This Week in the CCHA: Oct. 23, 2003

The Sky Is Falling

Ohio State in first place? Michigan State in last? Western Michigan pushing the Buckeyes for the top spot?

Is this the end of civilization as we know it?

No. It’s just the third week of league play.

Remember last year, when the Spartans were ninth in January, only to surge to the top tier in the second half and capture home ice for the first round of the CCHA playoffs?

“They’re still going to be a very good team in our league. I have no reservations about whether they’re going to get stronger.”

Those are the words of Ohio State head coach John Markell, whose Buckeyes swept the Spartans in East Lansing last weekend. It was OSU’s first-ever sweep in Munn Arena, the Buckeyes’ second-ever sweep of the Spartans, and the first time MSU has been swept at home since 1995.

The Buckeyes and Spartans are clustermates, and Markell remembers well how MSU finished up strong last year. “Early in the season, it’s nice to get those points.”

The difference last weekend, said Markell, was Mike Betz, OSU’s senior goaltender. Betz allowed just one goal in the two games, for a .979 save percentage, earning him CCHA and USCHO Defensive Player of the Week honors.

“Obviously we played very well,” said Markell. “We used our experience in net to get us through. He [Betz] is certainly steady.”

After a shaky start to the season, with losses to Denver and Notre Dame — the latter deemed “embarrassing” by OSU captain J.B. Bittner — the Buckeyes seem to have bounced back to play some surprisingly good hockey.

With three veterans on defense and as many as five rookies floating in and out of the backfield — forward Bryce Anderson has been shoring up the skimpy blueline — it’s easy to question the strength of the Buckeye defense. And without the services of first-rounders RJ Umberger and Ryan Kessler, with an offense that had trouble lighting the lamp last season, there’s been no end to speculation about the OSU offense.

And yet the Buckeyes held the Spartans to one goal last weekend, and OSU is outscoring opponents two-to-one in league play, 21-15 overall.

The early losses were “probably our fault,” said Markell, so the coaching staff took another look at its strategies. “It’s [now] a simple system to play,” said Markell, adding, “The rookies are good hockey players.”

As for the perceived loss of power up front, said Markell, “That’s stoking the fire.” The current Buckeyes “know they’re still good hockey players,” said their coach.

Another plus for OSU, said Markell, is the reduction of penalties during the past few games. “We’re doing our job to stay out of the box — it’s a must this year. We get five penalties or more a game, and I’m livid.”

And while last weekend’s sweep was sweet for the Buckeyes, Markell knows that it’s early in the season and there’s another opponent this weekend. “It’s nice to have that success, but our credibility is thrown out the door if we don’t come to play this weekend.”

This weekend, OSU faces Mercyhurst, the team picked to top the newly-created Atlantic Hockey league. “When we scheduled this team, we wanted to play the top team in that league — and they’re good,” said Markell. “They’re veteran-laden, and we have to respect that. This will be a real character test for us.”

Mercyhurst is 0-1-0, having lost 5-3 to Michigan on the road (Oct. 4) in the season opener for both squads. The Lakers also beat Brock in exhibition play, 4-2, in Erie (Oct. 11).

Laker senior Mike Carter had a goal and an assist in the loss to the Wolverines, and sophomore Andy Franck recorded the loss in net for Mercyhurst.

You, You, You, Questionable People, You!

Years ago, I penned a piece on the enthusiastic crowd at Yost Arena and their chants — borrowed from the Lynah faithful, and then made the Wolverines’ own. Since then, I’ve become increasingly dismayed by the escalation of the use of profanity at Yost and other venues, and students’ increasing belligerence when confronted with their truly bad behavior.

Now, someone else, someone far more influential than this beat writer, has taken a public stand.

Thank you, Red Berenson.

Berenson made a personal appeal to the student section at Yost Arena before last Friday’s game against Quinnipiac, when he strode onto the ice with his five-year-old grandson in tow.

