This Week in the CCHA: Jan. 24, 2008

How to Announce Your Presence with Authority in One Easy Step

So, you’re playing in a league that some people call fluffy because the conference name doesn’t begin with a “W” and you rarely play regular-season games in New England.

Even though your fourth-place team from a year ago took the national championship. Even though your two first-place teams are Nos. 1 and 2 in the nation. Even though four of your top teams grace the top 10 nationally.

What’s a top team in such a conference to do?

Beat who you’re supposed to beat. Crush ’em if you can.

The CCHA’s top three teams swept their competition last week in most convincing ways. Collectively, Michigan, Miami and Michigan State outscored Notre Dame, Lake Superior State and Ohio State 27-5.

The No. 1 Wolverines may have played one close game against then-No. 8 Notre Dame, but Michigan allowed just one first-period goal against the Irish in Saturday’s game at The Palace of Auburn Hills.

For No. 2 Miami and then-No. 7 Michigan State, the pickings were far easier. The RedHawks outscored the Lakers 11-1 at home and the Spartans beat up the Buckeyes 8-1 in Columbus.

There’s no better way to say, “We’re not fooling,” than that.

Not one of the coaches from those winning teams would admit to having spanked an opponent. But — in this case — the numbers don’t lie.

Still, from Red Berenson, whose Wolverines defeated another top-10 team in capital fashion for a weekend sweep:

“We’re finding ways to win games. I can’t tell you it was a thing of beauty. I can’t tell you we outplayed them. We made our chances count. I can’t tell you how many point-blank chances they had from the slot that Billy made look easy.”

From Enrico Blasi (told to the Hamilton Journal-News), whose team positively owned Lake Superior State:

“Everybody’s contributing. That’s how our team works.”

And from Rick Comley, whose team never let Ohio State get close:

“We have a long way to go. We’re taking steps and I think we have a chance of being a good team, but we have a long way to go.”

If you’re not Michigan, Miami or Michigan State, every other team in the league would like your ugly games where everyone’s contributing, and I’m sure they’d like to have as far to go as you do.

Last weekend left Michigan and Miami still tied for first, each with 30 points, and MSU in third with 26. The sweeps by the top three teams make a Notre Dame repeat as regular-season champs nearly impossible, heightening the suspense as the second half of the season rolls.

The Wolverines went into their series with the Irish with something to prove, if you can read the subliminal message in goaltender Billy Sauer’s post-game comments following Saturday’s win.

“We’re getting criticism lately for not having played the hardest teams,” said Sauer, “so when we play a good opponent like this and come out with two wins, it’s a good feeling.”

The suspense this dominance creates extends beyond the race for the regular-season title. While it’s unlikely that Notre Dame will finish below fourth and not secure a first-round bye in the CCHA playoffs, both Nebraska-Omaha and Bowling Green (can you believe it?) are within striking distance of the Irish, thanks to the weekend sweeps that UNO and BGSU enjoyed themselves.

And to make it even more interesting, FSU and NMU split. Fun times.

Speaking of Bowling Green and Fun Times

Senior Derek Whitmore earned CCHA Offensive Player of the Week honors by notching his third hat trick of the season in the Falcons’ sweep of the Broncos.

“He’s a big part of our success,” said BGSU head coach Scott Paluch. “We went through a stretch where Derek wasn’t scoring, and we didn’t have the same results we had when he was scoring.”

No pressure there.

Whitmore has 19 goals in 21 games, and trails only Michigan’s Kevin Porter in goals per game this season among all players, nationally.

More Fun with Bowling Green

What a doozy of a fight with 12 seconds left in the WMU-BGSU contest Friday night. Thanks to Elliot Olshansky of, I got to see partial footage of the fight, most notably the end of the brawl, when Bronco junior defenseman Chris Frank was dragging CCHA official Neil Stafford into the pile-up on the ice near the boards. Frank wasn’t trying to involve Stafford in the fight, obviously, but Stafford was pulled along as Frank clearly and willfully — and probably gleefully — jumped back into the fray.

All 10 skaters for both teams were given fighting penalties and game disqualifications. In total, the teams combined for 207 minutes in the contest.

