This Week in the CCHA: Dec. 11, 2003

It’s a short week, a short schedule, and a short column. There will be a column previewing the holiday tournaments.

Well, Red and White Are Colors of the Season

Congratulations to the Miami RedHawks, who sit atop the CCHA standings after sweeping Ohio State last weekend. I was lucky enough to see the Friday game in Columbus as well as Miami’s 5-4 overtime win against Alaska-Fairbanks in Oxford Nov. 22.

Miami is the first team to deliver back-to-back defeats to OSU this season. The secret of Miami’s success? Senior leadership, simple systems, solid defense. In fact, the RedHawks and the Buckeyes play a similar game. The difference last weekend is that Miami wanted those points much more than OSU.

And here’s the part where I eat crow: I picked Miami sixth in my preseason poll, figuring that the RedHawks would secure home ice, but not make much more noise than that. Miami has had a tendency in recent seasons to swoon in the second half, but I don’t think that will be the case this year.

Roughly Two-Thirds, Four-Fifths, and Half the State of Michigan

Of the top seven teams in the league, only three — Michigan, Michigan State, and Northern Michigan — play hockey in Michigan. The fact that four of the CCHA’s five states are represented in the top half of the league speaks volumes about the development of certain programs but also about the genuine parity in the league.

What sets aside the non-Michigan teams from the Michigan teams is that each non-Michigan team has a veteran senior class with easily recognizable names. Miami? Greg Hogeboom, Mike Kompon. Ohio State? Dave Steckel, Mike Betz. Notre Dame? Aaron Gill, Rob Globke. Alaska-Fairbanks? Cam Keith, Jared Sylvestre.

The Nanooks, RedHawks, and Buckeyes have nine seniors on each of their rosters; the Irish have six.

The Wildcats have five. The Wolverines have two. The Spartans, one.

The Wolverines and the Spartans have two advantages over the other five teams, advantages that can, in theory, make up for the lack of a substantial senior class: coaching and recruiting. You don’t maintain the stronghold on the league that Michigan and MSU have for years without outstanding coaching (and I’m counting Rick Comley’s “rookie” year at MSU), and the tradition of each program has drawn some of the best college hockey players in recent years to the two institutions.

The Wildcats, well coached by Walt Kyle, were perennially competitive under Comley, so it’s no surprise that they’re fighting to be a top-tier team this season.

Not the Games of the Week

There are two league series this week, and the implications for each are huge. With all due respect to Lake Superior State and Nebraska-Omaha, the virtual match between Michigan and Alaska-Fairbanks is what captures my imagination.

No. 9 Michigan (10-6-0, 6-4-0 CCHA) vs. Alaska-Fairbanks (7-7-0, 6-4-0 CCHA)

These teams are not meeting in head-to-head competition, but the Wolverines and the Nanooks are jockeying for position heading into the holiday break. The simple fact that Michigan and UAF are tied in points along with Northern Michigan (12) in league standings — and that this jockeying is occurring in the middle of the pack, rather than at the top — makes this virtual match a most interesting way to end the first half of regular-season play.

The Wolverines split a pair with Michigan State last weekend, each team winning 2-0 in its own rink. The wash wasn’t enough for either team to gain much ground, although OSU and Notre Dame each performed the courtesy of losing twice to shorten the distance between the top seven teams.

What ails the Wolverines this season? One problem is evident. Michigan isn’t scoring like it used to, and like the collective talent of this team should.

The second is inconsistency in Michigan’s own end. When Al Montoya (.901 SV%) is on — as he was for his entire freshman year — he’s nearly impossible to beat. When he’s a mere mortal, as he has been for many games this season, he gives up rebounds that he smothered a year ago, a style to which the Michigan defense has not adjusted.

After last Friday’s win over MSU, Michigan head coach Red Berenson told USCHO’s Courtney Lewis, “I liked the feeling on our bench. I thought there was a lot of enthusiasm, and the momentum in the third period was strong. The game was on the line and we played well. That’s a good feeling.”

