This Week in the CCHA: Nov. 1, 2007

It’s Alive! It’s Aliiiiiive!

Collectively, they are The Thing that Wouldn’t Die.

Tales of the Michigan Wolverines’ demise this season — or at least their descent to the realm of the mere mortals — seem a bit exaggerated. Picked in both the CCHA media and coaches preseason polls to finish fourth, the Wolverines are ranked third in the nation, having started 5-1-0.

In a home sweep of Boston University last weekend, the Wolverines outscored the Terriers 10-4, with seven of those goals coming from alleged rookies — you know, the kind of kids who wind up at Michigan and look like they’ve been playing college hockey for longer than two minutes, the kids Wolverine fans and coaches pray will stay longer than two seasons.

Three of Michigan’s four goals Friday were from youngsters. On the weekend, two newcomers — Max Pacioretty and Aaron Palushaj — netted their first collegiate goals.

One of the more welcome developments for Michigan this season is the steadier play of junior goaltender Billy Sauer. It was Sauer’s cool play that kept the Wolverines in Friday’s 4-2 win during the early going, when BU outshot UM 15-6 in the first period.

Said head coach Red Berenson, “Billy kept us in the game. If Billy hadn’t had a much better than average game, then we wouldn’t be talking about a victory. The whole game would have taken a different direction. He was the difference.”

In the second period, the phenomenal speed of freshman Matt Rust was the difference. After Rust stole the puck at the Michigan blue line, flew by a BU defender down the opposite way and scored five-hole on Brett Bennett, the momentum changed completely and the Wolverines dictated the tempo of the rest of the game. Rust scored two in that contest, including the third-period game-winner.

Back to Sauer, it’s important to note that he is just 19 years old, having come in as a 17-year-old freshman. His save percentage (.889) is another example of how statistics can be misleading, belying how much improved he is this season.

And with a team so young and allegedly inexperienced, maybe this is something to note, too: this season, junior defenseman Mark Mitera has already scored the second goal of his career, while his classmate, forward Danny Fardig, has notched his seventh. Mitera, of course, is an excellent defenseman but never an offensive threat and Fardig has always been a hard-working role-player on a team of stars … but goal scorers?

“We have a lot of players that can take advantage of their chances,” said Berenson after Saturday’s win. “It could be one or two players or lines one night, and then another two players or lines another night. I think we have four lines that have a chance of scoring.”

Is there anything scarier?

If Michigan gets guys like these to pitch in along with the players who are supposed to score — along with a steadier presence in net — I’m going to regret picking them to finish third, and everyone else in the league is going to keep wondering what it takes to bring this program back to Earth.

Dr. Jekyll Paging Mr. Hyde. Mr. Hyde?

The team that played Minnesota for the last 20 minutes Friday night — that’s the Ohio State team I want to see all season.

Down 2-0 going into the last period of play in their two-game set in Mariucci Arena, the Buckeyes utterly dominated every aspect of play in the third period, outshooting the Gophers 22-3 in the final 20, scoring one goal, and throwing everything they had at Minnesota goaltender Alex Kangas, who literally saved the game for UMN.

“If it wasn’t for Alex, Ohio State would have won the game,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia.

See? I don’t make this stuff up.

The Gophers looked like boys compared to OSU’s men in the third — something that, undoubtedly, could never have been claimed before in the history of humankind — as the Buckeyes possessed the puck in every imaginable way for over 17 of the 20 minutes of the period. They never stopped coming. They never seemed to stop for breath. Their passes were flawless, crisp, their reading of the ice nearly perfect, the chemistry and execution amazing … except, of course, where it counted, on the scoreboard.

“We play like that the rest of the year, I’ll be very, very happy,” said OSU head coach John Markell. “We did a pretty good job here for four and a half periods in a very difficult building.”

The Buckeyes are another team laden with rookie talent, although the newbies in Columbus are of a different variety than those in Ann Arbor. OSU’s “youngsters” run the gamut from 18-21 in age — senior forward Tom Fritsche is younger than freshman goaltender Dustin Carlson and his classmate, defenseman Erick Belanger — and the NHL cachet is a little higher among the Michigan freshmen, but half of OSU’s team is also new to the CCHA, giving the Buckeyes a fresher look and some much-needed enthusiasm.

In the end, it was an underrated senior, Kyle Hood, who scored his first of the season from classmate Tommy Goebel to give the Buckeyes their only goal of the game against Minnesota Friday, but freshman Peter Boyd had his second career goal Thursday, the only other OSU marker of the weekend.

And like the Wolverines, the Buckeyes are seeing much better play between the pipes this season, as sophomore Joseph Palmer (.896 SV%) has settled nicely into his starting role. It was Palmer who kept OSU in those games against Minnesota early in both games, before the Bucks had awakened to the fact that they can play.

