It’s January in central Ohio. Yes, it’s January everywhere but it feels even more so in Ohio. In recent years, we have not been guaranteed snow and actual winter around these parts. Instead, for months on end we are trapped in a wet purgatory, so un-hockey-like that the smell of the rink hits you on a Friday night like something from your distant past, a memory of sledding and skating and runny noses and snow.
Although earlier in the week the sun gave us a brief reprieve from the dark days of cold, endless rain that would do any Dostoyesvsky novel proud and there are a few flakes fighting for survival in the too-temperate air tonight, I am feeling seduced by thoughts of hibernation. The sofa and afghan beckon. There’s knitting to be done. And dishes. I’m sure there’s an NHL game on tonight. Even the thought of grading papers is tempting.
My friends, I’ve hit a midseason slump. It’s out-and-out writer’s block, and everyone with a beat goes through it. It’s January, with more than half a season gone and so much yet to be decided … and yet … and yet …
At least I know I’m not alone. There’s a bunch of slumping going on in the CCHA, so I have plenty of good company.
The Falcons are riding a four-game losing streak into their series against Northern Michigan this weekend. In that span, BGSU has been outscored 19-1 and shut out three times. Saturday’s 7-0 loss to Nebraska-Omaha was a school-record seventh shutout loss of the season for the Falcons.
“Our inability to score has really hurt our confidence,” said BGSU head coach Scott Paluch after the Falcons’ 5-0 loss to Michigan Tuesday, Jan. 9.
Only one Falcon, junior Derek Whitmore, has netted 10 or more goals (11). Junior Jonathan Matsumoto, who leads BG in points, has nine goals this season; he had 38 through his first two campaigns.
Their second two-week sojourn to the Lower 48 resulted in no points for the Alaska Nanooks. After dropping two games to Ohio State Jan. 5 and 7, the Nanooks traveled to East Lansing where they were swept by Michigan State last weekend, a 3-2 overtime loss Friday and a 4-3 decision Saturday.
“We just looked like a tired hockey team tonight,” said UA head coach Tavis MacMillan after Saturday’s contest.
That loss was the seventh in a row for the ‘Nooks, who haven’t won since Dec. 8, 2006, a 4-3 home win over BGSU. Three of those losses have been by one goal; the 4-2 loss to Alaska-Anchorage Dec. 30 was capped by an empty-net goal. Of their 11 total losses this season, seven have been by two goals or fewer.
UA is also winless in six overtime games this season (0-2-4). The Nanooks played six games with extra hockey in 2005-06 as well, with a 1-0-5 record in those contests.
Michigan is 10-5-0 at home. Sure, a lot of teams would trade places with the Wolverines in that regard, but given Michigan’s home dominance in recent years, five home losses just past midseason is a bit of surprise.
With last Saturday’s 2-1 home loss to Northern Michigan, the Wolverines are now one home loss shy of their entire total of 2005-06, when their home record was 14-6-1.
So far this year, four league opponents and one nonconference visitor have beaten the Wolverines in their own barn: NMU, Notre Dame (Dec. 8), Western Michigan (Dec. 1), Miami (Oct. 20), and Northeastern (Oct. 28).
Two of those CCHA teams are ahead of the Wolverines in the league standings, teams that notably have beaten many other good teams this season — but teams against which the Wolverines could have gained ground by making the best of the fabled Yost Ice Arena advantage.
Two other league squads — the Broncos and the Wildcats — are very good hockey teams, but are below the Wolverines in the points race and are teams Michigan couldn’t afford to lose to.
And Northeastern? Not even a blip on the PairWise radar (Michigan is No. 12) and currently in seventh place in Hockey East.
Saturday’s loss was “pretty unacceptable and disappointing,” according to Wolverine Kevin Porter. Quoted in the Michigan Daily, Porter said, “This used to be the toughest place to play, but this year, there have been numerous teams that come in here and beat us in our own rink.”
In those five losses, Michigan was outscored 22-10. Two points from one of those games would have the Wolverines a point ahead of Michigan State and in third place. Three wins or six points would put them a point ahead of Miami in second. Seven of those 10 lost points would tie them for first place with Notre Dame.
The irony? The play of Billy Sauer. The sophomore goaltender, who struggled so much in the first half of the season, has posted a .954 save percentage in his last three contests, good enough for Goaltender of the Week.
Slumping or Changing Gears?
This is hardly an inclusive list, and this is in no way a reflection of individual players’ team performances this season, but here are a few guys I expected more goals from this season:
• Ferris State’s Matt Verdone. Four goals in 23 games. Last season, 14 goals in 38 contests. But the Bulldog offense is slumping, at No. 47 in the country.
