This Week in the CCHA: Oct. 16, 2003

“The adage of splitting on the road and winning at home is a great one,” said Notre Dame head coach Dave Poulin, after his Irish split with OSU in Columbus last weekend.

“It’s pretty rare in this league. Five-hundred in this league is probably where six teams are going to be at the end of the year, or pretty close to it.”

At the end of the year? Try this week.

Let’s hope your bookie has a sense of humor.

Every ranked team in the league went down last Friday. Miami creamed Michigan, 8-3; Findlay beat Michigan State — in East Lansing — 4-3; Western Michigan doubled up on Ferris State, 4-2; and Notre Dame soundly defeated Ohio State, 5-3.

In two of these games, the underdog exploded with third-period goals that took the contest away from the favorite. In one, it was a second-period flurry that gave the unranked team the necessary momentum. In the fourth, the third period merely lengthened an existing lead, putting the game away for good for a team not favored to win.

But it was more than just late or latish hustle that determined the outcome of each contest. On Friday, Oct. 10, the moon was full.

A cursory glance at hockey played on or near full moon days last season gives us all the explanation we need.

Saturday, Feb. 15, 2003: Lake State records one of six wins for the season, a 4-2 decision over Northern Michigan. The moon was full the following night.

Friday, Jan. 17, 2003: Lake State records a 2-2 tie against Alaska-Fairbanks. This was another full moon eve.

Friday and Saturday, Nov. 15-16: Ohio State sweeps Michigan State. Sweeps. Full moon? Nov. 19.

Spooky occurrences, all. Don’t believe in the lunar theory? Explain Maine blanking Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth tying Boston College, Wayne State tying St. Lawrence, and Quinnipiac needing overtime to beat American International.

You’re still a skeptic? You say that perhaps — just maybe — last week’s scores say more about the play in any given first week of a season rather than a force that can move oceans, fool roosters into crowing all night long, and turn otherwise normal, healthy men into bloodthirsty werewolves?

You mean it’s not time to fire Rick Comley, to anoint Enrico Blasi, to declare Ferris State overrated, to panic if you’re a Seawolves fan?

What kind of lunatic are you?

They’re Number One!

Five teams are undefeated in league play, but four of them haven’t seen a CCHA contest. Last weekend, Northern Michigan was the only team to make a clean sweep of it, beating the visiting Bowling Green Falcons in two games, 2-1 and 6-3.

This put the Wildcats at the top of league standings and landed them a spot in this week’s USCHO poll, but Walt Kyle isn’t reading anything into this — yet.

“It feels good but I don’t think it means much this early in the season,” said Kyle, NMU’s head coach.

Kyle never expected to simply skate past the Falcons, a team in transition. Last year, BGSU swept NMU in Ohio, and without the outstanding play of senior goaltender Craig Kowalski last weekend, Kyle said that history could have easily repeated.

“They’re a good team,” said Kyle of the Falcons. “We went up four goals really early [in the second game] and then we got really sloppy.”

NMU scored early and often in that first period, with Dirk Southern finding the net at 1:48, followed by Pat Bateman five minutes later, Darin Olver at 10:53, and Dusty Collins 59 seconds after that.

But Kevin Bieksa got BG on the board at 12:39 in the first, and the Falcons opened the second period with another goal, this time from Don Morrison, less than a minute into play. With a goal by BGSU’s Rich Meloche at 7:46 in the second, Northern saw its 4-0 lead dwindle to 4-3.

And the Falcons kept coming and coming. “They have an excellent work ethic,” said Kyle. “They’re very well coached.”

Kowalski earned his keep in the third period of that contest, turning aside all 13 shots he faced, as the Falcons outgunned the Wildcats 13-6 in the last stanza.

In all, Kowalski stopped 38 in Saturday’s contest and 27 Friday, earning him CCHA Defensive Player of the Week.

The Wildcats are a young team, and that added to the inconsistency of play during the series. “We’re playing every night, 14 or 15 freshmen and sophomores,” said Kyle. “When one of those juniors and seniors is our backup goalie, it really only gives you four upperclassmen every night.”

But Kyle liked what he saw from those youngsters; freshmen accounted for three of the first-period goals in the 6-3 win.

Having so many freshmen and sophomores is “a real advantage” for a second-year coach, said Kyle.

“Any time you take over as a head coach, you want to put your imprint on the program right away. That was one thing that was a benefit to me — we had a lot of guys who hadn’t been here to play a lot for Rick [Comley].”

