This Week in the CCHA: Nov. 16, 2006

Sure, They Can Beat the U.S. Armed Forces, but Can They Take the Spartans?

It’s hard to avoid the cliché about smiling Irish eyes this season, since Notre Dame hockey has emerged from a Van Winkle-like slumber and found itself starting faster than it has since 1998-99, with an 8-1-1 record and No. 5 ranking.

“We’re still competing with everyone in the league,” said Irish head coach Jeff Jackson after sweeping Bowling Green last weekend. “We’ll find out where we stand over the next four weeks.”

And how.

Those four weeks begin this weekend, with a home-and-home series against Michigan State, continue on the road at Nebraska-Omaha, a home stint against Alaska, and culminate in another home-and-home series, this one against Michigan. And then there’s Northern Michigan.

Four of those teams are ranked and are either ahead of ND in the standings or tied with the Irish.

Jackson told the Lansing State Journal this week that even he’s “a bit” surprised. “I thought we’d be a better team but it’s still early to get too excited.”

What surprises many people is that the Irish have started so fast while traveling so much. ND has played just three games at home, all wins, and the Irish’s second and third road games of the season were 7-1 and 6-1 routings of then-No. 1 Boston College and Providence, respectively.

An enormous part of Notre Dame’s success this season is the play of senior goaltender David Brown, who through 11 games has a 1.20 goals-against average and .953 save percentage, best nationally in both categories.

Not surprisingly, the Irish have the best defense in the nation (1.10 goals per game). The Irish offense, however, is interesting in more ways than one. ND is ninth in the country in overall scoring, netting four goals per game … but with not one player cracking the top ten among goal scorers in the nation. Mark Van Guilder is tied for 17th with .80 goals per game; Ryan Thang is next, tied for 45th with .60 goals per game. And yet, all the goal scoring is clustered among a few players, many of whom are performing well on ND’s power play, 11th best in the country.

Sure, it’s early in the season and statistics can be skewed, but there’s no denying that Notre Dame’s success is a team effort, even with the performance of Brown in net.

While ND’s 4-0 win over Bowling Green last weekend was Brown’s third of the season and school-record career eighth shutout, the most recent four points that the Irish earned came at the expense of a team that has languished in or near the basement for several seasons. Two weeks ago, ND took three points from Ohio State, a team that will likely lose more than it wins this season.

And in capturing the Lightning College Hockey Classic in Tampa, the Irish beat Army and Air Force.

To say that Notre Dame has yet to be challenged over a sustained stretch of time is an understatement. That, however, changes this week.

Games of the Week

I know Michigan State and Michigan play Tuesday, but isn’t this the series that everyone will be watching?

No. 4 Michigan State (5-2-1, 3-2-1 CCHA) vs. No. 5 Notre Dame (8-1-1, 3-0-1 CCHA)
Friday, 8:05 p.m., Joyce Center, South Bend, Ind.
Saturday, 7:05 p.m., Munn Arena, East Lansing, Mich.

With seven points each, the Spartans and Fighting Irish are two of the four teams tied for fourth place in the CCHA standings, sharing that spot with Northern Michigan and Western Michigan.

Yes, it’s early, but what’s the most remarkable thing here: that ND and MSU are tied with Western Michigan for anything, and it’s already eight games into the season, or that they’re fourth, trailing Alaska?

Sorry. I got distracted there. More on Western Michigan in a moment.

What is truly remarkable here is that the Spartans and Irish are tied and ND has two games in hand on MSU and at least two games in hand on everyone in the league. Having played just four games in-house, the Irish are undefeated in conference play.

We media types are paying a lot of attention to the Fighting Irish, but so far this is a great story with the potential of being the story of the year, at least in the CCHA. It’s easy to forget that there are other guys on the ice. This week, those guys are the Spartans.

Earlier in the season, MSU head coach Rick Comley frankly admitted that it would be hard to fill departed Drew Miller’s skates; who knew that it would be even harder to solidify the only role that Miller himself couldn’t play, between the MSU pipes?

Sophomore goaltender Jeff Lerg has had a rocky start to the season, but bumped his save percentage significantly with a .970 performance in two games against Ferris State, which included his fourth career shutout in Friday’s 6-0 win.

“Jeff played very well for us,” said Comley. “We knew that he’d eventually come around, that he would play through the struggles he had early in the season.”

That having been said, Lerg’s save percentage is still just .872.

The Spartan defense may have been struggling in the early going, but the fourth-best MSU offense has not. All the Spartans have to do is get their game in order in their own end to live up to their preseason billing — and they can do just that.

