This Week in the CCHA: Feb. 19, 2004

Blueliner of the Week

Ohio State’s Doug Andress, this week’s Blueliner of the Week!

In two wins against Nebraska-Omaha this past weekend, Andress did what he’s been doing for four years — played good, solid, clean hockey, no mistakes. Andress was +1 on the weekend and had an assist, was instrumental in keeping UNO’s impressive power play to just one goal in 11 attempts, and played smart hockey in both games.

Andress appeared in his 150th and 151st career Buckeye games this weekend; through those 151 contests, Andress has exemplified the concept of “stay-at-home-defender.”

Keep those nominations for Blueliner of the Week coming in. Remember, a player must be nominated for his defensive play to receive consideration.

CCHA Light

With four league series and three weeks left in the season, every game is a game of the week.

Bowling Green at Michigan

The Falcons have five regular-season games remaining, and with 19 points in CCHA play, BGSU is just six points behind sixth-place Notre Dame. What does this mean? Even though the Falcons can conceivably finish as in sixth place — or higher — and play the first round of the CCHA playoffs at home, playing the first two of those remaining contests at Yost Arena make that a very difficult goal for BGSU to achieve.

After sweeping Miami last weekend, the Wolverines are where just about everyone thought they’d be all along, first place. They are just one point ahead of the second-place RedHawks, four points ahead of third-place Michigan State, and five points ahead of fourth-place Ohio State, and for any other team in the league that hold on first might seem tenuous, but not for Michigan.

Michigan has six regular-season games remaining for a possible 12 points. Lake Superior State and Northern Michigan are the only other teams in the league with that many games left; the Lakers are nowhere near the Wolverines in the standings, given their battle for last place with Nebraska-Omaha, and NMU can’t challenge for first either.

This series against BGSU is the last regular-season home stand for the Wolverines, and for Michigan, there’s no place like Yost; UM is 15-2-0 at home this season, and just two games away from a perfect home CCHA record, something the Wolverines have never accomplished. Those two home losses came during the College Hockey Showcase against Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The secret to Michigan’s success for the past couple of season has been the team’s ability to peak at the right time. After a so-so first half, the Wolverines returned to CCHA play with a vengeance following the Christmas break. Michigan has lost just one game — to the Nanooks in Fairbanks, Feb. 7 — in this calendar year.

The turnaround for Michigan has a lot to do with the team’s ability to produce even-strength goals, as well as the recent success of several players. Milan Gajic, Dwight Helminen, and T.J. Hensick have finally reached the 10-goal plateau. The Wolverines’ “Price Club Line” — no, I did not name them, and, no, I am not making this up — consisting of Hensick, Gajic, and Brandon Kaleniecki has combined for 18 goals in its 11 games together.

(“Price Club Line?” Because they score in bulk. No, not mine, either.)

Here’s a telling stat for the Wolverines: junior defenseman Eric Werner is tied for the lead in team game-winning goals … with three. Jeff Tambellini, who has taken 120 shots and scored just nine goals this season, is the other guy with three. The Wolverine offense has been scoring by committee, and Tambellini — who hasn’t scored a goal since Nov. 8 — has been struggling the most.

“I’m patient,” head coach Red Berenson told the Ann Arbor News this week. “He’s working hard, he’s getting shots, and he’s getting chances.”

(Prediction: Tambellini will unload on some unsuspecting goaltender in the championship game at the CCHA Super Six, netting a hat trick, earning MVP honors, and providing even more fuel for the Wolverines’ fire as they make their way toward Boston.)

Sophomore Al Montoya is just a step behind legendary Wolverine goaltenders Marty Turco and Steve Shields in the wins department. Montoya earned his 50th career win when Michigan beat Miami 8-5 on Valentine’s Day, the day after Montoya’s 19th birthday. (Again, not making this up.) Through his first 71 games, Montoya is 50-17-4; through his first 70 games as a Wolverine, Turco was 51-14-2. Shields was 51-11-2.

Competition for this powerhouse team comes in the form of the Falcons this weekend, a team that plays respectable hockey in front of hard-working netminder Jordan Sigalet (.920 SV%, 2.60 GAA), who now leads the nation in saves (924). Last weekend, the Falcons took three of four points from Lake Superior State in BG, beating the Lakers 3-2 Friday before skating to a 0-0 tie Saturday.

“It was a hard battle all the way through,” Sigalet said after the tie game. “We’ve done pretty well in the past 10 games, and if we can get points every weekend from here on out, we’ll put ourselves in a pretty good position.”

