This Week in the CCHA: Feb. 2, 2006

Well, This Was a Given

Dunkirk Dave emerged from his hibernation and saw his shadow, forecasting six more weeks of hockey that will determine the four CCHA teams headed to Detroit.

What, you want Punxsutawney Phil from a girl who went to Fredonia State?

This week, the nation heard the State of the Union from the president, communities across the nation learned the fate of winter from the humble Marmota monax, and CCHA fans learned a little bit of what may unfold in the weeks leading up to The Joe.

Even though my approval rating is somewhere south of that of the sitting president’s and my evidence is nearly as arbitrary as the casting of a shadow, here is your Girl Reporter forecast for the rest of the regular CCHA season.

Miami will win the regular-season title. All right, so it’s not a news flash, except to the benighted news media in Cincinnati. (Way to finally pick up the story, folks!)

Yes, the runaway RedHawks will take the regular-season title, but it won’t be a cakewalk and it’s far from a mathematical lock. With games against Alaska-Fairbanks, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Bowling Green remaining … ah, who am I kidding? It may not be mathematical, but it’s a lock.

Michigan will finish second. Red Berenson must have a bag of magic beans. Somehow, the Wolverine offense has managed to wake up just in time, and Michigan has at least a game in hand on everyone else.

The CCHA league offices will breathe a collective sigh of relief as both Michigan and Michigan State return to Joe Louis Arena. It seemed improbable earlier in the season, but with the reawakening of the Michigan offense and the solidifying of the MSU netminding, the league’s two cash cows — sorry fellas, no offense intended — will guarantee at least one rocking group of fans in the JLA.

The Spartans and Wolverines will face off in semifinal action at The Joe, and there will be overtime. Lots and lots of overtime. Michigan will win and advance to the title game.

Michigan will win the postseason title. Why? I don’t know. Has something to do with those magic beans. In all seriousness, the Wolverines know how to pull that game out. Usually.

The league’s current bottom four teams will not climb out of the bottom four. That doesn’t mean, however, that Bowling Green, Notre Dame, Alaska-Fairbanks, and Western Michigan can’t advance beyond the first round of the CCHA’s new postseason playoff format. In fact, I keep waiting for UAF to figure out what it knew, collectively, earlier in the season and reemerge. Perhaps the Nanooks will do so on the road, in that first round, against, say, Ferris State.

People will gripe about the new postseason format. And they will be right to do so. Four teams with first-round byes is excessive. It will, however, make for some exciting playoff action.

Ohio State will not make it out of the first round of the CCHA playoffs alive. Home or away, it won’t matter. As fantastic as are the Buckeye defense and the play of senior goaltender Dave Caruso, this offense can’t buy, purchase, steal, or otherwise requisition goals.

The CCHA will place five teams in the NCAA tournament. Not one of them will win a game.

Of course, I’ve been known to be wrong.

Making with the Bill Murray Again …

Hey! Guess what? Michigan and Michigan State tied again! And again!

Through the Looking Glass

What are the odds of opposing goalies setting school records for career shutouts, against each other, in consecutive games with identical scores?

I don’t know either, but it was pretty cool to watch.

Last weekend, Notre Dame and Ohio State traded back-to-back, 1-0 shutouts in Columbus, with OSU winning Friday and ND taking Saturday’s game.

It was Buckeye senior Dave Caruso tying Mike Betz’s season shutout record with five and all-time team shutout record with 11 Friday, in Caruso’s best performance in recent memory.

On Saturday, Caruso was no slouch, but the Buckeyes couldn’t score and the shutout went to a deserving David Brown in the opposite net. Brown, a junior, netted his sixth career shutout to tie Morgan Cey for Notre Dame’s all-time record. It was Brown’s second shutout of the season.

After each game, each winning goaltender was predictably gracious, each ripping a page from the Crash Davis Post-Game Interview Manual.

“The defense played really well in front of me,” said Caruso. “It was just nice to get the win because these are all big games.”

“It was a really good team effort,” said Brown. “We played very well defensively. We killed off all the penalties. I got pretty good looks at most of the shots.”

