This Week in the CCHA: Jan. 29, 2004

Blueliner of the Week

Congratulations to Matt Davis, this week’s Blueliner of the Week. Davis finished +4 on the weekend, as Miami tied Nebraska-Omaha 2-2 before beating the Mavericks 7-1.

Davis was not on the ice for any of the three UNO goals, and was instrumental on a penalty kill that held the league’s best power play — yes, that’s UNO’s power play — to just one goal in 14 attempts.

Davis’s nominator was among several witnesses who said the sophomore defenseman “consistently controlled the space in front of the Miami” cages.

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, February 3. Remember that a defenseman must earn this award for his defensive play.

That would be the reason I didn’t choose Michigan State’s A.J. Thelan, who had a terrific weekend against Ohio State. Thelan, who had two goals and two assists and isn’t even 18 yet fercrissakes, played a solid defensive weekend but was outstanding offensively.

Good thing the league does that Rookie of the Week thing, eh?

The Ms Have It

Miami. Michigan. Michigan State. Mmmmmm … .good hockey.

CCHA fans have been treated to some outstanding hockey lately by the three teams crowding the top of the standings. It’s no surprise to anyone that the Wolverines and Spartans are vying for the top spot in the conference — don’t they do that every year? — but Miami’s staying power is a delightful development.

“We’re focusing on one weekend at a time,” said Miami head coach Enrico Blasi. “I think our leadership has done a nice job of making guys ready to go … not only in weekend games, but in practice [dating back] to October.”

Miami is a textbook example of what a team with talented veteran leadership can and should do. Seniors Derek Edwardson (14-22–36), Mike Kompon (8-22–30), and Greg Hogeboom (13-15–28) are among the league’s six top scorers; Edwardson leads the league in overall and CCHA (13-15–28) play.

So what’s Michigan State’s secret, since the Spartans have just one senior? With a junior like Jim Slater (15-18–33), who’s counting? It doesn’t hurt that the Spartans are coached by Rick Comley, whose mission to improve offense while building on that great tradition of Spartan defense seems to be succeeding.

And it doesn’t hurt to be healthy. “The thing that hovered over us is that we haven’t been able to get healthy,” said Comley, whose Spartans had split six consecutive series before sweeping Ohio State on the road last weekend. “[Tom] Goebel was out, and Adam Nightingale, and now [Dominic] Vicari.

“The game Friday night was the first time we had our full lineup as far as everybody fit and ready to go. [Being sick and injured] stalled us a little bit.”

Vicari (2.11 GAA, .925 SV%) was brilliant against the Buckeyes for 38:55, stopping 30 of 31 OSU shots. With just over a minute to go in the second period, Vicari injured his left leg with traffic in the net, and didn’t play for the rest of the weekend. As of this writing, his status is unknown, but he was skating with the team this week.

And the Wolverines? They have just three seniors on their roster, so the experience factor isn’t the explanation. What they do have on their side is something no one else in the league has — Red Berenson.

In the past 12 years, Berenson has led the Wolverines to nine Frozen Four appearances — this year’s seniors have never not gone to the Frozen Four — and two national titles (1996, 1998). Michigan has qualified for the NCAA tournament the past 13 seasons.

Also in the past 13 years, the Wolverines have never finished lower than second place in the CCHA regular-season standings, have captured seven CCHA regular-season titles, and six CCHA tournament titles.

The Wolverines, in spite of the misperception of a “down” first half of the season, are one game behind their pace of 2002-2003, and have two games in hand on MSU and Miami, four games in hand on UAF, which trails Michigan and MSU by one point in the standings.

Let’s not forget that Michigan is loaded for bear, in front of the “inspired” play of sophomore and gold medal-winning goaltender Al Montoya (2.23 GAA, .914 SV%).

Berenson said that the Wolverines as a team are playing better than they were earlier in the season, “but Al has been solid. I can’t tell you that he’s had to steal a game for us, but he’s what the top four teams have — a reliable goalie.

