This Week in the CCHA: Feb. 7, 2008

A Tale of One and Two

No. 2 Michigan travels to No. 1 Miami this week, the match that many CCHA fans have anticipated eagerly for much of the season. The teams are just one point apart in the league standings, are Nos. 1 and 2 nationally in both scoring offense and defense, and their starting goaltenders are the top two in the nation in both save percentage and goals-against average.

But the teams are very, very different in many respects, from the makeup of the rosters to the towns and states in which they play.

At the beginning of the season, Michigan State head coach Rick Comley said that the RedHawks are “built for this season,” and he couldn’t have been more correct. There are seven seniors on the Miami roster, although forward Nathan Davis has been out with injury for all but eight games this season and goaltender Charlie Effinger has become a backup to junior Jeff Zatkoff.

Miami also has nine juniors including Zatkoff, and among the upperclassmen who state, there are 11 who play nearly every game. With that kind of experience, the RedHawks were expected to produce this season.

Success has been a result of that experience from “the last couple of years, being in the national tournament and winning a CCHA championship,” said head coach Enrico Blasi.

That the RedHawks didn’t look past a weekend in Fairbanks to a home series against one of the elite programs in college hockey is a result of the kind of hockey culture that Blasi is building in Oxford.

“Our guys have done a nice job all year long of being focused and in control,” said Blasi. “I think it stems back to where we left off last year and the things we wanted to look at and improve on in our program. Once we knew we had some of the guys coming back, our leadership has done a nice job of buying into that philosophy of taking one day at a time.

“It’s part of our culture now. They know they have responsibilities to this program. There’s the academic piece, the community piece, and being a good person. Daily preparation is part of that.”

The hockey culture is a page that Blasi could have taken straight out of the Wolverine playbook, but Michigan itself is not a team built for this year. The Wolverines have just two seniors on the roster — Chad Kolarik and Kevin Porter — and until the departure of defenseman Kevin Quick last week, 10 freshmen regularly played for Michigan.

“It’s been a little bit of a Cinderella season for us,” said Michigan head coach Red Berenson. “We really haven’t had a blip until now.

“When you look at our schedule, it’s been a pretty tough schedule. We’ve played at Northern, a Lake State, at Omaha and come out of there alive.”

While it may be a little disingenuous for Berenson and the Wolverines to decry their youth — seven of Michigan’s rookies were selected in the 2007 NHL entry draft — Michigan entered this season with a large, untested freshman class that has performed beyond expectations.

“I think they give you a little more life, there’s no question,” said Berenson of his newcomers. “Sometimes your older players are quieter … but these young kids are pretty outgoing.”

The success of the season is “a good combination of leadership and youth, and good goalkeeping,” said Berenson. “I can’t tell you we’re there yet. I can’t tell you that we’re a good match for Miami.”

Another key difference for this weekend: Michigan played to two home ties against Northern Michigan last weekend, while Miami stayed home … and didn’t play at all.

“It was nice to give the guys a couple of days off,” said Blasi. The last action the RedHawks saw was in Alaska Jan. 25-26, a pair of games that Miami won.

Blasi said that the Miami coaching staff usually gives the ‘Hawks a couple of days to recover from the long trip to Fairbanks, but the added bye weekend was a welcome bonus. “To only have two short days to prepare for anybody is a tough task,” said Blasi.

The Wolverines are coming into this weekend riding a four-game winless streak, something uncharacteristic for Michigan hockey in recent years. Before the two 3-3 ties against NMU last weekend, UM took just one point from Michigan State the weekend before.

“We played better probably than the score indicated,” said Berenson of the ties, “but we still were disappointed in giving up the lead in the third period.”

With the two ties and the loss the week before, all in Yost, the Wolverines are 10-2-2 at home this season, a record that other teams would gladly claim, but something that’s not quite good enough for UM hockey.

“We’ve really blown the last three home games,” said Berenson. “I think our fans are disappointed.”

So the Wolverines, who are 2-1-3 in their last six, will having something to prove on the road against the top team in the nation, a very well-rested squad. “We’re kind of a victim of our schedule,” said Berenson, who added that he’s “always been a proponent of everyone playing in everybody’s rink.”

Another not-so-apparent difference between the teams lies in where they play. No, I’m not talking about the two outstanding home barns of the teams, but in the geographic areas themselves and the local interest in college hockey.

There were no fewer than seven articles in daily professional newspapers across Michigan this week that mention the UM-Miami series, some previewing the series, some discussing players, and one looking at how the Wolverines may have been looking past the Wildcats last weekend. There were also a couple in the UM student newspaper as well, and only those in Ann Arbor know how much the media have hyped this on television and the radio as well.

A quick Internet search revealed an article about this weekend’s series in the Dayton News and the Oxford Press, and while other local newspapers may have mentioned the series, the RedHawks simply do not experience the press onslaught that the Wolverines endure — for better or for worse.

“Inside the four walls of the Steve Cady Arena it’s pretty quiet,” joked Blasi, who added that the “student body and the community have absolutely embraced” their local collegiate hockey heroes.

“The hype around town is pretty good and I think our guys are getting a kick out of it,” said Blasi, who added that even in a season like this, the attention the team receives is probably far less than what the Wolverines see.

