This Week in the CCHA: Oct. 19, 2006

On Your Mark, Get Set…


Lake Superior State and Western Michigan share first place with Michigan State and Ohio State, Alaska is converting power plays at a 44.4 percent clip, and Bowling Green’s penalty kill is 100 percent.

I love this time of year.

One of the best ways to while away a minute or so is to try to get a coach to tell you about his team this early in the season.

“I know little bits and pieces, but not a whole lot yet,” said UA’s Tavis MacMillan.

“We’re not 100 percent ready to do what we need to do, but every day we make progress,” said UNO’s Mike Kemp.

And Michigan’s Red Berenson gave us a variation on a theme that we usually don’t see until later in the season from the Wolverine skipper: “I can’t say we were a much better team than they were.” Michigan beat its two opponents last weekend by a collective score of 15-6.

In other words, at this point in the season, the coaches something about their teams but are too cagey to reveal what, exactly, they know. Why risk letting the other guy know, and why risk being wrong on the record?

We CCHA fans, however, have the luxury of speculation, and so we’ll get right to it.

Games of the Week

How great is it to have two ranked teams duking it out for league points, this early in the season?

No. 9 Miami (3-1-0) at No. 5 Michigan (2-0-0)
Friday 7:35 p.m., Saturday 8:05 p.m., Yost Ice Arena, Ann Arbor, Mich.

As we all know, Michigan head coach Red Berenson is a master of understatement. Reflecting on last weekend’s 8-1 thumping of Alabama-Huntsville and 7-5 win over UConn, Berenson said, “We did some good things offensively and defensively. We’re like any other team; we’ve got improve in many areas.”

As disingenuous as that sounds, Berenson wasn’t trying to dodge a question. An 8-1 win is a statement, but allowing five goals — after leading 6-0 — is a statement of another kind.

“You have to consider the time of the year and the competition,” said Berenson. “I can’t tell you that there was a big separation, even in the Alabama-Huntsville game.”

Okay, perhaps a little disingenuous.

The box score from the UConn game is telling; the Huskies began their comeback just 12 seconds after T.J. Hensick scored the sixth (and eventually game-winning) goal, shorthanded, 4:16 into the second. Connecticut managed to make it 6-2 after two, but scored three goals within the first half of the third period to make it interesting. And the Wolverines were called for 13 minor penalties for 26 minutes.

“They outplayed us in large part the second half of the game,” said Berenson after the contest. “The penalties definitely had a role. We could not stay out of the box and we couldn’t kill them. You can say, ‘Well, we scored seven goals,’ but when we give up five that’s not acceptable.”

Every CCHA fan also knows that the start of the season is murder where penalties are concerned. On-ice officials sometimes seem caught up in enforcement and setting a tone; teams often appear caught off-guard by the more stringent enforcement and take some time to adjust, mistaken in their thinking that they can simply play the way they did at the end of the previous season and expect the officiating to be the same.

But even though the start of the season is an adjustment period for everyone and some mighty unpretty hockey is played in October in the CCHA, 13 penalties is a lot.

“I think both sides of the special teams will be challenged,” said Berenson. “We have to continue to work on the penalty killing. We gave up a couple of goals you can’t afford to give up.”

Penalty killing comes down to goaltending, ultimately. In two games, sophomore Billy Sauer has given up six goals for a .898 save percentage. Perhaps that’s an unfair statistic to examine so early in the season, but it’s the same save percentage that Sauer earned last year in 10 games, when he was giving up 3.04 goals per game.

Any discussion of goalies for this series has to include Miami’s dynamic duo of Charlie Effinger and Jeff Zatkoff. Effinger, a junior, is 2-0 this season, while Zatkoff, a sophomore, is 1-1 so far, and both goaltenders have beaten Michigan. Last year, the two split duties in a pair of come-from-behind wins in Goggin Arena, but neither has played in Yost.

And perhaps — and this is through the grapevine — one of them won’t see action this weekend. There’s a rumor that Effinger will get the nod for the whole weekend, as he’s the more experienced and steadier of the two netminders. If he should start both games, it would mark the first time in Zatkoff’s career that he didn’t split a weekend with Effinger.

