All’s Well that Ends, Well …
In early December, my dear friend, Tom Reese, was incensed by Al Gore’s endorsement of Howard Dean. Now, Tom, a Democrat, didn’t have a problem with Dean per se, but he was clearly unhappy about the timing of the endorsement — a full 11 months before the presidential election and well before any primaries and caucuses.
“I just hate that they’ve anointed Dean,” bemoaned Tom. “Now it’s over. What’s the point?”
“Tom,” I said, “it isn’t over. In hockey we say, ‘That’s why we play the game.’ There’s plenty of game left to be played.”
How nice of Senator John Kerry and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to remind us of why the game is played.
(Never mind that each also reminds us of the relative insignificance of the media, indelible image of a yelping Dean notwithstanding.)
In case you missed it, Notre Dame swept league-leading Michigan last weekend, for the first time ever, and that has made the final weekend of regular-season play that much sweeter for everyone but, well, Michigan.
Notre Dame beat Michigan 4-1 Friday and 5-2 Saturday, and that was just part of the bad news for the Wolverines; in Friday’s 4-1 loss, after giving up three goals, sophomore goaltender Al Montoya left the game with a pulled hamstring.
The injury came on Jason Paige’s first goal of the night for the Irish in Friday’s contest, at 14:35 in the second. Montoya was replaced by backup Noah Ruden. Paige got past Ruden at 4:27 in the third.
Ruden allowed five goals on 16 shots in the 5-2 loss.
Jeff Tambellini gave a supportive and diplomatic response to questions about Ruden after the first loss to Notre Dame. “We have a lot of trust in [Ruden]. He’s been a great backup goalie for us all last year and this year, and when given the chance to play, he’s done well, so we feel as strong as him in [net] as we do with [Montoya].”
Ruden is 1-2-0 in three decisions this season. Montoya is 22-8-1. Montoya will play against Michigan State this weekend. Said Michigan head coach Red Berenson to the Ann Arbor News, “He’s fine. He’s just a little tight. Hamstrings have to be stretched.”
Eyewitness reports from the game locate Montoya’s injury rather closer to the center of his body, but either way, Michigan’s number-one goaltender — and only steady, reliable goaltender — is less than 100 percent going into the playoffs.
Ever hear the one about the eggs, all of them, and that basket?
This sets up not only a great series between Michigan and Michigan State this weekend, but also an equally — if not more so — compelling series between Miami and Ohio State to end the regular season. Michigan looks good in the PairWise Rankings, as does Miami. While OSU has looked better this season, an NCAA tournament invite is the Buckeyes’ to lose.
Michigan State, meanwhile, is on the bubble.
And a team that held on to first place in the CCHA standings for nine straight weeks this season, Miami, has a chance to capture the regular-season title after all.
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish have some impressive wins to their credit this season. The Irish shut out Maine and Boston College, beat Wisconsin, and just swept Michigan for the first time in program history.
In sweeping the Wolverines, the Irish ended their regular season with a 14-game home unbeaten streak (12-0-2), another impressive feat.
But the Irish, tied for fifth place with Alaska-Fairbanks, may wind up on the road in the first round of the CCHA playoffs. Notre Dame needs a win this weekend to secure home ice (the other contender for the last stay-at-home spot is Western Michigan), and the Irish need to travel to Sault Ste. Marie to do it.
Don’t laugh. The Lakers play good hockey. And Notre Dame is 4-9-2 on the road.
Still, Notre Dame head coach Dave Poulin seems unfazed by the task at hand. “After Boston College and Maine, we responded very well both times,” Poulin told my esteemed colleague, Steve Lowe, of the South Bend Tribune. “When you schedule nonconference teams like we have, you put yourself in similar positions throughout the season.”
After beating Boston College, the Irish swept Nebraska-Omaha at home the following weekend, but after beating Maine, the Irish went on to narrowly escape Findlay at home (1-0) the following game and suffered a 5-4 overtime road loss to Bowling Green two games after the Maine victory.
