This Week in the CCHA: March 2, 2006

Awards, Part 2

Last week, I dished out the virtual hardware for a list of categories all of my own making, honoring many a CCHA player who deserved his nanosecond in the spotlight.

I received a bit of flack for my pick of Jack Johnson as Rookie of the Year. None of the criticism came from Wolverine fans, even those who wrote me during the season to complain about Johnson’s extracurricular on-ice activities. Some of those who complained reminded me of good, old-fashioned Michigan bashers, folks who aren’t content enough that the Wolverines had their lowest regular-season finish in a decade and a half.

I stick by my decision. Johnson has some maturing to do, but he’s an incredible player with enough raw talent to take him far. And he’s caused enough buzz to merit more than just one look.

My awards, my rules.

Here are my picks for all-league. These are guys who bring the mysterious “intangibles” to the game and make it more interesting by their mere presence. This year, I’ve decided to go with one team: three forwards, two defensemen, one goaltender. It was brutally difficult.

Remember, the plaques and trophies here are as real as those dinners with Dave Hendrickson.

Girl Reporter All-CCHA Team

Andrew Ebbett (F, Michigan)
Ryan Jones (F, Miami)
Scott Parse (F, UNO)
Sean Collins (D, OSU)
Andy Greene (D, Miami)
Jeff Lerg (G, MSU)

Ebbett is the best defensive forward in the league, in my opinion. Jones is aggressive in a way I really like, and has fulfilled promised potential from his freshman year. Parse is just phenomenal.

I think Andy Greene is the best two-way player in the league, and that Sean Collins is the best defensive defenseman. These were tough calls, as each has excellent company on his own team, and the league is loaded with great defensive talent.

Lerg has emerged in the second half of the season as the driving force behind Michigan State’s climb up the standings, and he’s shouldered the responsibility of net alone.

There were many other players in the league whom I enjoy watching — Tom Fritsche, Darin Olver, Jonathan Matsumoto, Brent Walton, Greg Rallo, Dave Caruso, the Effinger/Zatkoff tandem — and I hate to slight anyone, and I know the league and I will not concur in our all-conference teams, but these are the guys who I think deserve the top honors this year.

I think the all-rookie team is fairly straightforward.

Girl Reporter All-Rookie CCHA Team

Andrew Cogliano (F, Michigan)
Erik Condra (F, ND)
Dan Riedel (F, FSU)
Jack Johnson (D, Michigan)
Kevin Roeder (D, Miami)
Jeff Lerg (G, MSU)

So there you have it. Congratulations, gents, on a great season.

It’s a New Season

It’s snowing here today in Columbus. How appropriate for what everyone thinks of as a brand-new hockey season.

Now that the regular season is over, what strikes me is not just the order in which certain teams finished — Lake Superior State sixth, Ohio State 10th, for example — but the very small variation in league wins among teams No. 2 through No. 10. The number of points aside, the second-place Spartans had the same number of wins as the fourth-place Wildcats (14), and that’s just three more out-and-out victories than the 10th-place Buckeyes … and the ninth-place Nanooks, the eighth-place Fighting Irish, and those sixth-place Lakers.

Michigan State and Ferris State had seven ties each; Nebraska-Omaha had six. I haven’t gone through to see how many one-goal games were played this season, but I know there were many. Genuine parity is a rare thing, and could lead to upsets in both the first and second rounds of the CCHA playoffs.

And remember folks, parity doesn’t mean that everyone is equally good. The parity of the league about which so many coaches brag heading into the NCAA tournament — how it’s a tough league to survive, night in and out — may prove to be the CCHA’s very undoing in Albany, Worcester, Grand Forks, and Green Bay.

Rather than provide head-to-head playoff previews, I thought a snapshot of each team playing this weekend might be more appropriate. All statistics are overall. In the case of team stats, the number that follows the slash indicates the team’s rank among CCHA opponents.

This is a weekend ripe for upsets. Or as UAF head coach Tavis MacMillan told me from South Bend, “You can have the best week of practice ever, but your opponent can have an even better week and completely negate how well you think you’ve prepared.”

In other words, flip a coin.