• Michigan’s T.J. Hensick. No, I’m not suggesting in any way that Hensick is slumping, but I did expect him to produce more goals than he has this season (seven). He’s an amazing playmaker and is second in the nation in points per game. Perhaps I shouldn’t even include him in this list. Perhaps I am not worthy.
• Michigan State’s Justin Abdelkader. The sophomore has six goals in 19 games and is sixth among the Spartans in scoring, but after watching him his freshman year (10-12–22), as with Hensick, I thought there’d be more.
• Notre Dame’s Josh Sciba. Seven goals in 24 games this year; 17 goals in 35 games last year. In all fairness to the senior, he totaled 13 goals his first two seasons. He’s on pace to hit that this year.
In fairness to all these gentlemen and every guy in the league, scoring in general seems to be down this season. Don’t jump on me if my perceptions are off. I haven’t done the analysis yet.
There just seems to be an awful lot of committee work going on in the CCHA this year. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, either. On the one hand, many teams appear to have several lines that can and do score regularly. Looking at the national stats, it seems strange to me that Ohio State has the 14th-best scoring offense in the nation with a roster that has absolutely no double-digit goal scorers.
Something to ponder and research for a future column.
Those Slacking Goaltenders
No, I’m not talking about save-percentage slumps. I’m talking about scoring slumps. Only one netminder in the league, Miami’s Charlie Effinger, has more than one point this season. Effinger has two assists.
Many goaltenders have none. Slackers.
Absolutely Not Slumping
Even though I’m in a rut and misery loves company, I don’t want to linger on the negative or even ponderous. Here’s a brief list of things that have gone right in the CCHA recently.
MSU’s Rick Comley earned his 700th career win Jan. 6. Michigan’s Red Berenson earned his 600th career win Jan. 12. FSU’s Bob Daniels earned his 100th career road victory Jan. 13.
Notre Dame has 19 wins this season, more than the last two seasons combined. Ohio State’s Jan. 5 victory over Alaska was the 700th in program history.
UNO’s 7-0 blanking of BGSU Jan. 13 was Jerad Kaufmann’s third career shutout.
WMU’s Daniel Bellissimo returned to the net in Lawson Arena for the first time since Oct. 20 last Saturday, earning a 5-3 win over Miami.
NMU’s Bill Zaniboni made a season-high 36 saves in the Wildcats’ 2-1 win over Michigan last Saturday.
Michigan’s Jeff Sauer has allowed two or fewer goals in four of his last five outings.
OSU’s Joseph Palmer is 4-0-1 in his last five starts (.923 SV%), which coincides with OSU’s five-game, season-best unbeaten streak.
LSSU’s Jeff Jakaitis has the top save percentage (.943) in the nation.
Other Happy News
UA’s Curtis Fraser needs one point to become the 27th member of Alaska’s Century Club.
Miami senior Marty Guerin is riding a career-high, nine-game point streak into this weekend’s series with Ohio State. His teammate, Geoff Smith, registered his first points in 19 games with a goal and two assists against Western last Friday.
NMU’s Mike Santorelli may be the league’s most underrated player (20-11–31). Santorelli had three of NMU’s four goals last weekend, and three of his past five games have been two-goal affairs. Santorelli is second in the nation in goals per game (.80), and he leads the nation in shorthanded goals (four).
The Spartans are 8-1-1 at home this season.
The Broncos, who split at home with Miami last weekend, are 24-13-5 against ranked teams in Lawson Arena in the past six seasons, a .631 in percentage in those games.
Congratulations to Wolverine Jason Dest, who this week was named the league’s Defenseman of the Week for his actual defensive play. In his last three games, Dest was +4, blocked four shots, and was instrumental on the Michigan penalty kill, which was 20-for-21 in that stretch.
Last week, I wrote that Lake Superior State’s Jim Roque has a laissez-faire attitude toward coaching. Roque called me this week to clarify that, and I’d like to further clarify that myself.
Roque’s philosophy is all about perspective, treating his players as young men. I don’t think that my piece implied that Roque is completely hands-off about Laker hockey, but if it did, I unintentionally gave the wrong impression. Obviously, Roque and the Lakers wouldn’t be experiencing their current success if the actions of the LSSU coaching staff didn’t have a direct impact on the players and the program.
Like nearly every coach I’ve met in my 12 years as a beat writer, Roque wants his student-athletes to enjoy their experience at Lake Superior State, to be college students as well as young men and hockey players.
I never meant to imply that Jim Roque is not the fiercely competitive, micromanaging Laker overlord that he is.
Okay, so now I’m having fun at Roque’s expense, but since Roque proved earlier this year that he has a sense of humor, I figure he can take it.