“Is any coach in the CCHA happy with his team right now?”
Tavis MacMillan, head coach of the Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks asked me that question Thursday night by phone from his office at the Carlson Center.
“You’re probably right there,” said MacMillan. “And probably Bobby Daniels at Ferris, because they have had a nice start. Other than that, most of the guys I talk to in our conference, we’re all a little grumpy with the way our teams have played.”
MacMillan did see a silver lining.
“Keeps things interesting, though — great for those folks in TV,” he joked.
It has been a rough year in the CCHA in terms of building consistency.
One wonders if that new building on the horizon has injected a jolt of energy into the RedHawks as they look to regain their form of two seasons ago, when they and the Spartans of Michigan State took Michigan down to the wire for the regular-season title (eventually won by Michigan).
Miami started the season with a 3-0 loss at the Lefty MacFadden Invitational to North Dakota. But the RedHawks shook that off with a six-game blitz that saw sweeps of Nebraska-Omaha and the CCHA’s preseason pick, the Ohio State Buckeyes.
After a 0-1-1 bump, the RedHawks were at it again, sweeping Bowling Green and Michigan in the midst of a five-game tear. As of Dec. 15, they sit at 10-1-1 in the CCHA standings, with a six-point cushion over Michigan, which has a game in hand.
Wolverine head coach Red Berenson probably isn’t happy, especially after getting swept at Miami. However, no matter how high-end his double-digit class of freshmen are, they are still freshmen, and freshmen make mistakes.
The Wolverines beat Boston College early in a great game at Yost, split at Alaska-Fairbanks, won a wild one, 8-5, at Notre Dame that they easily could have lost had Notre Dame gotten one big third-period save, and then swept Northern Michigan. Then came the debacle at the College Hockey Showcase, with back-to-back losses at home to WCHA rivals Minnesota and Wisconsin. Then came the Miami sweep.
Michigan State? Forget it. Great start, won the Lefty by beating NoDak and looked great doing it. Then came a rash of injuries — eight scholarship players out of the lineup — and the Spartans were still okay, but the well ran dry. After a home sweep of NMU (that is two sweeps of Northern for those keeping score) came a 2-6-4 stretch. Swept at home by UNO, a well-played loss to Wisconsin, a strange tie with Minnesota, and two shutouts by Dominic Vicari (Bowling Green and at Fairbanks).
Lake Superior State is probably happy, they are 5-5-2. Led by a dynamic goalie in Jeff Jakaitis, whom Daniels feels is among the elite goalies in the conference, the Lakers have enjoyed the atmosphere created by first-year coach Jim Roque.
Ferris State, however, is 4-4-4 in conference, three points behind the Wolverines and in a three-way for fourth with LSSU and Michigan State.
Remember, this is a team just a couple of seasons removed from a CCHA regular-season title. The Bulldogs had to replace all-world goalie Mike Brown, and did so very well with freshmen Mitch O’Keefe. O’Keefe is 6-4-4 with a 2.71 goals against, and a .901 save percentage.
“He had a great start, really solid for us,” said Daniels. “The he leaked a little oil at the end of the semester. I think the intensity and focus he had to bring the rink as a number-one goalie each night caught up to him as a young goalie,”
In a conference that has had elite goaltending in recent years, Daniels feels O’Keefe will be among a new breed.
“Look at who we’ve lost in the nets. [Chris] Holt from UNO, [Al] Montoya from Michigan, [Mike] Betz from Ohio State, [Tuomas] Tarkki from Northern, [Morgan] Cey at Notre Dame, [Jordan] Sigalet at Bowling Green. All gone from last season, and those were among the best in college hockey,” said Daniels. “Oh yeah, and don’t forget our guy, Mike Brown.”
O’Keefe could eventually be mentioned with the reverence that those names bring, if he continues to improve and develop the consistency needed for a big-time stopper. His size and athleticism were big factors in Ferris State’s decision to bring him on board.
“He’s never rattled — ice water in the veins type of goalie,” said Daniels. “For a big guy, he moves well and covers a lot of net.”
Senior Greg Rallo leads the team in scoring with 22 points in 18 games. A dynamic offensive player who can both create and finish, Rallo has been consistent in his ability to score when Daniels has needed points. He is in the midst of a comeback. Last season he broke his ankle just as things were getting underway, and despite coming back to play, he never shook off the effects of the injury.
Now, after a summer of rehab, Rallo has made life miserable for opposing defenses.
“He has always been a points guy, especially in junior (Springfield of the NAHL),” said Daniels. “You can usually find a playmaker, but bona fide finishers are tough to get. That is what he is, and he is also very creative.”
You can also find Rallo on the defensive side, as he’ll be on the ice when key defensive moments arise, and is a mainstay on the Bulldogs’ penalty-kill.
Sandwiching Mike Bomersback in the top three for scoring is a highly-touted freshmen, Dan Riedel. After a monster offensive year in the USHL last season, he arrived in Big Rapids, Mich., with big expectations, and has delivered.
“He’s just plain gifted,” said Daniels, sounding somewhat in awe of Riedel’s offensive ability. “Unfortunately, the only thing that has slowed him down is illness, which he is battling now. He’ll be back for the second half.”
In 14 games, he has 3-13–16, and has shown an ability to get pucks to the net, and on linemates’ sticks in prime scoring areas.
“His loss has affected our power play. He really reminds me of another guy that is a great playmaker and scorer in our conference, Brent Walton of Western Michigan,” said Daniels.
So it will be a Merry Christmas in Big Rapids. Bells will be ringing in the Soo, and a holly jolly Christmas has set in on campus in Oxford, Ohio. The Grinch seems bound for East Lansing, where his green will blend with the colors of the Spartans. Will the Spartans avoid seeing their season go over the edge of Mt. Crumpit?
And finally, will the real Ohio State Buckeyes (who make four appearances on CSTV in the second half) please stand up?
Giving credit where credit is due: Great pickup by Coach MacMillan on the trivia side. He noted that three years ago, Ohio State had three lines being centered by first-round draft choices. R.J. Umberger (Vancouver), Ryan Kesler (Vancouver), and Dave Steckel (Los Angeles). His staff wondered if there were any NHL teams that had the distinction of four lines being centered by players that were all No. 1s. How about the Toronto Maple Leafs? Jason Allison (Washington), Eric Lindros (Philadelphia), Mats Sundin (Toronto), and rookie Alex Steen (Toronto). Nice job, boys!