This Week in the CCHA: Jan. 27, 2005

Weaker Than Thou

This week, the Wayne State Warriors travel to Omaha to take on the Mavericks for the last game in the race for the Commissioners’ Cup.


Well, if you’re an ECACHL fan, the Commissioners’ Cup is another reason to be happy about this season, because your league leads all comers with 12 points, thereby having already locked up the prize.

Hockey East is in second with eight points, the CCHA is tied with the WCHA and the CHA with six points, and the AHA brings up the rear with two.

When I talked to CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos about the Commissioners’ Cup in December, he said that the league’s commissioners wanted to “create excitement” among the fans, but even though this last Commissioners’ Cup game brings CCHA coaching alum Bill Wilkinson to Omaha, there really isn’t much to be excited about from where this league’s fans sit.

Well, the game is being played in the Bullpen, the Omaha Civic Center, and that is exciting if you’re a Mavs fan.

The truth is that this season, CCHA fans have little about which to be excited, and nonconference play is just one indicator of a season that can flatly be called mediocre.

Okay, so maybe “mediocre” is too nice.

This year, the CCHA is 35-33-10 against nonleague opponents, with stunning wins, defining moments, and outright disappointments. Notre Dame beat Boston College — once, but it counts. Four teams — Lake Superior State, Miami, Northern Michigan, and Ohio State — share the honor of not being able to beat their collective ECACHL opponents, with a combined 0-7-2 against that league.

And those four teams have something else in common: each may be excluded from the NCAA tournament.

One year after a league-best five teams were invited to the NCAA tournament, the CCHA faces the prospect of sending just one team to the Big Dance this year. That team, of course, is Michigan, the only team that’s relatively certain to go, should the Wolverines not implode in the home stretch.

Should the season end today, the PairWise Rankings indicate that Michigan and NMU would get bids, as the Wolverines are fifth and the Wildcats are tied for 13th. Ohio State, a team that is ranked in the top 10 and in second place in the league standings, is tied for 15th and would be out because of conference tournament autobids.

Of course, Maine wouldn’t make it either, but the reasons behind both teams being left out should the season end today are for another column.

At the end of last season, two points separated regular-season champion Michigan from third-place Michigan State, and the title came down to the last possible moment, the last regular-season match between Ohio State and Miami. A mere seven points stood between Michigan and fifth-place Notre Dame at the end of 2003-04.

This year, Michigan is five points ahead of second-place OSU, and the Wolverines are nine points ahead of the third-place Wildcats. Does anyone really believe that someone other than Michigan will capture the league crown?

One year after an exciting season with genuine parity within the league, the CCHA is rerunning seasons past, a two-team show that echoes the years when Michigan and Michigan State dominated the top “tier,” and everyone else chased. Filling in for MSU this year is OSU, but the story is the same.

Why is this happening? Everything from recruitment to styles of play can be blamed. For years, few teams could compete with MSU and Michigan for recruits; those two Big Ten schools had the financial resources and winning traditions to make for a very uneven playing field when it came to recruits.

Now Ohio State can be added to that list. Although the Buckeyes are far behind the Wolverines and Spartans in terms of hockey histories, OSU has gone a long way to commit to its hockey program, as evidenced by Value City Arena, NCAA tourney appearances, and last year’s Mason Cup.

Of course, that only addresses what’s going on in-house, and CCHA fans have known that for years. It’s what makes the league interesting and exciting, the way Ferris State rose to the top two years ago, the way the Nanooks remain competitive while so far away from the rest, the rejuvenation of the Bowling Green and Lake Superior State programs.

It’s what happens in nonconference play that defies description. Michigan loses both College Hockey Showcase games. OSU loses to Clarkson and ties the Golden Knights just weeks before tying Colorado College. Only a few league players — Brent Walton, T.J. Hensick, Tuomas Tarkki, Bill Thomas — measure up statistically to their counterparts nationwide.

And what has happened in the NCAA tournament in the past few seasons has been no accident.

The official line among all the CCHA coaches is that there is tremendous parity in the league, that any team can beat any other on any given night, that winning this league’s championship means something.

But how many coaches talked about the upcoming NCAA tournament before the season even began, at the league’s media day? And how many Buckeye fans will be rooting for Michigan this weekend?

Friends of mine who teach in public schools in Ohio complain about being able to teach only what’s on the state’s proficiency exams, and how that leaves their students ill prepared for the next level of education they encounter. Could that be what’s happening in the CCHA? There seems to be a paradox in this league, one half of which is the focus on the league’s alleged parity, the other half the drive from the season’s first drop of the puck to go to the NCAA tournament.

I can’t explain how the thinking about each seems to negate success for both sides of this equation. It’s a forest-for-the-trees kind of thing. I think. The level of competition within the league is allegedly tough, yet the conference performs modestly in nonleague games. And yet many teams seem to see the season only as a means to an end, the NCAA tournament.

Maybe it’s just a sign, as the sport grows, of the thinking within the college hockey community becoming more in tune with that in football and basketball. I don’t know.

