This Week in the CCHA: Oct. 20, 2005

It’s Early, but It’s Nice

Once upon a time, the CCHA was a league to be feared. As recently as the 1990s, the teams around these parts were considered among the toughest in the country, with savvy goaltending, fearsome defense, and physicality second to none.

During the last five years or so, however, changes have occurred to help the CCHA along a newer and not so glamorous path. First, teams out east increased their speed and finesse, then teams west improved recruiting conference wide, everybody seemed to update their systems — with many CCHA teams seemingly doing so last — and before you knew it, Todd Milewski became the only hockey writer of any importance in the known universe.

That changed on Oct. 14, 2005, when Kyle Greentree’s high-slot wrist shot beat Kellen Briggs at three minutes and forty-five seconds into overtime in Minnesota’s Mariucci Arena.

Okay, so maybe one win by a mid-pack CCHA team over the then-No. 1 squad in the country doesn’t count for much, but UAF’s tie with Minnesota the following day — combined with a few well-placed CCHA wins over nonleague opponents — put every other conference on notice after last weekend.

There was Ohio State’s split with Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Nebraska-Omaha’s Maverick Stampede title win over New Hampshire, Michigan’s win over Boston College, Lake Superior’s three points — three points! — over Colgate, and Michigan State’s title win over North Dakota in the Lefty McFadden Invitational two weeks ago.

So far in this young season, the CCHA has doubled up on nonconference opponents, compiling a 14-7-2 record against non-CCHA foes. It’s not merely the quantity of wins that counts, but the quality — and the quality of the losses.

Let’s be fair. It’s nice that the Buckeyes beat the Tigers in their first game out west, but it would have been just as nice for Northern Michigan to sweep St. Cloud State at home, for Bowling Green to beat Merrimack at home, and for Western Michigan to beat Robert Morris at home.

Robert Morris. In Lawson Arena. In Kalamazoo.

For years during the recent downward spiral, CCHA coaches have been telling us that “this” is the year that the league bounces back and contends, making the CCHA the league that cried wolf — repeatedly. Still, for CCHA fans thirsting for a stronger national showing, it’s mighty tempting to be optimistic.

Thank goodness for Mike Kemp.

“I’m not one to judge too early, to get excited about too much too soon,” says the UNO head coach. “I think our schedules are set up [so] that we can get some really good representation on a national basis. That is something that will help us out in the RPI down the road.”

After the cautionary beginning, Kemp’s comments get to the heart of how everyone felt about UAF’s three-point weekend in Minneapolis, about the importance of initials that hockey fans know so well: RPI, PWR, NCAA.

There wasn’t a coach in the league whose team has a legitimate chance of being invited to the NCAA tournament who wasn’t overjoyed that the Nanooks beat the Gophers, that the Mavericks beat the Wildcats, even that the Spartans beat the Sioux and the Wolverines beat the Eagles.

As “Last 16” — more weight given to the final 16 games of the season — is no longer a criterion for ratings purposes, these nonconference wins can go a long way for the rest of the teams within the CCHA.

Of course, this also means that everyone in the CCHA is going to be pulling for Minnesota this year while gunning for UAF.

And the nonconference play is only going to get more interesting as the season progresses. The Spartans travel to Ithaca in two weeks to take on Cornell in the Big Red’s first D-I games of the season; MSU and UM host the Showcase this year; CC rounds out the Great Lakes Invitational this year.

On the flipside, the Buckeyes fill December with nonconference games they should win, all in Columbus: two games each against Alabama-Huntsville and Union at Value City Arena, and Holy Cross at Nationwide Arena to start the Ohio Hockey Classic.

And the Bucks know all about what can happen when you are the team under consideration and you’ve lost to someone who’s not. Just ask them about their trip to Clarkson last December.

Maybe someone in Minneapolis should have asked someone in Columbus about the Bucks’ series against Clarkson before last weekend.

I, for one, am glad the thought never occurred to the folks in Minneapolis.

Couldn’t Have Happened to a Nicer Guy

Anyone who knows UAF head coach Tavis MacMillan knows that he loves hockey. Yes, the former Nanook loves UAF hockey, but he loves the game itself with a passion that can still be described as youthful.

When I was catching up by phone with MacMillan at the start of the season, he interrupted my earnest questions about UAF with, “You online?”

I was, so he told me to go to the New York Islanders’ roster page. I did. I saw guys’ Islanders headshots that resembled bobbleheads.

“Isn’t that cool?” he asked. I could hear his grin half a continent away.

The win over Minnesota was a coming-of-age moment of sorts for MacMillan, who as a Nanook played for now-Gopher coach Don Lucia.

