This Week in the CCHA: Feb. 3, 2005

We Apparently Don’t Give a Darn about the Whole State of Michigan

Add Indiana to that, while you’re at it.

All three Ohio teams swept conference opponents last week, a feat that is somewhat surprising given that Miami’s two wins were its first two road wins of the season, period.

Miami took two from Ferris State in Ewigleben, Bowling Green swept Notre Dame in home-and-home action, and Ohio State took two from visiting Western Michigan.

For Miami head coach Enrico Blasi, those two road wins were also his 99th and 100th career victories.

“I guess it’s an accomplishment,” said Blasi. “I think all the players who have played for the staff for the past five years deserve the credit.”

The RedHawks have played this entire season with injuries and illnesses, and last weekend was no exception. Starting goaltender Brandon Crawford-West was out because of a lingering virus, giving freshman Charlie Effinger the chance to post back-to-back wins, earning him CCHA Rookie of the Week honors.

Blasi said that Crawford-West “may be back” for the weekend, but he said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if Effinger started Friday. “We feel comfortable putting Charlie in there. I think it’s day-to-day.”

Freshmen forward Nino Musitelli and senior defenseman Joe Pomaranski are among the wounded. Musitelli is out with a shoulder injury for the rest of the season. Pomaranski is out indefinitely, and junior defenseman Stephen Dennis may return to the lineup this week after being injured.

“We haven’t been healthy,” said Blasi, “but we’re finally understanding that this is our team.”

Only a handful of players — Andy Greene, Nathan Davis, Mitch Ganzak, Taylor Hustead, Ryan Jones, and Chris Busby — have suited up for all 28 games so far this season.

That kind of lack of roster continuity has made for a long and difficult season of adjustment for the RedHawks, and a road sweep was just what the doctor ordered for the long-suffering squad.

“I think right now we’re like a lot of other teams, we’re looking for something to hang our hat on,” said Blasi. “That was a big win for us Friday.”

Miami is tied with three other teams for sixth place in the CCHA standings, each team with 17 points, three points behind fifth-place Bowling Green. While a lot of movement in the ranks is possible and everyone wants home ice for the first round of the playoffs, Blasi said that the RedHawks are “just thinking about Western Michigan.”

Miami travels to Kalamazoo for the final two regular-season meetings between these clustermates, and Blasi said that the Bronco offense is a more immediate concern than where the RedHawks will be playing in March. “Obviously, they’re very explosive offensively. We have to make sure we take care of things in our own end.”

As good as it is in goal for the RedHawks right now — Crawford-West and Effinger have a combined save percentage of .907 — the key to Miami’s success is clearly on the front end, and when sophomore forward Marty Guerin is cooking, so are the RedHawks. Of Guerin’s 22 total points this season, 20 have come in Miami’s 11 wins, and the ‘Hawks are 8-0-0 when Guerin has a multi-point game.

Up I-75 a bit and a little north in the CCHA standings, Bowling Green continues to vie for home ice, having posted a 4-2-0 record in the month of January. Senior goaltender Jordan Sigalet was in net for all six games in January, posting a 2.18 goals-against average and .930 save percentage for the month.

Senior Ryan Minnabarriet and junior Mike Falk each had four goals during the span, and the Falcon offense is now the fourth-best in the league, averaging 3.29 goals per game.

A little further east, the Buckeyes and the Broncos played an interesting game Friday night, one in which referee Stephen McInchak “let the boys play,” seemingly ignoring the NCAA rules enforcement mandate.

The result was the best evidence yet for the new rules enforcement, a choppy, chippy contest in which the game had very little flow.

“Maybe what you saw a little evidence of was more compared to like last year,” said OSU head coach John Markell after the contest. “There was a lot of in the corner play and man-on-man down low, and it makes it difficult.”

Not only did it make play difficult on the ice, but it was a difficult game to watch. With several players allowed to spend significant time along the boards, not only was the play ungraceful, but the emotions that were allowed to fester led to truly stupid and unnecessary penalties.

Markell was clearly frustrated by the number and kind of penalties his Buckeyes, the most penalized team in the nation, took, especially the 10-minute misconducts Nate Guenin and Matt Waddell took as the final game buzzer sounded. “It adds to our totals. We picked up 24 minutes in two seconds.”

Broncos Pat Dwyer and Vince Bellissimo also had misconducts at the 20-minute mark in the third.

OSU blanked WMU 7-0 the following night, a game that also ended with Guenin and Bellissimo penalized nearly as the buzzer sounded. Each received two-minute, contact-to-the-head penalties at 19:58 in the third.

