This Week in the CCHA: March 11, 2004

Same As It Ever Was

Congratulations to the Michigan Wolverines, winners of this year’s CCHA regular-season title. Michigan has won outright or shared in eight regular-season titles, including three of the last four.

This isn’t news.

What is news is that the Wolverines had to get a little help from some strange friends south of the border. Do you think Red Berenson has sent John Markell a thank-you note yet?

Michigan looked good for the title going into last weekend’s series with Michigan State – good, but not great. Three points ahead of second-place Miami in the regular-season standings before last weekend’s games, the Wolverines needed just two points to take the division.

Instead, the Wolverines found themselves waiting for the outcome of Saturday’s Miami-OSU game because Michigan took just one point from the Spartans between Friday and Saturday – a 4-4 tie in Munn and a 1-0 loss in Joe Louis Arena – and the RedHawks had beaten the Buckeyes in Oxford Friday.

Any coach will tell you that a win is a win, a title is a title, but having to depend on another team’s loss to come out on top is no way to end a season. Another way not to end a season is to go 0-3-1 in your last four games, as did Michigan.

“In the last four games, we’ve picked up one point,” said Berenson after Saturday’s game. “You can’t be proud of that.”

Quote of the Week

“I’m a big Ohio State fan right now.” Jeff Tambellini, after the Wolverines lost to the Spartans Saturday.

This Close

While the Wolverines were waiting for news of their fate, the RedHawks were trying to write a story with a happier ending – for Miami.

Midway through the third period of the Miami-OSU game at the Schott in Columbus last Saturday, the Miami bench got word that Michigan had lost. Mike Kompon had just scored his second goal of the third period to even up an intense hockey game, 4-4, and the RedHawks knew that if they took one point, they’d share the league title with Michigan.

A win would make them champs outright.

But the Buckeyes were determined to tell another story, one that featured a season-ending victory – the first for OSU’s senior class – and a storm to rain on Miami’s parade.

“We didn’t want anyone to win a title on our ice,” said OSU senior forward Chris Olsgard. “That was great motivation for us, not to let them win. That was the guiding force for me, personally.”

So, with less than two minutes left in regulation, Olsgard muscled his way into the Miami zone between two defenders and, from behind the goal line, threw the puck at the crease. There it went in off a RedHawk skate, the goal credited to Lee Spector – who had been brought down in the crease, the right wing to Olsgard’s left – and the Buckeyes won, 5-4.

Miami head coach Enrico Blasi immediately protested the goal; he thought it was directed into the net by Spector’s skate. In defeat, though, Blasi was gracious. Carrying his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Sophia, into the press conference, Blasi gave a moving statement.

“We put ourselves in a great position all year long to play for a championship, and that’s where we were tonight. We’re extremely proud of our team. I think we have a gutty team that comes to play regardless of the situation. It’s disappointing, but the way we played in that third period, I just love every single one of those guys.”

The assist for Olsgard was poetic justice; the night before, in Miami’s 4-3 overtime win, it was Olsgard who was in the penalty box when Chris Michael scored the game-winning, power-play goal for the RedHawks.

Overheard in the Tiny Goggin Press Box

“Doesn’t Walt know that if he wins they have to go to Alaska?” This was Friday, and the Wildcats were beating the Bulldogs.

NMU’s reward for winning? A 2,540-mile commute for a best-of-three, first-round CCHA playoff series in Fairbanks.

And the pundit wasn’t even thinking about UAF’s 12-4-0 home record.

Same As It Ever Was, Part 2

The Ann Arbor News reported Monday that the Michigan hockey team “deserved” the regular-season title.

Hmm. I can’t argue with that. The Wolverines seem to find a way to win, season after season, and this eighth title is the most by any school in the conference.

But writer Antoine Pitts took it one step further when he wrote, “The eight league losses were the most ever for a CCHA champion, but who else deserves the title?

“Certainly not Miami, which came into Yost Ice Arena three weekends ago with the CCHA lead and got destroyed.

“And certainly not Michigan State, which had a 7-5-2 league home record, including sweeps by Ohio State and Miami.”

