This Week in the CCHA: Nov. 2, 2006

Touchdown Jesus 3, U.S. Armed Forces 0, and No. 22

Feel for the United States armed forces, for more than just the usual reasons. Not only did John Kerry botch a joke this week and imply that everyone fighting in Iraq is an idiot, but our servicemen were outdone not once, not twice, but three times on the playing field by the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

When briefly previewing last weekend’s Lightning College Classic in Tampa Bay, I said that I’d like to see a Notre Dame-Air Force final, so that the Irish — and the CCHA by extension — could brag that they had defeated two branches of the American military en route to a title.

Well … Notre Dame not only beat both Army and Air Force, but shut them out, sweeping that tourney with 3-0 and 2-0 wins.

By phone, I joked with ND head coach Jeff Jackson about the feat, and asked him if he thought the troops in Iraq would be demoralized by two losses at the hands of Notre Dame.

“Three,” he quickly reminded me. “Football beat Navy.”

And all a week before the midterm elections.

(There is all manner of innuendo to explore here, but even I am not that brash. Or stupid.)

The Irish are off to a hot 5-1-0 start that has earned them the respect of fans and poll voters alike. This week, Notre Dame plays its first CCHA games in Columbus against Ohio State, a team that has been a difficult nut, if you’ll pardon the pun, for the Irish to crack.

“It’s important for us to sustain some level of success,” said Jackson. “Now we’re playing for points, there are rivalries involved, you’re playing the same opponent back to back nights.”

After splitting a season-opening home-and-home series against Minnesota State, the Irish have been a perfect 4-0, with an over-the-top trip east, where the Irish upset then-No. 1 Boston College 7-1 before beating Providence 6-1. The win over BC was the third straight for the Irish over the Eagles, and all three times BC was the top team in the country. This year’s win and score stunned everyone, including Jackson.

“That win was a little bit surprising to us as well. We went over there to win, obviously, but we certainly didn’t expect to win like that. Beating them was one thing, but beating them by six was a bit of surprise.”

Jackson, who coached Lake Superior State to three consecutive NCAA championship appearances (winning two of them, in 1992 and 1994), said he knows how BC head coach Jerry York felt.

“I’ve been there before. Probably we gave them a little wake-up call.”

This year’s fast start is exactly what Jackson and the Irish wanted. “I was hoping and expecting than we would be a better team than we were a year ago. I thought getting off to a good start was important to us. Last year we got off to a tough start.”

In their six games this season, the Irish are scoring 4.33 goals per game while allowing just 1.00, an impressive ratio. “We’ve been pretty talented up front compared to a year ago,” said Jackson. “Our offensive depth is better, and our defense and goaltending is just as good.”

Jackson is taking nothing for granted when his team faces Ohio State this weekend. “I know that now that we start the league schedule, I know it’s going to be tougher. I expect [the Buckeyes] to be tenacious and aggressive. I know they’re motivated, because they’re coming off a good showing against Northern Michigan.”

When the Irish visit Columbus, ND assistant head coach Paul Pooley will be honored when his jersey, No. 22, will be retired by Ohio State during Saturday’s game. This marks the first time in program history that OSU has retired a former hockey player’s number.

Pooley (1981-1984) is Ohio State’s all-time leading scorer, with 270 total points (114 goals, 156 assists). That point total puts him at 20th all-time among NCAA scorers. He was a Hobey Baker finalist and first-team All-American in 1984, and the only Buckeye ever to have been named CCHA Player of the Year.

“To have your sweater raised to the rafters is something that very few people who had brilliant careers will ever see happen,” said OSU head coach John Markell. “He deserves every accolade for what he did. He’s personifies what a student-athlete should be about. He worked hard both academically and athletically.”

Jackson, who had Pooley by his side in Sault Ste. Marie, called the honor “awesome.”

“He was one of the best players in the history of the game for college hockey,” said Jackson. “It’s meaningful for me, because he’s such a close friend of mine. He’s such a class act.”

Jackson said that when he interviewed for the job at Notre Dame two years ago, there was no question in his mind who he wanted to serve as his assistant. “We had great chemistry at Lake State and remained friends over the years in spite of my moving around so much. I knew he had done a great, underrated job at Providence.”

Notre Dame’s title-game win over Air Force last week was a milestone for two of the Irish. The win was the 200th career win for Jackson, and the shutout was the seventh for senior Notre Dame goaltender David Brown.

