This Week in the CCHA: Feb. 23, 2006

The Envelope, Please

Given the mild January and February many CCHA fans have experienced, it’s hard to believe that winter is two-thirds over. It’s harder still to believe that this is the last weekend of regular-season CCHA play.

The season was shortened by a week to accommodate the new playoff format, and I’ve yet to hear a single coach praise the weekday games. The CCHA isn’t the kind of league that lends itself to midweek games; not only is the format quite literally impossible for its two most geographically isolated teams — an inherent unfairness — but it’s difficult for many teams within the same states.

And then there is the issue of the number of games played within a given period of time, far more than teams have been accustomed to. Remember, we’re not talking about full-time professional athletes here; these are college students with academic and other obligations.

To have shortened the season after the schedule was already agreed upon has led to at least one other interesting consequence: should the planets align and Ohio State earn home ice during the first round, the only place locally for them to play the weekend of the first round is the 1,200-seat OSU Ice Arena.

Which leads us to the playoff format itself. Certainly, giving the top four teams in the league a first-round bye decreases the chances for the league’s best NCAA bets to take a hit in the PairWise by losing one of those best-of-three games to one of the league’s bottom four teams. It can be argued that protecting those top four teams is something the league should do.

But if those top four teams are the cream of the CCHA crop, shouldn’t they be able to win two games against one of the league’s bottom four teams, earning an NCAA berth outright?

Given the league’s NCAA tournament performance in recent years, perhaps the goal shouldn’t be to protect the PWR of the CCHA’s alleged best bets, but to groom programs genuinely capable of competing consistently against top teams from other conferences.

And even if you wanted to provide more potential protection for those top four, there is no guarantee that the league’s middle four teams will advance after the first round — as we have weekly proof. There’s great potential for first-round upset in the new format, and someone may squeak through who can steal a game from one of the top four.

(Okay, that provides a valid counterargument for my previous point, but I am trying to explore several sides here.)

Several coaches with whom I have spoken about the format like that it gives every team in the league a chance to participate in the playoffs, and to a certain extent that has merit. It does give student-athletes an experience they might otherwise not have. With eight best-of-three series as opposed to six, it also allegedly produces more revenue, but look at where OSU may play. (And, yes, the Buckeyes draw many more than 1,200 fans per game.)

I, for one, would like to see the playoff field dropped to eight, period. The top eight teams get in, the bottom four get extra study time. That sounds cold, I know, but I think the all-inclusive playoff format is a weird extension of what’s wrong with American education today, the idea that every kid gets credit just for showing up and breathing.

I know the coaches will address the weekday games at their April meetings. How that specific problem will be addressed — and how it will affect next year’s playoff format — is anyone’s guess.

In the here and now, as the Great Experiment of 2005-06 nears an end, it’s time for Part 1 of the Girl Reporter Annual Awards.

Player of the Year

This was a truly difficult decision to make. I love Nebraska-Omaha junior forward Scott Parse, but my Girl Reporter Player of the Year is Miami defenseman and senior captain Andy Greene.

Greene (8-18–26, 7-17–24 CCHA) is, in my opinion, the best two-way player in the league. Parse is extraordinary with crazy-good numbers, but as my colleague Jeff Svoboda said at this year’s Ohio Hockey Classic, “Greene was on my all-tournament team before the games began.” He’s that good. Every game. Every situation.

And his mother told me what his name would have been had he been born a girl, but I’m not saying.

Coach of the Year

Again, a truly difficult decision, but my award goes to Miami head coach Enrico Blasi.

It’s not just that Blasi’s team wrapped up the CCHA title earlier than most teams in recent memory, but it’s how the RedHawks fulfilled the promise of two seasons ago, with one sick and injured campaign in between.

And Blasi’s so young. In the greater scheme of things.

Lake Superior State’s Jim Roque is the close first runner-up. I think this may be the league’s pick, and it would be every bit deserved.

Honorable mentions to Nebraska-Omaha’s Mike Kemp and Michigan State’s Rick Comley.

Rookie of the Year

This is genuinely difficult. If the league didn’t give Aaron Voros ROTY because of his bad-boy image, how hypocritical would it be to give it to Michigan’s Jack Johnson?

That having been said, I’m giving my award to the defenseman Johnson. Hey, I never said I didn’t like the kid, and I never said he couldn’t play.

Several other players deserve serious consideration: MSU goaltender Jeff Lerg, who has emerged in the second half of the season as more than merely solid; Miami goaltender Jeff Zatkoff, who — as outstanding as he is — split time in net with sophomore Charlie Effinger; Notre Dame forward Erik Condra, who quietly leads all CCHA rookies in points; and Michigan forward Andrew Cogliano, who leads CCHA rookies in goal production and is just plain fun to watch.

Team of the Year

The Miami RedHawks. Why? Because they’re the first team outside of the state of Michigan to have captured the regular-season title since … the 1992-93 Miami Redskins.