No. 5 Nebraska-Omaha

• Record: 18-12-6, 12-10-6 CCHA
• Record home: 10-6-3
• Goals per game: 3.96/first
• Goals allowed per game: 3.22/10th
• Power play: .173/seventh
• Penalty kill: .819/ninth
• Top scorer: Scott Parse (19-40–59)
• Top goal scorer: Bill Thomas (25-21–46)
• Top goaltender: Jerad Kaufmann (2.81 GAA, .904 SV%)

Before facing the bottom-dwelling Broncos last weekend, the Mavericks had an excellent shot at a first-round CCHA playoff bye. A tie and a loss and one crucial point later, and UNO’s 10-game unbeaten streak came to an abrupt end, as did the Mavs’ chances of sitting out the first round.

“We’re just bitterly disappointed,” said head coach Mike Kemp. “We’ve got nobody to blame but ourselves and the bottom line is that we just let a great opportunity slip away.”

How the Mavericks respond to this disappointment is key to how they will perform this weekend. UNO has the deepest offense in the first-round field, with six double-digit goal scorers. There is no question that the Mavs are capable of turning up the heat, even if it doesn’t happen as often as they’d like on the power play.

But are they capable of turning the heat aside? Kaufmann is capable in net, but the UNO defense is porous, both full strength and down a man. If they can just stay one goal ahead of their opponent, the Mavericks can move on.

Also key is the team’s collective awareness of post-season opportunities. The Mavericks are sitting in a comfortable PairWise spot … for now. Two losses to Bowling Green, however, would likely end their season utterly.

No. 6 Lake Superior State

• Record: 15-12-7, 11-7-5 CCHA
• Record home: 10-4-4
• Goals per game: 2.68/eighth
• Goals allowed per game: 2.35/fourth
• Power play: .179/fourth
• Penalty kill: .824/eighth
• Top scorer: Trent Campbell (13-11–24)
• Top goal scorer: Campbell
• Top goaltender: Jeff Jakaitis(2.25 GAA, .919 SV%)

Under Frank Anzalone, the Lakers learned to play defensive hockey. Under Jim Roque, they’ve added the ability to score when necessary, making them legitimate candidates to make it all the way to Detroit. The Lakers score by committee, however, with Campbell as their only 10-goal scorer.

The Lakers haven’t won a playoff series since 1996, when they were the top seed in a CCHA tournament that had a very different format, and have lost their last eight CCHA playoff games in a row. That should be incentive enough for LSSU, and coming home for the first time in a month is another.

“Home ice will be really good for us because we’ve been on the bus all weekend for four straight weeks.”

The key to LSSU’s weekend will be the play of Jeff Jakaitis. If he’s as rock-steady as he’s been for the Lakers all season, the rest of his hard-working teammates will take care of business.

No. 7 Ferris State

• Record: 15-13-8, 10-11-7 CCHA
• Record home: 6-6-4
• Goals per game: 3.06/fifth
• Goals allowed per game: 2.89/eighth
• Power play: .183/third
• Penalty kill: .849/fourth
• Top scorer: Greg Rallo (16-21–37)
• Top goal scorer: Rallo
• Top goaltender: Mitch O’Keefe (2.70 GAA, .900 SV%)

The Bulldogs come into the playoffs having snapped a five-game winless streak in a most improbable way, by beating Michigan in Yost Arena, in overtime, in the last game of the regular season (a.k.a. “Seniors Night” for the Wolverine), after overcoming a three-goal deficit with three unanswered of their own in the third period.

Zac Pearson scored 42 seconds into OT. “When Pearson got it to the red line, our assistant coach Derek Lalonde stood up and announced, ‘Game over!'” said FSU head coach Bob Daniels. “I don’t know how he knew it, but he had a premonition, and he was right.”

It’s that kind of come-from-behind tenacity that can carry the Bulldogs through this weekend. Mitch O’Keefe is a good goaltender, and while their overall numbers aren’t spectacular, the ‘Dogs don’t quit.

Whether the cozy confines of Ewigleben Arena will prove to be an advantage remains to be seen; this is the first weekend of spring break at FSU, and the Dog Pound may be underwhelming.

No. 8 Notre Dame

• Record: 13-17-4, 11-13-4 CCHA
• Record home: 7-9-1
• Goals per game: 2.59/10th
• Goals allowed per game: 2.76/seventh
• Power play: .178/fifth
• Penalty kill: .805/11th
• Top scorer: Erik Condra (6-28–34)
• Top goal scorer: Josh Sciba (17-13–30)
• Top goaltender: David Brown (2.50 GAA, .914 SV%)

Notre Dame’s secret weapon isn’t so secret: the Irish don’t give you much room. “Notre Dame plays a lock-down defense,” said UAF head coach Tavis MacMillan. “If you do manage to penetrate them, Mr. Brown makes the saves.”

