Well, everybody except for Michigan. The Wolverines moved to the top of the USCHO.com/CSTV poll this week with a record of 9-1-1 (5-1-1 CCHA) as nearly everyone else in the top 10 lost at least one contest.
Given the 11 rookies on the Wolverine roster, some folks find Michigan’s quick start surprising. Certainly, much of the credit for Michigan’s success goes to the Wolverine coaching staff, who remain among the most understated men in the CCHA.
“All the teams we’ve played, I can’t say there’s anybody out there a lot better than us, and I can’t say we’re a lot better than the teams we’ve played.” That sounds like it might be right out of head coach Red Berenson’s mouth, but it was associate head coach Mel Pearson, quoted in this week’s Ann Arbor News.
“We’re in the ballpark,” said Pearson. “The start’s a little surprising.”
With their wins over Northern Michigan last weekend, the Wolverines took the top spot in the league standings. Michigan is off this week before hosting Minnesota and Wisconsin in the annual College Hockey Showcase.
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
Last week, the Miami RedHawks split with Lake Superior State in Sault Ste. Marie, which is bad news for Ohio State, the league’s preseason favorite. Until OSU beat Michigan State Tuesday night, the Buckeyes were mired in last place in the standings with just three points.
Why was last week’s Laker win ominous for OSU? Well, the Lakers play the Buckeyes this week, and the RedHawks swept OSU the week before. Okay, so the math is fuzzy — but it is fun. If you follow it all the way back to the beginning of the season, even Robert Morris — Robert Morris! — can beat Ohio State.
Robert Morris beat Western Michigan, which swept Ohio State. Of course, the Penn State club team beat Robert Morris, so there are Big Ten implications in this illogical sequence.
Michigan’s only loss this season was to Alaska-Fairbanks, which also lost to Michigan and Alaska-Anchorage. As Anchorage has only beaten Rensselaer and Fairbanks, it seems the Wolverines are safe from the greater D-I population.
I hate the word parity, as it is overused and often misused. CCHA coaches, especially, have been guilty in the past of pointing to the league’s alleged parity to “prove” its “strength.”
The CCHA does seem to be a league where any team can beat any other team on any given night — blah, blah, blah — and last year the play within the league was exciting even though CCHA teams didn’t advance to the Frozen Four.
This year, however, while some wins and losses are difficult to explain — how does WMU lose to Robert Morris and sweep OSU? — there does appear to be genuine parity among at least five of the league’s top teams, and four of those five have shown some promise against strong nonconference opponents. Michigan, MSU, UAF, and OSU — and the Buckeyes should recover — have each registered impressive nonleague wins, and Miami is as good a team as any in the conference.
Interestingly, while the league does appear in the early going to be stronger than it has in years relative to nonconference opponents, the coaches seem to be quieter this year about league relativity. Perhaps there’s an inverse relationship between crowing amount and nonleague success.
Even more interesting, though, is the relative youth of the league. Turnover goes in cycles, of course, but this year’s CCHA recruits seem to be a good batch.
Perhaps … seem to be … appear in the early going … . Who says that men are the ones who fear commitment?
Two teams who meet this week are each riding multi-game losing streaks into their series, although the circumstances of each team differ significantly.
Michigan State and Western Michigan play a home-and-home series this weekend with the Spartans hosting Friday night. These will be the seventh and eighth games for MSU in 16 days, including two consecutive Tuesday-night contests, the first resulting in a tie, the second and most recent, a loss.
The weeknight games are, of course, the league’s way of compensating for the lengthened CCHA playoffs, and when the coaches met for their annual meeting last April, Tuesday nights seemed like a good idea, said MSU head coach Rick Comley after the Spartans dropped a close 3-2 game to the Buckeyes this week.
“This stretch is difficult. This midweek — the Tuesday game sounds great in Florida, but it doesn’t always sound great up here, especially when one team has a weekend off and you don’t.”
That’s not sour grapes coming from Comley, but rather a reality. For the Spartans, Tuesday’s contest was their sixth in a dozen days, and while the MSU press release said that the Spartans were at “full strength,” scratches for the game included Chris Snavely, Brandon Warner, Matt Shouneyia, Tim Kennedy, and David Booth. Kennedy, arguably MSU’s best newcomer, will be out for a while yet.
“We’ve played a lot of games in a short stretch and been beaten up doing it,” said Comley, “but I thought our kids worked hard and I thought Ohio State’s too good a team to lose as much as they’ve lost. They had nine days rest.”
The Buckeyes did take advantage of nine days off — much needed, considering their four-game losing streak — but still used everything they had to beat the Spartans, as well rounded a team as MSU has fielded in many years, even before Comley’s tenure.