Games of the Week

With the Wolverines and Spartans meeting home-and-home, could there be any other?

No. 9 Michigan (4-2-0, 1-1-0 CCHA) vs. No. 6 Michigan State (3-1-0, 1-1-0 CCHA)
Friday, 7:05 p.m., Munn Ice Arena, East Lansing, Mich.
Saturday, 7:35 p.m., Yost Ice Arena, Ann Arbor, Mich.

I’ll get right to it: Jack Johnson will miss Friday’s game. He’s serving the mandatory one-game suspension for his game disqualification in last Saturday’s 3-2 home loss to Northeastern.

The sophomore Michigan defenseman has earned himself a reputation — whether unfairly or no — for the brand of hockey that attracts major penalties and game disqualifications.

I wasn’t at last week’s game, but I have talked to several people who were, and I will give credit to Johnson for defending his goaltender, Billy Sauer, who had taken a hit from an opposing player. Johnson’s error may have been in throwing actual punches, but I do have a soft spot in my heart for guys who protect their goaltenders.

“It was a hard hit on our goalie,” said Red Berenson after the game, “and I know the nearest player would have done the same.”

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s look at this match.

It’s early in the season, and it’s difficult to say what any team is made of at this point. As usual, the Wolverines and Spartans will play each other four times during the regular season, but in an unusual twist, three of those four games will come between now and Thanksgiving. Early indeed.

“I wish we were playing it later, but it’s the kind of series we need right now because we just haven’t played much,” said Michigan State head coach Rick Comley. “The matchup with Michigan is always great. The fans love it.”

Comley has spoken often of the Spartan-Wolverines rivalry since he made the leap from Marquette to East Lansing, and each time, he sounds more like a fan of the game than a coach. “You can’t believe it. The place is just electric.”

Michigan State scored 12 goals at home last weekend in a pair of nonconference wins, but allowed eight. In Saturday’s 7-5 win over Sacred Heart, the Spartans were leading 5-0 after 35 minutes of hockey, but allowed three unanswered SHU goals to make it 5-3 by the early going in the third. MSU added two more midway through the final stanza — and needed them, as Sacred Heart netted two in the last six minutes of play.

“We just got a bit sloppy,” said Comley after the game.

Given the youth of the season, it’s difficult for nearly any coach to assess his team, and Comley is no exception. He called the Spartans “emerging” and added, “We’re not near as good as we were at the end of last year, but I think we’ve got good potential as a team. We’re replacing some really good players.”

One of those players is forward Drew Miller, who left late in the offseason to pursue a professional career. Had Miller returned for his senior year, he would have given the Spartans edge enough to be early picks for this season’s Frozen Four, given how strongly MSU finished up last season.

Sometimes when a key player leaves a team, coaches downplay the impact of the move for various reasons. They don’t want to imply one player summed up the team. They don’t want to imply that the remaining players can’t replace what the team has lost.

Comley, however, isn’t cagey at all about Miller’s departure. “He’s a major loss, especially that late in the whole process. If he were in the locker room, we’d be a different team for sure.”

Comley’s also looking for players to “earn that right” of status that Miller had. “You do that by showing in game situations that you can go out and score those real big goals.”

He’s not sure who will do that for the Spartans this season in Miller’s absence but he is sure of one thing: “We’ll know a lot about our team on Monday.”

State’s only played four games, and Michigan has played six, but here are a few numbers for you to ponder anyway. Stats are overall.

• Goals per game: UM 4.67 (first); MSU 4.50 (third)
• Goals allowed per game: UM 3.17 (ninth); MSU 3.00 (seventh)
• Power play: UM 17.8 percent (sixth); MSU 18.5 percent (fifth)
• Penalty kill: UM 80.9 percent (ninth); MSU 88.9 percent (fifth)
• Top scorer: UM Chad Kolarik (8-3–11), T.J. Hensick (3-8–11); MSU Tim Kennedy and Jay Sprague (1-4–5, each)
• Top ‘tender: UM Billy Sauer (.880 SV%); MSU Jeff Lerg (.840 SV%)

Is anyone else struck by the save percentages of the goaltenders? Anyone? New pads? Better scorers? Alignment of the planets? This isn’t limited to these two teams, either.

But back to this series.

Berenson is 35-49-13 all-time against Michigan State, and is 5-7-6 against Comley’s Spartans. The teams played to three ties last season, out of four games.