“Mr. Brown” is David Brown, the CCHA Player of the Month for February, with a 1.70 goals-against average and .946 save percentage in his last seven games, during which the Irish were 4-3-1.

For a team on the low end of CCHA scoring, Notre Dame’s top line of Mike Walsh, Josh Sciba, and Erik Condra is as good as any in the league.

The key to Notre Dame’s survival this weekend is to smother the bigger, stronger Nanooks, score early, and maintain that lead.

No. 9 Alaska-Fairbanks

• Record: 15-14-5, 11-13-4 CCHA
• Record away: 7-9-2
• Goals per game: 2.38/12th
• Goals allowed per game: 2.65/sixth
• Power play: .162/ninth
• Penalty kill: .884/first
• Top scorer: Kyle Greentree (8-18–26)
• Top goal scorer: Curtis Fraser (11-11–22)
• Top goaltender: Wylie Rogers (2.61 GAA, .917 SV%)

If the Nanooks have a secret weapon this weekend, it’s even-keel head coach Tavis MacMillan, who said that UAF’s success depends on UAF. “I think our strengths are our strengths. We like to play strong along the boards. We’re getting much better through the neutral zone, but one team that doesn’t give you much in the neutral zone is Notre Dame.”

The Nanooks are big and physical and don’t skate nearly as fast as they should for a team that calls an Olympic sheet home. They work hard, score sometimes, kill penalties really well, and occasionally get the goaltending they need.

If they get a sizable lead early — sizable being relative — and get solid goaltending, they have a chance of advancing. MacMillan said that the key for UAF this weekend is the play of their biggest scorers: Greentree, Fraser, and Kelly Czuy.

No. 10 Ohio State

• Record: 15-17-5, 11-14-3 CCHA
• Record away: 6-10-0
• Goals per game: 2.59/ninth
• Goals allowed per game: 2.35/third
• Power play: .107/12th
• Penalty kill: .842/fifth
• Top scorer: Tom Fritsche (11-19–30)
• Top goal scorer: Andrew Schembri (12-11–23)
• Top goaltender: Dave Caruso (2.16 GAA, .914 SV%)

The Jekyll-and-Hyde Buckeyes need to score to advance past this first round. In fact, that’s all they really need to do.

OSU has a stellar defense … that has exhibited some spectacular, short-lived lapses that have cost valuable games and points. Caruso is amazing in net … except for those goals he’s been giving up at the starts of games and periods, real backbreakers. The Buckeyes are more disciplined this season … except for notable flights of fancy where nearly everyone on the ice winds up in the box.

Okay, so the Buckeyes need to do more than score, but for 55 minutes in every game, they can do everything else so flawlessly that they’re hard to beat. Throw just a couple more goals in, and they’re a top-four team.

Who knew that the loss of one senior could lead to the most disappointing season in OSU’s recent memory?

No. 11 Western Michigan

• Record: 8-22-6, 7-16-5 CCHA
• Record away: 1-13-4
• Goals per game: 2.44/11th
• Goals allowed per game: 4.14/12th
• Power play: .158/10th
• Penalty kill: .790/12th
• Top scorer: Brent Walton (23-15–38)
• Top goal scorer: Walton
• Top goaltender: Daniel Bellissimo (3.38 GAA, .887 SV%)

Sure, you’ve heard of Brent Walton, but do you know his linemates Paul Szczechura and Mike Lesperance? It’s a shame if you haven’t, because the trio is playing inspired hockey, accounting for 40 of Western Michigan’s 88 overall goals.

Unfortunately, after that line the offensive production drops off, and the defense doesn’t often rise to the occasion. It’s unfortunate, too, that WMU’s penalty kill is last in the league, as the Broncos spend a lot of time in the box, a problem that’s plagued them all season.

Add the challenge of playing on the road — WMU has one win away from Lawson this year — and the Broncos are unlikely to advance…unless the goaltending and defense is as inspired as that first line.

No. 12 Bowling Green

• Record: 13-21-2, 8-18-2 CCHA
• Record away: 3-11-1
• Goals per game: 3.33/third
• Goals allowed per game: 3.86/11th
• Power play: .177/sixth
• Penalty kill: .817/10th
• Top scorer: Alex Foster (11-40–51)
• Top goal scorer: Jonathan Matsumoto (18-28–46)
• Top goaltender: Jon Horrell (3.32 GAA, .896 SV%)

This enigmatic team has an exciting duo in Foster and Matsumoto and four other guys who can score goals, but like the Broncos, the Falcons have difficulty in keeping their own mistakes out of the net. After losing 5-4 to Miami to end the regular season, BGSU head coach Scott Paluch said, “They made the extra play to win the hockey game, and that is the way it has been going for us lately.”

