This Week in the CCHA: Jan. 11, 2007

Robert Morris?!

Okay. I’m over it. Sort of.

It’s clear that Jeff Jackson’s Fighting Irish are.

“It’s over.” That’s Jackson, directly. “They played hard, they played desperate, and we didn’t.”

You know, for a woman who’s still haunted by the sting of four consecutive Super Bowl losses, closure can sometimes be an issue. But in the greater interest of college hockey, I’ll do my best.

Congratulations, Rick Comley

Congratulations to Michigan State head coach Rick Comley, who with the Spartans’ 4-1 win over Miami last weekend, became just the fifth coach in college hockey history to register 700 career wins.

Coach, I’ll ask you the same thing I ask my mother every year on my birthday: How young does that make you feel?

Congratulations, Ryan Miller

Former Spartan and current Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller will start for the Eastern Conference in the 2007 NHL All-Star Game Wednesday, Jan. 24. What a moment for Miller, for MSU, for the CCHA.

T.J. Hensick: Talisman

T.J. Hensick is Michigan’s not-so-secret weapon. The ultimate set-up man, Hensick is second in the nation in points per game and leads the country in assists. He’s quick, sees the ice like few players can, and is the kind of playmaker who can change a game.

And whether he knows it or not, he’s Travis Turnbull’s talisman.

Turnbull, a sophomore forward, had nine goals last season but just one through his first 18 games this year but has three in his last four. The mini-streak started 42 seconds into Michigan’s 4-3 loss to Notre Dame Dec. 10. Late first-half injuries and the loss of Andrew Cogliano and Jack Johnson to the World Juniors forced the Wolverines to shake up their line charts, and head coach Red Berenson put Turnbull on a line with Hensick.

The result, said Berenson, may be something less than tangible, but enough for Turnbull to believe in himself again.

“T.J. wasn’t even on the ice” for that first goal, Berenson said. “[Chad] Kolarik stole the puck and passed to Turnbull.”

Turnbull had goals in each of Michigan’s games at the Great Lakes Invitational tournament, but Hensick was the second assist on one, and Mark Mitera was the lone assist on the other.

“Now he thinks he’s got to play with T.J. Hensick to be successful,” said Berenson. “He’s played four games with T.J. and he thinks he’s rocking and rolling. I hope he really has a good second half.”

Berenson, a smart hockey man, knows enough not to mess with a young player’s mojo. Turnbull and Hensick are linemates, for now.

Like a Roque

Jim Roque has a simple approach to watching over his Lake Superior State Lakers: hands off, no worries.

“They’re young men. Go to school. Play hockey,” he said.

Roque believes that good kids — or rather, young men — can fend for themselves, and they have his trust unless they break it. That laissez-faire approach is working; the Lakers are tied with Michigan State and Ohio State for fourth place in the CCHA standings, and they show no signs of sudden dropoff.

Another key, said Roque, is perspective. “It’s only hockey. Our guys have worked hard. I think they’re having fun. I think the biggest thing for me is that the guys are enjoying it. At the end of the day, it’s only hockey. They say they love it. If you love it, then play hard. It shouldn’t be that hard to play hard.”

The Lakers shook another monkey off their collective backs last weekend when they took three points in two overtime games from Nebraska-Omaha at home. Until that series, no Laker had beaten the Mavericks in Taffy Abel Arena.

“Our guys played hard,” said Roque. “I thought Friday, Nebraska played well. … I thought Saturday we were the better team, it just took us a long time to score.”

Roque credits a number of factors for this year’s success. Senior goaltender Jeff Jakaitis is “a great kid” who “works hard, competes, and battles.” Roque said that the Laker defense has “done a good job around the net, clearing rebounds and giving [Jakaitis] the best look at the puck.”

He also praises Laker assistant coaches Jim Christian and Joe Shawhan for their recruiting abilities. “I didn’t think we’d be where we are today [without them]. Joe and Tim have done a really good job of bringing in some freshmen who could play from day one, which is huge.”