Honorable mention goes to Notre Dame and Lake Superior State. The Irish were a team that mailed in nearly each performance last season, and this year they’re competitive and have doubled their win total of a year ago (with two regular-season games left!).

The Lakers are just the most improved team in the league.

Surprise of the Year

It has to be Ohio State, for having returned all but two key players and yet struggled to play .500 hockey all season long.

Maybe OSU bench boss John Markell should have had a talk with Ferris State head coach Bob Daniels about this in Florida last April. I’m sure Coach Daniels could have given Coach Markell some advice from personal experience.

The Ferris State Memorial Defenders of the Realm Award

This was a close race.

While Lake Superior State did not have a loss in nonconference Division I play (4-0-2), the Lakers’ two losses in the midseason Bell Canada Varsity Cup automatically disqualified them for consideration.

True, those were exhibition games. But they were against Canadian teams.

New rule: If you can’t defend the national realm, you can’t be considered for the DOTR award.

There were several teams with good records in nonconference play this season, an expected complication in determining this award. The Spartans played more nonleague games than anyone else and compiled an impressive 6-3-1 record in those 10 games. UNO and NMU both went 6-2-0 in nonleague play, which is honorable indeed.

However, the 2006 Ferris State Memorial Defenders of the Realm Award goes to the Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks. Sure, they were 4-1-1 in nonconference play. And, sure, they don’t live in the contiguous United States. But the Nanooks, a team struggling to get home ice in the CCHA playoffs, took three points from the No. 1 team in the country early in the season, a team that belonged to a league other than ours.

Congrats, UAF, and on behalf of the CCHA, thank you.

Perseverance Award

This one goes to the Michigan State Spartans. After last year’s disappointing season, the Spartans spent the first half of this season battered and bruised, but have climbed their way from near the cellar to as close the top as you can get if you’re not Miami.

2006 Attaboy

Last year, it was clear that Jordan Sigalet deserved an Attaboy more than anyone in D-I hockey.

This year, the choices aren’t so clear. I admit that I don’t know the circumstances on every player of every team, so I’m going with what I know. This year I’m giving it to Buckeye forward Dan Knapp.

Knapp sat out the first half of his senior season with a shoulder injury, and returned to spark the flagging OSU offense in the second half. Then the Buckeye bench dropped to 20 healthy players because of other injuries, and that includes third goalie Phil Lauderdale.

Two weeks ago, the bench was shortened once again when Knapp was re-injured. However, he returned too quickly to be whole to finish his senior year and attempt to help his team.

There may be other players deserving of this award out there. UAF’s Jordan Hendry is one of them, and there are lots of other players who have played sick and injured this year. Many don’t like to publicize their injuries — they don’t want to be perceived as being weak, they don’t want their injury to be targeted by other players — so many stories don’t come to light.

If you know of anyone who deserves mention, drop me a line.

The Chris Richards Most-Likely-to-Be-Overlooked Memorial Award

This is a tough one. Will it be Michigan’s Chad Kolarik or Kevin Porter who don’t make either the first or second All-CCHA teams?

My guess is that it will be Notre Dame junior Josh Sciba, who with 13 goals is tied for sixth in league play.

Honorable mention: Miami’s Matt Davis, a senior with 15 goals (including two shorthanded and three game winners) and a +15 in league play, but only four assists; BGSU sophomore Jonathan Matsumoto (7-21–28), as pure a playmaker as the league has, but with a -9 rating and a team that will travel in the first round.

The Mike Comrie Most-Likely-to-Leave-Early Memorial Award

Michigan’s Jack Johnson. I wonder if Andrew Cogliano will also depart.

The Aniket Dhadphale Garbage Man Memorial Award

Picking up the trash has become increasingly more difficult as scoring in college hockey has decreased, so how fitting is it that this award goes to a player from the Fighting Irish: Sciba. His nine power-play tallies lead the league in CCHA play.

The Mike York Poetry-in-Motion Memorial Award

UNO’s Scott Parse. Can there be any doubt? Parse was something to watch his rookie season; two years later, he’s poetry in motion.

Runners up: OSU’s Tom Fritsche and Michigan’s Andrew Cogliano. Just watch the way they command the offensive zone. Mesmerizing.

Best Offensive Goalie Award

A couple of seasons back, there were no goalies with points. This year, we’re lousy with them.

Four CCHA goaltenders have earned one assist each: David Brown (ND), Dave Caruso (OSU), Charlie Effinger (Miami), and Jeff Jakaitis (LSSU).

This year, three goaltenders have amassed two points each to earn the Girl Reporter Best Offensive Goalie Award: Daniel Bellissimo (WMU), Jerad Kaufmann (UNO), and Bill Zaniboni (NMU).