That extra play was Matt Davis’s empty-net, shorthanded goal at 18:38 in the third, giving Miami a 5-3 lead. But Mike Falk scored at 19:00 to bring the Falcons to within one in a game during which BGSU battled back all night.

If there’s one strength that BGSU brings into this weekend, it’s a work ethic that never, ever quits.

Familiar Foes

As the regular season ground to a close last weekend and the league standings were finalized, UAF head coach Tavis MacMillan had to tell his players to get off the bus.

“It was crazy,” said MacMillan, whose Nanooks had lost to Notre Dame in South Bend, splitting for the weekend.

So the Nanooks unpacked and stayed put for the week, practicing each morning in the Joyce Center. “They were very gracious,” said MacMillan of the Irish, but he added that he really didn’t see much of Notre Dame as the teams were not using the facilities at the same time.

Should UAF emerge victorious this weekend, the Nanooks will spend a second consecutive full week in the Lower 48, either remaining in South Bend or heading north of the border. “It’s not strange to us,” said MacMillan, “because sometimes we do this during longer trips.”

Usually the Nanooks spend a week in January in Michigan or Ohio between road series; the UAF academic break gives the Nanooks the opportunity to eliminate consecutive trips south. When they travel extensively during school sessions, host CCHA schools help with tutors, study tables, and other academic resources.

While the Nanooks and the Irish are playing unusual back-to-back weekends against each other, there are two other first-round pairings that also feel very familiar. The Bulldogs are hosting the Buckeyes, whom they played two weeks ago in Columbus. OSU got the better of that series, earning a rare three points. And last year, OSU hosted FSU in the first round when the fortunes of the teams were very different: OSU the No. 2 seed, FSU 11th. That series took three games, with OSU advancing.

And the Lakers and that Broncos know each other really, really well — better, perhaps, than the Broncos would like. The teams were clustermates this season, with LSSU outscoring WMU 23-2 in four games, a margin made more lopsided by the first meeting, a 10-0 win. Yes, the Lakers swept the Broncos for the season.

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

I had a chance to chat with Notre Dame associate head coach Paul Pooley this week, because I wanted an “outsider’s” perspective on the CCHA playoff race.

Okay, so that’s not fair, but he and head coach Jeff Jackson have the freshest perspective on the league.

“There are a lot of close teams in terms of ability and style and play,” said Pooley. “I think our league top to bottom is pretty good. There’s some skill and great goaltending.”

It’s been an interesting year for the Irish, a team that has gone from no presence to competitive. I told Pooley that when Notre Dame visited Columbus in late January, I found myself thinking of the Irish as a team visiting from another league because they were so different from what I’d seen the previous two seasons, until someone made a play that forced me to take a note. Then I recognized a player’s name and realized that I’d been watching some of these guys for years, but seeing them — in many ways — for the first time.

“The biggest thing early on was that nobody knew what to expect out of Jeff and myself,” said Pooley. “We’re still teaching. I think that’s the biggest thing, with what to expect as coaches. I think the competitiveness of our team has gone way up. Our guys have become students of the game of hockey. The thing from our perspective is that the kids have been in a learning mode from the very beginning.”

Pooley is especially pleased with how Notre Dame has played since the midseason break; the Irish were 7-5-3 in January and February.

“We made progress. We changed a lot of things at Christmas after break and it’s really solidified our team. David [Brown] came in and caught fire. If you’ve got no goaltending, you’re not going to win.”

Pooley said that the Irish have built a better transition game, which is something every second-half opponent can attest to.

“We changed our system a little bit, which was the most important thing we talked about. Got a little bit more aggressive on the forecheck and at the same time got a little bit more responsible. For the first half of the year it seems like we were chasing all the time and not controlling the flow of the game.”

Going into this weekend, Pooley is concerned with UAF’s size and experience. “Both teams play good defensively and both teams have good goaltending. They have the height advantage. They’re big and they’re older, a lot of Western Canadian kids who know the game and come to play.”

That geography is what makes the CCHA so different from eastern leagues, said Pooley. UAF mines Western Canada, other CCHA teams roam far afield to recruit as well as to play. He joked about what constitutes a “long” road trip in Hockey East.

“It’s when you travel from one side of Boston to the other.”