Kyle said at the start of this year that he was lucky to have such character upperclassmen last year and this, players who helped the team make the transition from Comley to Kyle, players who Kyle said were real teachers on and off the ice.

He still has a few upperclassmen left, and they still exhibit the integrity and class they did last season, said Kyle, but with so many newcomers, these leaders are having to compete for jobs with the very youngsters they’re mentoring.

“One of the problems we have here this year is that a lot of the guys who are upperclassmen have never really established regular roles here, so they’re in a difficult situation,” said Kyle. “I give those guys a lot of credit for doing what they’re doing.”

This weekend, the Wildcats play the Michigan Tech Huskies in a home-and-home, all-Yoop series, the significance of which may be lost on those of us a little further south.

“It’s one of the best rivalries in college hockey,” said Kyle, who participated in this rivalry as a player as well. “In my opinion, it’s as big as it ever was. The hockey world is a small place, but it’s even smaller in the U.P. There’s a lot of pride that goes on up here in each community. There’s a lot of pride on the line. We want to prove that we’re the best hockey team in the U.P.”

There as no mistaking the tone in Kyle’s voice; he’s dead serious, and he has reason to be beyond the local pride factor.

“We lost to Tech and lost to Wisconsin [last season],” said Kyle. “If we win a couple of those games, it may have made a difference in [getting into] the NCAA tournament.”

The Wildcats, you may recall, missed an invitation to the NCAAs by just a hair. They also dropped two to Bowling Green last season.

Watch out, Huskies.

Really Special

In Miami’s first CCHA game this season, the RedHawks handed the Michigan Wolverines an 8-3 loss, the first time since Dec. 30, 2001, that anyone had scored eight goals against Michigan.

How did they do it? Their special teams were really, well, special. Four of Miami’s goals were power-play tallies, one was shorthanded. You take those away and it’s a 3-3 game — unless, in fairness, you also take away T.J. Hensick’s power-play goal at 17:43 in the first for the Wolverines, which makes this a 3-2 game and a Miami win any way you spin it.

Michigan head coach Red Berenson was taken a bit aback by the number of penalties in the game, but not by the play of the RedHawks.

“The special teams were huge. Our power play was disappointing and the penalty kill, obviously,” said Berenson. “No matter how you cut it, there were still too many goals against. It’s a defensive responsibility, a team responsibility.”

Berenson said that one reason for the penalties in the first game is just the initial, start-of-the-season adjustment to how the game is being called — this year. It’s all a matter of seeing how the officials are going to call certain infractions, how the players are going to settle into it, and how all concerned adjust.

“I can’t tell you that we took any bad penalties, really,” said Berenson. “I was surprised. I couldn’t believe that there were that many penalties in the games. In saying that, I’m not saying that the officials did a bad job and I’m not taking anything away from Miami.”

Berenson said the adjustment to officiating is “not just the league, it’s the country” at this time of year, and added, “It’s probably difficult for the officials as well.”

At this year’s CCHA media day, Berenson said that Miami may take a few people by surprise. “I think they’ll be one of the top teams in the league. Now that we’ve played them twice, I haven’t changed my mind. On paper and from what I’ve seen, they’re a very good team.”

In the Berenson philosophy, there are two keys to winning any game: leadership, and consistent performance from top players. In Miami’s win, that’s exactly what happened. “Their senior leadership was there and their best players played their best.”

Sophomore Al Montoya allowed six goals before being pulled in the third, but Berenson said that only one could even be considered a “bad” goal. “They scored in the first minute of the third, then the dam broke.”

Twenty seconds into the third, Mike Kompon made it a 4-2 Miami game. Then Greg Hogeboom (1:24), Marty Guerin (5:50), Chris Michael (8:23), and Derek Edwardson (10:22) made the home crowd very, very happy, ending a 14-game losing streak against the Wolverines and giving Miami its first win of the season.

The following night, the Wolverines settled down, hunkered down, and won the game. Michigan held Miami scoreless in eight power plays on Saturday, Montoya allowed one third-period goal, and Michigan won 2-1.

This weekend, the Wolverines host the Quinnipiac Bobcats for two, and Berenson isn’t looking past these nonconference games to the following week, when the Wolverines welcome NMU.

“Quinnipiac is a much better team than that league gets credit for,” said Berenson. “They’ve got kids from all over; they’re recruiting nationally. I think they’ll be a solid team. They’ve taken on a very ambitious schedule.”