Speaking of Notre Dame …

… and we were, briefly. The 5-18-5 Fighting Irish have been swept just four times by league opponents this season, something that is rather surprising given their record.

The Irish are 0-8-1 in their last nine games, a streak that dates back to Jan. 7. In the month of January, the number of games the Irish played was more than the total of goals they scored, having registered 11 goals in 12 contests.

Saturday’s 6-2 loss to Bowling Green marked the first time that the Irish mustered two tallies since their last win, a 2-1 decision over visiting Rensselaer in the Joyce Center, Jan. 2.

Not only are the Irish not scoring, averaging just 1.50 goals per game for last in the CCHA, but Notre Dame isn’t shooting, either; the Irish are second-to-last in the conference in shots per game, averaging 28.21. Only the Lakers shoot less.

And only the Lakers, the Nanooks, and the Irish have no players who reached the 10-goal mark for the season.

And Speaking of Road Wins …

… and we were, last weekend the Northern Michigan Wildcats became the first and only team in the CCHA to beat Michigan in Yost this season, snapping the Wolverines’ 22-game regular-season CCHA win streak.

NMU goaltender Tuomas Tarkki had 27 stops to Wolverine Al Montoya’s 13, and Darin Olver, Pat Murphy, Mike Santorelli, and Pat Bateman had the goals in the 4-1 win in which the Wildcats took a 2-1 lead after the first.

“I think it’s always important [to get the early lead], especially on these guys — they are real dangerous,” said NMU head coach Walt Kyle, whose Wildcats apparently fulfilled their published promise from early that week to play their derrieres off in Ann Arbor.

“This is a tough environment to play in,” said Kyle. “We haven’t had any success here in the last couple of years and it was important for our guys to feel like they could get something done.”

The win was Kyle’s first in Yost Ice Arena as NMU head coach.

In the Mix

It’s difficult to say what’s more surprising about the four teams tied for sixth place, the presence of the Spartans or that of the Lakers.

While the Spartans had their traditionally slow start to the season and are fighting to avoid traveling for the first round of the CCHA playoffs since the 1990-91 season, the Lakers are trying to stay home for the first round since 1999-2000, when eighth seed Bowling Green upset third seed LSSU in two games in Sault Ste. Marie.

“We’re right where we’re probably should be,” said Laker head coach Frank Anzalone. “Now we have to make hay against some good teams.”

Weeks ago, I reported that two players, Barnabas Birkeland and Mark Adamek, had been reinstated to the Laker team, something that contradicted stories from other news agencies, but Anzalone said that both players have, indeed, returned.

Birkeland may be making his first appearance in a long, long time this weekend. In addition to having served a suspension, Birkeland injured his wrist early in the season and now may be recovered enough from knee surgery to play against Ohio State this weekend.

“Birkeland got hurt two days after he started practicing” following his reinstatement, said Anzalone.

The beleaguered Lakers have done admirably in a season that — like that of Miami — has season little to no roster continuity. In addition to the terrific play of Jeff Jakaitis (.923 SV%), who has shouldered the load in net because of Matt Violin’s midseason injury, Anzalone points to the Lakers’ “ability to play defense” as a reason LSSU, one of the lowest-scoring teams in the conference, is in the home ice hunt.

“We’re just thankful that we have Steve McJannett and Alex Dunn who were able to go back on defense,” said Anzalone, “and Justin Gutwald, the guy from the Sioux Indians. He was a walk on, and none of these guys has hurt the team.”

Anzalone is concerned not only with OSU’s potentially explosive offense, but the perception — actually, the misconception — that the Buckeyes are a big, physical team. OSU has a couple of players who are big — Guenin and Sean Collins come to mind — but the Buckeyes are physical without being overly big.

Unfortunately for LSSU, physical is not a style of play the Lakers like. “If we beat these guys this weekend, even just one game, that’s news,” said Anzalone. “It’s an opportunity to see if we’ve grown a little bit more. We’ll prepare for them, but we’ll prepare to play good.”

Anzalone’s trademark realism sums up his team’s chances better than anything I can say about the hard-working, tenacious Lakers. “We’re a middle-of-the-pack team that’s going to need some luck, some breaks.”

Games of the Week

One team vying for its umpteenth regular-season title. One team trying to secure playoff home ice. Two teams that really, really love each other.

Michigan (20-7-1, 17-3-0 CCHA) vs. Michigan State (13-11-2, 8-9-1 CCHA)
Friday, 7:35 p.m., Yost Arena, Ann Arbor, Mich.
Saturday, 7:35 p.m., Joe Louis Arena, Detroit, Mich.