Girl Reporter All-Goon Squad

I have to say that it was my perception that minor penalties were down this season, but my take on it may be skewed because of the early-season rules enforcement and the fact that the team whose games I cover, OSU, didn’t lead the nation in PIMs this year.

These selections do not reflect mere minutes received. Oh no. This year’s Goon Squad takes into account certain aesthetics of the game.

None of this is intended to offend, but I’m sure someone, somewhere, is going to be angry.

Jack Johnson (Michigan, D). With 137 total minutes (48 calls), Johnson is the undisputed king.

The UAF Fearsome Foursome: Darcy Campbell (So. D), T.J. Campbell (So. D), Kelly Czuy (Sr. F), and Jordan Hendry (Sr. D). These four have combined for a total of 247 minutes. I especially respect Hendry, who earned his the old-fashioned way, two at a time (35-70).

Ryan Jones (Miami, F). Jones, a sophomore, doesn’t lead the team in penalty minutes by any means. I just like his brand of dirty.

Justin Abdelkader (MSU, F). This rookie is, in the words of the father of an unnamed CCHA assistant coach, a [expletive] disturber. He has 30 penalties for 71 minutes, which by no means takes away from the fact that he’s one of my favorite rookies, even if his name took me half a season to type without having to look it up.

Andrew Schembri (OSU, F) Another one who doesn’t lead his team in PIMs by any means, but the junior who’s on the shorter side has honed his penalty sense to include some smart ones as well as, well, the other kind. And shame on you if you can be taken down by a guy of Schembri’s stature. Dirty hobbit, indeed.

WMU’s Terrible Twosome: Chris Frank (Fr. D) and Jonathan Lupa (So. D) These guys have 197 minutes between them.

BGSU’s Jon Sitko. This stay-at-home senior defender is also not tops on his team in PIMs, but he’s a sentimental favorite. When he hits you, you stay hit.

Travel Is Overrated

This weekend will decide which three teams will join Miami with a first-round playoff bye, which four will travel, and which four will host.

I have absolutely no interest going over possible playoff scenarios ad nauseum. In fact, I discovered something about myself last week that I’ve actually known all along but have been unable to articulate: The numbers bore me. To tears.

I know that most sports fans like to talk stats, that the popularity of fantasy leagues is a frighteningly strong reminder of the math interest differences between men and women. I, too, am guilty of stats-mongering because it’s what readers expect.

But I don’t care. Well, that’s not fair. I care more about other aspects of the game, and I approach hockey — oh, forgive me the New Age reference — more holistically.

Two incidents drove this home for me last week. First, I was at Miami’s 6-3 win Valentine’s Day, when the RedHawks clenched the regular-season title. A longtime OSU fan told me, “I see I did better than you at picking the games last week.”

Without thinking, I replied, “Who didn’t?”

This fan was, I think, surprised by my reaction. So was I. He looked smugly delighted when he first told me about how he bested me, a bit deflated after I responded. But it’s true. I am not that good at predicting game outcomes, and I don’t take it seriously.

In fact, in the 1998-99 season, after taking significant grief from Notre Dame fans for picking OSU to sweep them in the final series in the old Ice Rink (turns out I was right), I vowed in my column not to pick against the Irish for the remainder of the season. I swallowed a lot of picks because of that — and I took additional grief — but I didn’t care.

Last week, I was also interviewed by Jeff Reinhardt for the UNO booster’s newsletter. He was a nice guy and I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation.

However, he kept pressuring me to give him my opinion in ordinals. He asked me to “rank” head coach Mike Kemp among CCHA coaches. (I declined.) He asked me to give him my top three picks for the Hobey Baker. (I declined.) He wanted me to rank Scott Parse among all collegiate players. (Ibid.)

That’s when it really hit me that I just don’t think that way. Okay, so there are times when I’m forced to wear the old fedora and think more like a man (Dorothy Parker would be so pleased), but that’s because it’s part of the job description.

All I know is that Scott Parse is my favorite player to watch in the CCHA, that I can have an excellent, sincere conversation with Mike Kemp — who happens to be a terrific coach — that I can have such conversations with many coaches (we have quite a league), that I look forward to each game as an experience that cannot be duplicated and that every player, every coach, every fan, every writer, every person in attendance has a unique agenda that adds to the drama of every single contest.

So, like you, I anticipate this weekend’s games with great fervor. I just want to see what’s going to happen.

No scenarios, but here are the league’s tiebreakers as best as I can make out from this week’s CCHA release. I may be absolutely wrong.

1. Number of regular-season CCHA wins
2. Best head-to-head record
3. Best goal differential head-to-head
4. Win percentage vs. other CCHA teams, starting at the top
5. Flip of a coin

Next Week …

Part 2 of my annual awards, including my All-Girl Reporter teams, and my pick for team most likely to surprise in the first round. I’d like to hedge my bets on that one.

Also, previews of all four first-round series.