This Week in the CCHA: Feb. 8, 2007

Who’s Your Father?

Perhaps the more appropriate question, given that we’re talking about Notre Dame here.

For the first time ever, the Irish are ranked first in the nation — and not just by USCHO, but by the other guys who poll, too.

It is not, apparently, enough for some of the Irish faithful … but who can blame them? It’s been a long time coming, and what a moment for Notre Dame hockey.

Tuesday afternoon, when I had the privilege of chatting with CCHA fans, someone asked about Notre Dame being ranked No. 1 but possibly being a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, and this is how South Bend Tribune writer and esteemed colleague, Steve Wozniak, proclaimed the Irish’s new ranking: “Light the top of Flanner Hall, raise the flag outside the Joyce Center, and for the love of everything that is good in the Notre Dame universe, if you see anyone from the Irish hockey team, tell them the PairWise hates them.”

The PairWise hates the Irish? The NCAA seedings could slight Notre Dame? Have you people lost your minds? Put down that glass of Kool-Aid and come back to the light.

While the Irish have just five losses this season — as do the three teams tied for first in the PWR, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and St. Cloud — it’s the quality of those losses, if you will, along with the quality of all the Irish wins, that determines the PWR.

Aside from Notre Dame, only Michigan, Michigan State, and Miami register on the PWR (and the Spartans and RedHawks are NCAA tournament bubble teams right now … but that’s another story). The CCHA isn’t exactly the strongest league this season, so the majority of Notre Dame’s wins haven’t come against the highest-quality programs in the country.

Sure, the Irish spanked Boston College early on, but the Eagles may have the last laugh — inadvertently — as that win doesn’t mean as much as it could, given BC’s season and consequent PWR standing (tied for 13th).

And it’s so much more than the wins. Look at who the top three programs have lost to and their current standings in the PWR:

New Hampshire: Maine (7); Cornell (t22); Massachusetts twice (t19); Yale (no rank)
Minnesota: Denver (5); Maine (7); North Dakota twice (t8); Wisconsin (t22)
St. Cloud: Denver twice (5); North Dakota (t8); Minnesota State twice (t24)

Who has Notre Dame lost to? Michigan State, Minnesota State, Nebraska-Omaha, Western Michigan, and — yes — Robert Morris. Only Michigan State (t13) and Minnesota State (t24) show up among the top 25 of the PWR. As good as are UNO and WMU, they aren’t there, and neither are the Colonials.

So who hates the Irish? Certainly not the PairWise and by extension your beloved USCHO, and certainly not this girl reporter — who was once called a “b**ch” by the mother of a former Irish player, but I digress.

It’s like I tell fans who complain about officiating: Score more goals. At least one more against UNO and WMU, and two more against Robert Morris would have helped.

So Maybe It’s Not the Worst Thing That Can Happen

Two weekends ago, after taking three points from visiting Miami, second-year Irish head coach Jeff Jackson said that being ranked No. 1 in the polls the following week would be the “worst thing” that could happen to Irish hockey.

So, Coach, how does it feel to be Numero Uno?

“I wonder if Donny Lucia was asked that for weeks on end,” said Jackson.

Jackson said that it’s all about perspective. “It’s kind of a new experience for most of these kids to be in the limelight. Obviously, it’s nice to be recognized but it’s rather insignificant in February. … We’re a bit inexperienced playing in this type of environment.

“I think back to Boston College and we were still the Notre Dame of old, the role that we were playing as an underdog. Now the role’s reversed.”

Jackson said that it’s the players who deserve most of the kudos. “I give a lot of credit to the upperclassmen, the seniors specifically. That, and a good freshman class. We didn’t know how good they were going to be.”

This is all new for Jackson, too, who never thought four months ago that his Irish would be the top-ranked team in the country. “When I took over Lake Superior, we were accustomed to winning. In Guelph it happened a little bit that way for me because we had a team that was pretty poor the year before. That team finished in fourth place after finishing 11th. It’s not quite the same.”

Last weekend, the Irish swept 12th-place Bowling Green, but it wasn’t easy. After going up 2-0 on two power-play goals before the six-minute mark in the first period of Friday’s 3-2 win, the Irish allowed two Falcon goals by the five-minute mark in the second. And BGSU took the 1-0 lead in the 2-1 Saturday win. The third period of each game was scoreless.

