Blueliner of the Week
Congratulations to Kevin Bieksa, the first recipient of my Blueliner of the Week award. Bieksa may seem like an unusual choice, given that Bowling Green dropped two games to Minnesota-Duluth and Bieksa finished the weekend -2, but my sources tell me that he had his best game of the season in the 5-4 loss and that he put the big ol’ hurt on many UMD players.
Particularly telling was that Bieksa was instrumental in holding UMD’s leading scorer, Junior Lessard, to just one assist in two games against the Falcons — two games in which the Bulldogs outscored the Falcons 11-5.
Congratulations, Mr. Bieksa!
You, too, can nominate a player for Blueliner of the Week. Only defensemen are eligible, and they are eligible only for their defensive play. If you witness a particularly inspired defensive performance, write me a detailed email and let me know.
New Year, Old Habits
You know this drill. All because of some arbitrary mark of the passage of time, an officially designated date of renewal, a cold day in January, we resolve to stop smoking, exercise, eat better, stop watching Jerry Springer, find time to call Mom, and let go of the lingering bitterness about second grade, that nun, the field trip, the short wick, the crutches, the ocelot, and the way the whole class just looked the other way.
With just six points separating Lake Superior and the two teams currently tied in the league standings for first place, Miami and Michigan State — and a whole slew of CCHA teams with legitimate chances of capturing the regular-season title — this is one of the more interesting midseasons CCHA fans have seen in some time.
Now that parity is a reality in our humble little league, what differentiates one good team from another? What does each team need to do to grab the glory?
Alaska-Fairbanks UAF is one of three teams currently tied for second place in league standings, and each of these three things has one significant thing in common: experience. The Nanooks — along with the Buckeyes and Fighting Irish — have veterans who have seen success, who can lead, and who can help propel them to a first-place finish … if they can find some consistency.
UAF head coach Guy Gadowsky says that it’s a lack of consistency that keeps the Nanooks from emerging from the pack.
“We have had some phenomenal games, and we’ve had some really poor games. We must [be consistent] to have a chance. We have to get a rein on that.”
Oddly enough, Gadowsky thinks that the lack of consistency isn’t linked to the team’s road performance. The Nanooks are 2-8-0 on the road.
Bowling Green The Falcons are this year’s bridesmaids. Six ties and four one-goal losses. BGSU needs to resolve to find one more goal.
Senior forward D’Arcy McConvey did his part last weekend toward that end. In the Falcons’ 5-4 loss to Minnesota-Duluth Jan. 3, McConvey recorded his first career hat trick, netting one shorthanded and two on the BGSU power play.
It’s a telling sign that more than midway through the season not one Falcon player has reached the 10-goal mark. Brett Pilkington (seven) leads the team. McConvey now has five.
Ferris State The Bulldogs had five losses in the opening month of CCHA play, a dismal follow-up to last year’s regular-season title, and continued to struggle right up until the month of December.
In their last six games, however — including Wednesday night’s 5-2 win over Nebraska-Omaha — the ‘Dogs are 4-1-1. So what should FSU do?
Keep at it. Head coach Bob Daniels has taken all the blame for this season’s slow start. Having said that he began the season expecting his team to simply pick up where it left off at the end of last year, Daniels has since adjusted his strategy and returned to basics, a tactic that has resulted in a dramatically improved Bulldog hockey club.
FSU is averaging over 37 shots per game in its last seven contests, scoring 35 goals in that same span. Until their 4-0 loss to the Nanooks at home last Saturday, the Bulldogs were riding a season-high, eight-game unbeaten streak.
And let’s not forget that FSU is the only CCHA team to have done the league proud at midseason, capturing the Badger Hockey Showdown.
Lake Superior If the Falcons are bridesmaids, the Lakers, too, are part of the wedding party. While not members of the one-goal-loss club, LSSU has five ties to its credit this season, with games against Notre Dame and most recently Western Michigan among those.
One of the most extraordinary things about LSSU this season is the team’s overall discipline. In two games against the Broncos last weekend — two games in which the Lakers earned three league points for just the second time this season — the Lakers took just two penalties. All weekend. Period.
“By not taking penalties, we didn’t have to kill off against a good Western Michigan power play,” said LSSU head coach Frank Anzalone. “It’s hard in this league to not take penalties. We have been doing that all year, so that is a real positive.”
