This Week in the CCHA: Dec. 7, 2006

The Upsetters, Part 1

Who doesn’t love winning in Yost Arena?

Of course, the Wolverines love their barn and they should; it’s the loudest in the league, with frenetic energy and a great deal of pride.

And because Yost is such a brutal place for visitors, winning there when you’re the road team is that much better — and that much rarer.

“Obviously, it’s been very difficult for us to play there,” said Western Michigan head coach Jim Culhane, whose Broncos beat the Wolverines in Ann Arbor last Friday night, 6-3. It was the first win for WMU in Yost in 16 tries.

To put that in perspective, the last time the Broncos beat the Wolverines in Yost, back on Oct. 20, 1995, the two youngest guys on this year’s team — freshmen Chris Clackson and Julian Zamparo — were just eight years old

Michigan rebounded the following night with a 6-5 win in Lawson Arena, another energetic rink.

“I think it’s tough — and a number of people have said this over the years — to beat teams in this league back to back, two nights,” said Culhane.

Yost is “just a wonderful environment to play in,” said Culhane, “with all the electricity in the building. I think it was a good accomplishment for us as a program, something that’s a positive that we can build on this season.”

With that win, the Broncos are 6-7-1 overall (5-7-1 CCHA), two league wins shy of their 2005-06 total and four away from equaling their overall win count for last season. Their goal for this season, said Culhane, is to “get better every week.”

“We need to be a team that’s well-prepared, be a team that comes out and competes real hard and gets better every night,” said Culhane. “I’m pleased to report that we’ve played really solid in all 14 games.”

The goalie of record for that streak-snapping win last Friday night, freshman Riley Gill — who, incidentally, was 10 the last time the Broncs beat the Wolverines — has played nine games for WMU with a winning record of 5-3-1.

Earlier in the season, he replaced junior Daniel Bellissimo, who was a healthy scratch due to, as Culhane said, a “coach’s decision.”

“We’re playing Riley in net right now, and looking forward to getting Dan back in the mix,” said Culhane.

Culhane has an interesting, credible take on why the league may not be as competitive in nonconference play as it would like to be. “There’s such an emphasis right now in our league on forechecking and creating turnovers — and that’s what you’re seeing right now in the NHL, puck pursuit. What I see right now that is frustrating is the lack of communication on the ice. You watch the NHL and you watch teams in some other [college] leagues, and you see the guys talking to each other on the ice.

“I know that [lack of communication] directly resulted in one of the goals that Michigan scored here on Saturday, on a goalie turnover and poor communication with defense.”

And he put into words what many people have been wondering about this season: the change in the size of goalie equipment. “Is it an issue this season? I don’t know. I’m not out there, but I am asking. The guys tell me it isn’t, but what are they going to say?”

Like every coach in the league, Culhane believe the CCHA is very competitive … and it is, within the league, without question. Last season was an excellent season for CCHA hockey. Nearly every game was intense; nearly anything could happen on every given night.

Culhane doesn’t have an answer, either, about why the league’s teams don’t advance in the NCAA tournament, but added, “I’m proud of our conference. The games last week were great.”

Part 2

Last year, the Buckeyes couldn’t beg, borrow, or steal a goal. This year, they score them seemingly at will, and especially shorthanded.

This season, Ohio State is averaging more than three goals per game for the seventh-best overall offense in the CCHA — hey, it’s better than last — and the fifth-best in conference play. Last weekend, the struggling Bucks bounced back from a 4-1 Friday loss to ranked Michigan State with a 4-1 win in Munn Arena Saturday.

And while this season hasn’t started as well as Ohio State (5-8-3, 5-5-2 CCHA) would have liked, the Bucks have taken at least a point from every league opponent, and sit — improbably — all alone in fourth place.

“We’re playing differently,” said OSU head coach John Markell. “We’re back to our old systems.”

The Buckeye coaching staff changed its playbook after OSU’s offense failed to produce results last year, landing the Bucks in 10th place in the CCHA to follow 2004-05’s second-place finish. “We thought coming off last year that we could create more offense,” said Markell. “There were too many question marks with it.

“Now we simplified it for the players. It was a mental thing, not a systems thing. We feel that it’s not a problem at all for them now.”

In Saturday’s win, OSU scored two shorthanded goals on the same MSU power play, in two different periods. With Johann Kroll in the box for slashing, Dominic Maiani scored at 19:48 in the first, and Bryce Anderson scored 42 seconds into the second.

The key, of course, was that MSU hadn’t scored at all.

The Buckeyes have been weathering a freshman goaltender learning curve, with Joseph Palmer and Nick Filion having had to play before the Bucks expected them to; veteran Ian Keserich left late in the offseason.

As the goalies gain confidence, so do the Bucks in front of them. Early in the win over MSU, Palmer stoned a two-on-none Spartan breakaway, and the Buckeyes were off and running.

“It’s just simple hockey,” said Markell. “We’re living through some times with our young goalies, but when [Palmer] has games like he did this weekend … we’re very capable of competing. That’s not an excuse. With two young guys in net, we have veterans in front of them. We have to be pristine up front.”

