The Young and the Restless
With just three league games on tap this weekend, there’s an interesting potential for movement in the conference standings. With three points, Notre Dame could find itself sitting in first place, alone, provided Bowling Green beats Ohio State.
With two points and an OSU loss, the Irish could be tied with the Buckeyes, who would have the advantage on at least two tiebreakers, should the world end Monday and league play cease.
With two wins, Northern Michigan could catch Notre Dame in the points game, and would have one more league win than would the Irish — and the top three spots in the conference would remain the same even if OSU loses, because no one else is playing a league opponent.
Then there are the games in hand to consider, assuming the world continues on its merry way come Monday.
Interwoven throughout this tantalizing CCHA tapestry is the theme of youth versus experience, and just how that may shape the final league standings come March.
At this moment, Miami and Michigan State have identical conference records (6-3-1), have split a series in Oxford, and have two-game series to play in East Lansing at the end of January. Read what MSU head coach Rick Comley has to say, and you can predict now what will happen then.
The Nature of Youth
After a slow start and the first time they’d been swept at home since 1995, the Spartans rebounded with a five-game tear, pausing briefly for Notre Dame and stopping cold for an experienced Miami team and for … Wayne State?
“Obviously, it was frustrating that first night,” said Comley. That first night was a Thursday, Nov. 20, 3-2 loss to Wayne State in Munn Arena.
“Their goaltender played very, very well and I would say the quality of our play was average. Friday night, we found a way to get the puck in the net better.”
Marc Carlson — a senior — made 39 saves for the Warriors Thursday, one night before the Spartans came back to beat WSU 7-2 with sophomore Matt Kelly earning the loss. Junior Brock Radunske had two goals in that contest, junior Jim Slater had one of his own, and junior Mike Lalonde had the hat trick. The upperclassmen let rookie standout Tom Goebel contribute one as well.
“We play seven, eight freshmen every night,” said Comley. This inexperience, said the coach, is the reason for MSU’s inconsistency so far.
“We only have one senior [Joe Markesun] on the team. For some of the juniors that we really thought would take off, it’s been a struggle. They haven’t scored as well as we hoped they would. It’s really tough with one senior on the team.”
Slater (10-12–22) and Lalonde (9-9–18) lead the Spartans in scoring, followed by Goebel (9-8–17) and freshman defenseman A.J. Thelen (3-10–13). Radunske (5-6–11) rounds out the top five, which includes — you may have noticed — only one 10-goal scorer in the bunch, in 14 games played.
The team is an admirable plus-66 in overall play, second only to league-leading OSU, and clearly the Spartans are playing a good defensive game, and playing as a team. But while Comley inherited that good defensive sense from mentor Ron Mason, he prefers to play a more open game with an offense that flies, and these Spartans have yet to launch this season.
After losing back-to-back games to OSU at home, it would appear that the Spartans reinvented themselves during that five-game win streak, sparked by the sweep. MSU beat WMU twice, FSU twice, defeated and tied Notre Dame before splitting with a very good Miami team in Oxford.
But looks can be deceiving.
“Ohio State was just better than us that weekend, for sure,” said Comley. “They’re older, they’re very mature, and their goaltending was outstanding. We just did not threaten them in any aspect of the game. They’ve given us trouble for two years now.
“Western and Ferris aren’t as good as Ohio State. We’ve been up and down a little bit as we continue to mature and grow as a team.”
Now the Spartans are facing two-time national champions, Minnesota, and another Big Ten and WCHA foe, Wisconsin. At 4-7-1, the Golden Gophers appear to be a struggling team.
Again, this is a cautionary tale.
“That’s a misconception,” said Comley. “They played without [Keith] Ballard and without [Chris] Herrington for long stretches this year. You don’t take someone like Ballard out of the lineup…without some consequences.
“I think they’re a very, very good team. I think the heart and soul of that team wasn’t there.” Comley said he’s excited about the style of hockey he’ll see when the Spartans take on the Gophers and Badgers. “It’s going to be a fun weekend because it’s going to be up-and-down kind of hockey. We’ve played a lot of teams lately that play ‘old-time hockey,’ a more defensive style and the trap. That’s hard for us because our young defense has to handle the puck more.”
Comley is quick to point out that he’s not criticizing old-time hockey. “You do what you do. Last year Ferris was a wide-open team; now they’ve necessarily gone back to a more defensive style.
“This weekend, we’re going to see two teams with talent and a lot of speed.”
As for Minnesota’s seemingly slow start, Comley said, “They have two titles, back-to-back. You don’t have to feel sorry for them.”
The Nature of Youth, Part 2, a.k.a. the Games of the Week
The Irish have experience up front while the Wildcats have a proven veteran in net, but does Notre Dame have the edge with a rookie goaltender?
Northern Michigan (5-5-0, 4-4-0 CCHA) at Notre Dame (6-3-2, 5-3-2 CCHA)
Friday, 7:35 p.m., Saturday, 7:05 p.m., Joyce Center, South Bend, Ind.
