Blueliner of the Week
Congratulations to Jon Sitko, this week’s Blueliner of the Week. According to his nominating eyewitness, the senior Falcon defenseman “tossed around Rob Globke” and held the Irish’s leading scorer to two assists in BGSU’s split with Notre Dame last weekend. Sitko was also instrumental on the Falcon penalty kill.
The nominating eyewitness also asserts that Sitko “hurts guys on the ice,” not necessarily a factor for this particular award, but a point of pride among stay-at-home defenders.
Apparently, defense is a point of pride in Bowling Green. Kevin Bieksa was last week’s Blueliner of the Week.
If you want to nominate a defenseman for his defensive play in a game or games that you attend this weekend, email me with the details by 5 p.m., Wednesday, January 22.
A glance at the CCHA standings tells you everything you need to know about what’s become the natural order of things: Michigan’s in first place (finally) with Michigan State knocking on the Wolverines’ door.
Of course, there’s more to the story than that. Michigan is tied with Miami for first with 19 points, Notre Dame owns second place with 18 points, MSU has 17 points and sole possession of third place — and after that, things get even thicker.
Four teams are tied with 16 points each. Six points separate the two teams in first from the ninth-place Ferris State Bulldogs.
Mathematically, everyone’s in this game.
It’s those four teams in the middle — Ohio State, Northern Michigan, Alaska-Fairbanks, Western Michigan — that make this week interesting. Each team is within striking distance of first place; any one of them may finish the season having to travel for the first round of the CCHA playoffs.
It’s the Buckeye fans’ annual lament: Not this again!
After rolling along nicely in the first half of the season, the Buckeyes seem to have begun their annual second-half swoon. OSU has now lost four consecutive league games — two to Miami in early December, two last weekend to Michigan — dropping from “in the hunt” to “in the middle.” Last week, coach John Markell said that if he could wave a magic wand, he’d order up a big helping of power-play proficiency and fast, but the Buckeyes need more than a decent power play to make a run for the league title.
How mediocre is this middle-packer? Well, even after the losses to Miami and Michigan, the Buckeyes are still 11th in the PWR, 12th in the KRACH, and eighth in the RPI. Why? Because OSU played a tough first half, with two wins against Michigan State, another vs. Cornell, a win against Maine, and one against Michigan.
In fact, it is that early strength of schedule that may work in OSU’s favor down the stretch. It stands to reason that if you played your league’s big dogs in the first half, you’ll play the, well, not-so-big dogs in the second.
The Buckeyes begin a four-game home stretch with Lake State this weekend, and with the exception of clustermates Michigan State and Miami, OSU looks forward to tangling with teams currently in the bottom half of the league standings for the rest of the season.
Any Buckeye fan will tell you, however, that this is a team capable of playing down to its opponent. Senior Chris Olsgard said after OSU’s 7-1 loss to Michigan Saturday, “As far as the guys in the locker room are concerned, last weekend is behind us and we are still in a battle for first place in the league.”
But only if the Buckeyes come to play, every game.
If it works for Ohio State, it can work for Northern Michigan; the Wildcats have one of the easiest schedules in the league heading into March.
(Disclaimer to all coaches, players, and others who may now be bristling: I know that there’s no “easy” night in the CCHA.)
Another factor that works to Northern’s advantage is the number of home games the Wildcats have yet to play. Of their remaining 12 league games, seven are at home where the Wildcats are 7-2-0 this season, having given up just their second home loss of the year last weekend to Miami.
One troubling area for the Wildcats is scoring, especially even strength. NMU is -33 overall, -42 in conference scoring, and the team’s leading scorer, freshman Darin Olver, has an even plus-minus in conference play.
It’s not as though NMU can’t score, and it’s not as though the ‘Cats can’t score on the power play. But offensive consistency from game to game just isn’t there this year — yet.
With senior goaltender Craig Kowalski backstopping the Wildcats, anything is possible — anything. Like most goalies, Kowalski can be a stone wall or a sieve; unlike most goaltenders, when Kowalski is on — which is most of the time — he’s outright spectacular.
I’m often accused of being a homer for Ohio State, but the truth is that I have a soft spot in my heart for the Nanooks, going back to the days when Dave Laurion was coach, Erik Drygas was a player, and UAF had yet to earn respect in the league.
In fact, I’m so soft on UAF that there are days when I like Aaron Voros. Really.
Voros himself is the epitome of the Nanook team, the squad boiled down to one representative player: tough, talented, passionate, with discipline that occasionally does more than just flirt with erratic.
With 38 penalties for 76 minutes — that’s all minors, no majors, for those of you playing along at home — Voros not only leads the Nanooks in trips to the sin bin, but is well on his way to becoming UAF’s all-time penalty leader, in spite of sitting out a good deal of last season.
Voros is gifted and more than half the time will take a smart penalty and even take someone from the other side with him. Voros is also the kind of player that likes to get under an opponents’ skin, someone who can really turn the tide in a game. But when he loses sight of his goals, he is his own worst enemy.
Just like the Nanooks.
UAF returns home this week after a disappointing six-game road stint during which the Nanooks went 2-4-0. In each of those four losses, it was the third period that really did UAF in. In last Friday’s 4-1 loss to Western, UAF gave up all four unanswered Bronco goals in the third period. The following night in a 5-4 loss in Lawson, the Nanooks gave up three third-period goals.