Berenson said that it was an “accumulation of things” that led to his appeal to the students at Yost Arena.

“We’ve had feedback from season-ticket holders. And there’s been some discussion about whether the obscenities were acceptable or not. I wanted to respond to let them know that I, personally, think it’s not acceptable.”

Berenson quickly and sincerely praised the students at Yost for their loyalty; they do make the Michigan home rink one of the toughest to play in the CCHA. “I love the enthusiasm we’ve had from our crowd and from the student section in particular. I love the way they’re in sync with the game.”

But, Berenson said, “It’s not acceptable to say these things in front of women, in front of children, and in front of season-ticket holders.”

Berenson rightly called the obscenity-laced chants “in bad taste” and “unfair for families.” He said he wants his grandson to be able to come to the games without reservation. “I want his mother to be able to condone his coming to the games.”

Berenson, calling himself “old fashioned,” said he doesn’t like to think that women in the student section are participating in the questionable behavior. “I don’t think their mothers would approve,” said Berenson of the students involved.

Of course, the problem is not just with hockey, and it’s not just at Yost Arena. “We’re not the only school that’s had obscenities coming from their student section,” said Berenson, “and we’re not the only sport.” Last year, Western Michigan head coach Jim Culhane made a similar appeal to the students at Lawson Arena, where the chants are arguably worse than those at Yost.

“Whether it changes what they’re doing and rethink it a little bit, we’ll see,” said Berenson.

Yost’s “C-ya!” chant has evolved from an innocuous, humorous send-off for opposing players headed to the sin bin to a profanity-laced chant that does nothing more than appeal to the lowest common denominator.

I’ve said it all along, and I’ll say it again: there’s nothing creative about stringing together a slew of vulgarities. There’s nothing clever about calling an opposing player a “b**ch.” There’s nothing new about swearing.

At an academic institution the caliber of the University of Michigan, you’d think the students would come up with something better than that.

Unfamiliar with the “C-ya!” chant? I’m not going to repeat it here, but I will offer a sanitized version written by an USCHO.com reader who posts on the Message Board under the handle “Funkymoses,” edited here for spelling and grammar. From this, you can easily make the leap to the more offensive version:

Ahhhhhhh see ya chump, synonym for male genitals (d version), wuss, object used for ‘feminine hygiene,’ rectal cavity, synonym for male genitals (p version), cheater, female dog!

If you don’t laugh out loud at this, you have no sense of humor. This version, chanted in unison at any hockey game, would be hilarious.

I once heard fans at a college game — long before I became a reporter — taunt the opposing goalie because said netminder had to sit out the previous term for low grades. All they chanted, repeatedly, was, “GPA!” The effect was cumulative through the third period, and the goalie got rattled. It didn’t hurt that the visiting team was losing, too.

No profanity, nothing lengthy, but cruel, funny, and clean.

You can’t tell me that students from the University of Michigan can’t top that.

Games of the Week

Two teams perhaps in transition. One slow out of the gate, but not to be underestimated, the other a constant offensive threat.

Western Michigan (2-1-1, 2-1-1 CCHA) vs. Michigan State (1-3-0, 0-2-0 CCHA)
Friday, 7:05 p.m., Munn Arena, East Lansing, Mich.
Saturday, 7:05 p.m., Lawson Arena, Kalamazoo, Mich.

What is wrong with the Spartans? Well, it’s difficult to win games when you score one goal in a given weekend.

“We have a first line but right now don’t have a good second line,” MSU head coach Rick Comley told the Lansing State Journal this week. That first line of Jim Slater, Mike Lalonde, and Tommy Goebel is responsible for seven of the Spartans’ nine overall goals, and Slater has five of them alone.

Once Lee Falardeau fully recovers from his knee injury and the Spartans have two viable offensive lines, MSU will be as deep as any team at this early point in the season. And while it is early, there are other Spartans noticeable mainly through their inability to find the net. Ash Goldie, Kevin Estrada, and David Booth come to mind.

