The 2004 World Series Champion Boston Red Sox opened their training camp Thursday. I just like seeing that in print.
One point behind Michigan in the CCHA standings and with an overall record identical to that of the Wolverines, the Ohio State Buckeyes can finish no lower than second place at the end of the regular season, something that amazes longtime observers.
The Buckeyes have not finished as high as second in the final CCHA standings since 1984, when they tied for second. They did that in 1983 as well.
The strength of this OSU team is its balance, but what really sets it apart in the second half of the season — the Buckeyes are 10-2-0 since Christmas — is the play of its special teams. Ohio State is first in the league in both power play (.234) and penalty killing (.878); OSU’s power play is fifth in the nation, the PK third.
The Buckeyes do lead the league and the nation in penalty minutes per game (25.8) — although both Alabama-Huntsville (25.5) and Mercyhurst (24.6) have flirted with that distinction — so perhaps it’s a good thing that OSU knows what to do when either up or down a man.
Last weekend against Bowling Green, the Buckeyes killed four five-on-three Falcon advantages, three of them on Saturday, and none of insignificant duration. “We get a lot of practice,” quipped head coach John Markell, after being asked how his team accomplished that feat. “I’m not saying we didn’t deserve it.”
Markell, who is perplexed by the number of minutes his team has amassed, accurately pointed out that on any given night, the team OSU plays racks up the minutes as well. “The team we’re playing that night is highly penalized, too. If both teams are called in given games … I don’t know.”
On the positive side of things, the Buckeye power play is a thing of beauty, with players moving their feet, cycling when they can, moving the puck, Rod Pelley at the right point, and Matt Beaudoin with a team- and league-best 12 power-play tallies.
During their current six-game win streak, the Buckeyes have converted power plays at a rate of 37.5 percent. It isn’t all Beaudoin and Pelley; both Kyle Hood and Andrew Schembri have been playmakers with the man-advantage during the streak.
Third Time Not the Charm
In games Feb. 3 and Feb. 11, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish scored three goals. That’s six goals in two games, and significant not only because these were consecutive games, but because the Feb. 3 contest was the first time since Dec. 10 that the Irish mustered three goals in a single contest, something Notre Dame has done only seven times this year.
Unfortunately for the Irish, that early February offensive explosion didn’t translate into wins. Notre Dame hasn’t won a game since Jan. 2, a 2-1 victory over Rensselaer. The 4-3 loss to Ferris State last Friday was especially frustrating because the Irish had battled back from a 3-1 deficit late in the second to tie the Bulldogs — only to give up the shorthanded game-winner at 19:07 in the third.
Tonight and Saturday, Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan will finish their annual four-game regular-season series, with the Ramada Cup on the line. The Wildcats lead the season series 1-0-1.
The Huskies may have struggled in recent years while the Wildcats have seen considerable success, but NMU head coach Walt Kyle, a Wildcat alum, remembers when things were very different.
“My first year here, I was a transfer from Boston College, and Tech had been a perennial power, and Northern had just entered college hockey and Tech wouldn’t even play Northern.”
Kyle said that this series is important for three reasons.
“First of all, it’s an important series because it is a huge rivalry. The Upper Peninsula is a unique area in the country and a unique area in college hockey. At one point, Tech was the reigning king of college hockey. Tech has a huge fan base in the Upper Peninsula because of that.
“For whatever reason, this is a more publicized series than the Lake Superior games. It’s like Michigan or Michigan State downstate.”
Kyle said that the Marquette is “buzzing” because of the series, something that can’t be bad for the Wildcats or college hockey.
The second reason the series is important, said Kyle, is because the Wildcats want to finish the season strong in the league, and even though these games are nonconference, playing poorly may affect NMU’s performance in its remaining CCHA games.
“Third is the NCAAs,” said Kyle. “You have to play your way into that tournament. You can’t back your way into it.”
I’m a Five. What Are You?
According to numerology, I’m a 5, which means that I’m versatile, adventurous, and progressive.
Red Berenson is a 6, which means that he’s an idealist.
Dave Poulin is a 7, which means that he’s peaceful yet analytical.
There Is No 6
Not yet, anyway, but there will be.
Alaska-Fairbanks and Bowling Green are tied for fifth place in the CCHA standings, each with 23 points, trailing fourth-place Nebraska-Omaha by two points, and ahead of seventh-place Miami by two.
With Michigan State and Lake Superior State hovering close (19 points), sixth place is up for grabs.
The Nanooks swept the Spartans for the first time in UAF history last week, keeping their own home ice hopes alive while forcing MSU to return to East Lansing to play second-place OSU.
