This Week in the CCHA: Nov. 15, 2007


Is the sky falling? Can the center hold?

For the first time in living memory — okay, so perhaps not that long, but you know what I mean — the top three spots in the Division I Men’s Poll belong to the CCHA.

Honestly, on the heels of the second Red Sox World Series championship in a single decade, Michigan State’s NCAA title and a four-game Buffalo Bills win streak, how much more can a woman take?

In the greater picture, it’s pretty silly to get worked up about a poll. (Or “Pole,” depending on your local school district. Please refer to last week’s column.) Especially in November.

These things are not based on wins and losses so much as trends and educated guesses. Most people who vote in national polls see an awful lot of sport within their own region — Big Ten football, CCHA hockey — and have a limited (but educated) view of the rest of the sport.

We hope, too, that voters have an objective view of the sport. And when we trust that voters are objective, we put some stock into how the voting goes.

The poll is published. People read it. The inevitable and necessary buzz ensues, sound and fury ultimately signifying nothing. Or does it?

Miami’s hold on No. 1 after splitting at home with Notre Dame prompted something just short of miraculous — an in-depth feature about RedHawk hockey in the Cincinnati Post, and second story in two weeks.

For a program that is becoming one of the more consistently dominant national powerhouses in college hockey, Miami gets very little ink from the major daily (or dailies, but they’re one and the same, really) in Cincinnati, the closest major city to Oxford at a mere 35 miles or so away.

In an article published in the Post today, Miami head coach Enrico Blasi discussed part of the reason’s for Miami’s success. “When you talk about a program, there has to be a certain culture. The family concept has been at the forefront of this team. That’s why you get so many [story angles] with this program.”

Hint, hint, Post.

The other three ranked CCHA team — No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 Michigan State, and No. 10 Notre Dame — are established beats with their local newspapers and receive regular coverage from local television. In the benighted state of Ohio, however, only Bowling Green — so close to the Michigan border — gets a regular local nod.

Even USCHO’s own executive editor, Scott Brown, and senior writer Jim Connelly began their “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” column this week with a discussion of the poll. On the top three spots being occupied by the CCHA, a league that has appeared to be a real weak sister on the national scene in recent years, Connelly was moved to say, “Wow.”

But what does it really mean? Only an idiot would dismiss Miami’s emergence as a national presence. Michigan is the Rasputin of college hockey. Michigan State is the defending national champion. Why should anyone be surprised that a mix of coaches and media considers these three programs three of the best in the country?

It is still early in the season and while most of us expect the RedHawks, the Wolverines and the Spartans to be in the NCAA mix in March, it’s too soon to say how anything will be resolved. Perhaps the best thing to emerge from this week’s poll — and this young season — is the sense of reemergence of the league that has long suffered from post-season stress disorder.

Maybe this is what comes from the power of suggestion following MSU’s title, some deserved recognition that the play in the CCHA has been elevated to a more competitive level. Except against the WCHA, which is 10-3-1 against the CCHA this year. It’s good to know that there are still challenges to be met.

If the only good that comes from this is college hockey coverage in one of Ohio’s three biggest cities — trust me, there is no coverage of OSU hockey in Ohio’s capital city — then I’m pulling for the RedHawks all season long. No offense to everyone else.

One more thing to consider about the poll. Michigan State is currently tied with Bowling Green for fourth place in the CCHA standings. Each team has eight points, with BGSU having played one more game than MSU, but it brings to mind a lovely thought with which our season began: Our fourth-place team can beat your anyplace team.

But our last-place team will likely lose twice this weekend to — sigh — Robert Morris.

By the Numbers

When Nos. 1 and 3 meet with more than a month’s worth of hockey data behind them, we can finally do a comparison that matters.

Miami (9-1-0, 7-1-0 CCHA) at Michigan State (8-1-0, 4-0-0 CCHA)
Thursday and Friday, 7:05 p.m., Munn Ice Arena, East Lansing, Mich.

