This Week in the CCHA: Nov. 9, 2006

Turnover? Look No Further Than the CCHA

I don’t know why everyone’s so excited about what happened Tuesday. Sure, sure, it’s been over a decade since power changed hands in the House and Senate, but don’t people realize that it’s been even longer since we’ve seen that kind of change in the CCHA?

Where are the priorities, I ask you?

The 2006-07 season may only be a month old, and every coach will tell you that there’s a plenty of hockey to be played, but there are some indications in the early going that genuine change is in the air.

Maybe.

As this column hits the pixels, four of the top five teams in conference standings do not play their home games in the state of Michigan, and not one of those teams is Michigan.

Miami (4-2-0) leads the league and has played more games than anyone other than Ohio State and Western Michigan. The two RedHawk losses came at the hands of the Wolverines on the road and the Northern Michigan Wildcats at home — both respectable teams.

Alaska and Notre Dame are the only two teams in the league who remain undefeated in conference play, but the Nanooks (3-0-1) have played just four games, the Irish (1-0-1) just two, and neither is unblemished.

Four teams — Michigan State, Lake Superior State, Michigan, and NMU — are .500 in league play, but MSU has the extra point for its tie with Ferris State.

OSU (2-3-1), tied for third place currently, is artificially high because of the number of games it’s played in relation to other teams in the league; by the same measure, Notre Dame (1-0-1) is temporarily low.

Can we judge a team’s season-long prospects based on its early performance? What factors are emerging that will shape this CCHA season?

Goaltending

For years, the CCHA has boasted that it is a league of exceptional goaltending, but this season, the goaltending mirrors the longstanding tiers the league exhibits. In other words, the CCHA is a league of goaltending haves and have-nots.

Firmly in the “haves” camp are Alaska, BGSU, LSSU, Miami, NMU, and Notre Dame. No one is surprised by the play of Laker Jeff Jakaitis (.942 SV%), Wildcat Bill Zaniboni (.932) or RedHawk Jeff Zatkoff (.931), and Notre Dame’s David Brown (.950) appears to be having a career season — fitting, as he’s a senior. But Nanook Chad Johnson (.927)? And rookie Falcon Eddie Neville (.913)? These are pleasant surprises.

For the Nanooks, Johnson’s steady play may be the very thing that gives UA a chance to compete at home at the end of the season; for the Falcons, Neville may be an answer to many prayers, giving BGSU the chance to lift itself from the cellar.

What’s conspicuous about the haves camp is who’s not present: Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State . The three Big Ten schools are struggling in net, with the Wolverines’ Billy Sauer (.881), the Spartans’ Jeff Lerg (.842), and the Buckeyes’ two freshmen (.869) performing well below what’s necessary for a team to contend.

In fact, after the top six goaltenders in the league, every netminder with significant minutes in this young season is performing has a save percentage of less than .900 in overall play.

Goal Scoring

How do teams with suspect goaltending win games? They score goals, and that’s what Michigan (4.75 goals per game), Nebraska-Omaha ( 4.62), and Michigan State (4.14) are doing.

Only the Wolverines and the Spartans, however, are being given the benefit of the doubt in the polls. UNO has a better win percentage than either so far this season, and while Michigan has definitely had a tougher schedule than has UNO, the Spartans can’t make the same claim.

Alaska (4.00), Notre Dame (3.88), Lake Superior State (3.50), and Miami (3.38) follow the top three scoring teams in the league, and if their goaltending continues to be as solid as it is now, there’s no reason that these four programs can’t crowd the top of the standings at the end of the year.

Unlikely as that is to happen.

Star Power

The top 10 goal scorers in the CCHA hail from eight different teams — a deceptive statistic when you look at overall point scoring — but which teams have the guys who can break open a game and make a one-man difference?

1. Michigan. The Wolverines may not have the top scorer in the country, but Michigan’s roster is loaded with talent up front, with 10 different Wolverines registering goals through eight games played. T.J. Hensick (4-12–16), Kevin Porter (7-8–15), and Chad Kolarik (8-5–13) are three players who can turn a shift or a game, and Hensick may be the most talented forward in the league.

2. Alaska. Alaska? Seven Nanooks have tallied power-play goals in eight games, with Kyle Greentree (8-9–17) leading the way in this breakout season. Add Curtis Fraser (5-6–11), and set-up man Tyler Eckford (3-8–11), and a dozen guys total who have scored goals, and you have an offense that may be more than a fluke. Greentree truly is a marquee player whose time has come.