BGSU head coach Scott Paluch went on record as saying he didn’t think that it would be fair for all 10 skaters to get DQed. “I’m watching our guys and I know that we had at least one player who did not throw a punch,” said Paluch.

Maybe so, but there was very little hesitation among any of the players from either side to get down to it.

“It’s not indicative of the game that was played by both teams,” said WMU head coach Jim Culhane. “It’s unfortunate and disappointing in the collegiate game what took place with 12 seconds to go.”

Yes, the college game should be above this, and I am very relieved to know that no one was seriously hurt. I’m sure the league was throwing down a message by punishing all 10 skaters, and I don’t blame the CCHA for that — at all.

But the fan in me kind of liked to watch the footage. I’m a bad, bad person.

There was a chance for something similar to happen at the end of MSU’s 4-0 win over OSU Saturday night, when the Buckeyes perceived that the Spartans had taken liberties with goaltender Dustin Carlson after the whistle was blown.

There was some pushing and shoving, but assistant referees Blake Matatall and Tony Molina skated to the rescue. Really. Matatall and Molina were on the opposite side of the rink from the skirmish — at the officials’ table checking out something or other — when someone alerted them to the potential dangers in the corner.

Matatall and Molina (now there’s a great pair of crime-fighting names, a la NYPD Blue, if ever I’ve heard them) turned in unison, skated across the ice stride-for-stride in unison, and halted on the same thin dime — in unison, each with right foot forward and lifting spray — to put themselves in harm’s way.

Afterwards, Rick Comley remarked that while he understands that a team feels the need to protect its goaltender, “we didn’t need another” incident like the one of the night before.

And we got to see some pretty great synchronized skating.

We’re No. 21!

The Falcons are calling themselves “No. 21” in their press release because of the votes they’ve received in national polls. That’s impressive spin.

Those No. 9s

It’s all my fault that Notre Dame lost. No offense intended to the Wolverines, the team on the ice that actually beat the Irish.

Last week, I praised a couple of players in the league who wear No. 9. I talked about MSU’s Justin Abdelkader, who had the game-winning goal at 18:03 in the third period when MSU beat ND, 3-1, Jan. 11 and the first assist on the Spartans’ power-play goal two days later when MSU tied ND 1-1 in South Bend.

I talked about Ferris State’s Brendan Connolly, who had an unassisted shorthanded goal in the Bulldogs’ 2-2 with Alaska Jan. 12 after scoring in FSU’s 4-2 loss to UA the night before.

Last weekend, Abdelkader had three goals against OSU, the empty-netter in Friday’s 4-1 win and two goals in the 4-0 Saturday game. Connolly had the game-winning, power-play goal in Friday’s 3-2 FSU win over NMU.

What I failed to mention in last week’s column was the play of another No. 9, Notre Dame’s Ryan Thang. In that series against MSU two weeks ago, Thang had the second assist on ND’s only goal in the 3-1 loss and he tied the game for Notre Dame with 38 seconds left in regulation when the Irish tied the Spartans, 1-1, in South Bend.

My apologies to Mr. Thang for what clearly amounted to a curse. Thang had no points in Notre Dame’s series against Michigan last weekend.

Those Slacking Jeffs

What is wrong with young people today? I mean, you win 18 games so far this season and your team is tied for first place in your conference, or you win 15 and you won a national championship in April of last year … and it takes you until Jan. 19 to get a shutout? Is allowing no goals too much to ask?

I’m kidding of course. But given the seasons that Miami’s Jeff Zatkoff and Michigan State’s Jeff Lerg are having, it was surprising that it took until three weeks into the second half to earn a blanking, and fun that happened on the same night for each player.

“Thank God I didn’t screw up my shutout this time,” said Zatkoff, who had 10 one-goal wins this season and who has the best goals-against average (1.55) in the country.

Said Lerg, who’s had six one-goal wins and a 1-1 tie this season, “I kind of got the goals in the first periods, so I had no chance for shutouts.”

After learning that Zatkoff, too, had registered his first shutout of the season, Lerg paid his counterpart a few compliments. “He’s definitely a great goaltender. When he played against us he played real well the whole weekend. Talk about one-goal games. I think he had almost every game in the first half was a one-goal game for him.