There’s also a young defense in front of the goaltending duo of Matt Migliaccio and Dominic Vitari, and neither Spartan netminder seems to have come into his own yet this season. After being swept 5-0 and 4-1 by OSU last weekend, Comley said that inexperience was a factor in both games.

“We’re very young at defense. It’s tough for freshmen to come in here and be effective at all times. That’s a tough style to play against [the style the Buckeyes used], and it takes a mature team. What really hurts you is the lack of a senior class. Usually a program is run by seniors, and we have one.”

The Spartans face very stiff competition in the Western Michigan Broncos this weekend, a team that has blown hot and cold in recent seasons, but a team that can always seem to find the net.

Last weekend, WMU took three points from Nebraska-Omaha, beating the Mavericks 5-1 Friday before tying UNO 2-2 Saturday, both games at Lawson Arena. This was one week after splitting with last year’s regular-season champion, Ferris State.

The points put the Broncos second in the standings and in a very good spot to begin the season. Vince Bellissimo and Lucas Drake lead the Broncos with two goals and three assists each in four games, but Dana Lattery, this week’s CCHA Offensive Player of the Week, had three goals and an assist last weekend against UNO after missing the first two games with a wrist injury.

Offense is rarely the issue with WMU, a team that scored nearly at will last season — but gave up more than they earned. Early indications this year show a team improved in overall defense; the squad is at +17 collectively after four games, and the goaltending tandem of Mike Mantua and Scott Foster has a combined save percentage of .917. Mantua is 2-1-0, while Foster got the tie last weekend.

Here’s a look at how the teams match up by the numbers. These are overall stats, and bear in mind that it’s very early in the season.

  • Goals per game: MSU 2.25 (tie ninth), WMU 3.35 (tie fourth)
  • Goals allowed per game: MSU 4.25 (10th), WMU 2.50 (tie second)
  • Power play: MSU 18.2% (tie third), WMU 8.3% (11th)
  • Penalty kill: MSU 66.7% (11th), WMU 90.0% (third)
  • Top scorer: MSU Jim Slater (5-1–6), WMU Vince Bellissimo and Lucas Drake (3–5 each)
  • Top ‘tender: MSU Matt Migliaccio (.859 SV%), WMU Scott Foster (.923 SV%)

    MSU leads this series, 55-22-6 all-time, with a 27-4-5 record against WMU in Munn, and a 22-16-1 edge in Lawson. The Spartans are 5-3-2 against the Broncos in their last 10 meetings, and WMU hasn’t won in East Lansing in 10 years.

    “We’re really looking forward to the challenge of playing one of the premier teams in our league,” WMU head coach Jim Culhane told the Western Herald this week. “We know it will be difficult playing in their building, but State has to face the same test Saturday.”

    If the Broncos continue to play good overall team defense in front of strong goaltending, they’ll be worthy opponents for any team in this league, premier or otherwise.

    If the Spartans lose Saturday, they’ll be off to their first-ever 0-4 start in CCHA play.

    Picks: MSU 4-3, WMU 5-2

    Elsewhere Around the League

    There are three other league series this weekend.

    NMU at Michigan

    The Wolverines continue to win with tenacity rather than finesse, and it took big plays from two players to beat the visiting Quinnipiac Bobcats last weekend. Brandon Kaleniecki netted four goals in Michigan’s 5-4 win Friday, while Jeff Tambellini had a hat trick in Saturday’s 3-2 victory.

    “We have got to play better defensively,” said Michigan head coach Red Berenson. “We have to play better on special teams. We need to play better without the puck. We need to play better with the puck.”

    The Wildcats come off a frustrating split with Upper Peninsula rival Michigan Tech, having beaten the Huskies 4-3 in overtime Friday before losing in OT Saturday.

    “They’re off to a good start,” said Berenson of the Wildcats. “Because they’ve lost so many key forwards, you don’t know so much about they’re team. They’re more of an unknown team except for Kowalski, their goalie. They’ve scored a lot of goals and apparently play pretty well in the early going.”