“It felt special just to compete against Coach,” MacMillan told USCHO’s Scott Brown after the game. “It’s a great way to start the season.”

Anyone who caught “Tuesday @ the Rink” this week caught a few classic MacMillan moments. When a fan from North Dakota asked MacMillan to “share” his “secret” on preparing his squad for trips outside of Alaska, MacMillan replied, “It is absolute 100 percent rocket science.”

When asked about the Nanooks’ single first-place vote in this week’s poll, he said, “I didn’t look to see who votes on those polls to try and pinpoint who might have given us that vote. I do know that I don’t have a vote, so it wasn’t me.”

And even though UAF opens CCHA play with Michigan at home in two weeks, MacMillan is focused on a more immediate task at hand. “[L]ooking ahead to our series with Michigan … really isn’t an option because of the Governor’s Cup.”

Sure, a series against another potential No. 1 team is important, but playing Alaska-Anchorage for the first of four games in a series that absolutely consumes Alaska hockey fans is all the Nanooks and MacMillan — the consummate Nanook — can see.

As for the Nanooks’ appearance in this week’s poll and the lone first-place vote, MacMillan spoke prophetically to my esteemed colleague Danny Martin of the Fairbanks News-Miner on the way back to Fairbanks after the trip to Minneapolis.

“It’s a small sign of respect, but we still have a long way to go and it was only two games into the season.”

Yes, It’s Early, but …

When the Ohio State beat Colorado College 4-2 last Friday, the Bucks did something they hadn’t done in years: they won the opening game of their Division I season.

Okay, so they did two somethings: they also recorded their first significant win against a nonconference opponent since Oct. 27, 2000, when OSU beat Maine 3-2 in overtime in Alfond Arena.

When Rod Pelley scored shorthanded at 4:48 in the third period of that game, putting the Buckeyes ahead for good, he broke a streak that OSU was happy to see end.

This was the fourth consecutive season that began with a road game against a nationally-ranked opponent for OSU, but the first time since 2000-2001, when they beat Northern Michigan 5-3, that the Bucks began the Division I season with a win.

In 2001-2002, OSU tied Notre Dame opening night; in 2002-2003, it was Minnesota 7, OSU 2; in 2003-2004, Denver beat the Bucks 5-2; last year, OSU lost to New Hampshire, 5-1, in the Ice Breaker.

Notice the scores, too, for those last three season-opening losses: Rest of the World 17, OSU 5.

Head coach John Markell was, of course, philosophical about the now-defunct streak. “You tell me another team that takes that kind of load. We try to avoid home games early in the season, and that’s why we do what we do.

“As anyone who knows us knows, we are team that will travel.”

The Bucks showed early-season poise and patience in the win, coming from behind after Brett Sterling scored on the Tiger power play at 1:38 in the first.

And, yes, that means that the Buckeyes took a penalty before the season was two minutes old.

The Name of Fear Is …

He doesn’t look so tough in his Wolverine headshot, but freshman defenseman Jack Johnson is apparently something to be feared.

During the Outdoor Living Network’s (OLN) 2005 NHL Entry Draft recap feature earlier this month, various prospective draftees were seen being put through grueling physical tests as well as tough psychological interviews.

Every young man was asked what he fears, and according to one interview, about half responded with, “Spiders.”

According to OLN, two responded with, “Jack Johnson.”

When Johnson, drafted in the first round (third overall) this year by the Carolina Hurricanes, was dished this tidbit, he had the modesty to look surprised, even abashed, but now that he’s played four games for Michigan, we know why.

Eight penalties for 16 minutes. In four games.

Okay, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. We all know he’s a phenomenal player, the highest-draft player the Wolverines have ever seen, a gold medalist with Team USA in the 2005 IIHF World Under-18 championship tournament, and already a two-time CCHA player of the week honoree — this week for defense, last week for rookie.

Maybe he’s a target. Maybe that’s why his minutes are so, um, significant so early in the season. It’s true that a couple of other players have racked up some minutes as well. Fellow Wolverine Andrew Ebbett has 17 minutes in four games, and in two games each, Ferris State’s Matt Verdone has 15 minutes, Miami’s Taylor Hustead has 12, and UNO’s Bill Thomas has 15.

But those guys padded their stats with major penalties. Every one of Johnson’s infractions was of the minor variety.

Reminds me of a player from UAF from a couple of years back … but I dare not say it.

Not yet. It’s early.

Games of the Week

It’s pretty early to talk head-to-head comparison, but there are at least a few interesting points to make about this series. And, no, it’s not who you might think.

Miami (1-1-0) at Nebraska-Omaha (2-0-0)
Friday and Saturday, 7:05 p.m. CT, Qwest Center, Omaha, Neb.