This week, the Nanooks take on Miami, a team that also would like to stay at home in early March. Both of those teams are young, each has good goaltending, each plays unpredictable hockey. A split, of course, would decide little for either. Maybe.
Based on ability to score alone, MSU, Miami, and BGSU are the most likely candidates to vie for that sixth spot — and that’s assuming that BGSU drops in the standings, which it may not do.
It’s unlikely that any of these teams will win out. My predication is that BGSU remains in fifth, while MSU — with two games in hand on Miami and UAF — squeaks into sixth.
Unless the planets are aligned for an unlikely LSSU sweep of UNO this weekend, and then all bets are off.
All Seven, and We’ll Watch Them Fall
Western Michigan head coach Jim Culhane is frustrated, but not discouraged. “We’ve lost seven one-goal games this season.”
Actually, that’s coach-speak, since technically the Broncos lost four one-goal games, and three two-goal games where the insurance tally was an empty-netter.
But you know what he means.
“We lost seven seniors, we bring in all these new faces, and we have to educate these kids as to what it takes to be successful,” said Culhane. “What we’re going through right now, reloading with all the new faces, is learning how to win every night in this league. That’s what was so devastating for me, personally, was that journey with that senior class, not giving them that trip down to Detroit.”
Culhane conceded that it’s the players that actually do the winning and losing on the ice — but you know what he means.
Last weekend, WMU tied NMU in Marquette Friday, 3-3, before losing 5-1 the following night. The Broncos were down just 2-1 going into the third period of that loss, when one little mistake wound up in the back of their own net, and the rest of the game snowballed.
“We played really well for five periods of hockey. Seven minutes to go in the game and we make a mistake on the forecheck and they score. [Darin] Olver goes down on a beautiful three-on-two and scores.”
With so few games remaining in the regular season, the Broncos — like the Irish and the Bulldogs — are resigned to traveling for the first round of the CCHA playoffs. So what does it come down to at the end of the campaign for WMU?
“We want to win,” said Culhane. “That never changes. We want to win the following weekend series. Every week, we prepare a game plan and a strategy of how we want to play, and we want to go out and execute. It’s no different this time in the year than it is in October, except that you know that you have dwindling opportunities for points.
“Our focus is not to get ahead of ourselves. Our focus is on Bowling Green, and just to get better.”
The match is a good one this weekend, with WMU’s fast forwards and BGSU’s tenacious team play. “We both have pretty young teams,” said Culhane. “The big thing for them is the one thing we all think of — Jordan Sigalet.
“We’ve had a tremendously difficult schedule here in the second half. We’ve been in all the games except for the touchdown that was scored on us down at Ohio State.”
The Broncos have, indeed, had a tough time of it lately, having faced the four CCHA goaltenders with the lowest goals-against averages in the league, on consecutive weekends: MSU’s Dominic Vicari, OSU’s Dave Caruso, Miami’s Brandon Crawford-West, and NMU’s Tuomas Tarkki.
And up next is Jordan Sigalet, last year’s CCHA All-Conference First Team goaltender.
Who’s in Eighth?
Tuesday, a fan asked if I ever would have imagined that Lake Superior State and Michigan State would be tied for eighth in the league.
Now that it’s Thursday, I still can’t imagine it.
Ren Fauci (2-5–7).
Milan Gajic (14-16–30).
Aaron Lee (4-4–8).
Rob Lehtinen (1-8–9).
Daryl Moore (4-10–14).
Alex Nikiforuk (8-9–17).
Matt Rutkowski (3-7–10).
Peder Skinner (0-3–3).
Matthew Williams-Kovacs (0-0–0).
It’s no surprise that Michigan is contending for the regular-season title, as the Wolverines have every year for the past 14 seasons.
What is amazing about the Wolverines is their staying power in a sport that turns over significant contributing classes of players on a regular basis.
This year’s 10-member senior class surprised everyone when they were mere pups, helping the Wolverines to a Frozen Four appearance when they were rookies in 2001-02. Head coach Red Berenson said that it’s been a lot of fun coaching this group of players, guys whose college hockey experiences have differed wildly from one another in spite of their shared beginning.
“It’s not always the same track,” said Berenson. “If you had to track each of these players’ development … it would be all over the map.
“These guys were a youthful, enthusiastic class. Nystrom led the way with his confidence and leadership. And [Brandon] Rogers on defense — as much as he’s struggled a little bit — has become one of our best defensemen these past four years.”
Eric Nystrom, the team captain who netted 17 goals during his rookie campaign, a feat he did not match in subsequent seasons, has become one of the league’s best leaders and most fearsome competitors.
