The Once and Current Defenders of the Realm
Congratulations to the Ferris State Bulldogs, the 2003 Badger Hockey Showdown champions.
The championship was the first tournament title for FSU since winning the Silverado Shootout in December, 1999, and the first for the CCHA since the Miami RedHawks captured the Lefty McFadden Invitational in September, 2002.
The first half of the season was rough for the Bulldogs, and head coach Bob Daniels takes full blame for the mediocre follow up to the 2002-03 regular-season title. But FSU went 3-0-1 in December, including the two wins in Madison to capture the holiday tourney.
Daniels said that the games were very evenly matched, and that junior Mike Brown played “very well” in net. “He was solid. Early on, on the road, he was solid, too, and I think the players responded to that [in Wisconsin].”
Brown stopped 72 shots on the weekend for a .935 save percentage in the 7-4 win over UMass-Lowell and 3-1 victory over host Wisconsin, earning him Most Outstanding Player honors for the tournament and CCHA Defensive Player of the Week.
In typical Daniels style, the FSU head coach said that it’s a little early to predict a complete turnaround down the stretch. “I think we’ve got some confidence, but we’ve got a long way to go. We take it all with a grain of salt. We’re not the team we know we could be.
“Our power play is anemic, we’re not very good on the penalty kill, so specialty teams all around have hurt us — even though we’re winning some games.”
FSU’s power play is .108 overall, even worse (.097) in league play, dead last in both cases among CCHA teams. The Bulldog penalty kill is eighth overall (.796), ninth (.779) in league play.
Obviously, the Bulldogs want to use the tourney title as “a catalyst” for the rest of the season, said Daniels, but the key to overcoming the slow start and building on recent success is the attitude of the Bulldog players. “I don’t think that at any point, anybody threw up their hands and gave up,” said Daniels. “We went 0-for-4 [earlier in the season], and that was a difficult stretch for us.”
Those losses, however, came against Alaska-Fairbanks and Michigan State, two teams in the top half of league standings. The Bulldogs managed a win in every other series, helping them climb the league standings — albeit slowly — and putting them at .500 midway through the season.
This weekend, FSU takes on UAF, probably the most interesting series on tap. Yes, everyone knows that Northern Michigan heads to East Lansing so that the Wildcats can face their former coach, Rick Comley and only three points separate NMU from MSU in the standings, but the series in Big Rapids will test both teams in significant, specific ways.
Not only do the Bulldogs want to return to the winning ways of last season — or at least continue the momentum of last week — but the Nanooks want to return to the winning ways of Dec. 13, their first road win of the season, a 7-4 victory over Lake Superior State.
In fact, the Nanooks are 0-4-0 at Ewigleben Arena in the past three years, which means that UAF’s seniors have never won in Big Rapids. While the Nanooks are 4-2-0 in their last six meetings with the Bulldogs, all four of those UAF wins were in Fairbanks; the ‘Dogs have dominated the ‘Nooks in Big Rapids, having won the last nine meetings dating back to Jan. 12, 1996, a 5-4 overtime win for UAF.
Five points separate the Bulldogs from the Nanooks in the CCHA standings, and motion is possible for each team. With NMU and MSU duking it out and Western Michigan traveling to Lake Superior State, the Nanooks could solidify — conceivably — their upper-tier standing, and the Bulldogs could — conceivably — catch WMU.
With the Lakers knocking on the Bulldogs’ door, it’s a sure bet that FSU will be motivated.
A Little Downtime, Really?
Here’s how the league fared in the holiday tournaments: CCHA 1, everyone else 5.
Bulldogs aside, two teams — MSU and OSU — came close to capturing a midseason title. The Spartans lost 4-3 to Boston College in the championship game of the Great Lakes Invitational, and the Buckeyes lost 4-3 in overtime to Cornell in the Everblades Holiday Classic finale. In MSU’s case, the Spartans rallied from a three-goal deficit to make it close; the Buckeyes played catchup with the Big Red throughout the game, always coming back to tie until Greg Hornby won it for Cornell at 2:30 in OT.
(An aside: Congratulations to the Big Red, who not only won the tournament but made it to the title game for the first time in four years.)
While league play has provided plenty of excellent, close hockey for CCHA fans, it seems as though the midseason tournament results reinforce alleged common knowledge, that the CCHA is having a down year.
The numbers, however, seem to disagree. “We have a winning record against every conference but one,” said Daniels, who came as close to bristling as he can — which is to say that he changed the tone of his voice very slightly — when coming to the defense of the league. “We’re about .500 against every other league. We’re not doing as bad as people think.”
In fact, the CCHA is doing a bit better than .500 against all leagues save one, the WCHA. As is usual, the WCHA owns the CCHA this season (so take that, Badgers!), holding a 12-7-1 against the CCHA so far this year.