The Mavericks of Nebraska-Omaha had the Wildcats of New Hampshire just where they wanted them after the first period of last Saturday’s Maverick Stampede title game. UNO was up 3-1 on goals by Alex Nikiforuk, Thomas Klempa, and Mick Lawrence.

But you know what they say about a two-goal lead.

“Yeah,” chuckles UNO head coach Mike Kemp, “we gave up a couple that we probably shouldn’t have given up.”

UNH came back with two goals to tie it in the second, but just 39 seconds after Matt Fornataro knotted it up, rookie Dan Charleston scored the game-winner, fed by sophomore Bill Bagron, and the Mavericks were on their way to their second consecutive Stampede championship.

“The best thing about the game is the way we hung in there,” says Kemp. “We had to kill off a full two-minute, five-on-three early in the third.”

The Mavericks are a potentially powerful mix of veterans and new blood. Junior Alex Nikiforuk accounted for all three of UNO’s goals when the Mavs beat Army 3-2 in their first game last weekend, and added that first goal Saturday; Klempa, who had two goals in the win over UNH, is a freshman, and Lawrence is a sophomore.

Kemp says that UNO’s depth is more than just an asset on the ice. “They come together very well. It’s rewarding to see. There’s a lot of diversity amongst the youth and the experienced players.”

The one spot that lacks experience is in goal, but there may be depth. Sophomore Eric Aarnio earned the win against Army, while freshman Greg Barrett beat New Hampshire.

Another freshman, Jerad Kaufmann, “played very, very well against Manitoba” in exhibition, says Kemp, who adds that all three will compete for playing time.

“I don’t know that we’ll rotate every weekend … but each one is eager.”

This week the Mavs take on another CCHA team with questions in net, the Miami RedHawks. Two weeks ago, the RedHawks opened their season as hosts of the Lefty McFadden Invitational, with freshman Jeff Zatkoff in net both nights. In the opening game against North Dakota, Zatkoff allowed three goals on 19 shots, but followed up with a 4-0 shutout of Wayne State the following day.

Like UNO, the RedHawks are a potentially potent mix of veterans and rookies, with depth up front and at the blue line, and maybe even in net.

Miami has a talented group of forwards, some of the fastest and most elegant skaters in the league, and when they’re on — and not injured or sick — they are to be taken seriously, and the Miami blueline is among the toughest in the league — when not sick or injured.

“They’re hard to judge on their first two games,” says Kemp. “They’re pretty confident and they should be. They played North Dakota tough.”

Those Miami forwards can score on almost anyone, it seems, except for NoDak’s Jordan Parise, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. The RedHawks did everything they could but score against Parise, outshooting the Sioux 37-22 in the contest. By all accounts, Parise was the difference.

Miami is 4-1-2 in the last seven meetings between the squads, but it’s too early in the season to even think about the RedHawks, says Kemp. “It’s not like we can spend some time on them. All we’re going to do is work on our own team.”

Putting the Defense Back in Defender

Okay. So after years of harping about how the CCHA overwhelmingly awarded its “Defensive Player of the Week” to goaltenders, I was gratified to see a step in the right direction last season with the creation of the distinct “Defenseman of the Week” and “Goaltender of the Week” awards.

As nice as it is to honor defensemen on their own, exclusive category, the award tends to go overwhelmingly to blueliners who rack up offensive numbers during games.

This vexes me. I need your help.

I think defensemen who successfully defend, thwart opponent chances, block shots on penalty kills, create turnovers that lead to offensive chances — even when they, themselves, don’t receive assists — and generally defend their own ends deserve an award of their own.

And since I can’t be in all places at all times, I need you to do the nominating. Just send me the name of one or two defenders you personally witnessed make consistently outstanding defensive plays during a given game or weekend series, and I’ll choose the top blueliner and honor him here every week.

You must include specific, detailed evidence that I can verify through the player’s program to convince me he deserves consideration.

Write in by Tuesday of next week, and the first Blueliner of the Week will be honored in the third full week of the season.

You know where to find me.

Promises, Promises

Last week I promised Games of the Week and a new award, and I’ve delivered. Yes, they’re scant; it’s early. I also promised trivia and perspective, but I lied. I’ll try to make it worth your wait next week.

As in the past, the prize for winning trivia here will be dinner at Dave Hendrickson’s house. No, he doesn’t know.

My Apologies to NMU

I would like to extend a personal apology to the Northern Michigan University hockey program for remarks in last week’s column. I was misinformed, and I meant absolutely no disrespect to the NMU coaches and players, whom I hold in high regard, as they know.