This Week in the CCHA: Nov. 29, 2007

Hail the Conquering Heroes

With a 2-0-2 record against the WCHA, Notre Dame’s capture of the Rensselaer Tournament crown and Miami’s home-ice domination of Canisius, perhaps “conquering” is a bit of a stretch.

But don’t it feel good?

With Miami and Michigan at the top of the national rankings and Michigan State and Notre Dame also among the top 10, the CCHA needed the Thanksgiving weekend performance of its current top dogs. Not only was this a significant showing for the league, but a real confidence-booster within the league. Any team that can at least hang with the RedHawks and Wolverines has to feel better about its program, and playing against such high-level performers on a regular basis is a learning experience.

That’s what we like to think, at least. Michigan State’s national championship has helped bring respectability back to the CCHA. The emergence of Miami and Notre Dame as powerhouse programs heightens the profile of the whole league. And Michigan’s consistency is something nearly everyone takes for granted (except for Michigan, of course).

But what if this sense that the WCHA was the dominant league for years — based on that five-year run of Frozen Four titles and who’s-your-daddy bragging rights in nonconference competition — is merely an illusion? What if we, the observers of the game, really don’t get it?

“To me, all this talk that the media tries to say that one league is better than the other, I don’t buy into that.”

So says Enrico Blasi, a fine head coach who should know of which he speaks. This was Blasi’s response to me when I asked him earlier this week about what last week’s play might say about the CCHA versus other leagues in the greater scheme.

“If you don’t play, you’re going to get beat,” said Blasi. “It doesn’t matter what year it is.”

The Miami head coach must be onto something, because no one can dispute the job he’s done in Oxford. The RedHawks have lost just once this season, to fellow top-10er Notre Dame, and most recently swept the Canisius Golden Griffins at home. The hosts shut out the Griffs Friday, 4-0, before embarrassing the visitors 11-1 on Saturday.

“Our guys were executing and there were shots to be made, and our guys took them,” said Blasi of the lopsided weekend. “We rolled four lines. Everybody had equal time on the ice.

It’s just a matter of how we approach every day. Chances presented themselves and we took them. We didn’t want to develop any bad habits.” He added that Canisius didn’t fold. “For the entire weekend their team worked hard.”

With 15 goals scored, you would think that someone would have stepped up and netted a hat trick. Instead, Miami fans will have to settle for several two-goal performances: Ryan Jones Friday night; Brian Kaufman, Alec Martinez and Justin Mercier Saturday.

Senior goaltender Charlie Effinger had his third start for his third win of the season Friday night.

Blasi said that “the captains and the seniors deserve a lot of credit” for what’s going on in Oxford, the confidence and consistency of the program, and a work ethic that won’t quit.

Miami is off until Alaska comes to town Dec. 7-8. The week began with a little respite for the RedHawks. “We gave the guys a couple of days off,” said Blasi on Tuesday. “We haven’t been able to take a few days off in a while. There will be 20 guys at the rink today. The sun is finally out in Oxford. It makes you want to do something.”

The RedHawks’ counterparts in South Bend, East Lansing and Ann Arbor have no such luxury this week. All are back in action this week against league opponents after doing their bits to establish a false sense of CCHA re-emergence last week.

It’s difficult to resist poking Blasi, just a little. He’s such a good-natured guy, so very earnest — and he may be right. About the whole dominant-league thing, and not just about how to coach a team in Oxford.

“I watched that BU-Cornell game [from Madison Square Garden] and I know one thing,” said Blasi. “You play either one of those teams, it’s going to be a dogfight.”

Boston University (4-7-1) is eighth in the Hockey East standings, while Cornell (4-4-0) is third in the ECAC, and BU won that game, 6-3.

“As for the records,” said Blasi, “it’s just results. It’s not what’s in the games.”

Heroes, Part II

Heading into December of last year, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish were 10-3-1, and few in college hockey believed it would last.

A year later, the Irish are 12-4-0 and nobody believes it’s a fluke.

Last weekend, ND overcame a three-goal deficit to beat host Rensselaer to capture the Holiday Hockey Tournament after beating Alabama-Huntsville 4-1 to reach the title contest.