Roque added, “We’ve been healthy. We’ve been really fortunate that we haven’t lost any key players to injury.”

Things are going very well in Sault Ste. Marie — so well, in fact, that it’s snowing. Laugh if you like, but winter warmth is bad for business in northern climates, and no one can build a backyard rink without freezing temperatures.

Ask Roque. He’ll tell you.

Wild Kitties

No, not the way my cats react to their new toy, which I’d recommend by brand name if I were paid money to do so.

I’m talking about that Northern Michigan hockey team.

Before you light up the wires with your email, I’m referring to an article that appeared in the Marquette Mining Journal. In last Saturday’s recap of Friday’s win over Ferris State, head coach Walt Kyle told my esteemed colleague Peter Pietrangelo that the NMU coaching staff was tired of losing games on opponent power-play goals, so they made the conscious decision not to hit the Bulldogs.

“Seriously, we did,” Kyle told the Mining Journal. “We did not check, we did not finish an offensive-zone check. We did not hit.”

Through 23 contests, the Wildcats have earned 403 minutes for an average of 17.5, putting them at No. 37 on the country’s list of most-penalized teams. Their opponent last weekend, those scrappy Ferris State Bulldogs, are second in the league in average PIMs (22) and tied for 10th in the nation.

Here’s a wild thought: maybe the fewer penalties — the less physical play — took the Bulldogs off their game in more ways than one on the Olympic sheet.

Whatever the reason, the win snapped a seven-game losing streak. Kyle said this week that he’s happy the streak is broken, but that stretch isn’t the only thing that defines Wildcat hockey this season.

“I’m not going to let four weeks or six weeks or whatever wreck our whole year. We were projected by the coaches to be in eighth place and that’s pretty much where we are.”

There are a couple of reasons for NMU’s place in the standings so far, said Kyle. “Number one, for the past four years we had a group of guys who bit off so many minutes. Sometimes you take for granted how valuable they are to you. Sometimes players take for granted … who’s giving you that success.

That second reason? “Our biggest issue has been our inability to score goals.” During that seven-game losing streak, the Wildcats scored just 13 goals, averaging less than two per game.

And that lack of scoring, said Kyle, is something that can feed on itself. “Once you start doing it … I know we have a lot of guys who thought they’d have better seasons.”

Games to Watch

Just five points separate third-place Michigan (18) from the two teams perched at the top of the standings, Notre Dame and Miami. Both the Wolverines and the Irish have two games in hand on the RedHawks.

Then there’s the logjam at fourth place, where LSSU, MSU, and OSU each have 17 points. Alaska and Western Michigan are tied for seventh with 17 points, and through it all, ninth-place UNO is just six points out of third, and No. 10 NMU a mere seven points behind the Wolverines.

Because there are five league series this weekend, any number of things can happen. Ohio State slipping in the standings is nearly guaranteed, as they are idle this week. The games to watch this week, though are between the Lakers and the Irish, and the Wildcats and the Wolverines.

Notre Dame vs. Lake Superior State

The most remarkable thing about Notre Dame this season is that the Irish are so unremarkable. They don’t have that breakout offensive player to change the game. They don’t do anything flashy. Yes, David Brown is having a career season in net, but the Irish don’t draw attention to themselves in any other way except for their consistently good play.

Take that paragraph, change “Notre Dame” to “Lake Superior State,” “Irish” to “Lakers,” and “David Brown” to “Jeff Jakaitis,” and you have a great match this weekend.

“Our teams mirror each other,” said ND head coach Jeff Jackson.

The Irish are coming off that split against Robert Morris (Robert Morris?!), so, said Jackson, “In some ways it’s more about us than it’s about Lake Superior. We have to respond from the last game. We have to be sharper from the execution and get back to what was successful earlier.

“Our success has been more about our balance and overall team play than it has been any one individual player.”