The goal for the Falcons — as it is for any team near the bottom of the standings — is to get as far away from this week’s opponent as possible. While no home team will be easy competition for travelers during the first round of the CCHA playoffs, no one wants to play in Yost Arena that first week.

That three-point weekend against the Lakers was typical of the Falcons. Bowling Green has taken at least a point from every CCHA opponent this season with the exception of Northern Michigan, Ohio State, and Western Michigan, and BGSU has played just one game against WMU. Against “lower-tier” opponents — LSSU, UNO — Bowling Green can take three points, but against opponents vying for home ice — and that seems to be everyone else in the league — BGSU has fallen short.

Twenty-three of the Falcons’ 31 games this season have been decided by two or fewer goals. BGSU has eight ties, is 3-7-0 in one-goal games, and 3-2-0 in two-goal games. They’re this close, folks, to turning the corner, and once they do, watch out. Just don’t expect it to happen this season, let alone this weekend.

Lake Superior State vs. Northern Michigan

Each team in this series has something worth fighting for, besides the Father Cappo Cup. The Lakers want to fight their way out of last place to improve their first-round CCHA playoff chances; the Wildcats still have a shot at home ice.

Each of these teams has six regular-season games remaining, good enough for a possible 12 points. Each has the potential to surge up the standings or — more likely than not, given the nature of the league this season — secure the spot in which it is sitting.

NMU has remaining schedule that is both favorable and tricky; a home-and-home series against LSSU is no sure thing, and two games in Bowling Green is no picnic, either. Two home games against Ferris State end the season, and that means that all six of the Wildcats’ final games are against teams that have not fared as well as they have this year.

That should mean something, right?

“What is going to be the tale of the tape and the season is how we finish these final games,” NMU head coach Walt Kyle told Mark Johnson of the Mining-Journal this week. Kyle said that the Wildcats are in no position to look past the Lakers to the Falcons or Bulldogs, saying that “every game is important” and adding that NMU is “preparing for the playoffs.”

The Wildcats beat Wayne State twice last weekend, and their last CCHA action was against Western Michigan, a home split that saw NMU winning 3-2 Friday (Feb. 6) before losing 6-2 Saturday.

The Wildcats were led in scoring last weekend by a bunch of guys you haven’t heard much about. Senior Matt Hunter had three goals and two assists in the series, and a pair of defenders — freshman Zach Tarkir and sophomore Geoff Waugh — netted their second goals of the season. Darin Olver had three assists, but you’ve heard of him.

The Lakers took one point from Bowling Green last weekend in BG, losing 3-2 Friday before skating to a 0-0 tie. Pity poor freshman goaltender Jeff Jakaitis, who now has two career shutouts, neither one a win. Jakaitis’s first shutout was also against Bowling Green, also a 0-0 tie, back in November.

(Pity, too, poor Matt Violin, in the doghouse since LSSU’s 8-5 loss to MSU.)

Sophomore defenseman Steve McJannet and freshman forward Jeffrey Rainville had the goals in the loss, each tallying his second of the season.

Said ever-optimistic Laker head coach Frank Anzalone after the tie, “Right now BG has a couple of game-breakers that we don’t have in guys like [D’Arcy] McConvey and [Mark] Wires. Both teams had chances to score.”

Back in December, senior goaltender Craig Kowalski shut out the Lakers on two consecutive nights, both 3-0 games. NMU leads this all-time series 41-22-6, and the Wildcats are 10-3-0 at home this season.

This series should be predictable, with Lake State playing very hard, disciplined hockey, and being completely unable to score.

Oh, and the Cappo Cup? The Wildcats need just one win this weekend to earn that trophy.

Ohio State at Western Michigan

If the other three series weren’t almost as compelling, this would definitely be the series of the week. Four points separate fourth-place Ohio State from seventh-place Western Michigan, and the Broncos have a game in hand on OSU, Notre Dame, Michigan State and Miami, giving WMU plenty of room to move up the standings and vie for home ice.

“I think you will see a playoff atmosphere in this building,” WMU head coach Jim Culhane said. “Everything that happens on ice becomes magnified as teams scrap for points.”

