This Week in the CCHA: Jan. 31, 2008

“Although Thy Breath Be Rude”

For much of the geographic area of the CCHA, Tuesday and Wednesday were extraordinarily windy days. Many folks throughout Michigan and Ohio were left without power, nearly 60,000 in Detroit alone. A rare January tornado ripped through Indiana.

There are several theories to explain what happened midweek throughout the Midwest. Atmospheric scientists tell us that most wind is the result of temperature variations within given air masses, or differences in air pressure.

Then there’s the Mars-direct theory. A friend of mine whose dabblings in astrology become more interesting — and eerily accurate — after a few apple martinis reminded me that the planet Mars was “going direct” on Wednesday. Planets circle the sun (can we at least all agree on this?) and occasionally, from our vantage point on Earth, appear to be moving backward (retrograde) in their orbits. A planet’s powers are diminished during this retrograde. Mars is a masculine planet. My friend was arguing that Mars was simply announcing his presence with authority.

Another friend had a theory that also involved heavenly bodies. On Tuesday night, Asteroid 2007 TU24 zipped by our planet just 1.4 times the distance from Earth to the moon. That, both astronomers and astrologers concur, is a cosmic near-miss, and that — according to this gal — meant big winds a-blowin’.

But everyone’s all wet about this. I like The Weather Channel as much as the next girl and my astrologically inclined friends are interesting in their own ways, but none of these folks was taking into account the real reason for this week’s havoc.

Clearly, all of this cosmic-atmospheric bluster only mean one thing: No. 1 Miami vs. No. 2 Michigan.

In fact, I’m surprised by the lack of seismic-related volcanic activity. Perhaps that’s in the cards for next week. Or maybe somebody’s slacking.

Sure, it’s more than a week away, and the CCHA is more than the sum of the top two teams in the nation, and the RedHawks aren’t even playing this week. But don’t you feel it yet?

They’re feeling it in Oxford. The RedHawks return home to a weekend off this week after sweeping the Nanooks in Fairbanks, outscoring Alaska 9-2 in two games with Jeff Zatkoff earning his second consecutive shutout in Friday’s 2-0 win. With no immediate games, Miami is thinking ahead to the second weekend in February, when the Wolverines come to town.

“There’s been so much hype after Christmas about the Michigan series,” head coach Enrico Blasi told CSTV this week. “We really try to focus our attention on the task at hand, control the things that we can control, and make sure that we were taking care of business week to week leading up to Michigan.

“We wanted to make sure that we were playing for something, and in order to do that we had to win some games before that.”

It seems as though Miami has found a way to make every game count, with just three losses on the season and the highest win percentage in the nation (.893). It’s Blasi deceptively simple philosophy that success comes from within and radiates out — that you take care of your own team first, and the rest will follow — that has built a RedHawk team that is living up to its potential this season.

In Ann Arbor, another coach has done a remarkable job with another team, one that has exceeded all expectations this season. The Wolverines, who also have three losses and the second-best win percentage in the nation going into the weekend (.865), will be keenly aware of their two games in hand over the resting RedHawks this week.

Last weekend when Miami was taking four points from Alaska, Michigan took just one point from sworn enemy Michigan State, leaving the Wolverines three points out of first place behind the ‘Hawks. Michigan welcomes a hard-playing, eighth-place Northern Michigan team to Yost Arena this weekend.

So, is it fair that Michigan will play a better-rested Miami team in the RedHawks’ own barn? Should things not go Michigan’s way next week, head coach Red Berenson might make a comment about the scheduling, not by way of excuse but as a point of information.

You know the adage about love and war. And Mars is direct, after all.

Every once in a while, when I fancy myself a writer, I read something so beautiful and time-tested that I’m reminded of my own status as a hack. While reading up on wind this week, I came across this lovely song from Shakespeare’s As You Like It:

Blow, blow thou winter wind,
Thou art not so kind
As man’s ingratitude.

Reminds me of the email I’ve been getting from fans decidedly west of the CCHA, who blow often and hard about the unfairness of the PairWise Rankings and the apparent deluded nature of the poll.

No. 1 Miami vs. No. 2 Michigan. It’s a gift. A token of love. And just in time for Valentine’s Day.