“Notre Dame’s always had talent,” said LSSU’s Jim Roque. “I think Jeff’s been able to get that talent to work cohesively and get them to work as a team. They work really hard, too. I just expect it to be really good hockey.”

As for the Irish loss to Robert Morris (Robert Morris?!), said Roque, “We played them here last year. We beat them in overtime. Sometimes those teams have nothing to lose, so they just go for it.”

The Lakers had to recover from a three-goal deficit to tie UNO Friday night, a performance that Roque said would “help this team down the road.”

Jakaitis has the second-best save percentage in the nation (.949); Brown (.927) is 12th. Brown was not in net for the loss against you-know-who.

The Irish have the sixth-best scoring offense in the nation and the second-best defense. The Lakers are 29th offensively, eighth defensively. Watch the play of Nathan Perkovich (see note about hair below), this week’s Rookie of the Week, who has six power-play tallies this season.

Northern Michigan vs. Michigan

Walt Kyle isn’t convinced that the Wolverines are having a “down” year. “Trust me. This isn’t the team we’d want to be playing right now.”

But, added the NMU coach, “I couldn’t tell you who we’d want to play right now.”

The Wildcats are hoping for a strong run down the stretch. “We’ve played pretty well,” said Kyle. “Coaches try to look at these things realistically. Over the last several years, we’ve had good success in the second half. We’ve had good success in the playoffs. We’ve gotten to The Joe each of the last four years.”

The Wolverines, who had last weekend off, beat Bowling Green 5-0 Tuesday night. “It was an important win,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “We finally got our team back together.” Michigan was banged up in the latter part of the first half, and Andrew Cogliano and Jack Johnson were off winning the U.S. a bronze medal in World Juniors action.

In the first half, said Berenson, “We were finding ways to lose rather than finding ways to win. We wasted two valuable home games in big losses against Western and Notre Dame.

“We are what we are. Johnson and Cogliano are back. I think our team is refocused.”

Berenson said the first-half trouble is no mystery. “We’ve given up way too many goals. The big problem with Michigan is not the goals for but the goals against. Our penalty killing hasn’t been very good. Our goalkeeping has not been as good as it should be.”

While Billy Sauer earned his second career shutout Tuesday night, the sophomore is allowing 3.24 goals per game, making him No. 57 of 76 ranked goaltenders in the nation. And his save percentage is .892 (50th).

“When you’re under .900 in this league as a goalie, you’re not going to be in the top echelon,” said Berenson. “I’m glad we were playing at home; had we played down there [at Bowling Green] it could have been reversed.”

While Kyle isn’t taking the Wolverines lightly, neither is his opponent overlooking the Wildcats this weekend. “They lost seven in a row going into their Ferris State weekend,” said Berenson. “They’re going to be very hungry.”

And we’ve seen that Michigan is beatable at home.

Like his opponent for this series, Berenson looks for redemption in the second half. “It’s not what it could be, but we’re not bad. I still think we can make a run for it.”

The difference, of course, is that the Wildcats may make a good run at (and may, indeed, catch) a home playoff spot, but the “it” in Berenson’s sentence refers to the league title.

NMU’s junior forward Mike Santorelli is among those having career seasons. The forward leads the nation in shorthanded goals (four), is averaging 1.22 points per game, and is sixth in the nation in goals per game (.74).

On the other side of the ice, Michigan senior forward David Rohlfs is doing the same thing, with 12 goals so far this year.

Northern Michigan has the advantage on special teams — so Kyle might want to rethink the policy on hitting — and in net, but Michigan has the advantage five-on-five, up front, and in depth.

Another Lesson in How Numbers Can Deceive

The Alaska Nanooks are 5-6-3 in conference play and dropped two road games to Ohio State last weekend, but there is no question that the Nanooks are better than their numbers.

The Nanooks dropped two games to the Buckeyes last weekend and earned no points for their effort, something that both coaches said seemed unfair after the Sunday 3-2 loss.

