Wildcats meet in Marquette to open their league seasons, a familiar scenario; it’s the second time in three years that the teams have met in the Berry Center to begin the CCHA season.

    BGSU leads this series 29-20-5 all-time, and the Falcons swept the Wildcats in Bowling Green last season, 3-2 and 5-3 in mid-January.

    Last weekend, BGSU pummeled Windsor 9-2 in exhibition play, with Ryan Barnett scoring twice and netting an assist, Ryan Minnabarriet registering a goal and a helper, and Mark Wires stealing the show with two unassisted goals.

    Jordan Sigalet, Bob Frazee, and Bobby Pruchnik all saw time in net for the Falcons. Sigalet allowed the two goals.

    In NMU’s 7-2 exhibition win over Waterloo last weekend, Andrew Contois collected the first unfortunately-timed hat trick of the season. The three goals do not count, technically, because of the nature of the game — but they sure looked pretty, the first unassisted on the power play, the second four-on-four, and the third at even strength.

    Jamie Milam also had two goals and an assist of his own. Craig Kowalski and Tuomas Tarrki split time in net, each allowing a goal.

    It’s easy to pick NMU to sweep, given the seeming disparity between the two teams, but I have a hunch that the Falcons have the Wildcats’ number, at least for now.

    Good news alert: the Falcons will be debuting new jerseys this weekend. You know, there was an awful lot to like about Scott Paluch before the sweater change, but this fashion-forward decision will endear him to many previously unmoved CCHA fans.

    No.8 Ferris State vs. Western Michigan

    Western Michigan leads this all-time series 58-31-6, but last year the Bulldogs tamed the Broncos last year, winning three of the four matches between these clustermates.

    Paul Davies collected the second unfortunately-timed hat trick of the exhibition weekend by netting three goals in WMU’s 6-2 exhibition win over Western Ontario — great work for the senior and promising for the season to come, but an accomplishment that doesn’t count at all towards his NCAA stats.

    The Bulldogs kicked off the season with a 6-0 exhibition win over Windsor, a game in which Jeff Legue notched two and added an assist. Legue is one of FSU’s top returning scorers against WMU (3-3–6), along with Derek Nesbitt (4-2–6).

    This is a home-and-home series, and home is the place where the Broncos earned their one win against the Bulldogs last season. Home will also be unfamiliar territory for the Bulldogs in October. FSU will raise a championship banner during the first intermission of Saturday’s game at Ewigleben Arena, the only home game the Bulldogs will play until they host Michigan State Nov. 1.

    Ferris State is anything but the underdog in these games, having captured last year’s regular-season CCHA title, but anything can happen this early in the season. The Bulldogs are faster, more defense-minded, and loaded up front, but the Broncos proved last season that they can score plenty of goals. Even their goaltender likes a little of that action.

    Notre Dame at No. 14 Ohio State

    Here’s your grudge match. The Buckeyes ended the Fighting Irish season last year, defeating Notre Dame, 3-2, in the opening game of the CCHA Super Six. It was OSU sophomore and assistant captain Nate Guenin who had the third-period game winner for the Bucks as a defenseman making his inaugural Super Six appearance.

    The Irish lead this series 20-18-6 all-time, but the Buckeyes are 6-1-3 against Notre Dame in the last 10 meetings.

    It’s a good-news-bad-news scenario for the Irish when they face OSU netminder Mike Betz. The good news for Notre Dame is that Betz was shaky in his opening game last weekend, a 5-2 loss to Denver in the Lefty McFadden Invitational in Dayton. The bad news is that Betz has made a career against Notre Dame, compiling a 6-0-3 all-time record against the Irish.

    Speaking of goaltenders, the Irish will still be without junior Morgan Cey, who is recovering from off-season knee surgery and is expected back Oct. 1. With Cey out, two untested netminders are filling in. Look for sophomore Rory Walsh and rookie David Brown to split time between the pipes.

    Five different players scored for the Irish in their 5-3 exhibition win over Western Ontario last weekend. Brad Wanchulak, Mike Walsh, Tim Wallace, Rob Globke, and T.J. Lindra each found the net; Walsh, Aaron Gill, and Brett Lebda each had two-point games.

    Ohio State netted five goals against Miami in the Lefty McFadden consolation game, the first time the Buckeyes have scored four or more since a 6-1 win over Bowling Green on Jan. 17, 2003.

    A Stampede without a Bullpen

    There will be something old and something new at the fourth annual Maverick Stampede. I can’t vouch for the something borrowed, but the Black Bears will be in attendance, which means that someone, somewhere, will be wearing blue.

    What a lineup for this year’s tournament. Two-time defending NCAA champion Minnesota takes on Maine during Friday’s first game, followed by host UNO vs. Wisconsin in the closer Friday night.

    The Gophers bring to Omaha an experienced and poised team, led by the incredible Thomas Vanek, but face uncertainty in net with the departure of Travis Weber, and … oh, who are we kidding here? This team is loaded, returning 17 of the 20 players who won a championship in Buffalo last season.

    Maine’s four top scorers from a season ago or gone, but Colin Shields — terrific two years ago, but plagued by injury last season — and Todd Jackson are back. Jimmy Howard and Frank Doyle constitute a one-two punch in the Black Bear net.

    Wisconsin suffered through a tough 2002-03, finishing 10th in the WCHA. Rebuilding — a word not often associated with Badger hockey — is the priority this year, beginning with a strong showing in Omaha. Be on the lookout for rookie defenseman Ryan Suter, a first-round draft pick of the Nashville Predators.

    The Mavericks opened their season last weekend with a 5-2 loss to Manitoba in exhibition play last weekend. That was the unfortunate christening of the Qwest Center, UNO’s new home in Omaha. The Mavs may rethink any future plans for playing the Manitoba Bisons; Manitoba defeated UNO in the program’s first game as a Division I team, way back in 1997.

    The Defending Cup Champions

    It’s not named for Lord Stanley, but it’s a big deal in the Land of the Midnight Sun. The Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks open their D-I season by defending the Governor’s Cup, awarded to the Alaska D-I team with the best in-state record.

    (For those of you playing at home, there are only two D-I hockey programs in Alaska.)

    Last year, the Nanooks dropped the opening game to the Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves, and that was the only game the hapless ‘Wolves won all season. UAF won the closer of the season’s inaugural series, then took the two games in the series that traditionally closes the season for each team.

    The Governor’s Cup was introduced in 1993-94, and each team has won the trophy five times.

    In last week’s season-opening exhibition game against Northern Alberta, six different Nanooks accounted for the team’s total goals in the 6-2 win — Paul Austin, Jared Sylvestre, Ryan Lang, Kelly Czuy, Aaron Voros, and Ryan Campbell. Voros is returning from surgery to remove a bone tumor in his left leg.

    Ryan Comeau and last year’s feel-good-story player Keith Bartusch split time in net, each allowing a goal. Goaltender Preston McKay didn’t dress for the game, sidelined with a high ankle sprain suffered in practice the previous week. Also sitting out with an injury was Tom Herman (back), who is probable for this weekend.

    One other note of interest about UAF’s exhibition win over Northern Alberta: senior defenseman David Keough was benched because he was out of shape.

    UAF head coach Guy Gadowsky told the Fairbanks News-Miner that Keough didn’t meet conditioning standards at the start of the season, and will sit out until he does. Said Gadowsky, “He has work to be done in reaching the off-ice conditioning and the commitment needed for our team.” Keough had four goals and 11 assists for 15 points in 35 games last year.