“They showed a lot of resiliency,” said Jackson. “They didn’t show any quit in their game. The first night when we went up 2-0, they could have folded the tent but they kept on coming. They’re a young team.”

There’s another reason why getting by the bottom team in the conference wasn’t easy for the soon-to-be No. 1 team in the country. “Right now, we’re also getting every everybody’s ‘A’ game. It’s good for us, in some ways, because it helps us prepare for the playoffs.”

This weekend, the Irish will face the high-intensity offense of Nebraska-Omaha, minus two players, but plus another (see below).

“There’s no question that Omaha’s one of the best offensive teams in the country,” said Jackson. “They’re a difficult team to play against.”

The teams split earlier in the season in Omaha, but that was so long ago, said Jackson that both squads were very different hockey teams.

A Painful Lesson

According to Nebraska-Omaha’s weekly release, senior defenseman Bobby Henderson and sophomore forward Adam Bartholomay have been suspended for the rest of the 2006-07 season for violating team policy.

The Omaha World-Herald reported Feb. 8 that the two were arrested for public intoxication Feb. 4, a misdemeanor, but that head coach Mike Kemp said the infraction was enough to warrant suspension.

Kemp told the World-Herald, “There are standards that we hold our players to, so it was obvious what needed to be done.”

With 10 goals and nine assists, Bartholomay was fourth in goal production for the Mavericks this season. Henderson had one assist in 11 games this year.

According to the World-Herald, Kemp said that Bartholomay’s status will be reevaluated at the end of the season, but for Henderson, this is it. This was his senior season. You have to feel for the kid, but at the same time, team rules are team rules.

Henderson’s loss would be felt more keenly were it not for the expected return of Dan Knapp to the UNO blue line as the Mavs face the Irish this weekend.

Down in the Slumps

The defending regular-season CCHA champs, the Miami RedHawks, are 3-4-2 in 2007. That, I believe, constitutes an official slump.

The RedHawks have taken two league points from the last two weekends, having lost to and tied with both Notre Dame and Alaska.

During 2007, the RedHawks have been outscored by a slim margin (30-27), and a few more goals wouldn’t hurt. Nathan Davis had eight goals in November; he’s had three since. Jarod Palmer had four goals in November; he’s had four since. Justin Mercier had eight goals the first half of the season; he’s had one in 2007.

In six games in December, the RedHawks scored 25 goals and went 4-1-1. In eight games in January, Miami scored 23 goals and went 3-3-2.

When it finally cooled off in Ohio in January, apparently it did so in Oxford before it got around to the rest of the state.

Of course, it hasn’t been warm and sunny up the road a bit for Miami’s uber-rival, Ohio State. For the first time this season, Ohio State came away from two games against a CCHA opponent with no points. That’s hardly by design.

“We played well on Friday,” said head coach John Markell, whose Buckeyes were swept by Ferris State in Big Rapids last weekend.

On Saturday, the Bulldogs scored three goals on four shots on freshman netminder Joseph Palmer. “That’s going to happen,” said Markell. “He had a freshman moment later in the season. Maybe he didn’t expect it. He’s played well up until now.”

Indeed, from early December through Saturday, Palmer had played well for the Buckeyes, having gone 6-5-2. Sure, it’s not a house on fire, but there was a split with MSU, a 1-1-2 record against Miami, and a split with Lake Superior State, and all of it better hockey than earlier in the season. Much of the credit for that goes to Palmer.

Markell said that the rest of the team could have come through better for the rookie netminder when he struggled early in Saturday’s 6-2 loss to FSU. “Maybe we didn’t answer the bell. We couldn’t get it done this time. It wasn’t our lack of effort. I thought they [FSU] did an unbelievable job of blocking the puck.”

In fact, the Buckeyes attempted a total of 80 shots in the game, registering half of them on Bulldog goaltender Derek MacIntyre.