But hey, at least Bowling Green beat Union twice, and the league is 5-0-0 against the AHA.

Bitter? I’m Not Bitter

Last week’s games between Michigan and Ohio State were sold out, although the attendance at each was less than the capacity 17,500.

Friday’s game drew 14,777 and Saturday’s 12,391, and those were actual bodies in the building, ticket drops. Friday’s 4-1 win should have inspired more fans to attend Saturday, but the threat of snow — it doesn’t have to be actual snow in Columbus — was enough to scare off the crowds.

The games themselves were interesting, although disappointing in many ways. I was hoping to see two close contests between two top-10 teams. Instead, I saw OSU control Friday’s game, scoring four power-play goals, and Michigan explode for five unanswered goals in the second period of their 6-3 Saturday win.

I was impressed with OSU’s poise Friday night, the Buckeyes’ patience in playing with the lead.

I was impressed with Eric Nystrom all weekend. He and his Wolverines did not have their best game Friday, and the Michigan captain himself came out after that contest and did not pass the buck, so to speak.

“We’ve been working on blocking shots in practice, and we have video and we know what they’re going to do on the power play, we’re just not executing the PK. That’s partially my fault,” said Nystrom. “I’m supposed to be the guy who goes out there and sets the tone on the penalty kill. When I’m out there for two goals against, it’s setting a bad example.”

On Saturday night, Nystrom and the Michigan PK blocked plenty of shots, showing how a top team responds to a weak performance. Also impressive in Saturday’s game was Andrew Ebbett, who redeemed himself for his Friday play.

Al Montoya looked good both nights. You can’t fault a guy for four power-play goals when the unit in front of him just didn’t do the job.

And finally the Buckeyes impressed me with their three-goal third period Saturday. Michigan opened the scoring for that game with two goals 16 seconds apart, Chad Kolarik’s power-play goal at 4:59 in the second, and Jeff Tambellini’s breakaway at 5:15. OSU netminder Dave Caruso didn’t have much of a chance on either. The Wolverines then rolled for three more, and that should have been it.

But it wasn’t. The Buckeyes responded with three goals within eight minutes to make a game of it. And freshman OSU goaltender Ian Keserich looked good in that third period, blocking all 11 shots.

Still, two close, playoff-style games would have been nice.

Perhaps the most interesting play of that series, though, was T.J. Hensick’s empty-net goal, with 12 seconds left in the game. OSU pulled Keserich with 2:30 left and the Buckeyes kept the Wolverines from scoring that empty-netter until Nystrom lobbed the puck the length of the ice from the right circle in the Michigan end.

The puck was dead-on to the OSU empty net. It would have made it all the way in, without any help whatsoever from Hensick, who touched it at the last second before it crossed the goal line, denying his team captain — the player who took it like a man the night before and responded with a man’s performance — a sure goal.

But maybe the sophomore just wasn’t thinking. I hope that’s what it was.

The goal was Hensick’s 16th, tying him with WMU’s Walton and OSU’s Rod Pelley for first among CCHA goal scorers.

Welcome Back, David Booth

What do you do after you get sick, miss a couple of weeks, and lose 22 pounds? How about score two goals in your team’s 8-0 blanking against Lake Superior State, and add a goal and an assist the following night in a 2-2 tie?

Last week, as the Spartans were preparing to host the Lakers, the official word about Booth was that the junior was day-to-day. He hadn’t even practiced until the Wednesday before the games.

Booth told the State News that his “emotions ran high” in the series against LSSU, and that’s what fueled him for the weekend.

Bryan Lerg had a hat trick for the Spartans in the shutout, a game in which the Spartans outshot the Lakers 40-18.

It was the second time in two weeks that LSSU had been shut out.

A Shortened Bench Way North

The Lakers travel to Fairbanks this weekend, where a shortened Nanook bench will be just another factor to a series that pits two teams within striking distance of home ice.

The Fairbanks News-Miner reported this week that freshman center Ryan McLeod is suspended for violation of team rules, and that senior defenseman Cramer Hickey is out until the end of February with a knee injury.

McLeod (7-4–11) is fourth in team scoring for UAF. Head coach Tavis MacMillan told the News-Miner. “He’s a big part of our program, and he’s a good kid and a great student, but he’s paying the piper right now. I can’t wait to get Ryan back in the lineup.”

The Nanooks and Lakers each have 15 points in league standings and are tied for seventh place. Each trails Bowling Green by one point and Michigan State by two.

UAF is playing well at home with a 5-2-1 record in the Carlson Center, but have to travel to Northern Michigan and Nebraska-Omaha for key series before the season’s over.

The Lakers have two games in hand on the Nanooks and travel for seven of their final 12 regular-season contests.

Games of the Week

This should be an it-doesn’t-get-any-better-than-this series, but will it?

Northern Michigan (12-7-5, 10-5-3 CCHA) at Michigan (19-6-1, 16-2-0 CCHA)
Friday and Saturday, 7:35 p.m., Yost Arena, Ann Arbor, Mich.