Last weekend, the RedHawks suffered their first loss of the season when they split with Notre Dame in Oxford. After sweeping Mercyhurst last weekend with two decisive 6-2 wins, the Spartans are enjoying an eight-game win streak.

Two one-loss teams, ranked first and third in the nation, both serious contenders for the conference and NCAA titles. Here’s a look at the match, head-to-head, by the overall numbers:

• Goals per game: Miami, 4.40 (first); MSU, 3.78 (third)
• Goals allowed per game: Miami, 1.50 (first); MSU, 2.44 (fifth)
• Power play: Miami, 19.4% (sixth); MSU, 32.6% (first)
• Penalty kill: Miami, 95% (first); MSU, 81.8 (sixth)
• PIMs per game: Miami, 19.0 (fourth); MSU, 14.3 (tie ninth)
• Top scorer: Miami, Ryan Jones (8-3–11); MSU, Tim Kennedy (9-5–14)
• Top goal scorer: Miami, Jones; MSU, Kennedy
• Top ‘tender: Miami, Jeff Zatkoff (7-1-0, .942 SV%); MSU, Jeff Lerg (7-1-0, .902 SV%)

Some things to note about these stats. Kennedy and Jones (The Great Instigator) are among the top 10 goal scorers in the nation. Miami also has the gifted Justin Mercier, who has seven goals in 10 games.

Kennedy leads the nation in power-play tallies (seven in nine games) and game-winning goals (four). Jones is tied for second in game-winners (three).

Kennedy is riding a career-best, seven-game goal-scoring streak.

MSU senior Daniel Vukovic is second in the nation among scoring defensemen, averaging 1.22 points per game. Miami rookie Carter Camper leads all CCHA freshmen in points per game (1.10), and is sixth nationally.

It’s hard to believe that with a .942 save percentage, Zatkoff is not first in the nation in that category but seventh, but there are only two other goaltenders in the country with 470 or more minutes whose save percentages are higher, and Zatkoff’s goals-against average is 1.38 for third in the nation.

Lerg may be 45th in the nation in save percentage, but consider that he began the year far below .900 with that first outing against North Dakota, and his save percentage in his last four games is .944, a stretch through which he has allowed two or fewer goals per game. Yes, those contests were against Alaska and Mercyhurst, but they do count.

Also, Lerg is 4-1-0 all-time against Miami, with a .921 save percentage in those games.

Buy the Numbers

Maybe there is something to this CCHA buzz. Things to ponder:

• There are six CCHA players among the top 10 goal scorers in the country: BGSU’s Derek Whitmore (second); MSU’s Tim Kennedy and UNO’s Mick Lawrence (tie third); UM’s Kevin Porter (seventh); Nathan Perkovich (tie ninth); Miami’s Ryan Jones (tie 10th).

• The top two assist men in the country are from the CCHA: UNO’s Bryan Marshall (first); WMU’s Patrick Galivan (second).

• Kennedy leads the nation in power-play goals.

• Three guys are tied for second in power-play goals, and two — Whitmore and Porter — are from the CCHA.

• Lawrence, Perkovich, and ND’s Mark Van Guilder are among the nine guys tied for fifth nationally in power-play goals, and UNO’s Brandon Scero and BG’s James Perkin are knocking on that door.

• OSU’s Tom Fritsche is among the four players in the country with two shorthanded goals this season.

• BG’s Kevin Schmidt leads the nation’s defensemen in points per game, followed immediately by MSU’s Daniel Vukovic. Alaska’s Tyler Eckford is among the eight players tied for sixth.

• BG goaltender Nick Eno is undefeated in the three games he’s played.

• Eno may only have three games to his credit to earn his nation-leading win percentage, but Michigan’s Billy Sauer is second, while Miami’s Jeff Zatkoff and MSU’s Jeff Lerg are tied for third.

• Miami has the best scoring offense in the country, and the CCHA has four more teams among the nation’s top 10 leading scoring offenses: Michigan (third), MSU (sixth), BGSU and UNO (tie eighth).

We all know that statistics can lie, but it’s clear from these that at least in the early going, the CCHA has established itself as a league that can score goals. It’s not surprising that the league is well represented in the power-play stats.