“I think Al was inspired by playing in the [IIHF World Junior] tournament and he’s brought that inspiration back to his game. At the same time the whole team is playing inspired hockey. So it’s a win-win situation all around.”

Berenson said that Matt Hunwick (0-8–8), also back from the World Juniors, is “back with a real boost of confidence.”

Perhaps the secret to Berenson’s success is his realism. “We’re one of the teams that’s in the hunt [for a CCHA title] … but remember we still have 12 games left,” said Berenson. “We have a long way to go. You know what happens when you have a bad weekend. If we win it, it will be because we deserve it; if we lose it, it will be because we deserve it.”

Blasi said that watching the logjam at the top of the standings is interesting because the three teams vying for the top spot — this week — are in the same cluster. “It’s tough because everyone in our cluster is beating up on each other.”

Well, if “each other” means “Ohio State,” then that statement is pretty accurate.

The Buckeyes have lost six of their last eight CCHA games, two each to Miami, Michigan, and Michigan State. For the season, the Buckeyes are 2-2-0 against MSU, 1-3-0 against Michigan, and 0-2-0 against Miami, against which they end the season with a home-and-home series.

“We feel good about our team,” said head coach John Markell, whose Buckeyes lost 4-2 and 3-0 to MSU at home last weekend. “I watched the tapes from Saturday night and [can’t believe] we couldn’t score goals.”

That, CCHA fans, is the story of OSU’s season. In spite of the youth of the defensive corps, the Buckeyes have the No. 12 defense in the nation, a starting goaltender who goes from good-to-excellent in seconds flat, an aggressive forecheck, a solid penalty kill, and plenty of firepower up front — with next to nothing actually making it into the net.

“We played well this weekend and ended up with two losses,” said Markell. “We’re not playing poorly; we’re just not finishing. There are some little things we can work on … but scoring goals isn’t easy.

“There’s a fine, fine line between having them too nervous and thinking too much and having them play naturally.

“One of the things we think we can improve on is our second forward. Our guys are working very hard … but the guys away from the puck can’t sustain the attack.

“We’re not totally discouraged … but if you pick off a few of these games, you look back at these … and if we had a difference maker, would that help? I assume it would.”

A difference maker, like, say Ryan Kessler, who just won a gold medal after opting out of OSU after his freshman year, or RJ Umberger, who’s stewing in Pittsburgh after foregoing his senior of eligibility, learning exactly what he’s worth to the Vancouver Canucks.

It’s a great season for CCHA hockey, with the excellence of the top three teams, the potential of their fourth clustermate, and teams from places like Alaska and Indiana making noise. Blasi agreed.

“It’s exciting for everybody. I don’t care what people say about the national rankings and stuff like that, but there’s some pretty good hockey in our league.”

This weekend, some of that pretty good hockey will be played in East Lansing.

Games of the Week

Did you think there was any other option?

Miami (14-9-3, 11-5-2 CCHA) at Michigan State (15-12-1, 11-6-1 CCHA)
Friday 7:05 p.m., Saturday 4:05 p.m., Munn Arena, East Lansing, Mich.

The Miami RedHawks extended their unbeaten streak at home to five games with a tie and win against visiting Nebraska-Omaha. “We played hard,” said Blasi. “We played fairly well. Everybody forgets that [UNO] took a point from Michigan, that they beat Massachusetts. They’re a better team than most people know.”

Not only did the aforementioned Matt Davis have a good weekend, but freshman forward Marty Guerin had his first three-point weekend, with a goal and two assists.

The key to this RedHawk team — in addition to the outstanding senior leadership — is the balanced offense and defense. Miami plays a tight defensive game; as a team, in a year when even-strength goals are in short supply, the RedHawks are +33 overall.

Miami’s top five scorers — Edwardson, Kompon, Hogeboom, Matt Christie, and Guerin — have each reached the 20-point plateau; two other players, Todd Grant and Andy Greene, have 11 points each. Only one RedHawk who has seen significant game time, sophomore forward Pat Levendusky, has no points yet this season.