“Things are going about the way I thought they would be,” said NMU head coach Walt Kyle. “We’re playing most nights with 13 to 15 freshmen and sophomores.”
Two weeks ago, the Wildcats split a pair in Omaha, losing to UNO 2-1 Friday, Nov. 14, before winning 4-2 the following night. Kyle isn’t exactly happy with that split, but he’s realistic. “You can never go in and expect to win two in someone else’s place. That’s disrespectful. I like Mike and think he’s done a good job with that program.”
After a weekend to recuperate, NMU travels to Notre Dame to take on the experienced Irish, who took three points from another poised team, the Lakers, last weekend.
“One week you’re preparing for the wishbone, and the next you’re preparing for the West Coast offense, in a sense,” Irish head coach Dave Poulin told Steve Lowe of the South Bend Tribune this week. Poulin said that because of the Northern’s transition game, “there has to be an awareness from the defensive standpoint. Going from offense to defense is going to be critical this week, without a question, because of their speed.”
Here’s a look at the match. The stats are for overall games played.
Kyle said that the youthful Wildcats are “too reliant” on senior goaltender Craig Kowalski, whom Kyle calls “exceptional.”
“I’m not as happy with that,” said Kyle. “The thing I do like is that eight of our top 10 scorers are freshmen and sophomores. We’re happy with the way those guys are producing and the way that those guys are scoring.
“We’re starting to move the puck better. Earlier in the year, we weren’t doing that. I’d like to see us grow defensively.
“You don’t want to bring in young guys that aren’t going to get better.”
Then there are the young guys who hit the ground running, like Notre Dame’s Brown, whose .942 save percentage through nine games puts him second in that category in overall play among CCHA goaltenders. (LSSU’s Jeff Jakaitis, another freshman, has a .956 SV% in three games.)
“Brown’s been an outstanding for them,” said Kyle. “They have those three senior defensemen, they have Globke and Gill. We played them last year right before the end of the regular season, so we know how good they are.”
The Wildcats lead this all-time series 14-8-4, with an 8-5-2 edge in South Bend, but the series is 8-8-4 since NMU rejoined the CCHA in 1997.
Two of the Fighting Irish, goaltender Morgan Cey and defenseman Derek Smith, are out for this series. Cey underwent knee surgery on Nov. 19, and is expected to miss four to six weeks. Smith, who suffered a concussion Jan. 4, 2003, against UNO, is still sidelined with post-concussion syndrome.
“This year,” said Kyle, “we’re spending very little time focusing on who we’re playing. We’re in the process of teaching these [young] guys who are stepping into roles vacated by last year’s seniors.”
Picks: You can’t knock the Irish for tying the improved Lakers last week, and even though the Wildcats are well rested after a week off and in spite of NMU’s team speed, I like Notre Dame’s luck. Notre Dame 4-2, 4-3
Why I Love Frank Anzalone
Okay, so I’ve been hard on the guy. His success-to-firing ratio is just a huge red flag for me, and I did not like the way he publicly dressed down his players in his first season back at LSSU.
But I like what he’s doing with the Lakers, who are playing smart, careful hockey.
And I love what he says to the press.
“It looked like Notre Dame let down … like they were kind of toying with us.” This is what Anzalone told Lowe after LSSU’s 5-3 loss to Notre Dame last Friday.
That, my friends, is a thing of beauty.
And Dave Poulin
Okay, so Dave Poulin is quotable, too.
“I think line combinations are formed similar to good nicknames,” Poulin told Lowe after the same game. “They just kind of happen.”
Hockey is serendipity. Of course.
It’s 43 and overcast, and the roof above my bathroom leaks. Between three jobs, this is the first chance I’ve had to sit and attempt to finish this column this week. It’s Thursday, and I’m running on 16 hours of sleep since Sunday night.
My parents, sister, and one brother are 1,000 miles south; my best friend is 600 miles east. My right hand is numb from a pinched nerve in my back, and I’m fairly certain the transmission on my 14-year-old Jetta is about to give.
I’m single, broke, fat, six months from 40, and I can’t find my front door key, but last night I did 90 back wheel kicks and 280 punches, rescued Moxy from the top of the French doors in the living room, found a great, inexpensive bottle of chardonnay, and belted out Cher’s version of “The Shoop Shoop Song” at a friend’s karaoke show, stopping the assembled in their drunken tracks and earning a bottle of Labatt from an admirer.
I was driving and tired; I couldn’t drink it.
Today is Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., and I’m struck by what, as we get older, makes us grateful. The roads aren’t icy. I can pay the rent. I actually reached two coaches this week. I’m going home for Christmas. The car started this morning. I can defy gravity, time, and circumstance with this surprising body I inhabit. My back and front doors have different locks. I can still get a beer and a phone number from a guy in a bar — okay, so I have to sing for it — and I have friends in Columbus who are doing all the cooking today.
And on a weekly basis, I can potentially outrage D-I men’s ice hockey fans from at least five states in this Union.
I’m exhausted but the blues are at bay, and we are all here.
Happy Thanksgiving, folks. And thanks.