According to the Michigan Daily, forward Tim Cook will move to defense Friday in Johnson’s absence.

Picks: If I had any brass at all, I’d call two ties … but you know what a wimp I am. And it’s so hard to get a read on these teams; not only is it early, but each is suspicious in net and potentially audacious up front. Wouldn’t you love to see two high-flying, high-scoring, play-’till-they-drop games? MSU 3-2, Michigan 3-2

At Last!

The phone rang, a man answered, I asked for Walt Kyle … and it was.

I finally caught up with the amiable coach of the Northern Michigan Wildcats on Halloween, when I had the advantage of my special broom and familiars in addition to my usual witchiness.

Last weekend, the Wildcats split a pair of games with the Buckeyes, opening the series with a 2-0 win and coming from behind Saturday to nearly tie it up in a 4-2 loss. OSU’s last goal was an empty-netter.

“We would have liked to have gotten another game Saturday night,” said Kyle. “Give them credit. They came out and played.”

The NMU roster has a new look this season, with eight freshmen and a bunch of other guys who didn’t see much playing time last year. “We’re really young,” said Kyle. “We’re kind of a funny team because we have a pretty big group of seniors, and then a lot of players in between who have varying levels of experience.”

“Blake Cosgrove didn’t play a game last year, Spencer Dillon played six, Derek May played 13. They’re not freshmen, but that’s what they’ve played.”

All three are defensemen; Cosgrove is a junior, while Dillon and May are sophomores.

Like every other coach in the league, Kyle is unsure so far of what he has, exactly, and he thinks last weekend’s split is indicative of what a lot of teams may do this year. “After Miami, Michigan, and Michigan State, I think it’s going to be the same with a tone of teams like that, a lot of up and down. We’ll probably go up and down. Goaltending is going to be an issue.”

So far this season, the league is one of goaltending haves and have-nots. Many goaltenders are struggling to reach the .900 save percentage plateau, some uncharacteristically so. In Marquette, however, Bill Zaniboni’s save percentage is a decisive .940 after eight games played.

This weekend, the Wildcats head to Miami to face the RedHawks, but Kyle is more focused on his own young team than Miami, at least in practice. “I watch other teams. I don’t bring a lot of what other teams do to our guys. I watch them and see what they do, and maybe try to quietly adjust some of the things in practice to what they do.

“A year ago, I could have gone to the team and said, ‘Okay. This is what they’re doing.’ We’re just not ready for that yet.”

Kyle’s eager to get a look at Miami’s new arena, and thinks that The Cady is a boon for the entire CCHA. “I think they’ve done a great job with their program,” said Kyle. “Their depth and their personnel are tops. They’re always going to have people on the ice who can come right at you.”

And Kyle has a keen sense of what to expect from Nathan Davis, the CCHA Player of the Month. “I coached Nathan Davis a year ago in the World Juniors and I have nothing but respect for him.”

The Wildcats lead this series all-time 26-9-2, but last season the teams split in Oxford, and Miami picked up a second win, 5-2, in CCHA semifinal action in Detroit.

Who Knew He Was This Funny?

Last year, Lake Superior State head coach Jim Roque got himself into a bit of hot water with the league after making remarks about officiating in a pair of shutout losses to Ohio State early in the season. He went on at length — an extraordinary thing for a coach — on the record, in a post-game press conference, and I reported what he said in this column.

This year, after dropping another shutout game to OSU to open the CCHA season, the Lakers beat the Buckeyes, 7-6 in overtime, to cap a two-game set at Value City Arena in Columbus.

After the win, I knew I had to ask Roque about ending the goal-scoring drought against the Buckeyes. I also knew that I wasn’t his favorite person in the room, by a long shot, so I didn’t know what to expect.

I certainly didn’t expect this gift.

“Well, when we scored the goal in the first period, I told Gil, our guy on the equipment bench, ‘I’m done. I’m leaving. We scored a goal.’

“That was our goal coming down. I told guys in the Soo on my radio show my two goals for the weekend: one was to score a goal, and not spend a thousand dollars. That was my two goals for the weekend, and we accomplished that.”

He shot a quick glance at me and added, “This isn’t over yet.”

Bravo, coach.

Next Week

The offseason goings on that I couldn’t get to this week, and some remarks from former CCHA commissioner Bill Beagan.