3. Nebraska-Omaha. Alex Nikiforuk (4-8–12), Scott Parse (4-8–12), and Brandon Scero (7-2–9) are among the most talented forwards in the league. Even without Bill Thomas, Parse is the man who can make the difference at UNO.

4. Miami. Nathan Davis (9-12–21) leads the nation in scoring. Frankly, I’m a little disappointed with the RedHawk offense this season, but I suspect that they’ll bloom later. Ryan Jones (6-6–12) is a sparkplug.

5. Bowling Green. Derek Whitmore (7-2–9)? Is this junior a flash in the pan? We all know that Jonathan Matsumoto (3-7–10) has star power.

6. Ohio State. Tommy Goebel (4-0–4), who has been in and out of the lineup with an injury, is a pure goal scorer and a genuine player. Mathieu Beaudoin (4-0–0) showed flashes early, but maybe just flashes.

The combination of goaltending and star power may be a harbinger for Alaska and Miami. The rest of the teams in the league — even the Spartans — are waiting for their stars to emerge. Of course, that’s just one woman’s opinion.

A Word from Our Friend, Bill

No, not Bill, the ex-president. It’s Bill, the ex-commissioner.

I received email a few weeks ago from our old pal, Bill Beagan, who in his leisurely retirement has taken to philosophizing about hockey. I, for one, welcome his insight, and received his permission to share some of his thoughts.

During the NHL strike, Bill speculated that the lockout might become the best thing for the sport, which had — in his opinion — grown a bit stale and tired.

“One could arguably say,” wrote Bill recently, “that in most instances, strikes are counter-productive and not beneficial to workers or employers. In the case of the cancellation of the 2004-05 NHL season, however, it was … refreshing … culminating in a defining historical moment.”

That moment, wrote Bill, was the “collaboration between NHL management and the NHLPA … perhaps contributing in the biggest advancement the NHL has made, in its entire history.”

Maybe he’s onto something. The game is certainly fresher than it’s been in a while, and the play much more exciting. As sad as I was to see many veterans hang up their skates as a result of the strike, their departures left open the door for new talent in the league, and much of that new talent came by way of NCAA hockey.

Bill also wrote, “I believe the NCAA college hockey constituency, along with the vast number of NHL players they have developed, has made a profound impact on the way the ‘new normal’ NHL game is presently being officiated and played.”

Bill offered, by way of evidence, the rules that college hockey has developed, and “the standard of rule enforcement of same, which the NHL has de facto adopted.”

Again, he has a point there, and we have — as Ferris State head coach Bob Daniels correctly pointed out at the start of the season — the current CCHA commissioner to thank, in part, for that.

While the league’s lead in rules enforcement has often led to short-term pain, there’s no question the game is better for it.

And while we’re on the subject, this season seems to be lacking that initial adjustment period of the past few season starts, where penalties have been overwhelming in early games and programs have struggled to adjust. That, certainly, is welcome change.

From Left Field

UNO senior forward Nenad Gajic has opted to leave Omaha and relinquish his college eligibility for professional sports.

Professional lacrosse, that is.

UNO head coach Mike Kemp told the Omaha World-Herald that the move was “100 percent positive” for Gajic, and that Gajic had UNO’s “full support.”

“He just saw a better future for himself playing professional lacrosse than he would’ve had playing pro hockey,” said Kemp.

Gajic had seven goals and 13 assists in his 58 games as a Maverick.

Am I Blue?

Oh yes. It’s a short week, and I have to tease you yet again about offseason goings-on … and I still have a promised feature on Steve Cady to finish.

I also have a feature about the OSU women to finish — at the request of USCHO’s women’s editor, lest you think I’m just homering it — which was pure pleasure to research. The Buckeye men can certainly take a page from their female counterparts on the power play.

What else makes me blue? OSU hosts WMU twice this weekend (and that’s fine), but it does shorten time. And Friday’s game is being played in the Ohio Expo Center, a.k.a. The Fairgrounds, a place better suited to horse shows and one that I’d hoped to never enter again for hockey.

The press box there is filthy. I’m not kidding about the horse shows. At least the Fighting Irish don’t have the worst rink in the league Friday night.

But in this extraordinary week, where power shifted slightly in a government and no blood was shed, I am proud of my grandmother, Josephine Novak. This 90-year-old woman called my uncle, her son, to make sure she had a ride to the polling place in Lebanon, Penn.

She had to vote. And she voted for winners this time around.

Way to go, Nanna.

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