“Seventeen goals his freshmen year — how can you beat that? You can’t. But now he’s a captain, a leader,” said Berenson. “Eric Werner made the most impact right away, and of course he’s been steady.”
Defenseman Nick Martens, a recruited walk-on, has played in 30 games this season. With eight goals and 17 assists, David Moss is fourth among Wolverines in scoring, and although he never matched his 14-goal sophomore season in any of his other years, is a significant two-way player, one who is playing hurt.
Milan Gajic has returned to scoring form this year. Jason Ryznar is still out with a broken finger, but Berenson said that the Wolverines hope to have him back by the time Michigan ends its regular season with Bowling Green.
Then there are forwards Charlie Henderson and Michael Woodford and defenseman Reilly Olson, hardly household names but contributors to Michigan’s success this season.
“Charlie Henderson, the forward who walked on, didn’t play a game until Christmas his first season,” said Berenson. Henderson has seen nine games this season, registering two goals and an assist. Woodford has played in 16, with one tally and one helper.
“Reilly’s playing,” said Berenson. “He’s been helping a lot. I’d say he’s had weeks in the lineup and weeks out of the lineup. He’s been an honest seventh defensemen.
“He’s a really nice kid. He’s a full scholarship player — the one year, he never played the game — he got buried the second and third year when our defense got even stronger and he never had a chance.”
Berenson, an outspoken proponent of student-athletes staying in school for all of their eligibility is proud that these 10 players are on track to receive degrees from the University of Michigan. Dwight Helminen, a former member of the Class of 2005 who left early for professional hockey, is “the only black mark on that,” said Berenson.
“Leaving early, it’s as much an academic thing as it was a hockey thing,” said Berenson. “Some kids get their heads turned [when drafted]. I hate to see a kid lose that perspective.”
Berenson has clearly respects his 10 seniors, some of whom have had tougher roads than others. “There’s so much competition to play here. You’ve got to hand it to the kids who have stayed.
“And they’ve had fun.”
This weekend, the Wolverines look to hold onto their one-point lead in the CCHA standings when they take on Notre Dame. “From our perspective, these games are even more important than last week’s game. We are still in a race for first place, and we have to take advantage of our remaining games. Notre Dame is a much better team than their record.
“That’s what you get in this league.”
For Any Number of Reasons
My brother-in-law, Drew, is a good guy in spite of being a New England Patriots fan. He was born and raised in Maine, and we do have the Red Sox in common, so I’ve grown to care about his welfare.
In a recent phone conversation, Drew lamented the NHL lockout and the long NFL postseason for which it made. His looking at hockey as a backup to football aside, I have to agree that April, May, and June will be less fulfilling than they should be.
What bothers me the most about the cancellation of the season — beyond the sheer greed and pig-headedness of each side — is how it affects the average Joe and Jane, the folks who work concessions, or wait tables near arenas, or otherwise depend on income associated — but not affiliated — with an NHL franchise.
In bigger cities, where there is more than one professional sport, or where the economy is fairly healthy, perhaps the lockout isn’t such a big deal.
And in bigger cities, where there is genuine downtown nightlife regardless of professional sports, perhaps the cancellation of the season is completely moot.
But here in Columbus, where the birth of the Blue Jackets meant the rebirth of a downtown neighborhood, the city isn’t the same. The Arena District is dead — although Nationwide Arena still hosts other events, and in the summer there are outdoor concerts and festivals adjacent to the area — and Columbus seems like a lesser place.
Just in time for the Frozen Four.
I feel cheated, somehow. I am very excited that college hockey’s most dramatic games will be played in my adopted hometown, but fans won’t get the full hockey experience they deserve.
Also, given that Columbus has to follow Boston, I fear unfavorable — and unfair — comparisons.
I know that many college hockey fans don’t miss the NHL, but I do. Its absence will be felt here in early April.
You’ve Got My Number
Thank you to the readers who wrote in about last week’s Valentine’s Day column, which was a hoot to write. I heard from many, many college hockey fans who had never written before, and I enjoyed being able to respond to a few personally, in a rare lull in my Friday schedule.
I also want to thank the folks who took the time to chat with me through CSTV Tuesday afternoon. That was more fun than I expected, and the questions were terrific. I just wish the answers had been.
I was especially grateful for the person who claimed to be a Northern Michigan fan who likes my column. Obviously, he either lied or never received the standard memo.
And, yes, I know that Jamie Milam is a forward. That was deliberate.
And for the record, I went with Mother Road Rose instead of I’m Not Really a Waitress. Turns out that Valentine’s Day felt more mauve than red. Woman’s prerogative, and all that.
Thanks again, folks.