After capturing last year’s regular-season title and the Mason Cup and with such a great start to the season — the Irish are the only team to have defeated No. 1 Miami so far this year — hearing head coach Jeff Jackson say that the Irish are still struggling to put together 60-minute games is a bit surprising.

“We’re getting better at it,” said Jackson. “I don’t think that even in the RPI game or even the second night in Miami, I don’t sense that we’re as mentally prepared to start a game as we need to be. It’s not understanding how serious the opponent takes us.”

In other words, the Irish are ready to play. They’re just not ready to play as a team that everyone else thinks of as successful.

“We’ve made a lot of improvements since the first month of the season,” said Jackson. “The first month was a lot of new faces. Every team is a little different. It’s a new team so it’s got new personnel and it’s own personality.”

Last year was such a stunning turnaround for this Notre Dame squad that the players have yet to become accustomed to being considered a team to beat. “It’s learning how to play with high expectations and learning to play against opponents who take you seriously,” said Jackson, who tried “not to push the panic button” when he saw improvements to be made earlier in the season.

From the start of the season, junior goaltender Jordan Pearce (.915 SV%) proved that he’s more than capable of taking over for David Brown in net. Two upperclassmen, Erik Condra (6-12–18) and Mark Van Guilder (7-6–13) also rose to the occasion. With 18 goals last year, Van Guilder surpassed his scoring from his first two seasons by seven markers; this year, the senior is on pace to match last year’s performance, at least.

“He’s very consistent in everything about his game and his life,” said Jackson of the senior right winger from Roseville, Minn. “He’s made an effort to improve. He’s a complete player. He’s not just an offensive player, but he can play on the penalty kill.

“I think there’s even more potential for him to be better. He has a tendency to be accountable defensively, and sometimes that holds him back offensively.”

Not surprisingly, Jackson is happy where he is. “The thing that makes it enjoyable is the kids. I give [assistant coach] Andy Slaggert all the credit for bringing in the kinds of players he’s recruited.”

“Notre Dame kids are task-oriented, as I am,” said Jackson. “It’s a good marriage.”

This week, the Irish host Nebraska-Omaha. “I think they’re probably better than their record indicates,” said Jackson. “Going into the season, I expected them to be a team in the hunt for the top four.”

Heroes, Part III

“We had the seniors’ record in the Showcase on the board. This is just huge. You can’t go your whole career not beating a team, especially Minnesota.”

Well, you can’t if you’re Michigan.

After the Wolverines downed the Golden Gophers, 5-1, in the Showcase last week, UM senior Chad Kolarik revealed that the seniors were taking this one very personally. Until last week, this year’s Michigan seniors were 1-5 against Wisconsin and Minnesota in the annual College Hockey Showcase. They may now be 3-5 in the Showcase, but their 2-0 record last week was due in large part to the efforts of that senior class, which consists of Kolarik and Kevin Porter.

Each had three goals on the weekend; each scored once Friday in UM’s 3-2 win over the Badgers, and twice Saturday.

And these seniors felt like they had something else to prove.

“Everyone had been saying we hadn’t been playing great teams and we hadn’t,” said Porter. “We finally played two top-15 teams and we beat them. I think that was good for our team, good for our confidence, and hopefully we’ll keep going.”

It was the first time since 2002 that the Wolverines swept the CHS.

Up the road a bit, the Spartans were doing their part to prevent any WCHA victories. MSU tied UM 3-3 Friday before tying Wisconsin 4-4 on Saturday. In Friday’s contest, it was the Spartans who were always just a goal behind the Gophers, until Tim Kennedy’s shorthander at 12:41 in the third tied the game. Saturday, it was the Badgers who came back from two behind.

MSU head coach Rick Comley said that the Spartans are “in the process of trying to become the team” they think they can become. “Obviously, we aren’t there yet.”

Comley also called the two ties a “reality check a little bit” and said after Saturday’s contest that MSU will just try to shake it off and look toward this week’s play in Sault Ste. Marie.

“We’ve played fewer league games than a lot of people,” said Comley, “so we can’t let any of these get away. There’s a bad taste right now, and there should be.”