Here’s a look at this potentially spectacular series, by the early overall numbers:

• Goals per game: MSU 4.38 (second); ND 4.00 (fourth)
• Goals allowed per game: MSU 3.00 (sixth); ND 1.10 (first)
• Power play: MSU 21.1 percent (fifth); ND 21.3 (fourth)
• Penalty kill: MSU 86.8 percent (third); ND 92.9 (first)
• Top scorer: MSU Tim Kennedy (6-5–11); ND Mark Van Guilder (8-6–14)
• Top ‘tender: MSU Jeff Lerg (.872 SV%); ND David Brown (.953 SV%)

Just a couple of weeks ago, when the Spartans faced the Wolverines, Lerg’s save percentage was .840.

Four of Kennedy’s goals have come on the power play. Tim Crowder (4-6–10) is the only other Spartan to reach double digits in scoring so far this season, but several others are on the brink.

Four of the Fighting Irish, including Van Guilder, have hit the 10-point mark. That’s just freaky.

When Rip Van Winkle awoke from his long slumber, he wondered that “the very character of the people seemed changed.”

If the Irish prevail this weekend, the very character of the CCHA may, indeed, be changed as well.

Picks: Everything in me wants to call an Irish sweep. Why? I don’t know. Maybe something to do with those wins out east, and wanting so much for this program to succeed for the sake of the entire league … but not at the expense of the Spartans. As much as I desire genuine parity — and consistent excellence — in the CCHA, I don’t want the top programs to tumble. I think this series will be good, old-fashioned hockey. ND 3-2, MSU 3-2

Touchdown Jesus 4, U.S. Armed Forces 0

Notre Dame hockey beat Army and Air Force for that title in Tampa. So far this season, the gridiron Irish have defeated Navy and Air Force and this weekend host Army.

Does the RNC know about this?

The Last Item on the Irish Bandwagon this Week

The fans at the Joyce Center are calling themselves “Jacco’s Waccos.” That they have organized even this much is a welcome sign of life for Irish hockey, but their creativity is a welcome sign of intelligence in college hockey, period.

Last weekend, these fans sang their own version of “Happy Birthday” to Bowling Green goaltender Jimmy Spratt:

Happy birthday to you,
You let four goals through,
Happy birthday, dear Spratt,
You’re still really bad.

Now, I know this contains nothing obscene, but I laughed myself silly when I received this by email from a fan.

Not having attended the game, I was able to confirm through a story in the South Bend Tribune. In that story, Irish sophomore forward Christian Hanson praised the ND student fans for their cleverness.

“Honestly, our student section and band have a lot nicer taunts than when we go on the road.” Presumably, Hanson meant that the Irish receive taunts not nearly as nice on the road as their opponents do in South Bend.

And the irony of his parentage can’t be lost on anyone.

Good Hockey from Western Michigan

Well, for one game, at least.

Last week, the Broncos came to Columbus to deliver an 8-5 whacking Thursday before tying OSU 2-2 Friday.

The Thursday game, played in Value City Arena, was everything you’d expect of two freshman goaltenders getting little help from the defenses in front of them: sloppy, end-to-end, high-scoring (obviously), and boring.

(It didn’t help that the officiating was disruptive and, IMO, inconsistent from beginning to the end of the game. Everyone has an off night, and that was the only night in CCHA play that I’ve personally witnessed that made me wince.)

The Broncos were happy to take those two points Thursday, but head coach Jim Culhane said that allowing five goals was a concern, especially two shorthanded markers.

“We did give up five goals, and a number of those were obviously on the power play, too,” said Culhane. “You look at special teams situations [where] we did score on the power play, which was a positive for us, but there are other things we’ve got to do.”

The second contest, in the Ohio Expo Center, was an excellent hockey game. The Expo Center is the only place in the league that can be legitimately called a barn; it is the arena at the Ohio State Fairgrounds, and more often than not hosts horse shoes, as evidenced by the thick dust coating much of the upper reaches of the building.

(Late in the game, a puck hit a high exhaust fan over the south end of the building, showering the empty seats below with material of a very questionable composition. I was reminded of the horse show I saw at the state fair last summer, where beauty queens wear satin gowns while walking through ankle-deep sawdust, smiling. I shuddered.)

But the ice was fantastic and the teams were fast. Both squads played defense, and both rookie goaltenders — Riley Gill for WMU and Joseph Palmer for OSU — were solid. There were controversial goals and non-goals, and pretty play from both offenses. It’s a shame there were only 1,572 people there.

I did like what I saw from the Broncos, and I can’t remember the last time I said that. What I liked most were the adjustments WMU made from Thursday to Friday, especially in front of Gill. And I liked the play of freshmen Mark Letestu and sophomore Jeff LoVecchio.

