This Week in the CCHA: Jan. 25, 2007

Big Night for the CCHA

Sure, the NHL All-Star game is a big night for hockey at every level, but this year’s game was good for the CCHA as well. Four league alumni played, including Spartan goaltender Ryan Miller (Buffalo), Michigan goaltender Marty Turco (Dallas), Bulldog forward Jason Blake (Islanders), and Laker forward Brian Rolston (Minnesota).

How cool was it to see Martin Brodeur backing up Ryan Miller? Yes, I know that sentence reveals my level of college hockey geekiness, but I’m not apologizing. Yes, I know it’s a popularity contest and Buffalonians are fanatics about all their sports. Yes, I know that Brodeur is having a phenomenal season.

Still, watching Brodeur skate out wearing a hat prior to the announce of the starters, knowing that Miller was going to man the net for the Eastern team at the start of the game, was a thrilling moment.

It’s good to see that Turco retains his great sense of humor. In talking to NHL.com about the skills competition and how the shooting drills aren’t exactly favorable to the goaltenders, Turco said, “We’re used to seeing bad drills in practice not designed for us…The All-Star Game has zero goalie preparation and we just try to make the best of it. It was a great time.”

The West beat the East 12-9. Rolston had two goals and two assists. Blake had two assists. Miller made eight saves on 11 shots (but Brodeur gave up six goals on 15 shots), and Turco stopped 12 of 15 in the third period.

Big Team for the Big Games

The Western Michigan Broncos continued to have their way — partially, at least — with ranked opponents in Lawson Arena last weekend. Notre Dame became the fourth ranked team WMU has beaten at home this season, the Broncos are 25-14-5 against ranked opponents in Kalamazoo during the past six seasons, a .625 win percentage against those teams.

Would that were WMU’s win percentage against every team.

Western rebounded from Saturday’s loss to Notre Dame (they did split, after all) to beat Ferris State Tuesday night. With 19 points, the Broncos are now in fifth place and five points behind Michigan. WMU is one point ahead of Nebraska-Omaha and Ohio State, and two points in front of Northern Michigan and Lake Superior State.

Everybody within distance with the exception of NMU has two games in hand on WMU, something that Bronco head coach Jim Culhane was keenly aware of going into Tuesday night’s contest.

“I didn’t want to put a ‘must-win’ tag to the game,” Culhane told the Kalamazoo Gazette, “but it was a big game, because we don’t play in conference this weekend.”

The Broncos host the Alabama-Huntsville Chargers Friday and Saturday, while the rest of the mid-pack contenders fight amongst themselves. Nebraska-Omaha host Northern Michigan, and Lake Superior State hosts Ohio State.

Nothing Like a Game-Winning Goal and a Hat Trick…

…to prove a girl reporter wrong.

Last week, I said that I was firmly entrenched in a midseason slump. I brazenly suggested that I wasn’t alone in this, and named Ferris State’s Matt Verdone and Michigan’s T.J. Hensick as company for my misery.

Last Saturday, Verdone scored the game-winning goal in FSU’s 6-3 win over Nebraska-Omaha, and he had the Bulldogs’ first goal in their 5-2 loss to WMU Tuesday. Verdone is now riding a season-high, four-game point streak.

Last Friday, Hensick netted his first career hat trick in Michigan’s 6-2 win over Alaska.

Nice going, fellas.

However, I’m Still Not Alone

During Bowling Green’s current six-game losing streak, the Falcons have been outscored 27-3, registering three shutout losses.

Other Streaks of Note

The Nanooks have lost nine in a row, their longest losing streak since the 1999-2000 season.

The Lakers have lost four in a row, their longest losing streak since the end of 2005-06.

With their loss to the Broncos last Friday, the Irish had their eight-game CCHA win streak snapped.

With their loss to the RedHawks last Sunday, the Buckeyes had their season-high, six-game unbeaten streak snapped.

Miami’s penalty kill held OSU to 0-for-10 in two games last weekend. The RedHawk PK now tops the nation, with an efficiency of 91.0 percent.

Wolverine goaltender Billy Sauer has allowed two or fewer goals in six of his last seven games.

Century Marks

Nanook Curtis Fraser became the 27th player in UA history to reach 100 points last Friday.