    Look for that experience to win out over youth this weekend — except in net.

    FSU at UAF

    While FSU swept UAF in Big Rapids last year, this could be a costly weekend for the Bulldogs, who are 8-10-0 against the Nanooks at the Carlson Center. The Bulldogs dropped just three road games all last season, but are already 1-2-0 on the road this year.

    Scoring is an issue for the Bulldogs this season, and FSU clearly misses the man who made the offense click last year, Hobey Baker finalist Chris Kunitz. Six months later and having returned most of the Bulldog squad, FSU is struggling to find an identity. Sophomore Greg Rallo (1-4–5) leads the team in scoring. Mike Brown — so fine in net last season — has a .859 save percentage through four games this year.

    The Nanooks open their league play against the Bulldogs this weekend, and the performance through their first four games shows some of the same weaknesses the Bulldogs are facing early on. Ryan Campbell (1-3–4) leads the Nanooks in scoring. Kevin Bartusch (.821) has seen the lion’s share of work in net in the absence of the injured Preston McKay. UAF is being outscored 20-12 in four games played.

    Early as it is in the year, this series is a good barometer for both teams. How well FSU responds to splitting on the road in Colgate last weekend will say much about the maturity of the team, while the Nanooks will attempt to recover from two games against Colorado College during which they were outscored 14-5.

    Miami at LSSU

    The Lakers lead this series all-time 50-23-10, with each team leading in its own venue, but the RedHawks swept the Lakers in two games by a combined score of 11-1 last season — and that is the story of each of these teams, and of this series.

    Miami’s high-flying offense is led by Derek Edwardson (4-4–8) and a talented supporting cast, including Mike Kompon (1-6–7), who earned his 100th career point in Miami’s 4-4 tie against UMass-Lowell in Anchorage last weekend.

    Eight different RedHawks have at least one goal through six games, an impressive indication of the effectiveness of the Miami offense. The game in net continues to be a problem for Miami, with Steve Hartley and Brandon Crawford-West combining for a .878 save percentage.

    For the Lakers, the problem is seldom the net with Matt Violin (.921) doing the backstopping, but LSSU has scored just three goals in two Division I games played, an early echo of their 2002-03 offensive woes.

    Mea Culpa

    Senior OSU forward Scott May was a healthy scratch in the Buckeyes’ 5-3 win over Notre Dame, and wasn’t sidelined for a violation of team rules, as I originally reported. May came back with a vengeance against the Spartans, with two goals and an assist in the 4-1 win last Saturday.

    Painful, Just Painful

    17:55. 18:34. 19:32.

    Those were the times of Michigan Tech’s fourth, fifth, and sixth goals, all in the third period of the second game between the Huskies and the Northern Michigan Wildcats last weekend. Those goals tied the game for Tech, which went on to win 7-6 in overtime.

    But perhaps it was just karma. In the first game, Northern pulled Craig Kowalski in favor of the extra skater and tied the game 3-3 with less than a minute to go. NMU went on to win that game 4-3 in OT.

    Quote of the Week

    “We’re going to scratch and claw for every goal we get.” — UNO head coach Mike Kemp, after the Mavericks and the Broncos skated to a 2-2 tie Oct. 18.

    The Antidote to Baseball

    Last night, I was awakened by the plaintive cry of my cat, Mabel.

    Was she hurt? Cold? Hungry?

    Or was she merely reliving the eighth inning of the seventh game of the 35th American League Championship Series?

    It could have happened in Yankee Stadium. It could have happened against Roger Clemens.

    As a sportswriter, I have little to add to the debate surrounding perhaps the worst decision in the history of modern sport.

    As a lifelong, diehard, born-to-mourn Red Sox fan, I can only say this: Owie.

    Hats off to Joe Torre, one of the sport’s greatest.

    Drop the puck.

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