Two OSU power-play goals cemented the win in front of Palmer’s 39-save performance, a welcome sign for Buckeye fans.

Another good development for OSU: junior Tom Fritsche, OSU’s lead scorer of a year ago, may be cleared to play by the Ohio Hockey Classic. Fritsche has been out with health issues.

“He’s getting closer to coming back,” said Markell. “That’s exciting, too.”

Even though .500 hockey seems to be good enough right now in the CCHA, Markell knows that it can’t sustain the team for long. “We’ve got to get ourselves above .500 and get some points on the road. We’re cautiously optimistic.”

The loss was MSU’s first home loss this season and the first time the Spartans had been beaten there in nine games. There was, however, historic president for the split; the Bucks had been 3-1-0 in their previous four games in Munn Arena.

And Part 3

Let’s dispel any doubts about the Lake Superior State Lakers right now. Sweeping the Northern Michigan Wildcats isn’t easy, and LSSU did so with a shutout at home and a three-goal margin on the road.

Senior Jeff Jakaitis and freshman Pat Inglis combined for 68 saves on the weekend, but it was the play of two seniors in Saturday’s contest that secured the sweep for LSSU.

Trailing by three goals in the third, the Wildcats scored two within seven minutes to cut the Laker lead to one goal, but just 13 seconds after NMU’s Matt Maunu netted the second Wildcat tally, Laker seniors Derek R. Smith and Jeffrey Rainville connected to extend the lead to two again.

“I felt that was the key to the game,” said Laker head coach Jim Roque. “It is 3-2, it’s a game again, and they all the momentum. Those two seniors went out there and made a play and we have got to have that.”

The sweep was the first for the Lakers of the Wildcats since the first weekend in March of 2000.

The Lakers (10-5-1, 5-4-1 CCHA) are five wins away from reaching their overall total from a year ago.

Able to Leap Tall Buildings, Apparently

What do you expect from the CCHA 2005-06 Player of the Year?

Nebraska-Omaha’s Scott Parse played defense for the first time in his life last weekend against Bowling Green … and earned this week’s CCHA Defenseman of the Week Honors.

The Mavericks were shorthanded on the blue line because of injuries, so Parse played back, if that’s what you can call it. He netted a hat trick, another first for Parse.

And what, then, do you expect from the CCHA? The DOTW award is clearly for guys who score points. There’s no “defense” considered for this honor; apparently, we have no actual stay-at-home defenders in this league worthy of mention.

What other possible explanation can there be?

My beef isn’t with Parse, who may have found his true calling in Bowling Green. Nor do I have any problem with seeing any Maverick honored.

My problem — as always — is with the lack of recognition for genuine defensive play in the CCHA. Back in the days before the league’s Goaltender of the Week award, goalies were DOTW honorees all the time. Now that the league has an award allegedly set aside for defensemen, it’s the guys who score who get recognized.

So Parse, the 2005-06 CCHA Player of the Year, plays defense, nets a hat trick — one goal on the power play, where he’s been successful thrice before — against the No. 56 team in the country, defensively … and he’s the CCHA Defenseman of the Week.

I guess the only thing that surprises me about any of this is that this was Parse’s first career hat trick.

Not Quite Supermen, but Pretty Super

Parse wasn’t the only league player to net a hat trick this weekend. In fact, he wasn’t the only Maverick to do so.

Bryan Marshall registered UNO’s first three goals in the Mavs’ 4-1 win over the Falcons, scoring the first natural hat trick in Maverick hockey history.

Miami’s Ryan Jones also had a hat trick in the RedHawks’ 5-3 win over Ferris State Friday, three of his five total goals in the ‘Hawks two-game sweep of the ‘Dogs.

And Michigan’s Andrew Cogliano was responsible for all three Wolverine goals in Michigan’s 6-3 loss to Western Friday night.

And with an assist in Miami’s 5-3 win over Ferris State last Friday, senior Matt Christie became the 37th player to join the RedHawks’ Century Club.

Congratulations, all around.

Series to Watch

I’m traveling the back roads of Ohio this weekend, en route to my new favorite place, Steve Cady Arena, but I’d love to get to South Bend Sunday.

No. 5 Notre Dame (12-3-1, 7-2-1 CCHA) vs. No. 7 Michigan (12-5-0, 8-3-0 CCHA)
Friday, 7:35 p.m., Yost Arena, Ann Arbor, Mich.
Sunday, 3:05 p.m., Joyce Arena, South Bend, Ind.

Some days you get the bear and some days … well, the Bronco pummels you in your own arena.

After losing to Western Michigan in Yost Arena last Friday night, Michigan head coach Red Berenson said, “Our goals weren’t going in.”

Unfortunately for the Wolverines, WMU’s goals were. A three-goal second period vaulted the Broncos ahead of Michigan by a score of 4-2 after two, and — in spite of Cogliano’s hat trick — the Wolverines lost by three goals on their own turf, by a final score of 6-3.