“I thought we played well enough to win on the road,” said Comley, and they did play that well. The difference was clearly the schedule.
The Broncos dropped two to Ferris State in home-and-home action last weekend, one week after losing two at home to Lake Superior State. WMU was this close to snapping a three-game losing streak in Saturday’s contest, when three unanswered goals gave the Broncos a 3-0 lead going into the second.
Then came the penalties. “Eight or nine minor penalties for us, one for them, so we basically played the whole second period shorthanded,” said WMU head coach Jim Culhane after the 5-3 loss. “They scored two four-on-threes and a five-on-three.”
Two of those FSU goals were scored within five minutes, the first by Dan Riedel at 7:48, the second by Zac Pearson at 12:47, and the third straight Bulldog power-play goal came at the back-breaking time of 18:57, by Greg Rallo.
Culhane said he was pleased with the way the Broncos came out Saturday, responding to Friday’s 6-0 loss, but the Broncos can’t settle for moral victories and neither WMU nor MSU will want anything but solid wins this weekend.
How did Ohio State break its four-game losing streak? Practice, practice, practice.
“We didn’t let them off the hook,” said OSU head coach John Markell, whose Buckeyes had nine days to recover from back-to-back series sweeps by league opponents. “We practiced hard on Monday, took Tuesday off and broke down video, practiced hard on Wednesday, lifted [Thursday], broke down video from Wednesday.”
Markell said the Buckeyes worked on “little things, like when you backcheck, what does backcheck mean? What does battle mean? We defined a lot of little things that make you a better hockey club. We lost a battle, we broke that down: from the entrance, to the engagement, to the exit of the battle.”
What baffles Buckeye fans is that nearly the entire OSU squad returned from last season. The only players who saw ice time who were lost to graduation were captain J.B. Bittner and Lee Spector, both defensive forwards.
“We worked extremely hard on power play,” said Markell. “We went back on tape [to successful games] against these guys [MSU], against Michigan. You know what the funny thing is? It’s all the same guys.
“We told them, this is you guys working harder, moving the puck quicker, not skating the puck, and making good decisions, and supporting each other, and look what happens. That was unique about this last week, doing the video. It’s the same guys on tape that we have now. There might be a key guy out on some different things, especially on the penalty kill … but certainly on the power play.
“It’s the same guys back.”
I Feel Fine
The saga of my crosstown move was pleasantly disrupted by a Tuesday night game at Value City Arena. I love the Spartans and always have, and I know the Buckeyes well, so it was a sweet midweek treat.
It was also a very good hockey game between two excellent teams, one fatigued from far too many games within far too short a span, one well rested and trying to bounce back from a skid that should have never, ever happened.
Here’s what doesn’t necessarily make it into any game recap:
• Both MSU goaltender Dominic Vicari and OSU goaltender Dave Caruso are better than their stats. In overall play, each has a save percentage below .900. I hadn’t seen Vicari play yet this season, but I had seen Caruso — and I saw Caruso’s confidence waver unnecessarily during OSU’s 2-2 home tie with Bowling Green. Both Vicari and Caruso were on their respective games Tuesday and, as a fan, that was pure fun.
• I was sorry to see Tim Crowder go off in the third with a five-minute major and game misconduct for checking from behind (although the Buckeyes were not). That was my first look at Crowder, and I thought he was impressive. He didn’t look like a freshman to me.
• The call that sent Crowder off was the weakest major checking-from-behind that I’ve seen this season, in person, on tape, or on television.
• OSU’s first goal was scary-good, like the way the Buckeyes played last season. It was even-strength, on the second cycle in front of Vicari, and at that moment the Bucks looked unstoppable.
• Tyler Howells’ backhanded feed to Jim McKenzie for MSU’s second goal was as good as it gets.
• Kyle Hood’s patience on the power play, deking two MSU defenders into committing before shooting, was the best display of patience I’ve ever seen in college hockey.
• Justin Abdelkader’s name is a pain to type, but I’d better get used to doing so.
• During the national anthem, you could tell the Buckeyes were ready to go because they were swaying like a sine wave on the blue line, rocking back and forth on their skates, while the Spartans looked grim and determined. Funnier still was that injured Buckeye Dan Knapp was swaying in the stands just as his teammates were. He’s mentally ready to go.
The game reminded me of OSU’s midseason contest against Colorado College in the inaugural Ohio Hockey Classic last December, a game between two evenly matched and very talented teams, each playing to the best of its ability on a given night, given the circumstances.
The Spartans are so good. Believe it.
Games of the Week
Who’d have thought that this series would be this intriguing?