After the 2-0 loss the following night, Berenson said, “I knew it would be hard fought. When you win that Friday game, you don’t expect it to be five hundred. We had to put our best foot forward on Friday and then have a chance to have a great weekend, and obviously that didn’t work out that way.”

Midway through the year, the Wolverines have no 10-goal scorers on their squad. This may not seem like a shocking statistic to the casual observer, but it is a significant and telling difference between this year’s team and those of the recent past. T.J. Hensick (6-10–16) leads Michigan in scoring, and Jeff Tambellini (9-3–12) is the Wolverines’ top goal-scorer, but he has been struggling lately after beginning the season hot.

In fact, the Wolverines are sixth in goals per game in overall scoring (3.12), seventh (2.80) in league play. The team stands at a collective -10 in overall play, more evidence of how Michigan is struggling to find the net at even strength.

On paper, the Nanooks look mighty, mighty similar to the Wolverines. In fact, UAF looks similar to Michigan on ice, too — tenacious, blue collar, with slightly more consistent goaltending from Preston McKay (.917 SV%), and better play at even strength.

The Nanooks are +8 overall, and like the Wolverines have four players in double-digit points with not a single 10-goal scorer among them. Kelly Czuy (5-8–13) leads the team in scoring, and Cam Keith (7-5–12) is UAF’s leading goal-scorer.

Unlike the Wolverines, the Nanooks are riding a seven-game home-streak high, having knocked off Nebraska-Omaha twice last weekend, Western Michigan twice two weeks ago, Ferris State Oct. 24-25, and Alaska-Anchorage Oct. 11. With the exception of Western Michigan, which threatens to be a top-tier team this season, the wins over UNO and FSU are significant in that they are teams a top-tier program should beat in its own barn.

“You’ve got to take care of your home games first,” senior goaltender Preston McKay told my esteemed colleague Richard Larson at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner after the sweep. “We take a lot of pride playing in front of these fans.”

Both teams are on the road this weekend, and neither team has a stellar road record. Four of Michigan’s six losses are on the road; six of UAF’s seven losses have been in the Lower 48. With a sweep, either team can move into a tie for second place in the CCHA, along with OSU and Notre Dame and, perhaps, with each other.

“Next weekend is a must-have,” Eric Nystrom told the Ann Arbor News after the split with MSU. “It’s not enough to split every weekend.”

No, it’s not. Not if you want to move up in this particular world.

Words Mean Things

What a difference a word makes.

In nearly every weekly column, I answer reader email, most of the time in the form of a private aside to a specific fan question.

For three weeks now, the amount of email from Nebraska-Omaha fans has been astounding. While none of it has been outright threatening, the sum tone of all of it has made me grateful, for the first time since UNO joined the league, that I live some distance from the city of Omaha.

Last week, I received a number of email messages all asking the same question, each worded differently, each from an anonymous emailer. The question? Wasn’t Andrew Wong the player who went from Miami to UNO?

Of course, the answer is no. The player in question was Alex Kim. Now, I can’t pretend to know why this was question was asked repeatedly, and sent to my private email account rather than my address.

I sometimes respond directly to reader email, especially when someone points out a typo in my column — a service for which I am always thankful. But every time I tried to respond to this email, basically to get this person off my back and out of my private mailbox, the messages bounced back.

So, when I wrote the column and used an aside to address the issue, I thought I’d taken care of it, until the email came pouring in to tell me that I was, in fact, a moron.

I wrote: “… Wong — a former Miami RedHawk, for those of you playing along at home … .”

I forgot the “not.” Words mean things.

So my apologies to Andrew Wong, to the UNO hockey team and its staff, for any offense taken. And thanks to those of you who wrote to let me know of the mistake, even those of you who used language I can’t repeat here in this column.

Holiday Greetings?

In recent weeks, I’ve been inundated by email in a way that rivals the volume I saw — primarily from Notre Dame fans — in Nov. and Dec. of 1999.

Here are the answers to the two most common questions asked in Nov. and Dec. 2003:

Because I live in Columbus, Ohio.

No, I’m not on crack.

Happy and safe holidays to all.