Surely the defending national champs aren’t happy with the ties, especially Saturday’s, but the league has to be happy with the 2-0-2 CHS result.

Apologies to Misters Porter and Kolarik

I can’t wrap my brain around how good these two are playing, so last week I combined their names in the sidebar and made up a new guy on the Michigan roster: Chad Porter.

By the way, Kevin Porter is leading the nation with 16 goals, a statistic that has a young colleague of mine marveling. He can’t believe there’s a player on pace to hit 40 goals.

So young, so young.

Perhaps Not Heroic, But Certainly Welcome…For the Wildcats, At Least

With their sweep of the Lakers last weekend, the Northern Michigan Wildcats vaulted themselves from cellar-dwellers to mid-packers…at least for now.

“We didn’t try to do anything special,” said Wildcat head coach Walt Kyle of the home-and-home sweep. “We’re not spending a lot of time focusing on our opponents right now. We’re just focusing on our game.

“The key to us is to grow from week to week, continue to develop, eliminate mistakes. I don’t think we did anything special. We’re playing a better brand of hockey than we did early in the season.”

The Wildcats are one of several CCHA teams paying for the success of the league, having to play top-ranked teams on a more regular basis.

“We have nine losses; seven of our nine losses are against top-15 teams,” said Kyle. “We haven’t been able to play against those teams; they’re too good for us. I like our team. I liked our team even when we were losing. Our effort’s been there.

“We’re hungry. It’s one of my favorite teams that I’ve coached.”

The 4-2 and 3-1 wins over the Lakers give the Wildcats a three-game win streak. The common denominator among those games? Freshman goaltender Reid Ellingson, a kid straight out of the Minnesota high school system. “He’s been a real stabilizing force for us,” said Kyle, who admitted that goaltending was “a big problem” for the Wildcats in the first eight games of the season.

“We went into this year with Brian [Stewart] in our minds, as the number-one guy,” said Kyle. Stewart is the sophomore who stepped into playoff hockey last year and helped NMU defeat Ohio State in the first round on the road.

“In fairness to him and Janz [Derek Janzen],” said Kyle, “not only were they average, but the people in front of them were giving up a lot of high-quality scoring chances.

“We were forced by where we were at that position to give Reid a kick at it.”

So far, Ellingson is 3-2-0 with a .905 save percentage. “He’s a true freshmen,” said Kyle. “We knew he was a high-end kid, knew he had a lot of a lot of potential, but we didn’t know when he’d realize it. Very few people come out of high school hockey and jump to Division I. At his position, it’s almost unheard of. Obviously, there’s a long road ahead and he’s got to develop, but we think he’s the real deal.”

This week, the Wildcats travel to Alaska to face the Nanooks, another really hungry team. Northern Michigan has 12 league games and four wins to its credit, while these will be just the seventh and eighth CCHA contests of the season for UA. Last weekend, the Nanooks tied Nebraska-Omaha, but Alaska has yet to register a league win.

And, thanks to Northern Michigan, the Lakers also remain winless in league play so far this season.

Odds and Ends

  • Ohio State picked up its first league win of the season when it beat Western Michigan, 3-0, last weekend. That win broke an 11-game winless streak for OSU.

  • Michigan State is winless in its last four games at home (0-2-2) and the Spartans have yet to beat a ranked team (0-3-2) this season.

  • Michigan is undefeated at home (6-0-0) this season.

  • Bowling Green hasn’t finished lower than sixth in the last 20 years when winning at least five games in the first 10 of the season. The Falcons are now 5-3-0 in league play.

  • Western Michigan earned the 600th win in program history with its 4-2 win over Ohio State Friday night.

  • Notre Dame players Brett Blatchford, Erik Condra and Ian Cole were named to the Rensselaer Holiday Tournament all-tourney team.

  • Lake Superior State (2-9-1) was 8-5-1 heading into December last season, and 6-5-3 in 2005-06.

  • Miami (13-1-0) and Michigan (13-1-0) are tied for the most wins in Division I play.

  • Alaska’s Landon Novotney scored the two goals in the third period to force the 4-4 tie with Nebraska-Omaha Saturday night.

  • Alaska has a player named Landon Novotney.