This Week in the CCHA: Dec. 8, 2005

A Tale of Two Teams

There are 118 road miles and eight points separating the first-place Miami RedHawks and the second-place Ohio State Buckeyes on this, the last weekend of play before each team arrives in Columbus for the Ohio Hockey Classic later this month.

There are six points separating the Buckeyes from the last-place Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

The CCHA has long been a two-tier league, but no one expected Miami to be in sole possession of that upper tier at midseason. With their 10 league wins and single CCHA loss, the RedHawks will be difficult to unseat.

While the distance between the two teams can be measured in both miles and points, what really separates them isn’t immediately tangible, until you talk to their respective captains.

“Everyone knows their role, accepts it, and knows what to do for us to be successful every night,” said Miami captain and senior defenseman Andy Greene.

“I think we had some guys that didn’t know what their complete role was on this team,” said OSU captain and senior defenseman Nate Guenin.

Nothing could have made more of a statement about Miami, OSU, and perhaps about the league than the results of last weekend’s play. The RedHawks swept the Michigan Wolverines in Oxford, their fifth sweep of the Wolverines all-time and their fourth sweep overall this season. Beating Michigan hasn’t been easy for Miami in the Enrico Blasi era; these were the second and third wins over Michigan for the seventh-year Miami head coach.

While the RedHawks were cementing their hold on first place, the Buckeyes were struggling to get a point out of visiting Alabama-Huntsville. OSU lost Friday’s contest on Steve Canter’s last-minute goal in regulation, and Canter tied it for the Chargers literally as the final buzzer sounded in regulation Saturday.

And the Buckeyes put up 106 shots in two games to UAH’s 47.

Guenin said that OSU’s effort was better the second night, as did Buckeye head coach John Markell, but the frustration in the voice of the OSU captain was easy to recognize at the end of the weekend.

“We’re starting to figure it out. It’s been probably the longest process I’ve ever been a part of. I thought we came together as a team better [Saturday] … but I really don’t have an answer for it.

“We have certain guys [whose] main job is [as a] checking guy, a grinding-it-out guy, and some guys are trying to be a little too pretty, but our team — we’ve got a good group of guys in there,” said Guenin. “It’s just a matter of getting everybody on board. Like I said, it’s a long process, but slowly we’re getting closer.”

The Buckeyes may not have time to get closer to Miami. No team in the league may have that kind of time. And no one knows better how difficult it is to overcome a shaky period than the RedHawks.

“We started off really hot, and we hit that injury bug,” said Greene. “That took a lot out of the team … especially early in the year when you’re building chemistry. I think that kind of disrupted it early last year.”

After a four-game win streak to begin the 2004-05 season, that disruption came in the form of a seven-game losing streak from Oct. 22 through Nov. 19, a stretch during which Miami was swept by both the Buckeyes and the Wolverines.

Hosting St. Lawrence and Clarkson this weekend, Miami is riding a five-game win streak, and the RedHawks haven’t suffered back-to-back losses yet this season.

In addition to finally being whole again as a team, Greene said that this Miami squad simply has the correct chemistry.

“It’s the closest team I’ve been on while I’ve been here my four years,” said Greene. “All the upperclassmen usually stay the first six weeks of summer school … but this year we had almost all of the freshmen here. I think that really helped us get closer faster than usual.

“We expected to do well this year, and we knew we had a good team. We’ve been fortunate that everyone’s been healthy — knock on wood — and everything’s come together.”

Despite having perhaps the best collection of fast-moving forwards in college hockey, a solid two-way defense, and a pair of goaltenders with astronomical save percentages sharing time in net, Greene is humble about the collective RedHawk talent.

“I really can’t pinpoint what it is. The guys know we’re not here because of our skill, we know that we’re here because we play 60 minutes.”

He also said that captaining this team has been easy. “The guys know what we’re here to do. We have three great assistant captains, we have leadership, we have five seniors on the team.”

It doesn’t hurt that this “sleeper” team — Greene’s term — is out in the middle of nowhere with very little local media coverage to distract the boys.

“We could care less right now what people are thinking about us or what people are writing about us. It’s where we are at the end of the year that counts.”

A Tale of Two Quotes

Several people have written about my allegedly unfair treatment of Jim Roque following his postgame comments when the Lakers were swept by Ohio State Nov. 18-19. His outburst regarding the officiating when beyond the pale, and although I thought his comments bordered on outrageous and I thought his assessment of the officiating was wrong, I defended his right to express himself.

The league fined Roque $1,000 for his comments, something he probably could have expected, given the CCHA’s rules prohibiting such comments from being made.

And so it was interesting that I received email from disgruntled anti-Michigan sorts about comments that Wolverine head coach Red Berenson made after Miami’s 4-3 win Saturday.