Miami could very well have won the league title Saturday by virtue of Michigan’s one-point weekend against the Spartans and they didn’t, but had they beaten OSU, would they have been any less deserving of a league title than the Wolverines?

Pitts’ logic is based on head-to-head play in Yost Arena, and he has a valid point; the Wolverines were undefeated in league play at home in the 2003-04 season. But Michigan had been swept just the weekend before by Notre Dame – on the road, of course – a team that just squeaked into sixth place.

Does that mean that Notre Dame was somehow a more deserving team this season than Michigan?

There’s no need to justify Michigan’s title. The Wolverines finished the season by the necessary margin – one slim point – ahead of Miami, and so earned the title. There’s no need to trash the RedHawks, who held the top spot in the league for nine long weeks this season.

“Obviously, we would have liked to have won the games, but we’ve earned it,” Michigan associate head coach Mel Pearson told the press after all was said and done.

Earned. Quite different from deserved.

Wrong Again

Yes, I know you’re shocked. Last week I wrote, “I’ve seen the face of the CCHA’s Super Six Tournament twice this season, and he couldn’t skate either time.”

I stand corrected. Joe College does not, in fact, represent the CCHA per se. Joe College is the representative of college hockey at Joe Louis Arena, meaning that he is a marketing tool belonging to Olympia Entertainment and not to the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.

And One More Time

Two weeks ago, I predicted that Notre Dame’s Aaron Gill would be the recipient of this year’s Chris Richards Man-Most-Likely-To-Be-Overlooked Memorial Award, so I was pleasantly surprised that Gill was named to the CCHA All-Conference Second Team.

Imagine my surprise, too, when I realized that I should have given that award to OSU’s Doug Andress. The outstanding senior defenseman made my all-league team, but garnered just an honorable mention for CCHA All-Conference honors.

Oddball Note of the Week

OSU’s Nate Guenin is the first sophomore to be named to the CCHA All-Academic team since former Falcon Brian Holzinger was so honored as a sophomore in 1993.

Holzinger was just traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets from Pittsburgh. All that brainpower in one city is frightening.

Guenin was the only defenseman honored; everyone else named is a forward.

Two weeks ago, I named Guenin to my All-Goon Squad. Every time he’s called for a penalty, I have great confidence in the official’s judgment.

Guenin’s appearance on this list brought this protest from a local Buckeye fan:

“My son Michael, age 4 ½ , knows most of the players and give them five coming on and off the ice. Nate is his favorite player. Last Saturday, Nate gave Michael a framed picture which he personalized for him. This is not something that a ‘goon’ would do.”

Well, apparently it is.

There’s no question that Guenin is a nice guy. Most hockey players are nice guys, which is what makes covering this sport so rewarding.

So, now you know that Nate Guenin is a smart, nice guy who takes way too many penalties – or would, if he were playing. He’s still out indefinitely.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Sure, sure, the NCAA Tournament begins in two weeks and the Frozen Four is just around the corner, but the CCHA playoffs are still fascinating for those of us who aren’t obsessing over the bigger picture, and anyone who’s been following this league this season can argue – persuasively – that the CCHA playoffs and subsequent Super Six tournament is the most compelling hockey to be found for the next 14 days.

A few weeks back, before the final season standings could gel, I picked six teams to head to The Joe. Those six teams, as luck and fate would have it, are hosting first-round playoff series. I still think those six teams go to Detroit, and that each will sweep in the first round.

Of course, I’m often wrong.

No. 1 Michigan (23-11-2, 18-8-2 CCHA) vs. No. 12 Nebraska-Omaha (7-24-5, 5-19-4 CCHA

It’s too easy to dismiss this series. In fact, I can’t resist. Michigan is 13-0-0 at home this year, while UNO is, well, struggling.

The Mavericks lost 9-1 to Minnesota State-Mankato last Saturday, their second-worst loss in program history. In that game, UNO gave up four first-period power-play goals.

Still, UNO head coach Mike Kemp was upbeat when talking to the Omaha World-Herald this week. “We’re in the playoffs now, and we’re at zeroes all the way across the board. The opportunity is there to do something that nobody thinks we can do.”