UA head coach Tavis MacMillan was understandably a little down after the 6-2 Friday night loss, but that was a 3-2 game going into the third, when the Buckeyes just took momentum from their third goal and took command of the game.

MacMillan wasn’t thrilled with the play of Chad Johnson in that game, but I thought there was only one goal of the four that he allowed that was questionable, and I thought that Wylie Rogers was solid Sunday, too.

Alaska was fast and passionate — there was a great third-period rumble in the Sunday game — and I liked its power play. The Nanooks outplayed OSU five-on-five several times during the weekend, and they hemmed the Buckeyes in along the boards in both games.

Their weaknesses included their penalty kill, their lack of puck presence, and some of their decisions with the puck. But they can take any team I’ve seen play this season, with the notable exception of Minnesota.

A bright spot on the team is the all-freshman line of the brothers Dion and Branden Knelsen and Jeff Lee, whom MacMillan called the “Kid Line” post-game Sunday. (It’s been a long time since I’ve heard a coach coin a phrase, especially one that I like so well.) The trio netted two of the four Nanook goals against the Buckeyes.

The younger Knelsen, Dion — who turned 18 in Columbus the Thursday before the series — has the ability to develop into a real playmaker. And Lee is fast with great hands.

Kyle Greentree was easy to watch as well. The junior winger leads the Nanooks in scoring with 16 goals and 13 assists.

Shades of Mike York

Buckeye Tom Fritsche scored a goal from the red line that so reminded me of one I saw York score for the Spartans against OSU that I got goosebumps. It was the third OSU goal, in the second period in last Friday’s 6-2 win, and it spurred the Bucks onto their three-goal third-period performance.

What a goal, with a sliver of space between Johnson’s left arm and the right post on which to score. Crazy deja vu. It’s not the kind of goal you think you’ll see twice in a lifetime watching college hockey.

Zach Pelletier’s Greatest Hits

If there’s a CCHA player who hits harder than OSU’s Zach Pelletier, I’m not sure I want to meet him.

I can’t remember which Nanook Pelletier laid out — cleanly — in Friday’s game, but I’m sure the guy on the receiving end remembers every waking moment of every day.

Pelletier is a fourth-liner who alternates playing time with a few other Buckeyes, but his hits of the game are inspiring for OSU players and fans alike.

Remember when I told you all how good Minnesota was when they came to the Schott? That weekend, I learned one other college hockey truism for 2006-07: no one hits like Zach Pelletier.

Some enterprising local auto-body shop could make a pretty penny with the Pelletier hit of the game. What better advertising could a collision center want?

Remember that Long-Promised Cookie Recipe?

For the past couple of seasons, I’ve published my mother’s cut-out cookie recipe at holiday time, and I’ve teased you all with promises of a fantastic Czech bar cookie recipe.

Well, Dolly Weston has come through. I think. She dictated the bar cookie recipe over the phone, and she claims it’s the one. I haven’t tested it, and it seems awfully simple to result in the cookies that I remember as so delicious, but if you’re brave and want the recipe, email me and it’s yours.

And I’ll make them this weekend myself and let the rest of you know.

And Thank Heavens It’s Over

This is my favorite weekend of the year, the year after the final Ohio State football game of the season. While there’s endless local media dissection of what went wrong Monday night, at least there’s no hype for the next big game.

I have nothing against OSU football. I think Jim Tressel is a class act, and I enjoyed watching OSU and Big Ten football this season.

But when you live in Columbus and are not a member of Buckeye Nation, football season is more wearing every year.

Now that it’s over, I’ll finally hear about something far more important, the ever underperforming Columbus Blue Jackets.

And One More Thing

Every time I see snapshots in the league’s release in the section lauding the players of the week, I think, “What’s with the hair?”

I mean, seriously guys. This season — what’s with the hair?

Y’all make me feel old. Almost as old as Rick Comley.