So where is the league weak? Not surprising, in net and on defense. Only two of the top 10 defensive teams in the country are from the CCHA (Miami and Michigan), and the only CCHA goaltender among the top 10 in the nation currently is Jeff Zatkoff.

Something disappointing is the number of teams in the league who are among the leaders in penalty minutes. Nos. 3 through 6 in the nation are Nebraska-Omaha, Bowling Green, Ferris State and Miami. The disappointment here is not, however, because these teams play any dirtier than anyone else in the country; what’s disappointing is that each league calls games in very different ways. The CCHA prides itself on its leadership in on-ice enforcement — for better or for worse — but if you watch the way games in other leagues are called, you can see that teams are allowed a little more latitude on the ice.

Just an observation.

Clearly, though, there are things brewing in the league that may make for a very interesting season both in-house and nonconference.

Speaking Inside the Box

“It is a reward for a lot of hard work. On the other hand, some of those games could have gone the other way.” UM head coach Red Berenson, on Michigan’s winning ways.

“It was just another outstanding effort from our team.” BGSU head coach Scott Paluch, Saturday, after the Falcons swept the Bulldogs in Big Rapids.

“I think that was a really big win for our team.” WMU head coach Jim Culhane, Friday, after beating Northern Michigan in Marquette.

“It feels good to feel good about a game.” NMU head coach Walt Kyle, Saturday, after beating Western Michigan at home.

“There’s not too many teams that are going to come into [Yost] Arena and win games.” UA forward Adam Naglich, Saturday, after Michigan’s two wins over Alaska in Ann Arbor.

“We have a lot of skilled guys that can put the puck in the net.” MSU forward Justin Abdelkader, some time last week.

And, presumably, years after having watched Bull Durham.

Why We Love These Guys

Hindsight may be 20-20, but such foresight is exactly what we’ve come to expect from the straight-shooting Jim Roque. This is what he said before the Lakers split with the Warriors last weekend.

“This series makes me more nervous than others. Wayne State has players who are trying to find someplace to play next year and they want to be noticed. And for others, this is it for them. They don’t have anything to lose.”

And when he doesn’t lapse into the standard quote-speak (and they all do, to be fair), Walt Kyle is refreshingly blunt about his team — in good times and, um, not-so-good times.

“We’re not a team who’s going to blow people out,” said Kyle after the Wildcats beat the Broncos in overtime. “We’re not going to be a team to rip people apart.”

Ah, would that they were. At least in terms of taking the body, like the good ol’ days. But I digress.

That 4-3 win was the second overall win for the Wildcats and their first league win of the season. More importantly, however, was how NMU won that game. After scoring one goal in each the first and second periods and trailing 3-2 in the third, Northern tied the game on Mark Olver’s goal with one second left on the clock in regulation, and won the game on Matt Butcher’s marker with four seconds left in OT.

Talk about a gut check.

And here’s someone we can learn to love, Michigan freshman Scooter Vaughan, giving the Ann Arbor News his take on Michigan’s No. 1 ranking in that other poll this week.

It’s great for the program and everything, but it’s a little undeserving.” Or undeserved. (At least he didn’t discuss the dust bowel, or reveal that the death penalty was first used in 1971, as I learned Monday. Again, kindly consult last week’s column.)

Hey, he’s a defenseman whose name is “Scooter.” What’s not to love?

And then there’s Mike Kemp, the delightful Nebraska-Omaha head coach whose Mavericks swept Ohio State in a pair of 5-2 contests to earn their first sweep of the Buckeyes in Columbus and their first CCHA wins of the year.

“It’s not what you expect, but what you hope for,” said Kemp.

He may have been laboring under the false impression that the Buckeyes would give his team a couple of competitive games last weekend, but he is an awfully nice guy.

For the Record

After sweeping the Buckeyes two weeks ago, the Ferris State Bulldogs were swept by Bowling Green in Big Rapids. This week, the Bulldogs meet the latest team to sweep Ohio State, the Mavericks, in Omaha.