Markell resorted to some interesting tactics in the series, pulling Palmer with 4:46 to go in regulation in the 4-2 loss, when OSU was down 4-1, and sitting seniors Kenny Bernard and Bryce Anderson in the first period of the 6-2 loss Saturday. Markell said that he thought Bernard wasn’t playing well, and Anderson was late for a team meeting.

Palmer’s classmate, Nick Filion, played the second and third periods in the 6-2 loss, allowing two goals.

The wins were the third and fourth in a row for the Bulldogs over the Buckeyes. Last year, FSU ended OSU’s season in Ewigleben Arena in the first round of the CCHA playoffs with two straight wins, March 3-4.

And more trivia: The Bulldogs and Buckeyes met in the CCHA playoffs at the end of 2004-05, when OSU beat FSU two out of three games in Columbus to advance to the now-defunct CCHA Super 6.

Both of these Ohio teams return home this weekend from road trips they’d rather forget. The RedHawks face Lake Superior State in their last regular-season CCHA series in The Cady. Saturday night is senior night. Miami finishes league play in two weeks in Marquette.

The Buckeyes host NMU this weekend, travel to UNO next week, and end the season with two at home against Michigan.

Like the RedHawks, the Wildcats have just four remaining CCHA games to the six — or even seven — that everyone else has.

“They’ve got four games left and they’re a point behind us,” said Markell. “We’ll have to find out a way to stop [Mike] Santorelli. Matt Beaudoin’s line stopped Nathan Davis when he was on a roll. It’s not a team we haven’t played before. We know we can be unsuccessful and we know we can be successful.”

Oh, Just Click Your Heels … And Score More Goals

OSU, a team that has seen many more playoff series at home than on the road — or not at all — under Markell’s tenure, is just one of six teams realistically fighting to host in the first round of the CCHA playoffs.

Michigan State is catchable, but it’s unlikely that the Spartans won’t earn a bye in the first round, especially since they have seven games left to play, a game in hand on everyone else.

So that leaves Nebraska-Omaha — about whom I was so wrong weeks ago — Lake Superior State, Ohio State, Western Michigan, Northern Michigan, and Alaska to decide it like men, on the ice.

Having to travel to Big Rapids last March is something that Markell is counting on for the Buckeyes this weekend.

“Hopefully it’s burning bright in their minds, what happened last year. They know the coaching staff wants to win. There’s got to be a pull there somewhere when they get behind that it doesn’t drive you apart but it pulls you together.”

The Buckeyes face the Wildcats this weekend, a clustermate team with whom they split in Marquette in late October.

Last weekend, NMU split with LSSU. The Lakers were 3-1-0 against their travel partners this year, and brought home the Father Cappo Cup for the first time since the 1999-2000 season.

It’s a tough break when you allow two goals in a weekend and don’t earn four points. The Wildcats beat the Lakers 1-0 Friday, but lost 2-1 Saturday.

“It was a good series,” said NMU head coach Walt Kyle. “They’re a hard team to play against, they’re a good defensive team. Each night, the teams exchanged a pair of five-on-three goals. Mike Santorelli’s 26th marker of the season was the game-winner in the shutout win.

There are some teams that are said to be better than their records. Kyle said that at this point, NMU is not one of them.

“We haven’t had the kind of year we wanted. The only thing we can do is take it one game at a time and continue to stay in a fight for home ice. This team hasn’t shown me as a coach that we can look at it more than one game at a time.”

As for Santorelli, “He’s unbelievable,” said Kyle. “He’s had such a good year, and he’s doing it single-handedly. I think he’s … got such a good ability to focus. He’s not getting caught up in it.”

Another bright spot for the Wildcats is goaltender Bill Zaniboni, who has “not been an issue,” said Kyle. “I have no complaints.” Zaniboni (.912 SV%, 2.44 GAA) is fourth among CCHA goaltenders in combined league stats.

The ‘Cats will finish their season at home in two weeks against Miami. “If you’re going to be in the playoffs,” said Kyle, “that’s good preparation.”

Be Careful What You Wish For

Leave it to Rick Comley to put absolutely everything on the planet in perspective.

“It’s like wanting winter: Be careful what you wish for.”

This is what Comley told me this week when we were discussing scheduling, the CCHA playoffs, the hype of big games, and Spartan hockey in general.