Wildcat Mike Santorelli became the 46th player in NMU history to reach the 100-point mark last Saturday.

Maverick Alex Nikiforuk is one point away from joining the Century club.

Big Hits for Little Guys

In Sunday’s 2-1 Miami win over Ohio State, a trio of players on the smaller side played like big dogs.

Early in the contest, Buckeye Tommy Goebel — who is listed at 5-7, 166 — upended a RedHawk by ducking underneath the guy. I don’t know who he took out, but everyone in the game is bigger than Tommy Goebel. He may have something on Miami’s Nino Musitelli. I’ve never seen Musitelli in stocking feet.

The next period, Buckeye Tom Fritsche got a penalty for doing the same thing, ducking underneath a RedHawk and knocking him over. It’s a game I played with my older brother when I was a kid, but my penalty was much more severe. Fritsche — listed at 5-11, 185 — is Goebel’s linemate.

Also in the first period, RedHawk Justin Mercier accidentally mowed down OSU goaltender Joseph Palmer. Mercier is listed at 5-11, 180, while Palmer really is at least six feet tall.

The hits, intentional and otherwise, were indicative of the intensity of the game. Sunday’s contest was the fifth time the teams had met since early December, and each game has been played like a single-elimination playoff game, with Sunday’s being the most electric.

While this rivalry has a ways to go before equaling that of the Spartans and Wolverines, the comparison has merit. Like the Spartans, the Buckeyes play for the big land-grant state school while the RedHawks — like the Wolverines — play at a school considered more elite.

Unlike the rivalry north of the border, this one doesn’t feature teams just down the road from each other. The trip from Columbus to Oxford and vice-versa requires some creative navigation, as there is no direct route between the campuses, but it’s close enough for fans to make the trip there and back in a night, and the pride of the state is on the line when these teams play.

But what really makes this blossoming rivalry so terrific is the hockey itself. The coaching staffs of each team recruit similar guys and play similar styles. Although there are variations in talent and depth between the teams, they are evenly matched, as their record this season might indicate: 2-1-2 in favor of Miami.

There’s a lot of respect between the teams, too, the Tyson Strachan-Ryan Jones elbow exchange Sunday notwithstanding.

“I think that the rivalry that we have with Ohio State is what college hockey is all about,” said RedHawk goaltender Charlie Effinger after Friday’s 4-4 tie in Columbus. “I think I know two-thirds of their team by first name at this point [because] we’ve played them so many times. It’s always fun. You know it’s always going to be a good game. You can throw rankings, you can throw all of that out the door; when we play Ohio State, we know that both teams are going to come to play.”

Said Goebel, “It’s a battle every time we play them. I love it. They’re a great team and I think we’re getting there.”

As much fun as it was to cover these five games, I’m glad the series is over. I ran out of things to ask after the third contest.

There is, however, the possibility that these teams will meet in the CCHA playoffs.

Once More, for Good Measure

Steve Cady Arena is amazing. Get there if you can.

Here She Goes Again

As impressive as Mike Santorelli’s performance was against Bowling Green this weekend, should the Northern Michigan forward really been named the CCHA Offensive Player of the Week?

Santorelli had a goal and two assists each night in NMU’s sweep of BGSU, a pair of games won by identical 4-1 scores. In Saturday’s game, Santorelli’s second assist was the second assist on an empty-net goal.

On Friday, the Wildcats bested Falcon sophomore Jimmy Spratt (.875 SV%); on Saturday, they beat freshman Eddie Neville (.860 SV%). Spratt is ranked 69th among all D-I goaltenders in save percentage, while Neville is 76th. Bowling Green’s defense is No. 56 in the nation.

Consider, then, the performance of Michigan State’s Bryan Lerg by comparison, just for the sake of argument. Lerg, a junior, tallied the game-winning goals both of MSU’s contests against Lake Superior State. In Friday’s 3-2 overtime win, Lerg had the game-winning goal at 2:52 in OT, scored against freshman Pat Inglis (.913 SV%), who had kept the Spartans scoreless since 7:11 in the second period.

In Saturday’s 4-0 shutout, it was Lerg who finally solved senior Jeff Jakaitis in the final minute of the first period, on the power play, to give the Spartans their first goal — not only a game-winner, but clutch given its timing. Jakaitis, to remind all of you playing along at home, has the best save percentage in the nation (.940), and the LSSU defense is No. 13 in the nation.