As with the Wolverines, it’s too early to know what to expect from the RedHawks, specifically. We know that — like the Wolverines — they can skate, they can score, and they can defend. And we know that the RedHawks — like the Wolverines — are flirting a bit too much with the penalty box, averaging 27.2 minutes per game in four contests.

Indeed, two weeks ago in the title game of the Ice Breaker, it was an emotionally charged Miami team that lost its cool to a more collected Vermont team, which was a contributing factor to Miami’s loss.

This series also brings fans a Jack Johnson-Nathan Davis rematch. No betting, please.

Picks The too-soon-to-tell aspect of this series isn’t preventing me from calling a Michigan sweep, even though I may live to regret it; not only may Miami take one or both of these games, but if they do, I’ll never hear the end of it from those close to the team. These should be close, charged games between two skilled teams — and a telling start to league play for both.

The injured Matt Christie should be back for these games. And CSTV subscribers will be treated to two Wolverines in the studio for Friday night’s televised contest. Billy Jaffe will be on hand, as per usual, and former Michigan player Jed Ortmeyer will join him. The Rangers’ Ortmeyer is recuperating from an injury. As someone in the CSTV camp quipped, “Two Wolverines with 200 games between them … and 198 of them Ortmeyer’s.” Sorry, Billy. Michigan 3-2, 3-2

The Big Show, Alaska Style

The Iditarod. The Governor’s Cup. You want to bet what’s bigger in Alaska?

“We’re playing Air Force last weekend,” began Alaska head coach Tavis MacMillan, and I knew what was coming. A coach of another UA team told MacMillan, “It doesn’t matter how many other games you win this year. Just beat Anchorage.”

MacMillan laughed and said that his team does intend to compete in the CCHA this season, but added of the Governor’s Cup, “It’s big, huge. One of our team goals is to retain the Governor’s Cup.”

Governor’s Cup fever may come in part from the scarcity of population centers in Alaska and the distance between them, creating the kinds of rivalries that we here in the Lower 48 really can’t understand, but the real drive behind this rivalry is the scarcity of Division I competition in Alaska.

Hockey is the only team sport that is D-I in Alaska, and they only play that in Fairbanks and Anchorage. The rifle team in Fairbanks and the gymnastics team in Anchorage both compete at the D-I level, but they don’t have sticks and ice, now, do they? (Although guns are formidable, they don’t score goals.)

MacMillan said that the hype surrounding the series can be distracting, so the coaches don’t dwell on the Governor’s Cup, nor Alaska’s five-year streak. “It gets so much talk as it is, that it’s very dangerous to talk too much about it. It’s there, and it takes care of itself. The players read the hype; the Internet is a powerful tool.”

And that segues us, awkwardly, into Alaska’s six power-play goals in last week’s 8-4 win over Air Force.

“I think it’s real early and I don’t want to get too excited about our power play,” said MacMillan. More importantly, said the coach, was what he saw out of “a couple of older guys, Curtis Fraser and Kyle Greentree,” who “really took a step forward.”

Greentree has two goals and three assists to tie for the lead in Nanook scoring, and Fraser leads UA in goal production with three. After a 32-point freshman season, Greentree had a smallish sophomore slump with just eight goals and 19 assists last year; as a junior last year, Fraser’s goal production slid a bit, too, going from 17 his sophomore year to 11 in 2005-06.

MacMillan said that sophomore Chad Johnson “looked solid in goal, and he’s looked solid all year.”

There are plenty of newcomers — some of them very young — to the Nanook roster, and it will be fun to watch MacMillan in his third year as head coach.

As for how the Nanooks will do this weekend or any, MacMillan said, “Identity — I’m not quite sure what ours is yet, but I have an idea. It’s really early yet. Right now we’re just trying to fit the right pieces to make the puzzle.

“Those guys who can say they know their team’s identity this time of year are a lot smarter than me.”

Third Time, Likely to Charm

Last weekend, the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks had a more than respectable showing at the Nye Frontier Classic in Anchorage, despite two ties against their WCHA opponents. The first was a 2-2 tie against Colorado College, and the second 2-2 against the host Seawolves.

Each game was decided by a shootout. UNO “won” the game against CC to advance to the title game, which it “lost” to Anchorage.