After a weekend in Madison during which the Irish tied and then defeated the Badgers, Notre Dame responded with two losses to Northern Michigan in Marquette. In fact, after the Wisconsin weekend, Notre Dame was 1-4-1 in its six subsequent games.
Poulin told Lowe, “We want to play well and that’s the bottom line. Winning means that we’re playing well right now and that’s what you want at this time of the season.”
The Irish ride a four-game win streak into the Soo.
Games of the Week
Yeah, sure, they’re playing hockey in East Lansing and Detroit this weekend, but what happens in Oxford and Columbus may make this a photo finish.
Miami (19-11-4, 16-7-3 CCHA) vs. Ohio State (20-14-0, 15-11-0 CCHA)
Friday, 7:35 p.m., Goggin Arena, Oxford, Ohio
Saturday, 8:05 p.m., Value City Arena, Columbus, Ohio
Has Miami head coach Enrico Blasi sent the Fighting Irish a thank-you note for last weekend yet? Not likely, given that the RedHawks swept the Irish just a month ago.
There isn’t a team in the league from whom Miami hasn’t drawn at least one point, and after having beaten Ohio State 2-1 and 4-2 in a home-and-home series in early December, the RedHawks have an opportunity for a season sweep this weekend.
But, as usual, Blasi isn’t taking anything for granted, especially in this tight CCHA season. “We know they’re a good hockey team. We know what they’re capable of.”
In seasons past under Blasi, the RedHawks have come out of the gate fast and struggled down the stretch, often after a pivotal midseason series with Ohio State. Not so this year, as Miami has remained strong in the second half, vying still with perennial powerhouses Michigan and Michigan State for the regular-season title.
As he has for the entire season, Blasi credits his senior class for this year’s RedHawk success.
“You have to attribute a lot of it to the seniors. This group finished second [in the league] as freshmen, ninth as sophomores, sixth as juniors. They know how to prepare every day, and they’ve communicated that effectively to the team.”
And that senior class is extraordinary, led by forwards Derek Edwardson (17-26–43), Mike Kompon (10-28–38), and Greg Hogeboom (16-18–34), a trio responsible for more than a third of Miami’s goals.
The RedHawk talent isn’t limited to the senior class; six RedHawks have goals totaling 10 or more, including freshmen Matt Christie (19-10–29) and Marty Guerin (11-18–29) and junior Todd Grant (10-11–29). Miami is loaded up front, and these guys can flat-out fly.
The Buckeyes, another team with a stellar senior class, has an offense that is more evenly distributed among the entire team; in fact, the Buckeyes — by necessity — score by committee. Currently, the line to watch consists of senior Scott May (12-18–30), sophomore Dan Knapp (9-17–26), and freshman Andrew Schembri (11-9–20). Another freshman,
Bryce Anderson (4-6–10) has been productive of late, but will sit out Friday’s game after earning a suspension for checking from behind in a game in Kalamazoo Feb. 21. The league issued the suspension after reviewing a tape of the incident.
The Buckeye bench is further shortened by injury. Sophomore defenseman Nate Guenin and senior forward Daymen Bencharski are out indefinitely with undisclosed injuries. Junior captain, forward J.B. Bittner, is expected to return to play this weekend after sustaining an injury — again undisclosed — Feb. 13.
Both teams play similar styles of hockey, each team with a defense talented enough to aid the offense and not merely defend; each offense, too, plays exceptional defense.
The difference? Maybe in net, maybe not. Miami’s weakest link is its goaltending, but that’s hardly a weakness these days, as Brandon Crawford-West has matured into a solid netminder. OSU’s Mike Betz went through a shaky period in February, but he’s a playoff goaltender, and this is playoff hockey — and after sitting out while David Caruso won three in a row, Betz returned with a vengeance, earning a 5-1 win in Kalamazoo.