Here’s what I fear. Teams aren’t getting a very good sense of themselves when they play the Buckeyes, because they’re coming into games against OSU thinking that the Buckeyes will play smart hockey, as they have in seasons past.

So, a team sweeps OSU in Columbus and thinks, “Hey, maybe we’re even better than we think!” It could be a false confidence booster.

I’m not being facetious here. In all seriousness, it’s difficult to get a read on teams that play Ohio State. The Buckeyes are capable of brilliant hockey, but have played exactly four periods of it this season — one game against Wisconsin, and their final period in Minnesota.

During OSU’s eight-game losing streak, the Bucks have lost confidence at an alarming rate, and they’re now committing the kinds of stupid errors that desperate teams do: soft goals, hanging goaltenders utterly out to dry (think breakaways and failure to clear the puck in front of the net), passing miscues in the offensive zone, untimely penalties while possessing the puck, Velcro-like grips of the stick.

This weekend’s series between the Bulldogs and Mavericks could be very interesting for each team. After watching both against OSU, I can say that FSU has some pretty good goaltending — I’m always impressed with Mitch O’Keefe — and some good defense, and that (as usual), the Mavericks can flat-out fly and score.

Additionally, the UNO upperclassmen are their best players.

That’s all I know.

Shades of the Heartbreak to Come

“Bill’s done a good job with that team and I know it’s hard to motivate that team, but he’s done a good job.” That was Jim Roque’s accurate and sad assessment of the Wayne State Warriors’ and head coach Bill Wilkinson’s situation, with four months to go in WSU’s final season of hockey.

Spoken Inglis

After getting his first win of the season last week against Wayne State, LSSU’s sophomore goaltender, Pat Inglis, talked about how things are going so far for himself and the Lakers. Inglis’ save percentage through six games is .859, and the Lakers are 2-5-1.

“I saw the puck very well,” said Inglis, who made 20 saves on 21 shots in the 3-2 win. “I think I came into the game with some jitters, but once I calmed down I was OK. They put their big guy [Mike] Forgie in front of the net, but I was able to see over top of him and make the aggressive saves when I had to.

“I’ve been struggling, but this past week in practice, I stayed out longer and tried to get some good habits going. I just need to keep working hard in practice and hopefully those habits from practice help out in the games.”

Inglis is has shared time in net this season with freshman Brian Mahoney-Wilson (1-2-0, .929 SV%) and backed up senior Jeff Jakaitis in 2006-07. With Jakaitis on a mission last year, Inglis saw action in 10 games (5-3-0, .908 SV%).

“You look at Jeff and the situation we were in last season and we were both expected to do our best,” said Inglis. “I definitely learned from him, even though we’re pretty much opposites in the way we play, but I tried to learn as much as I could, especially when it came to game preparation and things like that.

“Competition can only strengthen a team. It pushes you and can be a sign of a good team.”

Inglis, Mahoney-Wilson, and all the Lakers will need to push themselves this weekend. Michigan visits Sault Ste. Marie.

Putting One on the Boards

Through six games, Alaska Nanooks remain the only team in the CCHA without a single win this season. Two other teams, Lake Superior State and Ohio State, are also looking for their first league wins of the year.

The Wages of Sin

It was an odd moment at Value City Arena. After Nebraska-Omaha’s second 5-2 win over Ohio State last Friday night, there was a mighty gathering of repentant sinners.

And, no, I’m not talking about the Buckeyes in their post-game press conference.

A good third of the 3,900 fans in attendance Friday were with a Christian group that remained after the game to preach and pray. First on the agenda was the chestnut from Romans 6:23 about the wages of sin.

Given that the Buckeyes had given up half their goals in the series (five) on the power play, perhaps some of the OSU players should have stayed for a much-needed lesson.

At the very least, they could have lobbied the preacher for an exorcism.

One Last Thing I Have to Say

One-quarter of the way through the season, and ND senior forward Mark Van Guilder has already scored one-third as many goals as he did last season.

CHA Correspondent Matt Mackinder contributed to this column.