“It was a good experience for us,” said head coach Mike Kemp. “It was a very good trip. All eight of our freshmen were in the lineup and we got to see them. It was a great way to open the season. It catapults us into the meat of our schedule, so that’s going to be a positive. I thought it was time well-spent for us.

“I was impressed with Colorado College; they’re a very good hockey team. I was actually more impressed with Alaska-Anchorage. They’re big, physical, they play hard. [Head coach] Dave Shyiak is doing good things there.”

After a tournament weekend far away, the Mavericks host their own season-opening gala, the Maverick Stampede. UNO is the defending champ for two years running, and Kemp said that the hype for the tourney is “huge,” much like that of the Governor’s Cup in Fairbanks.

“The tournament atmosphere is a real positive,” said Kemp. “People want to see a tournament. They want to see a championship, with a trophy.”

This year’s field brings CCHA rival Northern Michigan, plus Massachusetts-Lowell and Niagara. First up for the Mavs are the Purple Eagles, who beat St. Lawrence on the road last week, 4-3.

“I’ve been impressed with Niagara,” said Kemp. “I’ve watched them on tape. No one ever really walks into St. Lawrence and breezes through a game there. I look at that game with a lot of trepidation. I think the other bracket with Lowell and Northern is going to be a very, very good bracket as well.”

Much has been made about the early departure of Maverick Bill Thomas, who forfeited his junior and senior seasons in favor of professional hockey, after amassing 46 goals and 49 assists in two seasons at UNO. People speculate that he was the secret behind senior Scott Parse’s success, but Kemp is quick to set the record straight on that point.

“Around the league, people wonder … everyone’s always looking for what’s going to happen to somebody else. The year before Bill got here, Scott led the team in scoring and was our MVP. Last weekend, we went to Anchorage, and he was the tournament MVP.

“He’s one of those guys who can do so many different things. He can be a dominant player.”

Kemp called his team “pretty balanced” this season, but added that the Mavericks will be “flip-flopping players left and right — it’s going to be a revolving door for a few weeks — to evaluate what we have for talent.

“I like our team at this point in time. We’re not 100 percent ready to do what we need to do, but every day we make progress. As long as we can improve on a daily basis, I’m going to feel pretty good about the team. We seem to be doing that.”

Not Exactly Traveling Men

So how did Ohio State associate head coach Casey Jones get the Minnesota Golden Gophers to commit to two games in Columbus?

No, it wasn’t blackmail. Nor was it the memory of that 7-2 win over OSU in the Hockey Hall of Fame Game in 2002.

“They thought it was an appealing venue to visit after they’d seen it for the Frozen Four,” said Jones. “I think it worked out this year with them hosting Michigan and Michigan State for the Showcase.”

The Gophers are visiting Columbus to play the Buckeyes again next weekend, on the gridiron. It would have been nice, obviously, to combine the sports, but Jones said that they “tried and couldn’t get it.”

The Buckeyes will travel to Minneapolis in December of 2007 to return the favor.

Time Warping

I was watching the Flyers-Sabres game Tuesday night, and it took until hearing the announcer (Doc Emerick?) say, “…and Ryan Miller gets a glove on it” that I realized that something was different. Miller was wearing an original Sabres uniform. So were all the other Buffalo guys.

I can’t even being to explain the disconnect.

Then, when Miller made a save toward the end of the first on a backhanded R.J. Umberger shot — and Umberger ended the period with a little at-the-buzzer pushing — I couldn’t figure any of it out.

Was this 1984, the year of my first NHL game at the old Aud in Buffalo? Was this last season, just before R.J. met up with lights out?

And don’t I know these guys?

Strangeness. Not deja vu, not a trip down memory lane, but something weirdly and not unpleasantly in the middle.

I think the new Sabres colors, logo, and uniforms are ugly, and it’s not just because I liked the original colors, logo, and sweaters. I didn’t care much for the red and black, either.

But it was comforting to see that some things never change. Umberger shoots. Miller saves.

Next Week

I have a new CCHA boyfriend, and his name is … Steve Cady Arena.

Also, a look back at the Ice Breaker, a look at the unexpected offseason changes through the league, plus an update on Don Lucia’s hair, and my vote for the best-looking coaching staff in Division I college hockey.