Interesting note: WMU junior goaltender Daniel Bellissimo didn’t even make the trip to Columbus, a healthy scratch that was, in Culhane’s words, a “coach’s decision.”

Two years ago, Bellissimo exhibited the most bizarre behavior I’ve ever seen at a hockey game. After being shelled and pulled in a game against OSU, Bellissimo sat on the bench with his back to the play.

Regardless of why he stayed home this time, I’m glad to have seen Gill play.

Best Wishes for Gordie Berenson

On Sunday, Nov. 5, Gordie Berenson, 41-year-old son of Michigan head coach Red and his wife Joy, received a head injury in what was called a serious accident.

This past week, Gordie left the hospital for Berenson’s home in Ann Arbor. In the week following the accident, Red Berenson issued a statement to thank people in the hockey community for their support.

“He has had surgery and his improvement has been dramatic,” said Berenson. “It will take some time for a complete recovery.

“I want to let everyone know that the support from the University of Michigan community, the Michigan hockey community and the hockey community in general has been tremendous. I want to thank people for their calls and their support.”

I’m sure I speak for many people when I say that thoughts are still with Gordie and the Berenson family.

Okay, One More ND Note

Irish freshman forward Christiaan Minella made his debut Saturday and scored a goal. Again, with the Irish clichés.

There’s a Game Saturday, and It’s Not of the Ice Variety

No. 1 Ohio State hosts No. 2 Michigan this Saturday. No, I’m talking hockey here. This is football, this is Columbus, and I’m in hell.

I do not understand what has happened to the city of Columbus and Buckeye football fans in particular during the last decade, and I do not understand why it has happened, but I can tell you that it is the embodiment of everything that can be wrong with sport.

The local paper, The Dispatch, has consistently provided more in-depth coverage of OSU football this season than it did of the Ohio governor’s race this fall. The week leading up to the Texas game was bad, but this week is brutal.

The University of Michigan has warned its students of the hostilities they will likely face in Columbus, and U-M is sending its own police to protect the Wolverine team, band, and fans.

All through the city, the rhetoric is hateful. There’s no other way to describe it. A local rock radio station is sponsoring an “F Michigan!” party. Fans talk about this as though it’s a war, and I witnessed the beginnings of a bar fight because someone was wearing a Michigan ball cap.

It’s a football game. It may be an historic game in some ways, and all true fans are hoping it’s a good game, but it’s still a football game.

The Ohio State University has been doing its part by warning students that their off-campus behavior — you know, like torching cars — would be considered a university infraction, but nothing they do or say matters. Either people will behave, or they won’t.

I will say this: I don’t like OSU football fans because of their reputation for being arrogant and sometimes violent, and because they ignore the other sports at the school. I have tremendous respect, however, for the OSU and Michigan athletic departments, and I’m hoping for a good, injury-free game.

I’ll listen on my way to Oxford.

My Mistake

Last week, I mistakenly said there was a strike during the 2004-05 NHL season. It was, in fact, a lockout. The players were willing to play.

My apologies to the players and their representatives.

Odds and Ends

After six CCHA games last season, the Lakers were .500 with a record of 2-2-2. This year, they’re .500 with a record of 3-3-0.

UNO freshman goaltender Jeremie Dupont had 38 saves in last Saturday’s 5-1 loss to Michigan.

Brothers Jeff Lee (freshman) and Aaron Lee (junior) each earned their first point of the season for the Nanooks, playing on a line together Friday night, when the younger Lee’s assist and first collegiate point helped the elder Lee score his first goal of the season.

The Wolverines, averaging 4.90 goals per game, have the best scoring offense in the nation.

RedHawk Nathan Davis has 10 goals in 12 games. He had 20 goals for the 2005-06 season.

NMU outshot an opponent for the first time this season, 25-14, in Saturday’s 3-2 win over UA.

Buckeye Kenny Bernard had both shorthanded goals in OSU’s 8-5 loss to WMU.

Former Buckeye Arrested

Ohio News Network has reported that former Buckeye Dan Knapp was arrested Monday, Nov. 13, in a sting in Dayton for allegedly attempting to solicit sex online from two minor girls. According to ONN, Knapp had unknowingly been communicating with members of the Warren County Cyber Crimes Taskforce, making arrangements to meet two 13-year-old girls at a Clear Creek Township Diner.

When Knapp arrived, officers arrested the 23-year-old, who played for OSU from 2002-2006. The Dayton Bombers (ECHL) released Knapp Tuesday.