In fact, the Lakers — who, even with the help of a special alignment of planets and some ceremonial sage burning, won’t finish in first place this year — are averaging just 7.43 penalty minutes per league contest, 7.89 overall.
This is not just something of which to be proud; this is extraordinary for a team near the bottom of the standings, indicating a seriously disciplined, unflappable group of young men.
Resolution? Said Anzalone, “We have to continue to stress puck pursuit and work ethic.”
Miami Currently tied for first in the CCHA standings, this senior-heavy team has the potential to be this year’s surprise.
(Note to those playing along at home: When any team not called Michigan, or Michigan combined with the word State, takes the regular-season title — or any title the league has to offer — it’s a surprise.)
The key to Miami’s success is balance. The RedHawks are third in the CCHA in overall play in average goals per game (3.35) and average goals allowed (2.65), and second in the league in those categories in conference contests (3.67 and 2.42, respectively).
The weakest link for the RedHawks — and this is nothing new — is goaltending. Brandon Crawford-West and Steve Hartley have combined for an .893 save percentage in overall play, but in eight league games, Crawford-West has been impressive (.917 SV%).
Resolution? Given the strength of their remaining schedule and their killer power play (.265 conference, .241 overall), all the RedHawks have to resolve to do is stay the course.
Michigan Everyone is saying that Michigan is having a down year. Sure, it’s unusual for the Wolverines to be anywhere but first or second place at any point in the season, given that the last time Michigan finished the regular season lower than second place was way back in 1989-90.
But let’s face it, folks. There’s plenty of hockey left, and Michigan is just two points behind league-leading Miami and Michigan State, two teams the Wolverines have yet to play twice again this year, as they’re all in one, big, happy cluster.
It doesn’t hurt Michigan’s chances that it and Miami have each played only 12 league games. Everyone other than Bowling Green has played at least 13, and those games in hand can do wonders down the stretch.
What should the Wolverines resolve to do? Believe it or not, score more goals. The once high-flying Michigan offense has faltered; the Wolverines average 3.10 goals per game, putting them seventh in overall play, 2.75 for eighth in conference contests.
To be more to the point, the Wolverines need to score more even-strength goals. The team is collectively -7, overall.
Michigan State What could the Michigan State Spartans possibly need?
The Spartans are averaging 3.55 goals per game overall, second in the conference (3.50 for third in league play); the Spartans are allowing 2.77 goals per game overall, fifth in the conference (2.50 in league play, tied for third); the Spartans have a lethal power play (.204 overall, .217 conference).
And the penalty kill … oh, yeah. The penalty kill.
MSU’s penalty kill is dead-last in overall play (.744), 11th (.741) in league games. Losing John-Michael Liles and Brad Fast cannot be the sole reason MSU is singing the PK blues.
Spartans, resolve to solve this puzzle.
Nebraska-Omaha The Mavericks announced this week that senior goaltender Brian Haaland will forego his remaining eligibility to pursue professional hockey. Haaland played just over 312 minutes in seven games, amassing a 1-3-1 record overall with a .899 overall save percentage.
Although he’s leaving the team, it’s not as though Haaland is dropping out of school. In fact, Haaland received his degree in physical education in Dec. 2003.
That leaves two UNO netminders, sophomore Kris Tebbs (.904 SV%) and freshman Chris Holt (.899 SV%). Holt has emerged as the more-than-likely starter, although all three goalies were rotated in net during the first half of the year.
Resolution? Keep these goaltenders. Don’t lose another one, Mavericks. And stand by your men.
Northern Michigan Consistency is something that the Wildcats could use this season, on both sides of the puck.
After losing 7-2 to the Spartans in Munn Arena last Friday (Jan. 3), the Wildcats rebounded Saturday with a 6-5 overtime win, a game in which the Spartans led three times and the ‘Cats just once until Alex Sawruk’s game-winner with 25 seconds remaining in OT.
Head coach Walt Kyle told my esteemed colleague Craig Remsburg at the Mining Journal that Northern was “sloppy” with the puck in the MSU series.
The Wildcats averaged 2.2 goals per game through November and December, while allowing 2.3. Last weekend, NMU scored eight to MSU’s 12.