Zeroes across the board? Only in the sense that two wins advances a team to the Super Six. There are other numbers, however, that are far more revealing, and few of them resemble zero.

Michigan has won its last 14 home first-round playoff series, and just three of those have taken three games to decide. While the Mavericks did upset the Wolverines in 2000 at Joe Louis Arena, Michigan leads this all-time series 10-2-2.

The Wolverines are 1-0-1 against UNO this season, having played two games in Omaha in December. Michigan has the No. 1 offense and No. 3 defense overall in the CCHA to UNO’s No. 11 offense and No. 10 (tie) defense.

Chris Holt (.895 SV%, 3.36 GAA) will start in net for the Mavericks.

To be sure, it will be an exciting weekend for UNO; playoff games in Yost Arena are electric. And every team gets “up” for Michigan. But the Wolverines won’t start losing at home now.

The guy to watch this weekend: sophomore Jeff Tambellini, who will remember what it feels like to score and score again.

Pick: Michigan 4-2, 5-2

No. 2 Miami (20-12-4, 17-8-3 CCHA) vs. No. 11 Lake Superior State (9-18-7, 7-16-5 CCHA)

This interesting series pairs the league’s best power play with the team that takes the fewest penalties.

The Lakers will be no easy opponent for the RedHawks, and that’s not slamming Miami. LSSU plays disciplined hockey, has consistently tough goaltending, and lately has been scoring goals.

Yes, you read that correctly. In the final two games of the weekend, the Lakers scored a total of nine goals. This may not seem earth-shattering to you, but when you consider that LSSU netted just 12 goals in nine games for the month of January, you can get a sense of how this might be a factor this weekend.

Miami will have something to prove after last weekend’s split with OSU, and every aspect of the RedHawk game looks solid. Miami is fast, plays smart defense, has good goaltending from Brandon Crawford-West when needed, and playmakers Mike Kompon (12-30-42), Greg Hogeboom (17-22-37), and Derek Edwardson (17-26-43) will be playing for all the marbles, as this is the last time they can do so.

The guy to watch: Marty Guerin. How can you take your eyes off of him when he’s on the puck? He was the best player on the ice last weekend.

Picks: Miami 3-2, 5-2

No. 3 Michigan State (21-15-2, 17-9-2 CCHA) vs. No. 10 Ferris State (15-18-3, 10-17-1 CCHA)

I do believe in Jim Slater. I really do.

I failed to mention last week that Slater was named the RBC Financial Group CCHA Player of the Month for February. Why? Because I have some sort of weird mental block when it comes to Slater.

Maybe it has something to do with how his teammate, Mike Lalonde, described him to my esteemed colleague Neil Koepke of the Lansing State Journal this week.

“He’s an unreal player. He’s the heart and soul of this team.”

Fittingly, Slater set up the play that led to Lalonde’s game-winning goal Saturday, when the Spartans tried their hardest to ruin the Wolverines’ chances for a regular-season title.

MSU head coach Rick Comley told Koepke that Slater “plays a game of speed. He hits. He gives you all-out effort every single shift.”

But the Spartans are more than the sum of one player who is apparently so good that I can’t wrap my brain around his very existence. Don’t forget the league’s best goaltender, Dominic Vicari (.925 SV%, 2.10 GAA), whose seven shutouts on the season – including Saturday’s 1-0 win over Michigan – lead the nation.

The Bulldogs are 2-6-0 in their last eight games at Munn Arena.

The guy to watch: Mike Lalonde, who leads the Spartans with 21 goals and plays on line with Slater.

Picks: MSU 4-2, 4-2

No. 4 Ohio State (21-15-0, 16-12-0 CCHA) vs. No. 9 Bowling Green (11-16-9, 9-13-6 CCHA)

There’s one thing that could derail the Buckeyes en route to Joe Louis Arena: Jordan Sigalet. The CCHA All-Conference First Team goaltender has a .918 save percentage overall and a 2.72 goals-against average in over 2,000 minutes played this season.

