Blueliner of the Week
Congratulations to Alaska-Fairbanks defenseman Felipe Larranaga, this week’s Blueliner of the Week.
Larranaga, a senior, was instrumental in UAF’s home sweep of Northern Michigan, logging 60 minutes of ice time in the two-game series. Although Larranaga’s offensive performance was impressive — assisting on the game-winner in the 1-0 shutout and scoring the game-winning goal in the 5-2 win — it was the defenseman’s defensive play that got him notice. Larranaga was solid on the Nanook penalty kill, was on the ice for five of UAF’s six goals on the weekend, and was not on the ice when the Wildcats netted their only even-strength goal in two games.
Larranaga finished the weekend +3.
The 1-0 shutout Friday night was UAF’s first-ever win over Northern Michigan, particularly impressive given NMU goaltender Craig Kowalski’s recent play.
Have you seen some great defensive play in CCHA contests? Then tell the world about it! Email me the details by 5 p.m., Wednesday, January 28, and nominate a worthy player for Blueliner of the Week.
Congratulations to the Fighting Irish on their strong performance in Madison. From what I hear, the games were good and Notre Dame represented the CCHA with class — and a win and a tie over a ranked Wisconsin team.
The Irish had a quite a time getting to Madison. Because of the wintry weather through northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, a bus trip that should have taken four hours took nine. The Notre Dame bus had to pull over for three hours, about 45 miles away from Madison, delaying the team’s hotel check-in until 4 a.m., the day of the first contest.
Head coach Dave Poulin decided, given the circumstances, to skip the Saturday morning skate. Obviously, with a 2-2 tie against the Badgers, Poulin was happy with how his players responded to what was arguably a disadvantage.
“You try to teach them so much, to control what they can control, and obviously we don’t control the weather,” said Poulin, who could have been quoting The Tao of Hockey, again. “I thought the team handled it very, very well.”
Anyone who knows him can just hear the tone — pure Zen, pure Poulin.
My thanks to WCHA correspondent Todd D. Milewski for passing along this quote.
Passing the Congrats Around
Bowling Green’s 3-2 home win over Michigan State last Saturday was their first win on a Saturday night this season. The Falcons are now 1-5-5 on Saturdays.
Alaska-Fairbanks’ 1-0 home win over Northern Michigan last Friday was not only the team’s first shutout of the Wildcats, but the first win for UAF over WMU ever. Cam Keith had the game-winner at 17:09 in the first.
OSU goaltender Mike Betz set a school record for shutouts when he blanked LSSU 5-0 last Friday, breaking Bill McKenzie’s record of 10 (1970-72).
MSU’s Dominic Vicari made 34 saves in his fourth shutout of the season when the Spartans beat the Falcons 1-0 last Friday.
Games of the Week
With one point separating these two teams — and the team further west in the state ahead of the perennial league leaders, for the moment — this home-and-home series is as good as it gets.
Michigan (14-7-1, 9-4-1 CCHA) vs. Western Michigan (13-9-3, 9-6-2 CCHA)
Friday, 7:35 p.m., Lawson Arena, Kalamazoo, Mich. Saturday, 7:35 p.m., Yost Arena, Ann Arbor, Mich.
“I think the team to beat, right now, without having played them, is the team we are playing this weekend.”
That’s what WMU head coach Jim Culhane told Pat Host of the Western Herald this week, but perhaps Culhane is being a bit modest.
The Broncos enter this series with a four-game win streak and are formidable at home, with a 9-3-1 record in Lawson Arena, and are 7-1-1 in their last nine league games. Last weekend, WMU swept UNO in Omaha, 5-3 and 4-2; two weeks ago, UAF fell victim to WMU in Kalamazoo, 4-2 and 5-4.
The Broncos are now just one point behind league-leading Miami in the CCHA standings — tied with UAF and OSU in that spot — and one point ahead of Michigan and Michigan State. Given that WMU was in last place in the CCHA standings the week after Thanksgiving — nine points behind then-league-leading OSU — this is something to talk about; the Broncos have earned 15 of a possible 18 points since a 4-3 overtime home win against Bowling Green Nov. 25.