Late in the second period, just after Nathan Davis scored the tying goal for the RedHawks, Michigan freshman Jack Johnson was given a five-minute penalty for boarding and a game misconduct for hitting Davis into the boards behind the Michigan net.

Berenson was not pleased with the call. “To take [Johnson] out of the game and you’re not sure, that’s uncalled for,” Berenson told USCHO after the game.

The Sunday Ann Arbor News had a much stronger quote from Berenson. “It was not even close to a five. It’s an embarrassment. When you see the video, that’s hardly a two-minute penalty.”

Those who wrote to demand I jump on the “Fine Berenson” bandwagon will get no sympathy from me, for a couple of reasons.

First, I don’t think that coaches should be fined for speaking their minds, unless they slander. Berenson’s comments don’t even border on slander.

Second, Berenson’s comments are completely reasonable, a coach questioning a call — not implying that an entire officiating staff was out to get him and his team.

What Berenson said reminded me of something Rick Comley said after Michigan State lost to Ohio State in Columbus Nov. 15. In the third period, Spartan Tim Crowder was given a five-minute penalty for checking from behind and a game misconduct; the Buckeyes scored and tied the game.

Comley said of the play, “I thought they were both kind of lunging at the puck, but whether it was from behind or not, I don’t really know. It certainly wasn’t much of anything, I didn’t really think, but as we’ve seen this year, that call decides games.”

So the coaches are frustrated by the new rules enforcement, coaches get upset when players are thrown out of close games, and coaches vent to reporters after games end.

I didn’t see the call on Johnson at Miami, so I can’t comment on whether or not it was justified, but I did see the call on Crowder and said in my column that I thought it was weak.

As for whether one call is an embarrassment or one type of call is deciding games this season, this reporter has no comment.

Games of the Week

It’s not surprising that one single point separates Michigan from Nebraska-Omaha. What is surprising is that this series isn’t about first place.

Nebraska-Omaha (9-6-0, 5-5-0 CCHA) at Michigan (9-5-1, 9-3-1 CCHA)
Friday and Saturday, 7:35 p.m., Yost Arena, Ann Arbor, Mich.

Here’s something you haven’t seen in a while. The Mavericks are traveling to Ann Arbor for two games against Michigan, and it’s Nebraska-Omaha riding a four-game win streak while the Wolverines are trying to snap out of a four-game slump.

After being swept by Miami in Oxford this past weekend, senior captain Andrew Ebbett told the Michigan Daily, “I’m at a loss for words right now. This is not Michigan hockey.”

You can’t blame Ebbett for a momentary loss of faculty. The consecutive losses to Miami gave the Wolverines their longest losing streak since Nov. 26 through Dec. 16, 1988.

The last time Michigan lost four in a row, Ebbett still believed in Santa Claus; he was just shy of his sixth birthday. Freshman defenseman Mark Mitera was still in diapers, just over a year old.

Perhaps the Ebbett and the Wolverines have a right to be affected by the skid, but no one on the Michigan squad should be wallowing in self-pity. This stretch began with losses to Minnesota and Wisconsin in the College Hockey Showcase during Thanksgiving weekend, and continued against Miami. Wisconsin and Miami are currently Nos. 1 and 2 in the poll, respectively, and Minnesota is No. 8, and even though the RedHawks used the Wolverines to vault up the poll, all three of those teams were already top-10 teams when Michigan faced them.

UNO’s four-game win streak began with a 4-2 decision over Providence and a 6-1 win over Holy Cross before a two-game sweep of the visiting Ferris State Bulldogs. Meaning no disrespect to the Friars, the Crusaders, and the Bulldogs, the Mavericks didn’t play the Badgers, the Golden Gophers, and the RedHawks.

And that’s why the outcome of this series will be so telling this weekend. If the Wolverines mire themselves in self-pity, they will in not be able to muster a competitive showing against a visiting Maverick squad with oodles of up-front talent and respectability in every other way.

But if they retrench and play “Michigan hockey,” they have a shot of snapping two streaks at once — theirs and UNO’s.

Here’s the match by the conference numbers:

• Goals per game: UNO 3.80 (first); Michigan 3.67 (third)
• Goals allowed per game: UNO 3.70 (10th); Michigan 2.89 (fourth)
• Power play: UNO 9.9% (12th); Michigan 30.0% (first)
• Penalty kill: UNO 88.7% (third) ; Michigan 90.3% (second)
• Top scorer: UNO Scott Parse (9-18–27); Michigan T.J. Hensick (9-16–25)
• Top ‘tender: UNO Jared Kaufmann (.902 SV%, 2.64 GAA); Michigan Noah Ruden (.912 SV%, 2.77 GAA)

Michigan is 14-3-2 against UNO all-time, and 6-1-0 against the Mavericks in Yost Ice Arena, the loss in Yost coming during the first round of the 2003-2004 CCHA playoffs. Michigan holds a 4-3-1 edge during the last three regular seasons, beating the Mavericks three of four times last season.