“We Are All Soldiers Fit to Fight”

Speaking of gifts, what a fantastic series between Michigan State and Michigan last week. With its speed, suspense, and overall level of play, the Friday 1-0 Spartan win was made for television.

What a great thing for the Spartan seniors, who had never won in Yost. “It’s an unbelievable feeling coming into this building,” said Jeff Lerg, who recorded his second consecutive shutout in Friday’s win, and allowed just two goals on the weekend for a two-game save percentage of .965.

It was, apparently, a horrible thing for the entire Wolverine team. Senior Chad Kolarik told the Lansing State Journal that Friday’s loss was “embarrassing.”

“It was our only home game against Michigan State and we lost it. We talked all week about how we had to win this one game.”

Bryan Lerg’s game-winning, power-play goal Friday may have gone in off a Michigan defender’s stick, something we’ve all seen often enough in close, tense games.

In Saturday’s 2-2 tie at The Palace in Auburn Hills, two Michigan freshmen — Max Pacioretty and Matt Rust — netted the goals for the Wolverines. Rust scored with just 1:38 left in regulation to send the game to OT.

“Our young kids got a great experience playing in here, and we easily could have won the game,” said Berenson after the tie.

The games were phenomenal, exactly what you’d hope for when these titans clash. What’s as interesting as the fact that the series lived up to its build, though, is that each of these teams seemed to feel as though it had something to prove with the contests.

The CCHA is still battling the notion that it’s a weak league and therefore its top teams’ records and rankings are somehow inflated. The Wolverines, while ranked No. 1 last weekend, were aware that they’re considered either lucky (they’re young, as we hear often) or benefiting from beating up on the lower teams in the league.

After the 2-2 tie, Berenson indirectly reminded people that the Spartans were last year’s national champion for real reasons, and that they’re playing like champs now.

“Look at their team,” said Berenson. “They had only given up three goals in the past five games, and four of those games had been on the road. So goals are tough to come by against Michigan State.”

And the No. 5, third-place, defending-national-champion Spartans — the team with the fourth-best win percentage in the country (.722) — had to feel as though the college hockey community didn’t even know they existed going into the weekend. This year, the Wolverines and the RedHawks are all anyone can talk about, and if the talking is done outside of the CCHA, it’s never flattering.

Following the tie, Spartan senior defenseman Daniel Vukovic revealed as much about the MSU locker room as he did about the way people view Michigan State.

“Three out of four against the number-one team in the nation shows that we can play with anyone,” said Vukovic.

And through it all, who gets the shaft? Billy Sauer. Can you imagine allowing three goals in a weekend against the defending national champions for a two-game save percentage of .952 and earning just one point?

Love and war, baby. Love and war.

Jeff Lerg, Superstar

For the fourth straight week, Spartan goalie Jeff Lerg is the CCHA’s Goaltender of the Week, so it comes as no surprise that he’s also the league’s Player of the Month for January.

In January, the junior went 5-0-3, with a 1.32 goals-against average and a .959 save percentage. Half his games in the month came against ranked opponents, and his consecutive shutouts (against Ohio State and Michigan) were the first back-to-back blankings of his career.

“Full Many a Flower Is Born to Blush Unseen…”

“…and waste its sweetness on the desert air.” This line from Thomas Gray’s poem “Elegy,” made more famous by Susan Sarandon’s character Annie Savoy in Bull Durham, is what comes to mind every time I think about players such as these:

• Ohio State’s Tom Goebel, who scored four goals in two road games — a win and a loss — against last-place Lake Superior State, and who is 14th in the nation in goals per game (0.62).

• Ferris State’s Mitch O’Keefe, who was in net for FSU’s tie against Western last week, and whose save percentage of .926 is 11th-best in the country.

• Bowling Green’s Derek Whitmore, who keeps company among the top goal-scorers in the nation by averaging 0.83 per game (tied for second-best in the country).

• Alaska’s Tyler Eckford, who leads the nation in points per game among defensemen (0.96), and assisted on the Nanooks’ second goal against Miami last weekend.

• Lake Superior State’s Nathan Perkovich, who has 13 goals and is 21st in the nation in goals per game (0.57).

• LSSU’s Zac MacVoy, who had two goals against OSU last weekend, including the game-winner in overtime Saturday.