Michigan State begins a bizarre home-and-home split series this weekend, hosting Ferris State Friday night, then finishing that season series in Big Rapids Tuesday. And in between, in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena for Hockey Day in Michigan, the Spartans will face off against the Wolverines Saturday night.

“It’s all related to the playoff change,” said Comley. “Coaches in Florida [at the annual meetings] were all for midweek games, and then they became reality.

“I don’t know how basketball does it. They travel better than we do, always flying, but in hockey, it’s just not a good thing.”

It is like the old days, though, when every team faced every other team in the league three times. There were weekends when you played two-game sets against the same opponent, and weekends when you faced someone Saturday that you didn’t face Friday.

So, the Spartans have FSU Friday, Michigan Saturday. The Wolverines have Bowling Green Friday, MSU Saturday.

Guess which game Spartan and Wolverine fans anticipate the most?

“There’s a great danger when there’s an opponent like Michigan, to look past the first game,” said Comley. “Obviously, your fans are wrapped up in it, the media’s all about it … but we are playing Ferris State Friday night.

“They’re coming off two wins, and that’s going to help their confidence tremendously. They work hard, they get up and down, they’re well coached. I think it’s been a frustrating year for them.

“It’s one of those ‘coach worry’ games, not only because of what’s at stake but the preparation part of it.”

Comley said that at this point in the season, he’s a little surprised that the fight for a first-round CCHA playoff bye doesn’t involve more teams. “I thought we’d go six deep, six that would stay in contingent longer. I’m not surprised that one team has run away because our scheduling format lends itself to that.”

The Spartans have 28 points, eight out of first place, two behind Miami and four behind Michigan. And they have at least a game in hand on every one of those opponents, so they really do control their playoff destiny.

One story on the down-low this season is the success of the Spartans’ leading scorer, junior forward and this week’s CCHA Offensive Player of the Week, Bryan Lerg. Lerg (18-11–29) leads the nation in game-winning goals; he scored his seventh in last Friday’s 5-1 win over UNO, and he’s just one away from tying the MSU team record of eight, shared by Mitch Messier and Steve Beadle.

“It’s been great. It’s a good story,” said Comley. “He’s having a phenomenal year and he’s scoring game-winning goals. Obviously, I think he’s capable of a more rounded game — he’s got 11 assists.”

Comley said that on the kind of score-by-committee team that MSU has, Lerg is an asset. “We don’t have anybody in the category of [Scott] Parse and [T.J.] Hensick in point production,” said Comley.

What’s Better Than a Benjamin?

How about two? Congratulations to Michigan’s T.J. Hensick, whose four-point weekend against WMU gave him 203 career points and put him in the lead for point production nationally.

UNO’s Scott Parse is just eight points away from hitting 200.

More Congrats

Bronco freshman Mark Letestu scored shorties in both WMU losses to Michigan last weekend, vaulting him into a tie for shorthanders this season (four) with three other players. Letestu is an awfully good candidate for national rookie of the year.

Congrats to Buckeye Rod Pelley, who played his first NHL game Feb. 1 for New Jersey, against Buckeyes Nate Guenin and RJ Umberger of Philadelphia. Pelley is quite possibly one of the nicest hockey players I’ve ever met.

Three Buckeyes in one single NHL game. Must have had something to do with an alignment of the planets.

Matt Verdone

Still on fire since I called him out in January. And I’m still waiting for my check, Coach Daniels.

Here’s what I don’t understand: I never even called out Wolverine Jack Johnson, but he’s had eight goals and six assists in the past six games. I’m guessing I missed out on a fee there.

Lefty McFadden

According to Thursday’s Dayton Daily News, the field for next year’s Lefty McFadden College Hockey Invitational at the Nutter Center in Dayton (Oct. 12-13) will include Mercyhurst, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Wisconsin. OSU is the new host.

Potentially great weekend of hockey.

Thanks to All You Tuesday-Afternoon Slackers

Thank you to everyone who sent in questions or chatted with me through the CSTV Tuesday chat, and thanks to everyone who emailed afterward. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Next Week Is …

… Valentine’s Day. There will be no regular-season championship game to watch, and Philadelphia is 470 miles away. Sigh.


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