After sweeping Ferris State last weekend, UNO head coach Mike Kemp said, “We beat a club that was on a bit of a roll … We’ve got a big challenge in front of us this weekend and we are looking forward to going up and playing Michigan at Yost.”

Of course the Mavs are looking forward to the trip to Yost. They smell blood.

Picks: I’m going to go completely against the grain and risk ridicule from the fans who despise me the most when I’m wrong and pick Michigan twice this weekend. Why? Because I have to believe, as talented as UNO is — and they are fast up front, deep everywhere else — that the Michigan coaching staff is not going to let the Wolverines stew in their own juices. Now, it may very well be that having 11 rookies on their squad can make this streak a difficult thing to overcome, but I think the Wolverines will take at least one at home, and I’m calling two. Michigan 4-3, 4-2

Blueliner of the Week

Santa heard my plea! There were several worthy nominations for Blueliner of the Week, but the winner is Miami freshman defenseman Kevin Roeder.

Several RedHawk fans wrote to nominate Roeder, who took 14 stitches to his forehead Friday night and returned to the game to helped kill a five-minute major penalty. He was, apparently, fearless in Saturday’s game in spite of the stitches.

Congratulations, Kevin! There is no trophy, so don’t wait by the mailbox.

Thanks to everyone who nominated a worthy defenseman for this week’s honors. Please, if you see a great defensive performance by a defender, just drop me a line and let me know.

Things That Don’t Make It into Game Recaps

I got to see Alabama-Huntsville for two games last weekend, a rare nonconference, midseason treat here in Columbus. The Chargers played very, very hard and earned their three points against Ohio State.

Here are a few things that aren’t necessarily appropriate for a game recap.

• UAH head coach Doug Ross was one of the most affable coaches I’ve ever seen, post-game. His paternal attitude toward goaltender Scott Munroe Friday night was sweet, and I say that in the old-fashioned sense of the word. He we clearly proud of Munroe’s performance, and clearly pushing for Munroe’s future. Ross pointed out that Munroe is a senior and that “he’s being scouted.”

• Munroe was impressive for a number of reasons. The Buckeyes outshot the Chargers 106-47 on the weekend, throwing many, many grade-A shots at the UAH senior. During the first two periods Friday night, Munroe played aggressively far out in the crease, but when the Buckeyes wised up and tried to exploit that on rebounds, Munroe adjusted and played closer to home.

• Everyone in the press box knew it was going to be a physical weekend. Why? Hard to tell. Some pointed to the target on OSU’s collective back, being the big-school host. Some suggested that each team looked frisky. Some even pointed to UAH roster, all of which — save two players — is Canadian in origin. I overheard someone in the press box say, “You know those Canadians. They like to go.”

• Although Steve Canter scored the ultimate clutch goals for UAH this weekend and Munroe was stunning, for my money the best player on the ice for the Chargers was junior defenseman Mike Salekin, who had two goals and an assist and did everything well defensively, too.

• For the second time this season, I saw Mark Wilkins call a very good series. Wilkins is a referee that CCHA fans love to hate, and I have personally seen him perform inconsistently in past seasons — but he’s human, and that’s only my opinion. His series between LSSU and OSU in Columbus — Jim Roque notwithstanding — was solid, and he tried the same let-them-play formula again this weekend, until it was clear that the boys from both teams were keen on doing more than just playing. Then he tightened his grip a bit, and showed both teams that he was in control. I was impressed.

• Also impressive was the adjusting that OSU did from Friday to Saturday. I do not know how the Buckeyes didn’t win that game Saturday, because they brought wave after wave after wave of offense against the Chargers. The shots on goal only tell part of the story; the shots attempted were outrageous, and the Buckeyes never stopped coming. They also played as a team Saturday, in spurts.

I’m really eager to see Union play this weekend, although not so keen on the Saturday-Sunday format, since I’d be baking cookies this Sunday were it not for this game. Why do I suspect that none of my other USCHO colleagues has this dilemma?

Next Week

I am now officially stalking Kyle Greentree, albeit in a long-distance, no-binoculars kind of way.

I will talk to Greentree next week, we think. The “we” being UAF sports information and me.

Poor kid. Talk about pressure.

No one — not one blessed person! — has written a response to trivia questions this season. Granted, I’ve only thrown them at you twice, but the Thanksgiving trivia was so soft your five-year-old could have hit some of it out of the park.

Next week there will be seasonal trivia, and another cookie recipe from my mom, Dolly Weston. Her cutout cookie recipe has been a hit in this column more than once, so it’s time to give you another from her collection.