This Week in the CCHA: Jan. 3, 2008

The Good

Congratulations Ferris State, Miami and Michigan for midseason championship titles!

And thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

The CCHA had much on the line at midseason, even if no one wanted to admit it. Many people still think that Michigan State somehow stole the national championship from far superior competitors; these same people have been poo-pooing Miami’s and Michigan’s national rankings all season.

That the league didn’t dominate the holiday tournaments is a disappointment only to the delusional; that the CCHA won two tournaments it absolutely should have won — and picked up another along the way — can reaffirm our collective belief in hockey, Mom and pumpkin pie.

While the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the country are always heavy favorites in any field, the unranked CCHA team that captured holiday honors should not be overlooked, and nor should anyone be surprised by Ferris State’s competitive drive at midseason. This is the second holiday tournament in four years that these seniors have captured, the last one being the 2004-05 Badger Showdown. And that tournament was the second consecutive Badger Showdown that the Bulldogs won.

Since then, even though FSU hasn’t had a midseason title, the Bulldogs have been fine CCHA representatives come holiday time. Last year, the Bulldogs tied Massachusetts and then “won” a shootout before losing to Minnesota in the Dodge Holiday Classic. In 2005-06, FSU tied Boston College in the first round of the Denver Cup but “lost” the game in the shootout, then beat Denver in the consolation game.

For big schools with big names, such tourney victories are often expected and sometimes even taken for granted. For Ferris State, there’s a lot of pride on the line when the Bulldogs play nonleague opponents.

“It really is something we emphasize,” said FSU head coach Bob Daniels. “We like to think we represent the league well.”

This year, Ferris State is the UConn Hockey Classic champion, having beaten Brown, 2-1, before dominating host Connecticut, 5-0.

“We had a good game with Brown,” said Daniels. “It could have gone either way. We got good, timely goaltending. Pat Nagle played solid in net. I’d like to see us find a way to score more consistently.”

In the 5-0 win, said Daniels, “We played one of our better games of the year. We were really on task.”

Nagle (2.09 GAA, .918 SV%) was the goalie of record for the Brown win, while Mitch O’Keefe (1.80 GAA, .938 SV%) registered the win over UConn.

The Bulldogs received scoring from some unlikely sources in both games. Freshman Mike Fillinger, this week’s CCHA Rookie of the Week, earned his first collegiate points — the game-winning goal over Brown and an assist against UConn — in his ninth and 10th games of the season. Sophomore Blair Riley earned his first career hat trick in the 5-0 win over Connecticut, a feat that equaled the number of goals he’d scored the entire first half of the season.

“He came to us as a goal scorer,” said Daniels of Riley. “I’ve always wondered why he hasn’t scored more. He gets shots and has a good release.

“We got some good play out of some freshmen. Mike Fillinger really had a good tournament.”

Other freshmen scorers included Mike Embach with an assist in each game and Justin Menke with two helpers against UConn.

“We played well,” said Daniels. “We’re excited about that and hoping about better things to come this season. Come off of Christmas Break, you never know what you’re going to have. For the most part, we were able to get a lot of guys in. It was a good experience.”

So the trip East, said Daniels, was a good one in more ways than one. “It was a very well run tournament. Bruce Marshall, the head coach of UConn, he does a tremendous, tremendous job. In the future, we’d go back in a heartbeat. Really run first class, they think of all the little details.”

After beating Providence, 6-0, the No. 2 Michigan Wolverines had a tough time getting past Michigan Tech to secure their first Great Lakes Invitational title since 1996. Junior goaltender Billy Sauer (1.80 GAA, .930 SV%) shut out consecutive opponents with 87 saves to be named the GLI MVP and become this week’s CCHA Goaltender of the Week.

“It may not be the toughest game I’ve played in,” said Sauer after the 1-0, double-overtime win, “but it may be the most important. Every save was crucial. You make one mistake and your team is going home.

“Tonight was so emotional because it was such a long game. I didn’t think it was ever going to end.”

It ended thanks to Travis Turnbull, who scored from Scooter Vaughan and Brandon Naurato 2:32 into the second overtime.

After the game, the GLI banner was raised to the rafters in Joe Louis Arena with Michigan’s name attached, something that will hang there until next year’s Invitational.

“Obviously, it feels good for Michigan to see that banner go up with its name on it,” said Michigan head coach Red Berenson. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Berenson acknowledged Michigan Tech’s frustration. That host team hasn’t won a GLI since 1980.

In Columbus, sophomore Gary Steffes was the hero. At 18:22 in the third period of the title game of the Ohio Hockey Classic, Steffes cored a fluky goal that hit a couple of players in front of the Buckeye net and looped up and over OSU goaltender Dustin Carlson to give the RedHawks a 3-2 lead and eventual win.

“If you ask Gary Steffes, he shot it right in,” joked Miami head coach Enrico Blasi after the win.