The last action the Broncos saw was in Marquette against Northern Michigan Feb. 6-7. WMU lost the opener 3-2 before rebounding for a 6-2 win the following night. Like many other teams in the CCHA — including this weekend’s opponent — the Broncos are carrying the inconsistency monkey on their collective backs. That split in Marquette followed a home-and-home split with Ferris State. Unlike the Buckeyes, the Broncos seem to be able to put two games together on a regular basis, going on a four-game win streak last month that included sweeps of UAF and UNO.

The Broncos have a balanced scoring attack, led by Vince Bellissimo (11-20–31) and Dana Lattery (12-18–30). Six Broncos have goals in the double digits; WMU is scoring 3.23 goals per game.

As in seasons past, the Broncos are giving up just enough goals to lose — 3.48 per game — but the difference this year is overall team defense. Western is playing nearly break-even hockey, sitting +4 as a team overall and -2 in league play, and Culhane has let it be known to his players that discipline is key to winning games; the Broncos, one of the chippier teams in recent years, are averaging 14.45 penalty minutes per game, fourth in overall play.

The Buckeyes swept Nebraska-Omaha at home last weekend, but few associated with OSU were happy with anything about the games except for the points. In the second contest, OSU was up 4-1 on the strength of three, first-period power-play goals, and managed to hold on for a 4-3 win after allowing two even-strength UNO goals in the second period.

Senior Scott May said after that contest, “I think we’re going to have to play a lot better going down the stretch. They [UNO] are an 11th-place team. We are going to have to pick up our game in all aspects.”

May has certainly picked up his game since being put on a line with freshman Andrew Schembri and sophomore Dan Knapp. The trio is responsible for 11 of OSU’s 15 goals in the Buckeyes’ last four games, with Schembri and Knapp netting five each, May with three, and freshman Bryce Anderson with two.

(Hey, who knew that OSU could score 15 goals in four games?)

With that newfound touch, May leads the Buckeyes in scoring (11-18–29) followed by fellow senior Paul Caponigri (13-15–28). Five Buckeyes have 10 or more goals, with six players having reached the 20-point plateau, including underrated senior defenseman Andress (1-19–20).

Dave Caruso was the goalie of record for last weekend’s games, and while he looked good Friday night, his Saturday contest was shaky. “Dave played a good game,” said head coach John Markell. “Maybe he wasn’t up to … what he was Saturday, but he was there for us when we needed him.”

No word on who will start for OSU Friday night. The Buckeyes are riding a three-game win streak into Lawson, and Caruso has been the goalie of record for all three of those games. Senior Mike Betz, however, should be the workhorse for OSU down the stretch and into the playoffs — and he’s definitely a playoff goaltender.

Ohio State is seriously beaten up. None of the OSU player injuries has been officially disclosed, but sophomore defenseman Nate Guenin went out in the first period against Ferris State Feb. 6, junior forward and captain J.B. Bittner was injured in the first period against UNO Feb. 13, and senior forward Daymen Bencharski has been out for a considerable time.

Western Michigan leads this series 56-51-8 all-time, with a 28-21-4 edge in Lawson, but OSU has won six straight from the Broncos and are 7-1-1 in their last nine games in Kalamazoo. Last season, the Bucks swept the Broncs, 3-2 and 3-2, in Value City Arena, Feb. 7-8. The kicker here is that three of those six OSU goals were scored by players no longer with the team — Miguel Lafleche, RJ Umberger, and Ryan Kessler. Another was netted by Bittner, who may not play this weekend. Dave Steckel and Rod Pelley rounded out the scoring in those games.

For the Broncos, the last five games of the regular season feature Ohio opponents, starting with these games against OSU, then two in Miami next weekend, and a home season finale against Bowling Green, a single game March 4.

Nebraska-Omaha at Michigan State

This series tells the story of two teams rebuilding, but in very, very different ways.

Rick Comley has called this season “disappointing” for the Spartans, and who could blame him? Michigan State is 8-10-0 at home, a once-unthinkable prospect in the perennially sold-out Munn Ice Arena. The Spartans are four points behind their archrivals, the Wolverines, who lead the league and have two games in hand on MSU.

The Spartans have shown themselves capable of delivering some punishing decisions to opponents — a 7-3 win over WMU, 8-0 over FSU, 7-2 over NMU — but have been on the losing end of close series against tough opponents (Miami), and have allowed teams such as Findlay (who beat them) and Lake Superior State (who lost to them but found the net five times) make them look like has-beens.

Last weekend, MSU traveled to Fairbanks, where the Spartans earned a split with the Nanooks — the key word here being “earned.”