It doesn’t seem right for a goaltender to allow just one goal in two games and lose one of those contests. Each of those guys got a bum deal.

Speaking of Goaltenders …

Four of the nation’s save-percentage leaders play in the CCHA. Two play in Oxford, Ohio.

Miami sophomore Charlie Effinger is tied at the top of the nation (.944) with Wisconsin junior Brian Elliott. Effinger’s teammate, freshman Jeff Zatkoff (.935), is fourth, OSU senior Dave Caruso (.931) is sixth, and Lake Superior State junior Jeff Jakaitis (.930) is eighth, tied with Boston College sophomore Cory Schneider.

Effinger and Zatkoff split time in the Miami net nearly evenly. Talk about luxury.

If only the Buckeyes and Lakers could score goals. A girl can dream about postseason possibilities, can’t she?

Blueliners of the Week

“It’s called Ren Fauci and Kory Scoran.” So said LSSU head coach Jim Roque, and he’s absolutely right.

Laker defensemen Fauci and Scoran held two of the nation’s top scorers, Alex Foster and Jonathan Matsumoto, to just three points — all assists — in a two-game sweep of Bowling Green last weekend.

Said Roque, “They were out there every shift against those guys the whole weekend. They did a phenomenal job. Every time we’ve asked them to go up against the opponent’s best players, those two guys have gotten it done.”

Several Laker fans wrote to nominate Fauci and Scoran, and I saw no reason to say no.

Congrats, gentlemen.

Keep sending those nominations for best defensive performance you see, and I’ll honor as many players as I can.

Games of the Week

This series is deceptively important.

Lake Superior State (14-7-5, 10-7-3 CCHA) at Nebraska-Omaha (14-11-3, 8-9-3 CCHA)
Friday and Saturday, 7:05 p.m. CT, Qwest Center, Omaha, Neb.

As could have been predicted, the gap between the haves and have-nots in the CCHA widens as we enter the last full month of the regular season, with nearly 20 points separating first-place Miami from cellar-dwelling Alaska-Fairbanks and Western Michigan.

And as quirky, close, and thick as the season has been, it’s starting to shake out just like seasons past, with one or two teams distancing themselves from the pack, a middle tier fighting for home ice, and a lower third looking to travel in the first round.

So with four points between seventh-place host Nebraska-Omaha and second-place Lake Superior State, this weekend is a big deal. And since UNO is tied with Ferris State for that No. 7 spot and LSSU is tied with Michigan at No. 2 — and there are four teams between those respective places in the CCHA standings — this weekend may help decide the fates of more than just these two squads.

The Lakers enter this series with an impressive two-game home sweep of the formerly-hot Bowling Green Falcons, LSSU’s fourth CCHA sweep of the year and fifth two-game sweep of the season overall. What was most impressive about these recent wins was that the Lakers outscored the Falcons 10-3 in two games, with seven different Lakers accounting for the goals. Seven of the goals were even-strength, one was shorthanded, and two came on the power play.

In fact, the Lakers have netted 23 goals in their last six games, going 4-1-1 in that stretch. This is good news, of course, but would be better news if there weren’t a disturbing pattern attached to the goal-scoring: LSSU can score goals, but only at home.

Twenty of those 23 goals were in two weekend home sweeps, the 6-1 and 4-2 wins over BGSU, and the 6-1 and 4-0 decisions against Western Michigan Jan. 6-7.

In front of the overjoyed fans at Taffy Abel Arena, the Lakers have scored 48 goals in 15 home games for an average of 3.2 goals per game. In 11 road games, the Lakers are averaging just over 2.5 goals per game, and while they’ve only been shut out three times this season, two of those blankings were on the road.

And that is a short summation to the secret of LSSU’s success … and perhaps the seeds of the Lakers’ demise down the road.

Or maybe a demise is closer than the postseason. Five of LSSU’s next six games are on the road, including two games at Yost Arena and one in Marquette, as well as this immediate pair in Omaha.