Here’s the series by the overall numbers:
RedHawk goaltenders tend to have career games against Ohio State, something that has frustrated Betz for four years. After a 2-1 loss to Miami in early December, Betz summarized the reasons for the Buckeyes’ performance:
“Not preparing all week. Not having the right attitude. Not having the championship attitude. Having guys on the team that won’t hold themselves accountable. Guys that only show up for half of a game. Not taking advantage of a team that might have been a little bit rusty taking a week off.”
It was a memorable moment, but did little to galvanize the team, as OSU lost to Miami the following night.
Picks: These should be two very hard-fought games, but Miami has the advantage in both. Not only are the RedHawks more consistent than are the Buckeyes this season, but OSU is banged up in very significant ways. Expect goal-scorers’ goals, from both teams, and fast-paced, end-to-end action each night. Miami 4-2, 4-3
Wish I’d Said That
Another esteemed colleague and all-around good guy, Rich Larson of the Fairbanks Daily-Miner, wrote this of the Fairbanks-Anchorage rivalry:
“Current Anchorage coach John Hill played for the Seawolves from 1980-84 and watched as the upstart Nanooks turned from punching bag into sparring partners.”
Nice turn of phrase.
He Said That
UAF head coach, Guy Gadowsky, is as articulate as a coach can be, but this more base expression of his desire to win the Governor’s Cup, again from the News-Miner is the quote of the week:
“It’s something I want to scratch and claw to get.”
Helminen to the Rangers
He’s not even a college senior yet, and already he’s a big part of big hockey business.
Michigan junior forward Dwight Helminen and backup goalie Steve Valiquette have been traded by the Edmonton Oilers for Petr Nedved and backup goalie Jussi Markkanen, according to today’s Toronto Globe and Mail. The Oilers also gave up a 2004, second-round draft choice to be named later as part of the deal.
Not a bad measure of value, eh?
Other Odd Musings on the Season
Yet Another Helping of Pi?
I have not seen Matt Shegos officiate one single game this year. I see Steve Piotrowski all the time.
In fact, when I covered UAF at Miami, Piotrowski was the referee. When I went up to BGSU for an OSU game — the last time I would take my 15-year-old Jetta out of my area code, back in November — he was the official of record that night, too.
Perhaps I’ll Try the Cheesecake … Or Not …
Or is that beefcake? There are two media guides this season whose covers are strikingly different from all the rest.
On the cover of Alaska-Fairbanks’ media guide, several players are dressed in Old West attire, posing with guns at a fake building front. Senior goaltender Preston McKay is in the foreground, wearing a duster and some sort of cowboy hat.
Having been raised in Syracuse, New York — as far from the Wild West as you can get — the photo fascinates me. It’s not great art, and it’s not appealing even in a beefcake kind of way, but it’s mesmerizing just the same.
The other media guide that will immediately catch anyone’s attention is Michigan State’s. The photo that graces the cover of that publication has every Spartan in a muscle shirt and jeans, and the guys’ arms are oiled to show off their guns, to use the vernacular.
I blush every time I see the pic. Why? Not because I’m a prude and not because the Spartans are so fine (again with the vernacular), but because the players look so young to me that I’m embarrassed by the way they’re presented, as objects to be admired.
What a drag it is getting old.
I’ve seen the face of the CCHA’s Super Six Tournament twice this season, and he couldn’t skate either time.
They Shoulda Been Contenders
Everyone knows why and how Michigan and Michigan State contend yearly for the CCHA regular-season title. Each team is exceptionally well coached; each team, with its long tradition of excellence, draws exceptional recruits.
Both Michigan and Michigan State have other advantages: big campuses, Big Ten traditions in other sports, outstanding facilities. There’s plenty to draw talent to each of these programs.
But what of Notre Dame and Ohio State? Dave Poulin has proven repeatedly that he can overcome Notre Dame’s biggest handicap — the Joyce Center — to draw exceptional talent. OSU’s recruits in the past four seasons (or more) have been outstanding. Each program attracts NHL-caliber talent; each program is part of a school with an enormous big-time college sports atmosphere. Notre Dame has a reputation for academic excellence, which should be an additional draw. Ohio State sits in the largest CCHA city, another draw (albeit a different one) from that of Notre Dame.