“He’s a great goaltender. It just shows that shutouts aren’t easy to come by. You’ve got to work hard, you’ve got to get some lucky bounces, and you’ve got to have a good defensive core in front of you. Hopefully we’ll have a chance to play them down the road as well.”

The Meaning of Life

It may not be all there is to live for, but Michigan and Michigan State are playing a home-and-home series this weekend. And that’s a powerful endorsement of life on Earth.

No. 6 Michigan State (16-5-4, 12-2-2 CCHA) vs. No. 1 Michigan (22-2-0, 15-1-0 CCHA)
Friday, 7:35 p.m., Yost Ice Arena, Ann Arbor, Mich.
Saturday, 7:35 p.m., Munn Ice Arena, East Lansing, Mich.

As someone not native to these parts but who has seen a lot of CCHA hockey in the past 13 years, I thought I understood the magnitude of this rivalry … until November of last year. I was chatting on the phone with Spartan head coach Rick Comley, who said, “Everyone here is happy this week.”

For a moment, I was puzzled. Then I realized that Comley was talking about Ohio State’s win over Michigan — on the gridiron, where such events really matter to people in East Lansing.

When Comley first took the job at MSU, he seemed a bit overwhelmed — or in awe, maybe — of Michigan State’s resources and athletic tradition. Comley’s no fool and he knew to an extent what he was getting into, but until he spent a week on the Michigan State campus, as a Spartan head coach, before the football team was to do battle with Michigan, he really didn’t grasp the enormity of the rivalry between the schools.

Believe me when I tell you that he does now, and he and his staff make sure that his players do, too. After the Spartans beat the Buckeyes for a weekend sweep last Saturday night, MSU forward Chris Mueller put the four points into immediate perspective.

“We’re still chasing people in this league,” said Mueller. “Michigan, they’re running away with the league and we’re just chasing them. What we’re doing is that we’re trying to set up a league match-up with them next weekend.”

While the Miami RedHawks may disagree with Mueller’s assessment that the Wolverines are “running away with the league,” you can hardly blame the Spartan senior for making the statement; when the series with the Buckeyes was over, all MSU could see was Maize and Blue.

A whole slew of Wolverines will be initiated into the rivalry that Sports Illustrated said was the best in the whole state of Michigan. UM skates as many as 10 freshmen in a given game, which adds an interesting twist to the first of this year’s regular-season games.

“I’ve grown up watching Michigan and Michigan State battle, so it’s going to be a lot of fun,” said Aaron Palushaj in an interview with the Ann Arbor News this week. Palushaj, third on the UM squad in scoring with six goals and 18 assists, said that the Wolverines have had “a good week of practice,” and that the team “will be ready for” the Spartans.

His classmate, defenseman Kevin Quick, told the News the Spartans are “jacked up” to play the Wolverines, and added, “We have to get jacked up to play them.”


After all of these years, there is little that I can add to the legacy of this rivalry, but I can give you some numbers to ponder:

• Goals per game: MSU 3.48 (3rd CCHA/5th nationally); UM 4.12 (2nd CCHA/2nd nationally)
• Goals allowed per game: MSU 2.44 (5th/16th); UM 1.75 (2nd/2ndth)
• Power play: MSU 22.9 percent (2nd/4th); UM 21.6 (3rd/5th)
• Penalty kill: MSU 84.3 percent (7th/34th); UM 90.2 (2nd/4th)
• Top scorers: MSU Ted Kennedy (13-14–27), Matt Schepke (10-14–24); UM Kevin Porter (22-17–39), Chad Kolarik (18-14–32)
• Top ‘tender: MSU Jeff Lerg (.922 SV%, 2.28 GAA); UM Billy Sauer (.935 SV%, 1.70 GAA)

I just went two deep on each of the scorers, but MSU has two other scorers with goals in the double digits, Justin Abdelkader (11-11–22) and Bryan Lerg (11-9–20).

Twelve of Porter’s 22 goals are power-play tallies. On paper, the Spartan power play looks anemic, but MSU hasn’t allowed a PP goal in seven games.

Michigan does not, but the Wolverines have many, many, many guys who can find the net. How crazy is it that averaging 4.12 goals per game isn’t good enough for first place in the country? Those darned RedHawks.