I guess I’m just not smart enough to understand the mechanisms of such complicated decisions.

And while we’re on the topic, Santorelli (23-15–38) is a bright spot on a team that is not faring as well as it would have liked this season. The junior is responsible for nearly one-third of all NMU goals (23-of-71). He leads the nation in shorthanded goals with four.

With those two game-winners, Lerg moved into first place in the nation in that category, with six.

So Long, Dan Riedel

I know that players leave before their time, and as a teacher I always want to see them stay, but I realize that for many young men, college is a means to hockey and not the other way around.

Still, I’m saddened that FSU’s Dan Riedel has decided to leave the college ranks for pro pastures. Riedel, a sophomore, was a member of the 2005-06 CCHA All-Rookie Team. He had 14 goals and 29 assists in 53 games as a Bulldog.

Bulldogs head coach Bob Daniels had a tactful comment about Riedel’s departure. In the press release, Daniels said, “While I’m disappointed to see Dan’s collegiate career end prematurely, I believe a change of scenery will be positive for both parties.”

Riedel signed with the Phoenix RoadRunners of the ECHL.

Too-Early Picks for Byes, Home Ice, and Detroit

Predictions are the surest way for a columnist to get burned, and I seem to flame myself weekly with my league picks, but I’ll throw this out there anyway.

I think the top four teams will remain the top four teams. I know, I know — what a risk! I just can’t see Michigan and Michigan State traveling at all, so that means a bye for each of them in the first round, and why would anyone bet against Notre Dame and Miami?

My bottom four: Northern Michigan, Alaska, Ferris State, and Bowling Green, in that order.

The middle is more difficult. Obviously, I think the four teams to host in the first round will be Western Michigan, Nebraska-Omaha, Ohio State, and Lake Superior State, but my oracle has not yet revealed to me the order in which they will finish. I think the team with most exploitable weaknesses among those four is UNO, which also has a mighty tough schedule to end the season.

The Mavericks host NMU, MSU, and OSU, but travel to ND and Alaska.

Of course, no one has it easy. The Broncos have a home-and-home against Michigan and MSU, but play great against ranked teams. They also host Alaska and travel for LSSU, and have two fewer league games left than UNO and LSSU.

The Lakers have not-so-secret weapon Jeff Jakaitis on their side, and duke it out at home this weekend against OSU, play home-and-home with NMU, host Miami, and finish with four games at home, two against Michigan, two with the Broncos.

The Buckeyes begin the final push with four road games, those against the Lakers and two in Big Rapids, with another tough road trip to Omaha sandwiched between home weekends against NMU and Michigan. They end the season with Michigan twice at the Schott.

My best guess? OSU, LSSU, WMU, and UNO, in that order.

No one wants to host Alaska. The Nanooks are big and fast, and if they get consistently good goaltending, they can upset in that first round.

I think we’ll see the current top four teams at The Joe, and I’m not making any predictions for that tourney yet. My dream Joe four this year: Notre Dame, Miami, Ohio State, and either Alaska or Nebraska-Omaha. Why? Not a perverse sense of humor, and the folks associated with both MSU and Michigan know how highly I regard their programs, but I’d like to see what would happen if no teams from Michigan were to make it to Detroit.

I know the odds. But wouldn’t it be interesting?

Future NHL All-Stars

Congratulations to Maverick alum Greg Zanon on his first NHL goal. In action with the Nashville Predators, Zanon found the net at 6:25 in the first period on Jan. 17 in Nashville’s 5-3 loss to Detroit in Joe Louis Arena.

That seems fitting. The arena, not the loss.

Former Buckeye and my once-Valentine’s Day date, Nate Guenin, made his NHL debut with the Philadelphia Flyers. Guenin played six minutes and 19 seconds in his debut Jan. 19.

Guenin saw a very familiar face when he arrived in Philly, fellow Buckeye R.J. Umberger. Guenin and Umberger played on the same Bantam team in Pittsburgh, before either player’s voice had changed.

Happy Birthday, Coach!

Happy 60th birthday, Rick Comley! Comley is living proof that hockey keeps you young.

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