It was the third year straight that the RedHawks and Buckeyes met in the title game, and just like the two previous championship matches, this one didn’t disappoint. The teams exchanged goals to make this one 2-2 until the near end. Last year, the Buckeyes won 5-3 with an empty-net goal in a game made even more interesting by Justin Mercier’s score for the RedHawks at 18:47 in the third to pull Miami to within one.

Two years ago, Miami and OSU tied, 1-1, and the RedHawks won the title in the post-tie shootout.

Miami senior defenseman Mitch Ganzak said that his team always looks forward to a match with the Buckeyes, whom the RedHawks face four times in regular-season play. “We know them pretty well. It’s always a good game.”

OSU freshman forward Kyle Reed, who had a goal in the title game and in the Buckeyes’ 4-2 win over Harvard earning him a spot on the all-tourney team, said that he and the many other OSU freshmen received some sound advice from seniors, who told the rookies to “go out there and play hard.” Reed also said, “They [told] us freshmen to keep our heads up.”

Blasi also complimented the organizers on the tournament (technically a “classic”) that had to be moved this season from Nationwide Arena to the Schottenstein Center. And he said that the title game was as good a college hockey game as you could see — and he was right.

Congratulations to the Bulldogs, the RedHawks and the Wolverines on their midseason hardware.

And Happy New Year to us all.

The Bad

While it’s nice that three CCHA teams prevailed at holiday tournament time, the overall performance of the CCHA in nonconference play last weekend left at least a little to be desired.

On Friday, Dec. 27, the only CCHA team to win a game was Michigan, who beat Providence 6-0. Alaska, Bowling Green, Michigan State, Nebraska-Omaha and Northern Michigan all fell. That’s CCHA 1, Everyone Else 5.

Saturday was a little better. The CCHA went 5-4-1 against nonconference teams, with Miami needing overtime to beat St. Cloud State, and Michigan needing two overtimes to beat Michigan Tech.

So that’s CCHA 6, Everyone Else 9, and one draw.

On Sunday, Dec. 29, the Ivy Leagues finished off UNO, Ferris State pounded Connecticut, Notre Dame squeaked by Rensselaer (an empty-netter made it 3-1), Western tied Holy Cross and Miami beat Ohio State for the Ohio Hockey Classic, which is a wash for the CCHA.

At midseason, the CCHA went 8-10-2 against nonconference opponents.

The Aesthetically Challenged

Michigan State went 0-2-0 in the Great Lakes Invitational, and it took Michigan 82:32 to score a goal on Michigan Tech.

I’m not in any way knocking Michigan Tech, which is a program on the rise. Jamie Russell is a terrific coach, and junior goaltender Rob Nolan had a terrific weekend, allowing just two goals on 76 shots in his two games played. What a shame there isn’t a spot on the all-tourney roster for two goaltenders.

But Michigan — even without the four players the Wolverines are missing because of the IIHF World Junior Championship — is one of the best offensive teams in the country.

So whither Michigan State, the team that gave all of the CCHA hope for a brighter future by capturing the 2007 national championship? Hmm?

“We are very disappointed in ourselves,” said senior captain Bryan Lerg.

MSU, the defending GLI champs, lost 4-1 to Michigan Tech in the opening game and 5-3 to Providence in the consolation game. Against Tech, the Spartans gave up an empty-net goal at 19:14 in the third and then another goal at 19:33, with Jeff Lerg in net.

Against Providence, the Spartans were up 2-1 early in the third before allowing three unanswered goals within a 10-minute span.

“We need to get back on track, and show that we’re a winning team, and play as a team,” said Bryan Lerg. “There are no excuses for us losing these two games.”

And Rick Comley, quoted in the Lansing State-Journal, said “the whole game” was the reason the Spartans lost to Providence.

OHC Observations

I had begun this column with a really long rant about game management at Value City Arena and Ohio State’s seeming lack of commitment to men’s ice hockey, but I wrote so much that I realized two things: 1) I need to take a step back and edit it; 2) It’s an entirely separate article.

But I do have some observations about the Ohio Hockey Classic.

The first thing that struck me about the OHC — aside from the abysmal attendance for the St. Cloud-Miami game and the really late starts the first night — was how good a team St. Cloud State is.

SCSU is fast and well coached, and skipper Bob Motzko said that the Huskies played well but couldn’t maintain through 60 minutes against the RedHawks. That third-period swan dive, said Motzko, was a signature of his young, hard-working and talented team in the first half of the season.

Ryan Lasch impressed us all with a hat trick against Harvard, even with the third goal coming as an empty-netter, and I thought that SCSU defenseman John Swanson was dominant on both sides of the puck. Swanson had a goal and an assist on the weekend, and both he and Lasch were named to the all-tournament team.

Harvard didn’t impress me much, and that’s probably okay since Harvard head coach Ted Donato seemed less than impressed with everything about the tourney (technically another “classic”). The Crimson began each game with three penalties in quick succession, and although Donato didn’t complain about the officiating, he did say that being so penalized was “a bit of a new position” for Harvard.