“Some nights they go in and some nights they don’t,” said Berenson. “That’s why we can’t give up those easy goals. In the meantime, we’re giving up too many quality chances.

“From our standpoint, it wasn’t a good game. From their standpoint, it was a great game.”

The Wolverines managed to turn it around enough Saturday to return the favor in Lawson Arena, winning 6-5. For Friday’s loss, Billy Sauer was in net; for Saturday’s win, freshman Steve Jakiel got the nod.

Berenson said of Sauer, “The last two games, he has just given up too many goals against. Whether he’s tired or just wasn’t sharp, when you give up 13 goals in two games, you have to look for new ways to improve.

“Jakiel hadn’t played and we had to see if he could help this team, and I think he did that tonight.”

With all due respect to Berenson, five goals against isn’t much of an improvement — but I suspect he knows that better than I. Still, a win is a win, and the two points kept Michigan a step behind league-leading Miami and one slim point ahead of Notre Dame.

The Wolverines can score goals. Michigan has the third-best scoring offense in the nation, behind only New Hampshire and Minnesota, averaging 4.35 goals per game. Four of the top 20 scorers in the country — T.J. Hensick, Kevin Porter, Chad Kolarik, Cogliano — grace the Wolverine roster.

But the Wolverines also have the 44th-best defense in the nation, in part because of Sauer’s play this season … but also for other reasons. It isn’t fair to blame the goalie alone for the problems of an entire defense when the team is the Michigan Wolverines, an elite program with — one would think — more marquee players on both sides of the puck than most other teams in the league.

So the Wolverines can score and have difficulty defending, and they’re meeting a team with a near zero-tolerance for opponent goals and a very respectable ability up front.

Last weekend, these surprising Notre Dame Fighting Irish swept Alaska in South Bend by a combined score of 9-3. The Irish were spurred on by the Goal that Almost Wasn’t — or the Goal that Almost Was, depending on your perspective.

At 8:56 in the first, UA’s Ryan Muspratt scored on ND’s David Brown…but no one noticed except for the Nanooks. Notre Dame flew down the ice to the Alaska end — while the Nanooks were celebrating the goal that almost wasn’t — and “scored” on Nanook Chad Johnson.

“From the bench we could tell that it was obviously in the net,” said ND head coach Jeff Jackson of the Muspratt tally. “It must’ve hit the back bar to come out the way it did. But that’s why they have replay.”

Review it referee Matt Shegos did, and Muspratt was awarded a goal, while Garrett Regan’s tip-in of Jason Paige’s shot at the other end was negated.

“The tough part,” said Jackson, “was that we turned around and scored the other way.”

The Irish went on to score three legit goals in the third, starting with Ryan Thang’s shorthander at 9:14 and ending with Mark Van Guilder’s even-strength tally at 11:14. The game “didn’t look much different than last year,” according to Jackson.

“They are a tough team to play against,” said Jackson of the Nanooks. “They make it tough to get pucks through to the goal, to get rebounds and second chances. We were fortunate to break it open with a shorthanded goal. That was a momentum goal that led to another goal a few seconds later.”

Where Friday’s game was reminiscent of a grinding season, Saturday’s was like this season on stimulants, with five Irish goals in the second period as ND handily beat UA 6-2.

Here’s a look at the numbers for this week’s Michigan-Notre Dame series:

• Goals per game: ND 3.69 (fourth); UM 4.35 (first)
• Goals allowed per game: ND 1.38 (first); UM 3.47 (eighth)
• Power play: ND 17.4 percent (seventh); UM 20.8 (fourth)
• Penalty kill: ND 91.5 percent (first); UM 81.7 (seventh)
• Top scorer: ND Mark Van Guilder (11-7–18); UM T.J. Hensick (7-26–33)
• Top ‘tender: ND David Brown (.939 SV%); UM Billy Sauer (.892 SV%)

What happens when the third-best scoring offense in the country meets the single best defense in the nation? Perhaps the old adage, “Defense wins games,” really does apply here. Everything in me wants to call a Notre Dame sweep … but I know the Wolverines too well.

Picks: Michigan 4-2, Notre Dame 5-2

Five at Five

It’s a little crowded in the middle of the CCHA standings. Five teams — LSSU, MSU, Alaska, WMU, and UNO — have 11 points each, and OSU is perched in fourth place with one point more.

No two of the fifth-place teams have identical records, and they vary in number of games played from 10 to 13.

Last week, I said that the OSU-MSU series would put the Spartans ahead of the Buckeyes, but the split leaves the two teams a point apart and where they were a week ago. I was, of course, completely wrong.

The fifth-place team that may be in the best position to gain points and travel upward this weekend is Alaska. After a disappointing trip south, the Nanooks return home to host Bowling Green for two.

If You Guys Don’t Beat Bentley, Twice…

…then there’s plenty of coal in the Mavericks’ stockings this Christmas.

The CCHA is a perfect 14-0-0 against the Atlantic Hockey Association. So far.

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