The CCHA is 8-4-1 against the CHA, 8-6-1 against the ECAC, 5-2-2 against Hockey East, and 5-2-1 against the AHA. Notre Dame has singlehandedly shut out Hockey East; so, okay, the Irish have only played two games against teams from HEA, but each was a 1-0 blanking, over Boston College (Oct. 4), and Maine (just last week in Florida).
“I think it’s fair to say that we haven’t performed to the level that we’d hoped in the first half of the season … but within the league — which is a high priority for us — the competition is very balanced,” said CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos. “But competition outside the league is very pivotal.”
With its increasing popularity and national exposure, college hockey has come to a crossroads. Even though teams play the bulk of their games against league opponents and the regular-season is very long, the importance of conference play seems to be waning. Coaches talk about the PairWise Rankings and the importance of nonconference games — and the postseason implications of losing to lower-ranked teams during the season — from the time the very beginning of the hockey year.
While every team and each individual league depends on turnstile takes from the regular season for the collective bread and butter, like all other sports the largest payoffs for the league — both financially and in terms of national respect — come from NCAA appearances.
It’s no wonder that just one midseason title is a cause for at least some mild concern. “Halfway through, I think it’s fair to say that we can improve,” said Anastos, who also cautions that there is much hockey to be played.
“You’re measured by your record. We’re only halfway through the season. I’ve been asked the question when the opposite scenario was in place, when seem to be dominating in nonconference play, and I say the same thing: this isn’t a sprint, this is a marathon.”
To get to the finish line, league teams have to play many league games, and that means some fantastic hockey for CCHA fans, if the first half of the season is any predictor. For years — and years — CCHA coaches have been harping on parity. It’s now a boy-who-cried-wolf situation; the coaches insisted that there was parity in the league for so long, and for such a long time before the thing itself arrived, that now that there is actual parity in the CCHA, no one seems to be listening.
Anastos is one of many people close to the game to point out that several teams at or close to the top of the league — Miami, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Alaska-Fairbanks — have strong, experienced senior classes. Notice that none of these teams is named “Michigan” or “Michigan State.”
“You can’t underestimate the importance of experience,” said Anastos. “You get the combination of talent and experience, that’s a tough train to derail.”
That four of the top six teams in the league are not only not UM or MSU but are not even from the state of Michigan is a real barometer of the parity in the league. Add into the conference mix a Nebraska-Omaha team that knocked off top-10 Massachusetts, a Bowling Green that has tied Cornell, and a Lake Superior State that beat UAF and lost a close one to Miami, and you have a league in which — now, let’s say it together — any team can beat any team on any given night.
“Not to diminish the importance of nonconference games because they’re very important,” said Anastos, “but there are just no weeks off. Years ago, there were definitely haves and have nots. You could play very poorly and still come out with a win some nights.
“Now, things are so much more competitively balanced that when you have a letdown it’s hard to get a win out of it.”
And that, according to some, makes the league title worth more. Just ask Bob Daniels, whose Bulldogs still relish last season’s regular-season championship and who, understandably, defends the realm from within as well as without.
“I like the fact that people think we’re down,” said Daniels. “We’re too quick to start making apologies for a situation that doesn’t exist.”
Games of the Week to Return
Readers, the Games of the Week will return with next week’s column. I’m under the weather and — how is this for unfair? — it has nothing to do with ringing in the New Year.
Also next week: WMU’s triumphant trip through Canada, CCHA players in the World Juniors, and belated New Year’s Resolutions, team by team.
Blueliner of the Week
Next week’s column will also name my first CCHA Blueliner of the Week. To date, only four defensemen have earned CCHA POTW honors, a crime in spite of the three singled out in December — FSU’s Simon Mangos (Dec. 21), MSU’s Chris Snavely (Dec. 21), and BGSU’s Jonathan Sigalet (Dec. 15). Sigalet and Snavely were Rookies of the Week, while Mangos earned the honor as Offensive POTW.
The only blueliner to be named CCHA Defensive POTW this season was OSU’s Nate Guenin (Oct. 6), the very first week of play. Every CCHA Defensive POTW since has been a goaltender. Taking nothing away from the league’s fine netminders, this is an out-and-out crime; blueliners deserve to be recognized for their defensive play.
So that’s what I’m going to do, and you’re encouraged to lend a hand. If you see an outstanding defensive performance by a defenseman — that’s if you witness it, in person — send along the particulars for that man to be considered. Since it’s quite likely to be something that doesn’t show up on the stats sheets, be as specific and detailed as possible when you send in your nomination.
And, yes, individual team SIDs are invited to play along, too.