So maybe consistency isn’t the best word for what the Wildcats need. Maybe performance should be the buzzword.
And NMU should resolve to keep Craig Kowalski happy.
Notre Dame Dave Poulin, there’s only one thing you need to do down the stretch: whatever you’re feeding your goaltenders, keep it coming.
The Notre Dame goalkeeping is one of the best stories this season, with freshman David Brown having exploded onto the scene with junior Morgan Cey injured. Since his return — five games total — Cey has posted two shutouts.
In fact, the one-two punch of Brown and Cey is the best goaltending tandem the league has seen in years. Brown (.913 SV% overall) has earned CCHA Rookie of the Week honors three times this season. Brown and Cey (.968 SV%) have each recorded back-to-back shutouts for the Irish this season; in fact, Brown registered three in a row.
Cey’s most recent was Notre Dame’s 1-0 win over Findlay last Saturday (Jan. 4). He shut out a ranked Maine team in the Everblades College Classic the week before.
Ohio State Since I’m no longer allowed to mention the f-word when it comes to the Buckeyes — and it’s one of the days of the week, so get your mind out of the sewer — I thought I’d go right to the source to find out what the Buckeyes are resolving to do in the home stretch.
“If I could improve the power play instantly, I would,” said OSU head coach John Markell.
The Buckeyes are the only team in the league to have three players reach the 10-goal plateau this season. The Buckeye offense, however, is underachieving (where have you heard this before) while the defense is outstanding. OSU is in the middle of the pack when it comes to goals scored per game, both overall (3.14) and in conference play (3.31).
The power play, however, is even less impressive, effective 12.1 percent of the time in league play and clicking along at a whopping 13.7 percent overall, 11th place in both cases.
Yet J.B. Bittner leads the league in power-play goals (6). Go figure.
Western Michigan The Broncos have come a long way defensively this season.
Last year, the Western Michigan scored a lot of goals — and gave up just enough to lose, often. This season, head coach Jim Culhane has really worked to turn around the defense. The Broncos are still being outscored (74-70) in overall play, but the team is +10 overall, +4 in conference play, a welcome sign for long-suffering WMU fans.
Coach Culhane’s resolution: “Minimize scoring opportunities for opponents.”
Sounds like a plan to me.
Games of the Week
Yes, Miami plays Northern Michigan, but the RedHawks are 1-16-0 all-time in Marquette.
Sure, OSU heads to Ann Arbor, but the teams split in Columbus and have every chance of doing so again.
This match may not be for the whole enchilada, but there are playoff implications for both teams in a league that is as tightly wound as a miser at Christmas.
Besides, it’s interesting.
Alaska-Fairbanks (9-9-0, 8-6-0 CCHA) at Western Michigan (9-9-3, 5-6-2 CCHA)
Friday, 7:35 p.m. and Saturday, 7:05 p.m., Lawson Arena, Kalamazoo, Mich.
At the start of the 2003-2004 season, WMU head coach Jim Culhane was faced with a choice: take one full month off midseason, between the Broncos’ series with Notre Dame in early December and the games against Lake State in early January, or come up with a creative solution that would allow WMU to play without somehow interfering with an NCAA D-I schedule.
This is hockey. Of course, Culhane and the Broncos chose to play — in Canada.
The Broncos packed the bus and played three games against Canadian collegiate hockey teams in Ontario, Dec. 17-19, winning all three. On Dec. 17, in Ft. Erie, WMU beat Brock 6-1, spurred on by Dana Lattery’s hat trick. Dec. 18 saw a 5-3 win over Western Ontario in London, and the Broncos beat Wilfred Laurier, 5-3, on the final night of their tour, in Waterloo.
“It would have been too much time off from the game,” said Culhane, who said the plans to play three games in Canada during the break were finalized when Western Ontario came to Kalamazoo in preseason exhibition action this year.
“We were able to travel everybody,” said Culhane, a unique experience for any team in the league, given travel expenses and the necessity of submitting a 22-man roster for league games.
“We were pleased. It was the first time we’ve ever done it, playing the three games there [in Canada] on three consecutive nights. We had the opportunity to play everybody.”