Seniors and freshmen, slow starts and fast finishes, a Jekyll-and-Hyde team. Adding to this mix is what appears to be a real tentative nature in the opening periods of play, perhaps an apprehension about making mistakes or taking unnecessary penalties. Ironically, though, it’s when the Buckeyes get physical that their play gets good.

That Thin Veil Between …

… this and the other side, a.k.a. winning and losing, is something that the Northern Michigan Wildcats must feel on the verge of breaking through.

Northern may have just one win to its name this season, but the Wildcats have just completed two respectable consecutive weekends of hockey against two of the top teams in the country. NMU is 0-4 against Michigan State and Michigan in its last four games, but every one of those contests was close, with the last three being one-goal affairs.

Last weekend, the Wildcats lost 5-4 and 3-2 to the defending national champion Michigan State Spartans in Munn Arena, coming back from a substantial lead in each game to just this close.

After a 1-1 first period Friday, the Spartans opened a three-goal lead by the seven-minute mark in the second, and led 5-1 by the end of the stanza.

But two goals by sophomore Ray Kaunisto — two-thirds of his goal production from 41 games a season ago — and senior Tim Hartung’s first of the year made it a 5-4 game. Hartung’s goal and Kaunisto’s second (with the extra attacker) came in the final six minutes of play.

Saturday, the Wildcats were down 2-0 after one and never quit.

“I’m happy, but obviously not happy with the final result,” said NMU head coach Walt Kyle. “Our effort was great. We played hard.”

Last year, assistant head coach John Kyle told me that the ‘Cats wanted to take back their old moniker, The Hardest Working Team in College Hockey. Remember those days, with Roger Trudeau and Chris Gobert, and a host of guys only the Wildcat faithful remember?

Well, after taking it to Ohio State in the old Ice Arena during the first round of the CCHA playoffs last year and playing four close games against two of the top teams in the nation, I’m beginning to think that John Kyle is on to something.

Outworking opponents will be key to NMU rising above the bottom third of the CCHA standings this season. In 157 minutes, sophomore Derek Janzen has a respectable save percentage (.889), but his classmate Brian Stewart (.842 SV%) has seen the rest of the play.

On the other side of the puck, just four players — freshmen Jared Brown and Phil Fox, Kaunisto, and junior Nick Sirota — are responsible for 11 of NMU’s 13 total goals in six games so far this year.

A Punishing Trend

When these guys aren’t sitting in the penalty box, they play pretty well. Through their first three contests, the Bowling Green Falcons have outscored opponents 6-3 and are plus-18 as a team when they’re playing even strength.

In three contests, however, BGSU is 1-2-0, and has been outscored overall, 9-7.

“We’re still that team … searching for the confidence,” said BG head coach Scott Paluch. “It’s kind of a carry-over from last year. We didn’t win a lot of games down the stretch, but we were pretty good and the majority of those guys are back.”

With just three seniors on this year’s squad, including Derek Whitmore and his three goals in three games, the Falcons are young and promising. The key to turning the corner for this year’s Falcons, said Paluch, is getting “a string of wins.” The closest thing the Falcons had to a string of wins last season was the opening exhibition win against Windsor followed by a 2-1 overtime win over Connecticut to start the D-I season.

Staying out of the penalty box, playing in special teams as they do five-on-five, and improved consistency in net are reachable Falcon goals. “We’ve got to go through it,” said Paluch. “We’ve got to get to the point where we get to the point where we get a string of wins and get that confidence. We’ve got a group of guys who work hard and believe in each other.”

The net is looking up for BGSU, with junior Jimmy Spratt (.880 SV%) and freshman Nick Eno (.906 SV%) splitting time so far. Spratt has had “two good outings,” said Paluch. “Nick Eno jumped in and got us the win in RIT, and that was good. I can honestly say that in every game, our goalies have given us a chance.”

The Falcons will be missing sophomore forward Kai Kantola for three games. Kantola (1-2–3) was suspended by the CCHA for three games for checking junior Irish defenseman Luke Lucyk from behind at 16:13 in the first period of BG’s home 4-2 loss to Notre Dame Oct. 23.

“It turned out to be a pretty violent collision,” said Paluch, who said that the he was satisfied that the league had done its “due diligence” in reviewing the play. “We feel very comfortable with what the league did,” said Paluch. “It was clear that Kai was not trying to injure anybody, but it really turned out to be a pretty vicious hit. The best thing is that Luke was able to get up and continue playing and we feel great about that.”

This weekend, the Falcons are home-and-home against the Western Michigan Broncos, and Paluch said that his team already understands the importance of these games.

“Western’s starting their CCHA season and we’re a game into it, and already it feels like a playoff series. Both teams need some confidence. They forecheck hard, they come at you hard in the neutral zone … you’ve got to be ready to play.”

Just Plain Scary

In six games, the Miami RedHawks have outscored opponents 28-8, averaging 4.67 goals per contest (third in the country) and allowing just 1.33 (tie-second) for the second-best scoring margin in the country.

