This week, as I was penning two new tunes for Paula Weston: The Musical — “You’ve Got to Get Me Where I Need to Go,” a peppy number about a single woman’s 1992 Oldsmobile Achieva, and “If I Only Had the Time (I’d Finish It All),” a moving, show-stopping ballad about (among other things) sleep deprivation — my muse smacked me right in the middle of the forehead … and told me to write, instead, my weekly column.
So the Tony will have to wait. But that moment reminded me of what’s essential for every passionate endeavor, inspiration. Without it, none of the four teams which will compete for the Mason Cup in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena this weekend could have made it this far.
No. 1 Notre Dame
The 2006-07 Notre Dame Fighting Irish didn’t know how good they were going to be.
“It’s sure been a Cinderella-type of season for us,” said head coach Jeff Jackson, “something that may not have been totally expected. I’m not sure we expected to be where we were at the end, at least not at the beginning of the season.”
Earlier in the campaign, when the Irish went east and trounced Boston College, 7-1, and Providence, 6-1, folks around the CCHA were just happy to pick up the high-profile nonconference wins, and no one thought that the Irish would roll on through to their first regular-season championship in program history.
But it soon became apparent to everyone that this Irish team was very different from last year’s squad, and light-years ahead of the team that earned five wins in 2004-05. A mix of re-dedicated veterans and an enthusiastic and very talented freshman class — arguably the best in the nation — has catapulted Notre Dame to the top of the league and the nation.
Jackson, in his second year at the helm in South Bend, credits his entire team, his coaching staff of Paul Pooley and Andy Slaggert, and especially the senior who has garnered much attention for being one of the nation’s premier goaltenders this season, David Brown.
Brown was “up and down and inconsistent” last season “coming off a real rough sophomore year,” said Jackson, who said he’s “extremely proud” of the netminder. “It took a lot of time … he’s come a long way in his mental approach to the game. He’s gained a lot of humility along the way.”
Jackson said that “two key things” are responsible for Brown’s transformation. “His mental toughness and [ability] to be humble and recognize what his teammates contribute.”
During Jackson’s short tenure at ND, I’ve often had to remind myself that I’ve seen most of these players before. That is, when I’ve noticed someone on the ice who has just made a particularly nice play, I’ve looked at the roster and done a double take. Players like Erik Condra, Mark Van Guilder, Noah Babin, Wes O’Neill — sure, I’ve watched them play for years.
But they’ve never played like this.
In addition to the renewed vets, the rookie class has been phenomenal. It’s always a bonus when you get 35 goals from two freshmen, as the Irish have from Kevin Deeth and Ryan Thang.
Jackson said that this freshman class “was a welcome addition to our team,” and credits Slaggert, who recruited all the rookies before Jackson and Pooley came aboard.
And it’s not just Deeth and Thang. Blueliners Kyle Lawson and Brett Blatchford are invaluable. “You can’t underestimate those two young defensemen,” said Jackson. The whole class is a real positive class. For whatever reason, kids develop for different reasons. The kids that you’re talking about are hockey players … [who] also have a talent level to do more than the average player.”
Here’s a look at the Fighting Irish, by the overall numbers. The stats following each slash indicate relative position within the CCHA.
• Record: 29-6-3
• Goals per game: 3.53/third
• Goals allowed per game: 1.71/first
• Power play: .194/first
• Penalty kill: .905/first
• Top scorer: Erik Condra (13-31–44)
• Top goal scorers: Ryan Thang (18-18–36), Mark Van Guilder (18-15–33)
• Top goaltender: David Brown (1.64 GAA, .928 SV%)
What’s Notre Dame’s edge this weekend? Aside from the obvious, how about a rookie class that doesn’t know any better — in all the right ways?
No. 2 Michigan
Let’s just say it right away: Goaltending is Michigan’s Achilles heel.
No one likes to point a finger at a specific player, and no one bears more of any one team’s burden than does a goaltender, but of the four teams in this weekend’s field, no one gives up more goals than does Michigan.
And of this weekend’s four starting goalies, only Wolverine netminder Billy Sauer has a save percentage below .900 … but not much below .900.
“I think he’s improved a lot,” said Michigan head coach Red Berenson.
In fact, said Berenson, the entire Wolverine squad has been better down the stretch. “We’ve been like a lot of teams, maybe not as consistent as Notre Dame. I thought since Christmas we’ve played more consistently. Like other teams, we’ve lost a couple of games that we shouldn’t have lost.”
While the Wolverines allow a lot of goals, they score more per game than anyone else in the nation. This Michigan team is loaded, from centers to blueliners, with guys who can score. But what it doesn’t have — at least according to Hobey Baker candidate T.J. Hensick — is props from opponents.
“I don’t think teams give us enough respect,” said Hensick last weekend. “I know they think we can score goals, but I don’t think they think we can play a hard-nosed, physical game.”
I can’t imagine any opponent underestimating the Wolverines, but if that’s what rallies Michigan, that’s what rallies Michigan.
Hensick is correct, though, in that the Wolverines can play a very tough brand of hockey. When they add that element of physicality, that blue-collar style that Berenson loves so well, to their almost-poetic offense, they become an almost unbeatable team.
Here’s a look at the Wolverines, by the overall numbers. The stats following each slash indicate relative position within the CCHA.
• Record: 25-12-1
• Goals per game: 4.29/first
• Goals allowed per game: 3.08/seventh
• Power play: .181/sixth
• Penalty kill: .811/10th
• Top scorer: T.J. Hensick (20-42–62)
• Top goal scorer: Andrew Cogliano (23-24–47)
• Top goaltender: Billy Sauer (2.98 GAA, .898 SV%)
What’s Michigan’s edge this weekend? Every sophomore, junior and senior skater has been here before — the juniors and seniors have never not been here before. And this team can pour goals into an opponent’s net like nobody else.