“There’s no time off now.” This is how Spartan captain Jim Slater described Michigan State’s predicament to my esteemed colleague Neil Koepke of the Lansing State Journal.

Would that the Spartans hadn’t taken any time off, so to speak, earlier in the season.

For the past decade or so, nearly every regular-season meeting between the Spartans and Wolverines had first-place implications, with each team vying for the top spot in the CCHA standings. While first place is certainly something at stake in these final regular-season meetings between Michigan and MSU, only Michigan is looking to capture the title, and the Spartans are hoping to stay at home for the first round of the CCHA playoffs.

Given that the scenario is somewhat different from that of recent years, Michigan head coach Red Berenson said that these are still “huge games.”

“They’re big for our fans, they’re big for the in-state rivalry, recruiting, bragging rights. The one thing you hate to lose to the most is your archrival. I think the rivalry speaks for itself.

“We’re on our agenda. We’re in a race for first place … but they have an agenda of their own, one which is perhaps more desperate than ours.”

Thanks to a split at home with third-place Northern Michigan last weekend, the Wolverines are just three points ahead of second-place Ohio State in the league standings, and there is a possibility — remote though it seems — that the Buckeyes can catch the Wolverines. Third-place NMU has a longer shot, nine points behind Michigan, but Berenson doesn’t discount the possibility and will have his Wolverines working hard to maintain first place.

“When we put down our goals,” said Berenson, “one of our goals is to finish first in our league, one is to take the conference tournament, another is to get into the NCAA tournament and so on.”

When a team annually ends its season in the NCAA tournament for more than a decade running, that team can take for granted that the national tournament is an attainable goal, but Berenson said that without a good regular season, the national tournament would be a moot point.

“I’ve said a long time ago that if you don’t do well in the league then you’re not going to do well in the NCAA tournament. We expect to get into the tournament every year, but we can’t do that without doing well in the CCHA.”

This year’s Spartans, frequent NCAA tourney attendees themselves, will struggle just to make it to Joe Louis Arena, something not lost on Slater. “We have three tough weeks coming up and there’s still a lot we can accomplish,” Slater told the State Journal. “There’s 10 games left, then the playoffs. There’s a long way to go.”

Sitting 17th in the PairWise Rankings — tied with Maine and Vermont, but with favorable tiebreakers — the Spartans are still a team under consideration for the tournament, not only a team that has a chance at a berth if its fortunes improve, but a team that makes them a target for other folks who may be going to the Big Show, most notably Michigan and Ohio State, the latter being a bubble team that may need to sweep MSU to earn an invitation to the NCAA tournament.

Last week, MSU did itself no favors but did no actual harm in losing to the U.S. Under-18 Team, 4-3. MSU head coach Rick Comley told the State Journal that the win was “tremendous” for the Under-18 team, but for the Spartans was “a tough game to play and a horrible time to play a game that didn’t count.”

By now, everyone knows that the Spartans struggled offensively to start their season, but since beating Michigan for the Great Lakes Invitational title in December, MSU has come alive, outshooting opponents in eight of the last nine games — if you don’t count last week’s exhibition game.

All that shooting has led to two four-goal games and one eight-goal contest during that span. Four Spartans — Colton Fretter (14-15–29), Jim Slater (11-17–28), Drew Miller (12-8–20), and Ash Goldie (10-6–16) — have now tallied 10 or more goals, something that looked unlikely just eight weeks ago.

The Spartans are going to need every bit of firepower they can muster if they are to take points from the Wolverines this weekend. Michigan had one of the most explosive offenses in the country, and while the Wolverines have shown in recent weeks that they are vulnerable — especially on the shaky penalty kill — Michigan will be ready for these contests.

Here are some numbers for your consideration:

• Goals per game: UM 4.14 (first); MSU 3.04 (sixth)
• Goals allowed per game: UM 2.64 (fourth); MSU 2.38 (third)
• Power play: UM 19.5 % (fourth); MSU 16.8% (seventh)
• Penalty kill: UM 82.5% (seventh); MSU 84.7% (fourth)
• Top scorer: UM T.J. Hensick (16-20–36); MSU Colton Fretter (14-15–29)
• Top ‘tender: UM Al Montoya (2.73 GAA, .894 SV%); MSU Dominic Vicari (2.18 GAA, .922 SV%)

In addition to Hensick, who was held to just one point, an assist, by Northern Michigan last weekend, four other Wolverines have goal totals in the double digits: Jeff Tambellini (13-19–32), Milan Gajic (14-16–30), Chad Kolarik (10-11–21), Brandon Kaleniecki (10-5–15).