The week before in Big Rapids, UAF scored three third-period goals in a 7-5 loss to the Bulldogs — but gave up four, including FSU’s final three goals, all unanswered, in the third.
In a 7-2 loss Dec. 12 in Sault Ste. Marie, the Nanooks allowed three unanswered Laker goals to end the game, one in the middle of the second and two in the third.
It is this kind of meltdown that anchors the Nanooks right in the middle of the pack.
“This is a very tough league to win in on the road,” said UAF head coach Guy Gadowsky at the end of the trip. Fortunately for the Nanooks, eight of their remaining 12 league games are at home. Unfortunately for the Nanooks, four of those games are against Michigan and Michigan State, and two of their road games are in South Bend.
I like this team this season, and I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because they’re playing more defense.
The Broncos are at +24 in conference play, +30 overall. This stat — poo-pooed by other conferences and by some fans — is a reliable indicator of overall balance in a team and of a team’s overall defense. In past years, the Broncos couldn’t even see zero; being on the right side of negative is a welcome change.
WMU has an unsung hero in forward Dana Lattery, who is quietly having a career season in Kalamazoo. The Broncos are getting solid work out of Jeremy Cheyne, Vince Bellissimo, Pat Dwyer, Jim McNamara — and as a team, WMU is playing very disciplined hockey.
This all adds up to a balanced, skilled team with one problem: goaltending.
Unlike seasons past, when WMU had fearsome goaltenders who stood on their heads to keep the Broncos in any given game, this year WMU’s weakness is in net. That’s not to say that Scott Foster (.882 SV% overall) is a bad goaltender, but at the Division I level — in a league, coaches remind us weekly, where any team can beat any other team on any given night — the season finale may indeed come down to goaltending.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Broncos are still capable of winning games just as they have for years, by outgunning their opponents.
Games of the Week
It’s UAF, déjà vu.
Northern Michigan (10-9-1, 8-8-0 CCHA) at Alaska-Fairbanks (9-11-0, 8-8-0 CCHA)
Friday and Saturday, 7:05 p.m. AT, Carlson Center, Fairbanks, AK
The Nanooks have to be happy to be home. After going 2-4-0 in their six-game road stand, UAF takes on Northern Michigan in a series that may make or break either team’s chances of securing home ice in about eight weeks.
Last weekend, UAF lost twice to Western Michigan in Lawson Arena, giving up leads in both games to take no points home from Kalamazoo.
“We didn’t have a lot of room to breathe,” is how UAF head coach Guy Gadowsky described the second loss to the Fairbanks News-Miner. “For the most part we were playing three lines and four defensemen and definitely toward the end of the game we were getting weary.”
The Nanooks were outshot by the Broncos 88-49 on the weekend. Preston McKay made a career-high 43 saves in the 5-4 loss Saturday.
The Nanook bench was short by two seniors, co-captain Cory Rask and defenseman David Keough. Rask (4-5–9) was benched for the WMU series for an undisclosed violation of team rules, and he may not play in this series. Keough (0-1–1, -7 overall) has been a healthy scratch since UAF’s 7-2 road loss to Lake State Dec. 12.
The Wildcats split with first-place Miami at home last weekend, but even beating take two points from one of the top teams in the league can be bittersweet; Miami’s 3-2 win was the first for the RedHawks in Marquette since Nov. 14, 1981, before 19 of Miami’s current players were even born.
Now the Wildcats head to Fairbanks with some confidence, in spite of the loss to Miami. Why? UAF has never — never — beaten NMU in the 16-game history between these two squads. The Wildcats are 13-0-3 against the Nanooks; some teams just have other teams’ numbers.
Here’s the match by the numbers. As usual, these are overall stats.
It would be easy to go with the odds here and call a Wildcat sweep, but streaks have to end some time, right? And the Nanooks — like the Wildcats — are playing well at home. With an experienced senior class, perhaps UAF can break this curse.
UAF 4-3, NMU 3-2
He Likes the Buckeyes. He Really, Really Likes the Buckeyes
Michigan junior Dwight Helminen really likes playing against Ohio State. His two career hat tricks have been at the expense of the Buckeyes; Helminen netted four goals in Michigan’s 7-1 win over OSU on Saturday, and he was solely responsible for the offensive side of the Wolverines’ 3-0 win over the Buckeyes in last year’s Super Six.
In fact, nine of Helminen’s 30 career goals to date have been against the Buckeyes; nine of his last 11 goals have been against Ohio State.
They Must Really Like That Book
The Yost student section is often accused of being unimaginative and vulgar, but in Michigan’s two games against Ohio State, Wolverine fans came up with something original and clean.
Andrew Schembri was their target — all 5-foot-6 of him, as he’s listed.
Whenever Schembri took the ice, he was greeted with a chorus of “Dirty Hobbit.”
“It was pretty funny,” said the alleged hobbit. “At first, I didn’t know what they were saying. They were chanting so loud at one point, though, that I couldn’t hold it in. I had to laugh.”
Schembri, who is accustomed to being taunted for his height by opponents on the ice, said that hearing the fans in unison at Yost was a new experience. “It was incredible.”
Of course, it’s all fun and games until you lose 7-1.