Last week, the Bobcats beat American International 3-2 and Air Force 4-3 to open their season. Quinnipiac returns three of its top scorers from a season ago, so fans in Yost will see Matt Craig, Matt Froehlich, and Chris White lead the Bobcat offense. Justin Eddy and Jamie Holden split time in the Quinnipiac net.

Games of the Week

Let’s get this “super cluster” stuff out of the way, right away.

Ohio State (2-2-0, 1-1-0 CCHA) at No. 13 Michigan State (1-1-0, 0-0-0 CCHA)
Friday and Saturday, 7:05 p.m., Munn Arena, East Lansing, Mich.

Both teams were defeated at home on opening night last Friday, one surprised by Findlay, the other not surprised but certainly annoyed by Notre Dame.

Before facing the Findlay Oilers in the opening game of last week’s Ice Breaker, MSU head coach Rick Comley warned that Findlay is well coached and hard-working. After losing 4-3 to the Oilers Friday night, Comley said that his Spartans were simply outworked.

“You have to work hard, you have to compete hard, to win,” said Comley. “I don’t care who you are and who you’re playing, whether you’re an underdog, whether you’re a favorite. I thought they had a lot more players who competed very well.”

After losing for the first time in 10 games against Notre Dame, OSU head coach John Markell said, “I don’t think we played particularly well, and some individuals did but others didn’t.” He added, “It wasn’t a total team effort.”

Looks like the Spartans and Buckeyes have more in common this season than just this cluster.

MSU is undoubtedly still making an adjustment to Comley, in his second year. Additionally, it will probably take a while for things to solidify in the Spartan net; MSU remains a team still looking for an identity in the post-Ryan Miller era.

Comley told the Lansing State Journal this week that Matt Migliaccio and Dominic Vicari will split time between the Spartan pipes. “I don’t have any interest right now in declaring a No. 1 goalie,” Comley told my esteemed colleague, Neil Koepke. “The only plan I have is to play Migliaccio on Friday. But I will not let Dom sit very long.”

Migliaccio had the win against Minnesota-Duluth last weekend with 30 saves. Vicari stopped 20 in the loss to Findlay.

The Buckeyes, too, split goaltending duties last weekend, with David Caruso making 24 saves in the loss to Notre Dame before Mike Betz stopped 29 in OSU’s win the following night.

Don’t look for two OSU netminders this weekend, however, if Betz looks as good as he did Saturday. He’s a horse the OSU staff is willing to ride all season, and if he plays as he should, there will be no reason to see anyone else backstopping for the Buckeyes.

Beyond goal, however, it seems that the Buckeyes are always making some adjustment or another at the start of any given season. For the past couple of years, OSU has presented a less-than-stellar offensive effort, with a mediocre power play; in this short season, the offense has yet to play up to its potential and the man advantage is so anemic that it couldn’t voluntarily give blood.

It’s a little early in the season to give point-by-point statistical comparisons, but here are the early overall numbers for each team.

  • Goals per game: MSU 4.00, OSU 3.00
  • Goals allowed per game: MSU 4.00, OSU 3.50
  • Power play: MSU 28.6%, OSU 7.7%
  • Penalty kill: MSU 70.0%, OSU 78.6%
  • Top scorer: MSU Jim Slater (4-1–5), OSU Paul Caponigri (3-2–5) and Dan Knapp (0-5–5)
  • Top ‘tender: MSU Matt Migliaccio (.882 SV%), OSU Mike Betz (.898 SV%)

    The Spartans own a healthy all-time lead in this series, 69-15-7, but the Buckeyes are 2-0-2 against MSU in their last four meetings. Ohio State has won just two games — ever — in East Lansing, tying there once.

    Buckeye senior Scott May — who missed his first game in an OSU uniform last Saturday, a healthy scratch — has nine points against the Spartans. Ash Goldie has two goals and three assists and Jim Slater has two goals and three assists all-time against the Buckeyes.

    Each team is going through growing pains. It took the Spartans half a year last season to find their collective offensive identity, just in time for their two top scorers to finish their brilliant careers. The Buckeyes are loaded up front but can’t find the net, plain and simple.

    Those two top scorers for MSU were also their top blueliners, so the Spartans are struggling to define themselves there, too. OSU plays at least four rookies on D every night.

    I’ll say this again: when Mike Betz is on, he’s the equal of anyone in net in this league, and if he’s on this weekend, that’s an advantage that the Buckeyes will need, given the youthful defense.

    In the first meeting ever between these teams, way back in 1957, MSU won 18-0. The score may not be as lopsided this time.

    Picks: MSU 4-3, 4-3