No. 14 Alaska-Fairbanks (4-2-2, 2-1-1 CCHA) at Nebraska-Omaha (4-4-0, 2-4-0 CCHA)
Friday, 7:05 p.m. CT, Saturday, 7:35 p.m. CT, Qwest Center, Omaha, Neb.
It was a good weekend for the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks.
“Being the greedy guy that I am, I’m much happier with what we got.”
So opined UNO head coach Mike Kemp after the Mavericks swept the Spartans in East Lansing. Friday’s win was a resounding 7-4 thumping, but Saturday’s game was closer, a 3-2 overtime victory, the game-winner coming with just 28 seconds left in OT.
Freshman Dan Charleston scored the two UNO regulation goals, both in the second period, one shorthanded and one on the power play. “He has been one of our featured penalty killers all season,” said Kemp, “because he plays with such grit and determination. He’s a little guy who is not afraid to get up and make things happen. He made no mistake about it once he got the chance with the shot.”
The wins against a ranked opponent came a week after UNO dropped two to struggling Bowling Green, also on the road. Kemp attributed the turnaround to better defensive play.
This week, UNO hosts UAF, the Mavericks’ permanent CCHA rival — at least for as long as the cluster system lasts. The Nanooks are enjoying a fairly fast start and some unfamiliar national notoriety. Head coach Tavis MacMillan said that UAF’s rankings are “an indication the program is going in the right direction, if you look back at the records we’ve had for two or three years.”
UAF had last weekend off, but two weeks ago took three points from Ferris State in Big Rapids, an arena where they’ve traditionally struggled. “Reflecting on it after the fact,” said MacMillan, “it is good. Sixteen of our 20 players were freshman and sophomores both nights.”
The win against FSU was just the fourth all-time for the Nanooks in Ewigleben.
Here’s a look at this week’s series, by the overall numbers:
• Goals per game: UAF 2.75 (ninth); UNO 3.62 (tie second)
• Goals allowed per game: UAF 2.50 (tie fifth); UNO 3.88 (ninth)
• Power play: UAF 19.6% (third); UNO 12.5% (11th)
• Penalty kill: UAF 76.9% (10th) ; UNO 87.8% (third)
• Top scorer: UAF Ryan McLeod (2-7-9); UNO Scott Parse (3-9-12)
• Top ‘tender: UAF Wylie Rogers (.925 SV%, 2.38 GAA); UNO too close to call
All three Maverick goalies have seen action, and each appears capable — or, rather, none has emerged as the definitive starter.
The Nanooks lead this all-time series 16-5-5, with all five of UNO’s wins in Omaha. In Omaha, UAF is 6-5-1. Last year, the Nanooks went 3-1-0 against the Mavericks, but each team scored 14 goals in the series. UNO’s lone win was a lopsided 7-2 affair.
Picks: This feels like an exercise in futility, but I’m picking a split with UNO winning Friday and UAF taking Saturday’s game. Anything can happen. UNO has experience that can take the Mavs past ranked teams, as they proved last week. UAF has youthful enthusiasm plus some experience, and that can equal wins, as the Nanooks have proven. UNO 4-3, UAF 4-3
This One Goes Out to the One I Love
It’s been a while since any man has written me poetry, and while I won’t name names, I’ve received some hockey-related poetry this season from the father of a CCHA player. Sadly, the poetry always comes from CCHA dads, married CCHA dads, and it’s always about hockey or my column, never about moonlit nights or other such lovely nonsense.
Sadder still, I think their wives know and don’t care.
Every other season or so, some very nice father of a CCHA player writes me email on a regular basis. This has become a welcome fringe benefit, as I’ve been able to get to know some players’ families through correspondence and subsequent meetings. As we all know, hockey people tend to be among the nicest.
This year, I am getting rhymed couplets from a sophomore’s father. No, there’s no romance. He just wants to know nearly every Thursday what I’ll be writing about the league; he wants me to know, and apparently rhyming is necessary, and who am I to argue with that?
This correspondence does, however, remind me of an exchange I once had, in person, with a long-departed OSU player. He asked me whether I enjoyed interviewing allegedly good-looking, athletic young men in various states of undress. (This followed an interview with a player in a towel, I believe, an occupational hazard for all involved.)
I said, “Sweetheart, you’re cute as a button but you don’t do a thing for me. Your dad, however, is hot.”
There have been no questions from OSU players regarding my professionalism since.
This season, even the oldest players in the league are young enough to be my sons, had I been a very naughty freshman in high school, and one OSU player delights in calling me “Miss Weston.” While all of this translates into things I’d rather not contemplate about my age, it does give me a certain amount of freedom.
No Blueliners, No Trivia
No nominations for the former, no time for the latter — and no one wrote this week, not even to tell me how awful I am, so I wonder if there’s anything wrong with my inbox.