The Mavericks are a see-saw kind of team, capable of offensive greatness and at least defensive goodness, but apparently no rhyme, reason, or consistency. Last weekend, UNO captured three points in Fairbanks, including the Mavericks’ first-ever win against UAF in the Carlson Center.

UNO rides a three-game unbeaten streak into this weekend, having split at home with MSU Jan. 20-21, a streak that ties its longest league unbeaten streak of the season, a November stretch that included three consecutive wins against the same teams they’ve beaten lately, MSU and UAF.

The key to UNO’s success is no secret: a big dose of Scott Parse with more than a little Bill Thomas on the side. Parse is averaging 1.64 points per game, third in the nation, while Thomas (1.36) is 14th. Thomas is tied for sixth in the nation (.71) in goals per game, while Parse, a consummate playmaker, is second (1.14) in the country in assists.

This series pits LSSU’s fifth-most effective defense in the nation against UNO’s seventh-best scoring offense in the nation.

Here’s a look at the series by the league numbers.

• Goals per game: LSSU 3.00 (fifth); UNO 3.15 (third)
• Goals allowed per game: LSSU 2.00 (tie second); UNO 3.30 (10th)
• Power play: LSSU 18.1% (fifth); UNO 11.5% (11th)
• Penalty kill: LSSU 83.9% (sixth) ; UNO 83.5% (seventh)
• Top scorer: LSSU Nathan (5-12–17); UNO Scott Parse (12-17–29)
• Top ‘tender: LSSU Jeff Jakaitis (.927 SV%, 197 GAA); UNO Jerad Kaufmann (.902 SV%, 2.76 GAA)

Each team has lost a key player to injury, and UNO’s boo-boo is probably a little more painful than LSSU’s. Maverick freshman Tomas Klempa, UNO’s fourth leading scorer, is out for several weeks with a broken wrist; Laker senior Alex Dunn, who had four goals and two assists against UNO last season, is still out with an injury.

And UNO will be without the services of senior captain Mike Lefley and sophomore Mick Lawrence, as each will serve one-game suspensions Friday for game disqualifications earned last Saturday in Fairbanks.

As big as this series is for each team’s conference standing, the impact that these games can have on the PairWise Rankings is potentially enormous. In the PWR, UNO is tied with FSU, Michigan State, and Providence at No. 8, while LSSU is bottled up at No. 12 with St. Cloud State and Cornell. Wins for the Lakers can vault them higher, while UNO victories could help not only the Mavs but also the Spartans and Buckeyes, who each lost one game to UNO earlier in the year.

Picks: I was all set to call a UNO sweep based on LSSU’s offensive inconsistency on the road, but given the way the Mavs will have to juggle their lineup Friday, I’d say that the Lakers have their best chance of points then. Of course, some teams rally around the kind of “adversity” that will afflict UNO Friday night, but the loss of those three players may stretch the Maverick bench a bit thin. Watch for Bill Bagron to do the proverbial stepping up for UNO Friday. And since I’ve called for a split, watch either team sweep, out of pure spite. LSSU 3-2, UNO 4-2

Some Moments Worth Mentioning

With Miami’s 3-1 win over Ferris State last Friday, RedHawk head coach Enrico Blasi became the winningest coach in Miami hockey history, notching victory No. 122. Blasi is now 123-111-23 through nearly seven seasons at Miami.

With their 2-1 win over Michigan State Tuesday, Jan. 24, the Ferris State Bulldogs finally snapped a seven-game winless streak against the Spartans and earned their first win in Munn Arena since Dec. 7, 2002.

In their two-game series against Notre Dame, Ohio State drew 21,998 fans to Value City Arena. That was the announced attendance, but having been there, I’d say it was very close to actual, easily within 1,000. Given that the alarmingly-hot Blue Jackets of the NHL played home games in Columbus each night as well, nearly 58,000 fans watched hockey between the Schott and Nationwide Arena Jan. 27-28.

With nearly 5,000 teams registered with USA Hockey, Michigan has more hockey teams than any other state in the U.S., prompting last Saturday’s “Hockey Day in Michigan,” a day-long celebration of the sport we love so well. I wonder if that’s the reason why so many folks were out and about in Columbus last weekend.