The Spartans did beat a shortened Wolverines bench for that GLI title in December, but Michigan swept MSU, 4-2 and 5-2, in November. Twenty-six of the last 27 meetings between these teams have been decided by two or few goals, and that total includes five ties.

And every time I think that someone has an edge in net when playing Michigan, Al Montoya proves me wrong.

Picks: It would be an extraordinary event for the Wolverines to sweep the Spartans in all four regular-season games, but I wouldn’t bet against it. Michigan has some injuries, but you have to go back to the Buffalo Bills teams of the early 1990s for a team that circles the wagons like this Michigan squad. Michigan 3-1, 3-1

And Why Not?

The Wolverines have not finished below second place in the CCHA since before the 1990-91 season, and Michigan is poised to make its 15th consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament.

And yet head coach Red Berenson doesn’t even seem to be on the radar for the Spencer Penrose Award.

Apparently, consistently maintaining excellence — setting the standard by which all other CCHA programs are measured — isn’t enough for consideration for national coach of the year.

Given that Berenson has won that honor in the league just once, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised.

And That’s What I’m Talking About

Forwarded to me by two Wolverine fans, a chant they heard in Yost Arena last weekend:

Hey Tarkki! You’re not a Tarkki, you’re a pheasant! You’re not a pheasant, you’re a duck! You’re not a duck, you’re a chicken! You’re not a chicken — you just cluck! You just cluck! You just cluck!


Fielding the Frozen Four

This week, the Detroit News reported that the CCHA is considering submitting a proposal to the NCAA to host the Frozen Four in 2010 or 2011 in Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions and site of next year’s Super Bowl.

CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos said that the talks with Ford Field are “very, very preliminary,” and that nothing has really been set.

Last year, the league made a presentation with Joe Louis Arena the specified venue, but Anastos said that playing in NHL arenas poses real problems.

“What Boston was required to do [in 2004] was equip their building to accommodate both things [college hockey and the NHL],” said Anastos. “The NCAA wants a clean sheet of ice. They don’t want pro markings, they don’t want in-ice advertising. They don’t want any of that. They grandfathered both Buffalo and Boston.

“Under the new rules, when the NCAA went through the Frozen Four bidding process … they’re no longer permitting that. That makes it very, very difficult, for certain NHL venues to be able to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to shut this building down for virtually a week, during the Stanley Cup playoffs.’

“That wasn’t something very interesting to Joe Louis Arena because they’re obviously very interested in the Stanley Cup playoffs.”

Ford Field seats 65,000 for football, so obviously record-breaking revenue would be a possibility. The stadium would have to be fitted much as Spartan Stadium was for the Cold War Game (Oct. 6, 2001), and that’s something of a challenge, said Anastos.

“This isn’t a one-shot, one-game deal. This is an event that transpires over the course of a few days.”

Anastos said he’s been kicking the idea around for at least a year. “We’re always thinking of new ways to bring more visibility to our sport.”

Speaking of Tournaments …

… and we were, this is the last year of the CCHA’s contract to hold the Super Six in Joe Louis Arena.

“This is a bid process,” said Anastos, “and we’re reviewing proposals.”

The five contenders are Joe Louis Arena (Detroit), Nationwide Arena (Columbus), Van Andel Arena (Grand Rapids), the Qwest Center (Omaha), and the Allen County War Memorial (Fort Wayne).

“We don’t have a timeline, per se,” said Anastos, “but we’re getting down to hopefully the end of the process.” Anastos said the winning bid should be announced in the next few weeks.

For purely selfish reasons, I’m rooting for Nationwide Arena. I also like Nationwide’s NHL connection, and the Arena District is gorgeous — and Columbus is a very family-friendly city.

I’ve never been to the Allen County War Memorial, home of the Fort Wayne Komets (UHL), so I can’t comment on that. I’ve heard great things about the Qwest Center, but everyone would have to fly to Omaha, and that’s a consideration.

Van Andel is a beautiful arena and personally I love the city of Grand Rapids. It’s easy to reach for most CCHA fans, and given how the event has drawn in recent years, perhaps the smaller venue is a good consideration.

Detroit is also centrally located — if anything is centrally located in this league — but there is little for folks to do in downtown Detroit (other than eat, drink, and gamble), and the facility is no fun for the press.

I would be surprised, however, if the league goes with a venue other than JLA.

And, Speaking of Arenas …

… and we were, my apologies to every living soul in Omaha for referring to the Omaha Civic Auditorium as the Omaha Civic Center.

After all, “center” implies so much more than does “auditorium,” and I regret having contributed to these already semantically challenged times.