No. 3 Michigan State
The new movie 300 recounts the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, which legend tells us pitted 300 Spartans (plus 700 or so assorted other fighters) against an army of 100,000 Persians.
Although 300 is a somewhat over-digitized bloodbath based on a much better graphic novel by Frank Miller, this movie couldn’t come at a better time than now to remind us of that David-and-Goliath dynamic that we all love to see in sports.
Get it? Spartans=Underdogs. Don’t believe me? Well, when I asked head coach Rick Comley this week about whether or not the Spartans feel as though they’re being generally disregarded in this tournament — even though they’re undefeated against Michigan at Joe Louis Arena in their last seven games and the Spartans are the reigning Mason Cup champions — Comley deftly side-stepped my question:
“It’s 65 degrees and sunny today,” said Comley Monday, “so I think hockey is the last thing they’re thinking about.”
But I wasn’t fooled.
Earlier in the week, Comley talked to the State News about the lack of recognition for the Spartans among the league’s end-of-season awards.
“We didn’t have a a single player who made the top three in any of the league awards or any of the all-[league] teams or anything. Nobody got a sniff. And we’re one of the four [teams remaining], so that’s pretty good.”
And T.J. Hensick thinks that the Wolverines are the Dangerfields of college hockey?
Perhaps the way in which the Spartans ended the regular season has many people overlooking MSU heading into this weekend. In February, Michigan State went 3-4-2, all against league opponents. And, as Comley has pointed out himself many times, this is not the most offensively prolific Spartan team.
On Tuesday, Comley made mention of Drew Miller’s early departure, about what a difference that’s made to this team. With Miller last year, the Spartans were the best postseason playoff team by far, and had he returned, MSU would have been my odds-on pick to represent the CCHA in the Frozen Four this year, even contend for the national title itself.
But Miller left. And now it’s up to the rest of the Spartans, the remaining 27.
Here’s a look at the Spartans, by the overall numbers. The stats following each slash indicate relative position within the CCHA.
• Record: 21-12-3
• Goals per game: 3.17/seventh
• Goals allowed per game: 2.39/second
• Power play: .188/third
• Penalty kill: .865/third
• Top scorer: Bryan Lerg (22-12–34)
• Top goal scorer: Bryan Lerg
• Top goaltender: Jeff Lerg (2.40 GAA, .913 SV%)
Michigan State’s edge this weekend: Nobody expects the Spartans to make any noise. Notre Dame is the story of the season. Michigan can score on anyone. And, boy, that Jeff Jakaitis!
No. 4 Lake Superior State
If the Fighting Irish are Cinderella, then surely the Lakers are the frog prince, just barely kissed.
And thank goodness for the Lake Superior State Lakers. They’re just happy to be here. Really.
“We’re obviously thrilled to get to Joe Louis,” said Laker head coach Jim Roque. “We realize we have a huge task this weekend against the teams that are there.”
The Lakers came to Detroit via Oxford, where they upset the No. 3 Miami RedHawks in spite of a bench shortened by injuries and illness. Roque alluded to two concussions and a few other injuries during Tuesday’s press conference, and after Saturday’s contest, Roque was very frank about the condition of his team.
“We had guys hurt,” Roque told M.D. Sandwasher, who covered the game for USCHO. “Our leading scorer [Troy Schwab] didn’t play all weekend. Ryan Baird was puking all game on the bench. We didn’t even have a full lineup. We only dressed 17 skaters.”
Seventeen skaters and one terrific goaltender. Jeff Jakaitis made 81 saves in the two-game sweep, as the RedHawks outshot the Lakers 83-54.
“He’s good,” Roque said of Jakaitis. “He’s been great for three-and-a-half years, since he’s become the starter. He’s been great for a long time, giving us chances to win games when obviously we shouldn’t.
“He’s been fabulous here for a long, long time at Lake Superior.”
Roque said that the Lakers didn’t use the shortened bench as a rallying point; they just did what they had to do.
“We didn’t even talk about it. It’s happened [being injured] all season. Whatever guys are going to play are going to play hard. It’s a short series, and anything can happen.”
And while Notre Dame, Michigan, and Michigan State are probably all headed for the NCAA tournament regardless of the outcome of this weekend’s games, Lake Superior State would need the championship and its autobid to make the big show — but Roque said the Lakers aren’t thinking about that, either.
“We haven’t even addressed it or talked about it. We just want to play well Friday and get to the championship game Saturday.”
And that’s why CCHA fans should be pulling at least a little for Lake Superior State. The Mason Cup means something more to them than a step along the way to the NCAA tournament, even more than it does to Notre Dame, which has dominated the CCHA all season and expected to be here.
Here’s a look at the Lakers, by the overall numbers. The stats following each slash indicate relative position within the CCHA.
• Record: 21-17-3
• Goals per game: 2.56/10th
• Goals allowed per game: 2.44/third
• Power play: .140/11th
• Penalty kill: .840/fifth
• Top scorer: Trent Campbell (11-18–29)
• Top goal scorer: Josh Sim (15-10–25)
• Top goaltender: Jeff Jakaitis (2.17 GAA, .935 SV%)
Jakaitis isn’t the Lakers’ only edge this weekend. LSSU’s entire senior class is driven, a bunch of guys who have seen things they can’t even talk about in their four years in Sault Ste. Marie. And they’ve come together to lead their team at the write time. Remember 2004? Anything can happen.
Next week, we here at USCHO team up for NCAA regional previews. Expect a CCHA post-mortem between the regionals and the Frozen Four.