With their 6-0 start, the RedHawks also have the longest current unbeaten streak in the nation.

They’re doing this without Nate Davis, by the way. Remember him? He’s their leading scorer from a year ago, the guy who had 21 goals and the 21st-best points per game in the country last year.

So far this year, it’s guys like junior Justin Mercier (who?) with six goals in six games, a pair of rookies — Carter Camper and Tommy Wingels, who have the two funnest names in the league — have seven goals between them, and The Great Instigator, senior Ryan Jones, with four goals who lead the RedHawk charge. Throw junior Alec Martinez and senior Nino Musitelli into the mix, and you have six Miami players who have already tallied two or more goals.

(When did Nino Musitelli become a senior? How does that happen? And when did he get 26 penalty minutes?)

But it’s not just scoring that makes Miami so scary; it’s the whole package. It certainly helps that junior Jeff Zatkoff (5-0-0, .951 SV%) is off to a roaring good start.

This 6-0-0 start is the second such beginning in school history, but looking back to the last time — as we saw last week — is not such an encouraging thing to do. The last time the RedHawks began the season 6-0-0 was in 1997-98, when they finished 19-14-4 overall and fifth in the CCHA.

“I Got a Rock”

Last weekend, the RedHawks beat the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks twice in Steve Cady Arena, their third consecutive sweep of UNO in three straight series. It was a tough weekend for the Mavericks, who allowed five goals total in the final five minutes of each game.

In Friday’s 7-2 loss, it was a 4-2 game with five minutes left in regulation. Carter Camper scored at 15:07, followed by Charley Fetzer at 17:17, and Brian Kaufman at 18:47. Jeremie Dupont gave up seven goals on 24 shots.

Saturday, the RedHawks netted two in the final minute of play. It was Camper at 19:00, and Gary Steffes with the empty-netter at 19:21. The score was 3-2 until Carter’s game; the ‘Hawks won 5-2. This time, it was Jerad Kaufmann giving up four goals on 32 shots.

By all accounts, Saturday’s game was a rough one. Miami head coach Enrico Blasi called it “intense,” and Maverick Dan Charleston said that his team “came together” as a result of the series and “fought through a lot of adversity.”

Adversity. That is rough. How rough? UNO’s Jeric Agosta received five minutes and a game misconduct for hitting from behind, Maverick Brandon Scero earned 10 minutes, and RedHawk Alexandre Lacombe earned a 10-minute major as well — all in the first period.

“I thought our guys did a great job of killing penalties,” said UNO head coach Mike Kemp. “When you get that much time on the power play, I think our guys did a great job, especially on the five-on-threes.”

Kemp also said that he wishes the game had been rougher. “I didn’t think it was all that rough, to be honest. Take a look at the calls.”

In all, there were 23 penalties called for 84 minutes.

Headless No More

It took a while, but the Alaska Nanooks have finally announced their 2007-08 captains: seniors Aaron Lee and Wylie Rogers, and junior Tyler Eckford.

Rogers is the first Nanooks goaltender in 17 years to be named captain.

I still remember the first time I met Rogers when the Nanooks played Ohio State in 2004. It was Thursday, Dec. 2, and the Nanooks were there to practice. Like a lot of freshmen who haven’t seen many rinks like the Schottenstein Center, Rogers was walking around the place with a big grin on his face, eager to take the ice.

I was struck by his curly red hair, his baby face, and very friendly demeanor — and by the way he played. Rogers had 59 saves in two losses, and did everything he could to keep UA (then UAF) in those games.

Captain Rogers. Couldn’t happen to a nicer, red-haired, baby-faced, not-so-little kid.

The Secret to Immortality

The secret to immortality is to play in Alaska. Just ask Michigan State goaltender Jeff Lerg, who stands to tie MSU’s record for consecutive goalie starts (60) this weekend against the Nanooks.

“That means I have to play in Alaska,” said the junior whose save percentage (.878) is deceptive after a 6-0 loss to start the season against North Dakota three weeks ago.

“It is really just a nice compliment, obviously, from the coaching staff and everyone here to put that much confidence in me,” said Lerg, “to keep playing me on a consistent basis.”

This is the asthmatic who has had to struggle to overcome not only illness but the (obviously mistaken) notion that a goalie short in stature can’t win games.

The Strange Dominance of the Western Menace

While John Markell and OSU fans may have been able to take something positive out of the Buckeyes’ series in Minnesota, two losses are, well, two losses.

Already this season, the WCHA owns the CCHA, with the CCHA’s record standing at 3-10-1 in a remarkable 14 games (through three weeks!) between the two conferences.


I got to watch two CCHA teams play nonconference games last Friday, on different cable channels, from the comfort of my own home.

Chris Kunitz has an NHL championship ring, the Spartans won the NCAA title and the Boston Red Sox have captured their second World Series in four years.

Daddy, does this mean I’ll finally get that pony?