What’s their secret? Health. In the first two months of the season, WMU lost an ungodly number of man-games because of injury and illness, and the numbers reflect that. Not only did the Broncos compile a 5-7-2 record before turning it around against BGSU — including losses to Niagara and Mercyhurst — but WMU was averaging 2.75 goals per game while giving up 3.75 during that span.
Since then? It’s WMU 4.33 goals per game, opponents 3.33.
When the Broncos meet the Wolverines this week, they’ll meet a relatively well-rested team that has played three games to their four in the past two weeks — and one that has played 14 conference matches to WMU’s 17, something that may stymie not just the Broncos but every team in that tight logjam known as the top of the CCHA standings, come March.
Last weekend, the Wolverines beat the U.S. Developmental Program’s National Under-18 Team, 5-3, in exhibition play. The teams exchanged goals through the start of the third period, when UM pulled ahead for good. Jeff Tambellini had two goals and an assist in the contest.
In their last CCHA action, the Wolverines swept Ohio State at home, winning a tight 3-2 game Jan. 9 before thumping the Bucks 7-1 the following night.
In spite of being in quasi-third place in the standings, the Wolverines are only one game off their pace of one year ago, when they were 15-6-1 by Jan. 23, 2003, and their fortunes are tied tightly to those of their goaltender, Al Montoya. Montoya returned from the World Juniors with more than just a gold medal; the sophomore seems to have returned to his freshman form, which is a scary development for the rest of the CCHA.
Here is a look at the match, by the numbers. As usual, these are overall stats.
The Wolverines, who have struggled offensively even strength this season, are finally on the plus side at a collective +11 overall. Not one Wolverine has reached the 10-goal mark this season, something of an anomaly for Michigan. Head coach Red Berenson told the Ann Arbor News this week that his players shouldn’t worry about scoring goals.
“They have to concentrate on playing well without the puck, playing good hockey and doing all the little things besides scoring. If you’re playing that way, and you’re not hurting your team defensively, then you’re going to keep playing.”
Michigan leads this all-time series 49-24-10, but the teams split their home-and-home series last year, with the Wolverines pounding the Broncos 10-3 in Ann Arbor Jan. 10, 2003, and WMU rebounding the following night with a 4-3 win in Lawson Arena.
Culhane, a very smart man, knows more than to take Michigan at face value. He knows that the Wolverines under Berenson have a little magic on their side. “I think the respect has to stay there from what they have been able to accomplish over the years with the league, playoff championships and NCAA appearances,” he told the Herald.
Give the Wolverines another two weeks — and those three CCHA games — and we’ll see which team whose name begins with M is in first place in our beloved league.
Picks: How to pick this one? No brainer. WMU 4-3, UM 5-3
Quote of the Week
Mike Kemp, head coach of the 12th-place UNO Mavericks, said, “It’s a place we don’t want to be, and it’s an embarrassing place to be. But there are still 10 games left in the conference. Who knows what’s going to happen?”
While the race for the top spot in the league is tight, with two games left against Miami, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Alaska-Fairbanks, the Mavericks need more than just motivation to move up the league standings.
Dirty Hobbit Strikes Again
As fond as I am of Eric Nystrom, J.B. Bittner, Simon Mangos (“Mangos … the hands of fate … .”), Bo Cheesman, Ryan Minnabarriet, Dana Lattery, Brett Lebda, and Andy Greene, and a whole bunch of other players who have been around for at least one full season and rank among my “favorites” in the league, I’m starting to like Andrew Schembri even more.
Why? Style points.
Schembri — listed at 5-6, but in a Matt Barnes kind of way — had a goal in each of OSU’s games against LSSU last weekend. He also rescued fans and reporters alike from overtime when the Buckeyes hosted Quinnipiac on a recent Tuesday night, by scoring the game-winning goal in a 1-0 contest with just 0.2 seconds left in regulation.
But most important to the Schembri mystique is this: he sees himself as quite the natty dresser.
Picture this: After the 3-2 game, Schembri, his longish brown hair streaked very blond, sporting a really wide, blue and black striped iridescent tie and his now-trademark tan corduroy three-quarter length coat with a faux fur collar, dark brown. I mention the eye-popping tie.
“Wanna touch it?” asks the freshman, in a tone completely devoid of double entendre.
He shoots, he scores, he styles. WOSU play-by-play man Neil Sika calls Schembri “Kid Dynamo,” but I really prefer what they called him two weeks ago in Yost.