Crimson goaltender Kyle Richter came into the weekend with the fourth-best save percentage in the nation and dropped to 12th after the two games. It’s probably unfair to judge the entire team on this two-game performance, but I definitely thought they were the fourth-best team in the field.

Donato also groused — mildly — about the working conditions, and I can’t blame him a bit. The teams had to practice at the old OSU Ice Arena, which has great ice but is not the game surface by any means. And the late start Saturday (9:05 p.m.) was nothing anyone wanted.

Miami, of course, is amazing. When people ask if they’re the best team I’ve seen play this season, I say, “Yes!” I haven’t seen every team in the country play, but the RedHawks are for real.

The team that surprised me the most was Ohio State. Not only did the Buckeyes play well in back-to-back games, but they also played with joy and verve if not something less than poetry. They were good and competitive, which was a nice change of pace.

My favorite moment of the whole weekend was OSU goaltender Dustin Carlson’s post-game declaration after beating Harvard Saturday. “I love winning,” said Carlson, in for starer Joseph Palmer who’s with Team USA in Europe. It was Carlson’s first collegiate win.

I love winning, said in much the same way that one might say, “I love chocolate,” when in Belgium, or, “I love driving,” in a Porsche 911 Turbo on the Autobahn.

(I have to be careful about how I write about Carlson. He’s the first OSU goaltender the local press has been allowed to interview post-game since the middle of Dave Caruso’s senior season. I’m not kidding.)

I was disappointed with the first-day crowds, but the 4,000 or so fans for the title match — most of whom the RedHawks brought with them, it seemed — were lively and treated to a good game. The game management at the Schott is so awful that…no, I have to stop. Another time.

This classic would be even better with Bowling Green in attendance yearly, as they were last year. All three Ohio D-I teams in the same midseason tournament, annually, would be a thing of beauty.

And it’s a treat to see great nonconference teams in December in a town that lives for Buckeye football.

A Sad End for 2007

Like many people, I’m still trying to wrap my brain around certain events that ended the 2007 calendar year.

I’m saddened more than I can say by the loss in early December of Jon Barkan, who was a bigger friend to college hockey than most people know. His steadfast devotion to the sport we know and love — all of his work behind the scenes through the 1990s to bring everyone involved with D-I men’s ice hockey together — is a body of stealthy work that is to be admired.

I had known Jon for 12 years, and only through college hockey. We weren’t friends and I’m not even sure we liked each other very much, but I knew from personal experience that he was the kind of guy I could rely on in a pinch.

In 1998, I made a fool of myself in a very public way at the infamous Barkan Bash. The Barkan Bash — probably to be known here after as the Barkan Memorial Bash — was a party that Jon threw every year at the Frozen Four for nearly everyone involved with the sport.

At this particular Barkan Bash, in Boston, after considerable libation, I cried. A lot. I was and remain mortified by my own behavior. The next day, Jon took me aside and said, “Never again,” meaning that I should keep myself together in public. He was absolutely right, of course, and I apologized immediately.

What Jon didn’t know the night of his bash was that my marriage was ending that very weekend in Boston. And he was the first in the college hockey community to contact me when he found out, asking if I was going to be okay, whether I needed anything, and offering a shoulder if I needed it. He also said, “Now I understand,” and that was the end of that.

I’ll miss him. He was close to many people I care about, and his loss will be felt keenly for a long time.

Then there was the tragic loss of Andrew Jackson, the 18-year-old Purdue club hockey freshman who lost his life Dec. 1 when the van he was riding in rolled over on icy roads in Wingate, Ind., en route to a hockey game in Danville, Ill. Jackson was a native of Chanhassan, Minn., majoring in engineering at Purdue.

A kid full of promise, and now a family and many teammates who will never be the same.

It is one of my biggest fears, that I’ll get a call telling me that a bus full of kids and coaches and staff from a school I cover — or any of us covers — has skidded off the road in bad weather. Many teams and even whole leagues do not understand the amount of bus time CCHA teams log. FSU head coach Bob Daniels was telling me today that he and the Bulldogs bused out to Omaha for their series against UNO. The Buckeyes take two days to bus to Marquette, Mich. Teams routinely bus upwards of six hours for weekend series.

I’m not much of a praying woman, but Jackson’s death has me saying a few every week.

And then there was the unthinkable, the Westroads Mall shooting in Omaha. Sure, Omaha’s a big city, but that had to have touched the lives of everyone who read about it, and especially the folks who live in that CCHA city.

Such terrible news to end a year. But here’s one little thing that helps.

Miami assistant coach Jeff Blashill and his wife, Erica, welcomed their first daughter, Josephine, on Nov. 29. When I saw Jeff at the OHC, he was beaming…and very tired.

Happy New Year to us all, indeed.