“Seniors are the strength of any team, not juniors,” said MSU head coach Rick Comley, who will pit his lone senior, Joe Markusen, and a good junior class against the more experienced RedHawks this weekend. “They have maybe the best one-two-three punch in our league, if not in all of college hockey.”

The Spartans, with a full roster, swept the Buckeyes last weekend after splitting six straight CCHA series, something that may help spur MSU down the stretch. “We swept Ohio State as opposed to just beating them,” said Comley. “We hadn’t even come close to beating them in the past couple of years.” Friday’s 4-2 win snapped a six-game winless streak against OSU for MSU.

Comley said that through those weekend splits, MSU’s “whole focus [was] to get back.”

“It’s been a disappointing year in a lot of ways,” said Comley, “an underachieving year in some ways.”

Comley said that when the Spartans and RedHawks split earlier in the season, MSU played one bad period of hockey followed by five good ones. In his estimation, that’s just what MSU did last weekend against OSU, a team he describes as similar to this weekend’s opponent.

“They protect their goalie very well. They’re a defensive team, and then there’s that finishing ability. The key to beating Miami to shut down their power play.”

Ideally, added Comley, the key would be to stay out of the box altogether.

Here’s the match by the overall numbers.

  • Goals per game: Miami 3.42 (second), MSU 3.29 (fourth)
  • Goals allowed per game: Miami 2.69 (fifth), MSU 2.46 (fourth)
  • Power play: Miami 2.24% (first), MSU 18.4% (fourth)
  • Penalty kill: Miami 83.0% (seventh), MSU 78.4% (ninth)
  • Top scorer: Miami Derek Edwardson (14-22–36), MSU Jim Slater (15-18–33)
  • Top goal scorer: Miami Matt Christie (16), MSU Slater (15)
  • Top ‘tender: Miami Brandon Crawford-West (.893 SV%), MSU Dominic Vicari (.925 SV%)

    Given that Vicari’s status is day-to-day, Miami may have to face Matt Migliaccio (2.79 GAA, .913 SV%), a more than competent backup. After receiving a little help from the crossbar toward the end of last Friday’s 4-2 win, Migliaccio said, “Dave Steckel is a great player. That crossbar was music to a goalie’s ears. I was doing everything I could do to distract him — waving my arms and everything.”

    So he’s got a good sense of humor, too.

    For Miami, the young goaltender, Crawford-West, has been the weakest link — and I use that term with caution — on an otherwise completely solid team, but Comley noted that the RedHawks don’t give up much. “You can’t score if you can’t get to [the goal].”

    Blasi, a Buffalo Bills fan and therefore acquainted with suffering, is happy to see his team’s senior class come to fruition, especially after the injuries that have plagued the RedHawks for years.

    “The one thing we’re trying to do — players, coaches, all of us — is to do something positive, whether it’s on the ice, in practice, or otherwise,” said Blasi. He added, “Our ultimate goal is to be playing our best hockey come March.”

    But it had better be pretty darned good this weekend, too.

    Picks: Everything in me wants to pick Miami for at least a game. Everything. I make no secret of liking having a soft spot in my heart for the three teams that play in Ohio, although I’m pretty fond of the Spartans, too. Something in me, after having seen MSU play last weekend, tells me that even though Miami has a killer power play, the ability to finish, and a nearly impenetrable defense, the Spartans will put together another set of back-to-back wins, just like old times. MSU 3-2, 3-2

    Yer Outta Here — For One Game, Anyway

    Michigan freshman Mike Brown and junior Mike Woodward received game disqualifications for fighting at the end of Saturday’s game against Western Michigan.

    The fight apparently capped a fun-filled series. WMU freshman Kyle Bushee and junior Mat Ponto were also DQed.

    Brown and Woodward will miss Michigan’s game against LSSU Friday; Bushee and Ponto will miss WMU’s game against FSU the same night.