So why isn’t either of these teams threatening Michigan or MSU for the regular-season title? Ever?
Perhaps it’s hard to argue with a 20-win season — the third in a row for the Buckeyes — why can OSU finish no higher than third? Why can Notre Dame possibly travel in the first round of the playoffs?
Notre Dame has long been an enigma to me, and after watching the Buckeyes for nine seasons, I’m not closer to understanding that team than I was at the start.
I can say this: each program should have, by this time, emerged as a genuine contender for the league title.
Who knows? Maybe one of them will surprise me at the Super Six.
This season, I did not receive one misogynistic email. The hate mail I did receive this season, however, was far more venomous than it has ever been in the past, even without the overt references to my gender.
When I write about the email I receive, I don’t do it to solicit positive email messages from readers; I do get a fair number of them all season. I’ve just always seen the email — in fact, the whole column — as an ongoing dialogue between you and me.
I’m always, always stunned when I receive rude email. It never gets old. I cannot believe how many people think that rudeness is an appropriate response to anything I write.
Frankly, I can’t believe how many people get angry. It’s a column. It’s not news. It’s not fact. It’s one girl reporter’s opinion. And it’s sports, not world politics.
I’m also always, always stunned when faced with the reality that I’m part of The Media. Several weeks ago, I left the friendly confines of the press box at the Schott to say hello to an old friends, between periods of one of the MSU-OSU games. The moment I entered the main concourse from the elevator, I was accosted by an OSU fan who saw me before I saw him.
He spouted a series of questions about the Buckeyes, never introducing himself, standing about eight inches from my face, just as the elevator door was closing behind me.
When he stopped — presumably for my answers, but clearly also to draw breath — I was speechless. After taking a moment to recover, I smiled, shook his hand, introduced myself, and said, “I hope you don’t mind, but I’m off to see a friend, and I have only a few minutes.” I sidestepped him and walked away.
Last week I said that Michigan State has the best fans in the CCHA. I took a lot of email flack for that this week, and each objection revolved around the quiet atmosphere of Munn Arena.
Maybe I should have said that MSU has the nicest fans. Or maybe I should just stick to my original assessment; maybe a profanity-less environment does make for the “best” fans.
All depends on your criteria, I guess.
From what I can tell, this is the CCHA’s most dubious award.
The Perani Cup is given to the player who received the most “star” votes during the season. In each game, three stars are awarded to the alleged three best players of the night.
I wouldn’t have a problem with the awarding of stars were consistent, rink to rink. The truth of the matter is that each individual home team’s sports information director has the final say — and veto power — when awarding the three stars of the night.
Disclaimer: In my time spent covering the Buckeyes, I’ve never seen anything untoward in the Perani Cup voting. The Buckeyes’ SID, Leann Parker, is as fair and unbiased as any I’ve met, and the media does vote on the three stars. Often stars are awarded to the losing team, if a specific player’s effort warrants it.
At other rinks, this is not necessarily the case. I’ve see rinks where only the SID decides who gets the stars, rinks where the media is so biased that no one from the opposing team gets a star if the home team wins, and other practices that contribute to the dubious nature of this award.
There is no consistency, no checks and balances.
And, just as in the determination for CCHA Defensive Player of the Week, the “standings” are dominated by goaltenders. Now, I have nothing against goaltenders; in fact, I’m rather fond of them and their interesting “goalie heads.” And, of course, a goalie’s performance is central to a team’s success — but it’s just one reason why a team wins or loses on a given night, usually.
Blueliner of the Week
This award had a good run, and I’ll bring it back next season. Congrats to the winners, and thanks to all of you who provided necessary information. Messages came from all kinds of people, from mothers of players to fans in the stands. Easily my favorite email of the year.