The Broncos drove to London and used that city as a home base for the tour. The bus may have been full on the way up, but it was relatively empty for the return trip to Kalamazoo; only nine players returned to campus with Coach Brendan Kenny. The rest of the Bronco team went directly home from London, and Culhane himself drove to Northern Ontario to spend Christmas with his family in his hometown for the first time in nine years.
Wins aside, the overall experience was a good one, with a team-building, pre-holiday atmosphere on the road. “It was nice,” said Culhane. “We had come off a super weekend [against Notre Dame] two weeks before, and the week before we went we broke for exams and didn’t practice at all.”
That hockey-free exam week paid off for the Broncos as well; the team’s fall GPA was a 3.1, with 17 of Western’s 25 players earning 3.00 or better. Freshman forward Brett John earned a 4.0.
This week, the Broncos welcome the Nanooks, a team on a tour of their own. Annually during their winter break, UAF spends a full week in the Lower 48; this time around, after splitting with Ferris State in Big Rapids last weekend, UAF spent the week in Kalamazoo.
“The week’s been great,” said UAF head coach Guy Gadowsky. “We’ve had a lot of team activities, and it’s been really good. We’ve done paintball, gone bowling, done some other team-building exercises.
“The majority of the guys are here, and they get to know each other very well.”
After dropping a 7-5 game to Ferris State Jan. 2, the Nanooks rebounded with 4-0 blanking of the Bulldogs the following night, just their second road win of the season. Although Gadowsky said that the Nanooks suffer from a lack of consistency, he said that the road record is an “aberration.”
“I can’t explain it. I don’t know why we’re not winning on the road.”
In that win, Aaron Voros recorded his first career hat trick, something that Gadowsky called “the second most impressive part of his game” that night.
“He was phenomenal. He was extremely disciplined, in some difficult situations.”
The Broncos are coming off a one-point weekend in Sault Ste. Marie, and so have something to prove this weekend.
“We played really well,” said Culhane. “I told the team Saturday after the game that we got beat by outstanding goaltending in Matt Violin. The difference in the hockey game was Matt.”
Culhane was also impressed with Lake State’s discipline, which allowed the Broncos only two power-play chances on the weekend. “We generated enough scoring chances to score some goals, but the difference was Matt. We picked up right where we left off [before the break from CCHA play]. We played very well on the power play, played our systems … but you leave there frustrated, because you only got one out of a possible four points.”
Here’s the match by the numbers. As usual, these are overall stats.
It’s a mutual admiration society between Culhane and Gadowsky. The Broncos lost twice to the Nanooks in Fairbanks earlier this year, 5-4 in overtime Nov. 7 and 4-0 the following night.
“If the games in Fairbanks are any indication,” said Gadowsky, “these are going to be close. I think it’s going to be wide open, to be honest. I like Western’s team. I like their leadership. They have some very creative forwards that I really enjoy watching. I think we have some creative forwards too.”
“I think both teams are very similar,” said Culhane. “They have a lot of speed and skill in their line up. I think it’s going to be a very high-tempo couple of games.”
The Nanooks have advantages up front and perhaps in net, but the Broncos have a blueline edge and home ice means something in Kalamazoo.
Picks: It would be easy to pick the WMU sweep — and not because the Nanooks are easy marks. UAF is having a heck of time finding wins on the road this season, and Lawson is a killer arena. But the ‘Nooks have spent the whole week in Kalamazoo, so the travel isn’t as much of a consideration as it usually is. It’s a toss up. WMU 4-3, UAF 5-4
Is It That Difficult to Meet Girls in Bowling Green?
I know I shouldn’t laugh. After all, I like hockey. I like socializing with women. I even like BGSU hockey.
On Thursday, Jan. 29, the Falcons will be hosting a “Women for Falcon Hockey” night. Really.
The press release begins, “Come gather and socialize with other women and learn more of the ins and outs of the game of hockey.” The event is scheduled from 5:30-7:30 p.m., and the BGSU coaching staff and players will “be on hand to give you an inside perspective of the game.” A reservation (419-372-7100) is required, and a five-dollar donation is suggested.
Should this concept catch on, I hear a “Men for Falcon Synchronized Swimming” night has been a popular suggestion.
Silver and Gold
Congratulations to Team USA for its gold-medal upset of Team Canada in the IIHF World Junior Championship.
Next week, more on the World Juniors and the CCHA players who graced the rosters of both Team Canada and Team USA.