“We played well enough to get four points and got two, but we could have come away with none,” Comley told Neil Koepke of the Lansing State Journal.

The Spartans came from behind with two third-period goals to force an overtime Friday — the second goal coming with 15 seconds left in regulation, A.J. Thelen scoring with the extra skater — only to lose when Aaron Voros netted his 12th of the season at 2:59 in OT.

In the second contest, it looked as though the Nanooks would sweep but the Spartans again came back with two third-period goals — this time by Tyler Howells and Ash Goldie, before the 10-minute mark — to take the lead and the game. Howells, a freshman, scored the first of his collegiate career.

Matt Migliaccio (2.74 GAA, .917 SV%) had the win, his first game since his 3-0 shutout over OSU on Jan. 24.

After weathering the trip to Fairbanks, the Spartans must now weather two tough games at home against Nebraska-Omaha. The Mavericks lost twice to OSU on the road last weekend, but showed tenacity in a 4-3 loss Saturday. The Buckeyes jumped to a 4-1 lead after one in that contest, but UNO scored twice in the second to make it close.

Head coach Mike Kemp said that he told his players to play with more discipline after allowing three power-play goals in the first period of that loss. “We had to play within ourselves, play smart, and get back to the basics of the game. I was proud of the way our guys pulled through.”

Neither Chris Holt (3.28 GAA, .899 SV%) nor Kris Tebbs (2.32 GAA, .922 SV%) looked especially sharp in the two games, and Tebbs was positively rattled early by the Buckeyes, who scored at :28 and 1:28 in the opening period.

Andrew Wong (8-10–18) had two assists last weekend, moving him up to second on UNO’s all-time scoring list. Wong (38-76–114 all-time) is behind former Maverick David Brisson (69-75–144).

The best player on the ice last weekend for UNO was freshman forward Scott Parse (10-12–22), who was a threat every time he touched the puck and played a decent two-way game. Parse needs just two more points to tie Brisson for the freshman single-season point record at UNO.

UNO once had the league-leading power play, but the Mavs have dropped to third overall (.199), sixth in conference (.174).

The Spartans are 9-4-0 all-time against the Mavericks. Last season, MSU swept UNO in Munn Arena, 5-2 and 7-0.

Perhaps last weekend’s games were atypical for the Mavericks, who played hard but sloppy for all but a period of hockey. UNO was also brutal with the stick. OSU’s captain J.B. Bittner didn’t hurt himself by himself in the first period, first game last weekend. I saw a slash to his left hand; he spent the rest of the weekend on the sidelines, bandaged.

If MSU is true to form, the Spartans will also play less-than-consistent hockey, but UNO’s defense should be no match for MSU, and the Spartans have a clear edge in net.

UNO tries to snap an eight-game winless streak in East Lansing, but the most I see Mavericks earning is a point, maybe — and that’s a big maybe.

Why I Love Red Berenson

Quoted in the Detroit Free Press this week, discussing the possible effect that Nenad Gajic’s departure from Michigan State earlier this year may have had on his older brother, Wolverine Milan. “His brother was a sophomore, and here we were putting up with this mediocrity.”

Gajic began a nine-game point streak after the midseason break, recording six goals and nine assists. Consider that Gajic is 10-14–24 for the season, and you get the picture.

Berenson also told the Free Press, “I like him as a kid, even in his worst moments.”

Too Good Not to Share

After becoming the agent of his own demise in OSU’s 3-1 win over UNO last week — that is, he was the guy at fault for messing up what would have been his second consecutive shutout — sophomore goaltender and Georgia native Caruso was unsparing in describing the Mavericks’ lone goal as only he could:

“Everybody on this side” — Caruso gestured to his left, which was to the right of the net — “was covered, so I know if I go out there I can pretty much make a good play. I saw Bo [Matt Beaudoin] … the French guy, and I tried to use my butt to shoo it off and do a little chip to Matt, and it was kind of a rolling puck and went straight to the guy.”

The guy in question was UNO’s Parse, who scored.

“Then all I remember is my head hitting the ground and I don’t remember the rest of it.”

After teammate Dan Knapp tried to interpret — “That’s goalie talk for he came out of the net and tried to make a play” — Caruso finished the story of the goal.

“But see, what I should have done is gone straight out after it and rip it up the left wing. That’s what I should have done.”

Caruso, who can skate, came out of the net to the left faceoff dot to play the puck, tripped, and was caught out of position when Parse scored. Just in case you hadn’t gotten that.