“Well, it doesn’t feel as good as it should feel because of the way we finished the game in the third period. We were shorthanded and we gave up three goals in the third period but it’s not like a total victory, but I think everyone would agree that we played well enough to win that game and not be hanging on at the end.”

That’s how Michigan head coach Red Berenson summed up his team’s 6-3 win over Ohio State last weekend, the game that salvaged a split after the Buckeyes delivered the Wolverines just their second league loss of the year.

When the Wolverines lost to the Buckeyes on Friday night, it was nearly déjà vu all over again. The CCHA’s top team has struggled with ranked opponents this season. In November, Michigan was swept by then-No. 2 Minnesota and then-No. 3 Wisconsin during the annual College Hockey Showcase, and earlier in the season, the then-No. 7 New Hampshire Wildcats disappointed the Yost crowd by tying Michigan 4-4.

Finally, on Saturday night, the Wolverines beat the Buckeyes and it seemed as though the team breathed a collective sigh of relief, and not just because Michigan needed the win to distance itself from second-place OSU.

“We haven’t played well,” said Berenson, whose team is just one win shy of 20 on the season, after Friday’s loss. “We haven’t lived up to our record or our expectations. No question, we did not have a good game tonight. I can’t tell you the games are similar against top opponents because that was a couple of months ago. I can’t tell you that that was a good game by the Michigan team.”

The Wolverines have had a wild ride atop the league standings this year, with a starting goaltender whose save percentage is below .900, a penalty kill that couldn’t stop a train through the first five games in January, a stretch of games without five players absent for the IIHF World Junior tournament, and the need for 12 goals to beat a then-last-place team — Western Michigan — that racked up nine in two games.

Still, the Wolverines are doing a lot that’s right, most of it up front. Michigan has the league’s best offense, bar none, but one that is capable of exploding (ask Ohio State) or imploding (ditto) on any given night.

Leading scorer Hensick (16-19–35) is simply superb with the puck, able to circle a zone and create a play from scratch where none should have existed. Jeff Tambellini (13-19–32) has returned to form after struggling last season, and the team has three other guys with goals in the double-digit range. Milan Gajic (12-15–27) may be the best garbageman in the league since Aniket Dhadphale, and that’s saying something.

This week, the Wolverines are hosting the league’s best defense and the league’s best goaltender. Northern Michigan is 3-0-1 in its last four games, having swept Bowling Green at home 3-1 and 4-2. The Wildcats are allowing just 2.17 goals per game, and Tuomas Tarkki leads the league overall in both goals against (1.79) and save percentage (.940).

It will take all of NMU’s defense to contain the offensive potential of Michigan; it will take a minor miracle for the Wildcats to beat the Wolverines in Yost, where Michigan is defending a 22-game, regular-season, league-play win streak.

And it will take more offense than Northern Michigan has mustered for most of the month of January. Friday’s win was the first game in which the Wildcats had scored more then one goal since Dec. 11. NMU went 1-2-3 during the six games previous to that 3-1 decision, during which the Wildcats had netted just five goals.

The Wildcats are motivated, sitting just four points behind second-place Ohio State in league standings. “I expect us to go down and compete our [butts] off. I expect us to beat a team of that caliber,” refreshingly honest NMU head coach Walt Kyle told the Northern Michigan North Wind this week.

Here are some numbers for your consideration:

• Goals per game: UM 4.31 (first); NMU 2.58 (10th)
• Goals allowed per game: UM 2.65 (fifth); NMU 2.17 (first)
• Power play: UM 19.8 % (third); NMU 14.5% (ninth)
• Penalty kill: UM 81.8% (ninth); NMU 87.9% (second)
• Top scorer: UM T.J. Hensick (16-19–35); NMU Darin Olver (5-17–22)
• Top ‘tender: UM Al Montoya (2.75 GAA, .895 SV%); NMU Tuomas Tarkki (1.79 GAA, .940 SV%)

The old adage that defense wins games may be true 90 percent of the time, but when the Wolverine offense is cooking, defense may be moot. And, besides, Montoya is 5-2-0 all-time against Northern, with a 1.72 GAA and .920 save percentage against the ‘Cats, and he’s 4-0-0 against NMU in Yost.

Maybe the only stat that matters here, all things considered, is the one following the letter “W.”

There is some hope for Northern, which is 8-9-0 in Yost all-time. Those eight wins, of course, were prior to Alvaro Montoya’s tenure.

Picks: In spite of the fact that the Wildcats play on the Olympic sheet, Michigan is the faster team and the skill the Wolverines possess up front is impressive. The key to containing the Wolverines is to get a couple of early goals and then shut them down. If NMU can do this — and with this Wildcat offense, in Yost Arena, that’s a difficult task — then the Wildcats have a chance. Michigan’s defense is vulnerable, but I’m not sure Montoya is. Other than Tarkki, who can be the hero for NMU? How about Jamie Milam, one of the league’s most underrated defensive forwards? Michigan 4-2, 4-2.