However capable Sigalet has been this season, OSU has put a total of eight goals past him in just over 70 minutes, having beaten Bowling Green 7-0 and 4-3, both games in BG (Sigalet left the second game due to injury after 10-plus minutes). Dave Steckel scored twice, shorthanded, in the second period of the 7-0 contest, and once in less spectacular fashion in the 4-3 game.

Steckel and his classmates are the reason OSU will win this series. The Buckeye senior class is playing a first-round series at Value City Arena for the very first time; last year, OSU hosted UNO at Nationwide Arena because of a scheduling conflict at the Schott. The only other time OSU has hosted at VCA was in 1998-1999, the first year the building was open.

After playing a spoiler at home against Miami last weekend, don’t look for OSU to fold against Bowling Green. The games will be intense and chippy, and this series may go to three games – but I doubt it.

The guy to watch: Scott May. He really, really, really wanted to score last weekend, and the line of May, Andrew Schembri, and Dan Knapp is pure hockey joy.

Picks: OSU 4-2, 5-4

No. 5 Notre Dame (18-12-4, 14-11-3 CCHA) vs. No. 8 Western Michigan (16-16-4, 12-13-3 CCHA)

This is the series most likely to go to three games, in this girl reporter’s opinion. Why? The Broncos haven’t gone without a win in five straight games all season. They’re 0-3-1 in their last four. WMU split with OSU Feb. 20-21, tied and lost to Miami in Oxford Feb. 27-28, and finished the season with a 6-4 home loss to Bowling Green March 4.

(Note to Jim Culhane: Avoid all things Ohio.)

Senior WMU forward Jeff Campbell told the Kalamazoo Gazette, “Losing last week might have been kind of a kick in the but for us. It kind of got guys refocused for this weekend.”

Campbell’s classmate, Paul Davies, said, “It’s all or nothing this week. We have to win to go to The Joe, so guys are pretty positive right now.”

To get to JLA, the Broncos have to beat a hard-working Notre Dame hockey club that doesn’t lose often at home. In fact, the Irish are 12-1-2 at the Joyce Center this season, beloved, old, half-building that it is.

As motivated as the WMU seniors sound, you can bet that ND’s senior class – one of the larger senior classes in the league – will be at least equally motivated.

The guys to watch: Morgan Cey (.927 SV%, 2.15 GAA) and David Brown (.930 SV%, 2.12 GAA). I suspect these two are both playoff goaltenders, and each may see time in net this weekend – and beyond.

“It’s a pretty nice option to have,” Notre Dame head coach Dave Poulin told the South Bend Tribune this week. “I’ve spoken to both of them , and it may take both of them to go where we want to go. We may have to play an awful lot of hockey in a very short period of time.”

Picks: ND 4-3, 4-3

No. 6 Alaska-Fairbanks (16-17-1, 14-13-1 CCHA) vs. No. 7 Northern Michigan (18-14-4, 13-13-2 CCHA)

The Nanooks are hosting a first-round playoff series for the second time in three seasons, and the last time they did so they went to The Joe.

This year should be no different.

Last weekend, the Nanooks did what any CCHA team should do when it wins a cup: they skated around the arena with the Governor’s Cup aloft, and chanted, “We got the Cup,” and, “U-A-F!”

(Miami, OSU, BGSU, NMU, LSSU – are you listening?)

The Nanooks needed a shootout to beat intrastate rival Alaska-Anchorage, and it all came down to walk-on goaltender Keith Bartusch, who allowed two shoot-out goals but then stoned the Seawolves to give UAF the win and the Cup – and a high to end the regular season.

UAF earned its first two wins in program history against NMU this year, Jan. 16-17, 1-0 and 5-2 victories at the Carlson Center. NMU leads this all-time series 13-2-3, but the series is tied 2-2-1 in the last five.

Both teams play home games on Olympic sheets, so for once the Nanooks won’t have that specific edge in a series; but UAF has a senior class that remembers what it was like to go to The Joe, and wants to return.

NMU has a senior goaltender, Craig Kowalski, who is streaky and may be impaired by a groin injury this weekend.

The guy to watch: Aaron Voros. Smart hockey or liability?

Picks: UAF 4-3, 4-1