This year, the Wolverines don’t have to skate by on scoring. What a season for Billy Sauer, whose goals-against average is third-best in the nation and whose save percentage is second. With Sauer in net, veteran leadership in the locker room, and that enthusiastic and talented freshman class, the Wolverines are enjoying their best record in program history (22-2-0) through 24 games.

Famously, these are teams whose own athletic departments cannot agree on all-time records between the clubs. According to the Spartans, Michigan leads this all-time series 131-117-17; according to the Wolverines, Michigan has a 127-116-17 edge. In all of college hockey, only North Dakota and Minnesota have met more times than these two.

In six games last season, Michigan was 3-2-1 against Michigan State, but obviously the Spartans had the last laugh. UM was 2-1-1 against MSU in regular-season play, lost 4-1 to the Spartans for the title of the Great Lakes Invitational at midseason, and beat MSU 5-2 en route to the CCHA title game loss to Notre Dame.

In a 3-3 tie Feb. 10 in Joe Louis Arena, Lerg had a career-high 54 saves.

Let the games begin!

Best Quote of the Week

My esteemed colleague, Neil Koepke, wrote a nice feature in this week’s Lansing State Journal on the friendship between MSU captain Bryan Lerg and UM captain Kevin Porter.

In that piece, this is what Lerg had to say about Porter, whom he’s known since both players were 12 years old: “He’s clearly the best player in college hockey. Just look at his stats and what he’s done as captain. I’m happy for him, and I hope he wins the Hobey.”

And Another Good Quote, Apropos of Nothing at This Point

The score of Saturday’s MSU-OSU game may be a bit deceptive. While the Buckeyes were clearly chasing the Spartans throughout the contest, Ohio State kept it interesting through two periods and the score was 1-0 going into the third.

After the win, Comley was asked what he did between the second and third periods to lead to the MSU three-goal outburst. “I stayed out of the locker room,” he said. “Obviously I had no good impact for two periods so I thought I’d keep my mouth shut.”

Later in the post-game interview, Comley revisited what obviously had been a tough break between periods.

“I stayed in the coaches’ room,” he said. “I was out of my mind.”

And This from Comley, Too Good Not to Mention

Perhaps in response to something he may have read last week, perhaps because he was in Columbus and some of the beat writers present cover OSU hockey on a regular basis, Comley complimented the Buckeyes both nights in post-game interviews, often unsolicited.

“I think they played hard. I think they work like crazy. You can tell they haven’t given up. I think they believe they’re close.”

It’s probably an accurate description of a team that now looks like it can play but can’t score goals, compared to a team that looked like it couldn’t play in the first half of the season. It was just interesting to hear it from Comley.

He also pointed to Tom Fritsche’s illness as part of why OSU is struggling, echoing a lot of what Buckeye head coach John Markell has said.

“If Tommy Fritsche can ever get his game back to where it was, this team would just take off,” said Comley. “He was one of the best players in college hockey. You can tell that he’s much healthier and starting to get some of his game back but not even close to where he was before he was sick.

“When that happens to a player — and good for Ohio State for sticking with him — but that’s been a crippling loss for this program.”

Fritsche missed half of his junior season last year with a colon ailment that nearly sidelined him permanently.

Okay — One More Thing

Once upon a time, when I had a car that tolerated travel outside of my own area code, I spent as much time as I could in exotic destinations like East Lansing and Ann Arbor. These heady hockey hotbeds never disappointed, and at one time I saw as much of Michigan State as I did any other team outside of my home base.

Ah, those were the days. And thanks to Michigan State’s Frozen Four appearance and MSU’s weekend in Columbus, I now remember what I’m missing.

This Spartan team is just the loosest, funniest group of players to observe that I’ve seen in years. The combination of their fierce competitiveness with their relaxed, have-fun attitude helped them enormously in St. Louis, where most of the press had already anointed Boston College.

They were just as interesting this weekend, and a lot of that clearly trickles from their excellent coaching staff. I realize that Rick Comley — or “Rich” Comley, if you’re the OSU public address announcer Saturday night — has won three national championships at three different places and is the hand-picked successor to the Godfather of College Hockey himself … but he’s still Rick Comley, fan and student of a game that has become his life’s work and a guy who’s easy to be around.

And the only thing missing is Chris Lawrence.