“It’s kind of nice to have a couple of reporters now and again at the rink,” said Blasi. “It lends to what this team is about. It’s not about records and wins and losses; it’s about living in the moment. Our guys have a lot of fun. They work hard — don’t get me wrong — but they have fun.”

Here’s a look at the match, statistically speaking:

• Goals per game: UM 3.82 (2nd CCHA/2nd nationally); Miami 4.39 (1st CCHA/1st nationally)
• Goals allowed per game: UM 1.82 (2nd/2nd); Miami 1.54 (1st/1st)
• Power play: UM 20.9 percent (4th/11th); Miami 21.0 (3rd/9th)
• Penalty kill: UM 89.0 percent (3rd/8th); Miami 90.4 (1st/1st)
• Top scorer: UM Kevin Porter (23-19–42); Miami Ryan Jones (22-13–35)
• Top ‘tender: UM Billy Sauer (.935 SV%, 1.72 GAA); Miami Jeff Zatkoff (.937 SV%, 1.50 GAA)

Sometimes numbers can be misleading, but a quick glance at these stats reveals a good deal of truth. Each team’s captain leads the squad in scoring and goal production, and each is a clutch player; Porter has 13 power-play tallies, Jones has seven game-winners. Each coach credits his captain for leadership off the ice as well.

And the starting goalies for each team are having phenomenal, Hobey-worthy seasons. Both are juniors seasoned juniors, although Sauer is a full year and change younger than Zatkoff and had further to go in terms of development.

“I think he’s definitely taken a step,” said Berenson of Sauer. “He’s a big reason we’ve had some success.”

Berenson said that having former UM goaltender Josh Blackburn in the mix has been a positive for the junior netminder.

“In fairness to Billy, this is his third goalie coach in three years. Maybe Billy was too young when he got here. I don’t think he was as ready to play when we needed him to.”

Both teams have depth at every position, but as has been pointed out, the RedHawks are more experienced.

“It seems like they’ve got the best of everything, no matter how you look at their team,” said Berenson. “They’re a veteran team, they’ve got the best goals against. You’ve got guys like [defenseman Mitch] Ganzak who’s got a lot of points.

“Statistically, they’re the best team in our league and maybe even in the country. We’re going to have to play a lot better than we have been playing.”

Two very different teams having seasons that could send one or both to Denver in April.

Let Them Eat Oats

In the 1800s, when the Scots were perfecting the cultivation of oats for human consumption, the English opined that oats were fit to be fed only to horses and Scotsmen. It was the Scottish consumption of oats in the latter part of the 1800s, say some anthropologists, that led to Scotsmen of the era being taller and hardier than their English counterparts.

When industrialized Scotland turned away from oats in the early part of the 20th century, the average height of the adult male Scot shrank by as many as nine inches, by some accounts. (Of course, the Scots do love their taller tales.)

The issue of height in hockey is a sticky one. The common belief that taller is better is often countered by excellence on the ice. Michigan State goaltender Jeff Lerg comes to mind, as do pro players like Dan Boyle and Martin St. Louis, two former collegians who are the only two players on the Tampa Bay Lightning roster listed at under 6 feet tall.

This week’s CCHA Rookie of the Week, Falcon Jacob Cepis, is listed at 5’8″. As is often the case with players who are on the smaller side, Cepis is valued for his quickness — as he should be. Cepis had two goals, including the game-winner, plus an assist in Friday’s 5-2 Bowling Green win over Ohio State.

Cepis made his first goal Friday look easy though it was anything but. The freshman threaded two OSU defenders, sped to the net and scored. That the goal came 18:37 in the second to put BGSU ahead 3-1 and break OSU’s spirit made the play even more spectacular.

“He has the ability to … create [his] own offense,” said BGSU head coach Scott Paluch. “He can do that from kind of a standstill. He’s got extremely quick feet. One thing that jumped out on that goal was as he’s coming across the ice, two players were pretty much dead even, and he had a pretty good burst, pretty good explosion to free himself up.

“And you saw the quick stick, too. He is a gifted player in that regard.”

At one point in the post-game interview, Paluch called Cepis “a good little player.” So did Buckeye sophomore Nick Biondo — his exact words, “a good little player.” Biondo has known Cepis for years. They’re both from Parma, Ohio, and grew up playing against each other.

Biondo had OSU’s first goal in that Friday game and the first in Saturday’s 4-2 Buckeye win. OSU senior Tommy Goebel — another Parma native — scored the game-tying goal late in the second period Saturday. Tom Fritsche — yet another player from Parma — had assists in both games.

But these four share another commonality aside from hometown: height. Cepis is 5’8″, Biondo is 5’9″, Goebel is 5’8″. Fritsche is the giant among them, at 5’11”.

Not to be catty, but that’s how the gents are listed. Goebel was listed at 5’7″ last season, but maybe he’s been eating his oats.

Incidentally and having nothing at all to do with hockey, the city of Parma, Italy, gives us that wonderful cheese, parmigiano reggiano, without which life would be diminished indeed.

Feisty Falcons

Last weekend was my first chance to watch Bowling Green in action, in person. A few things about the Falcons are making sense to me now.

BG’s fortunes have improved immeasurably with the addition of freshman goaltender Nick Eno to the roster. Eno may be 42nd among D-I goaltenders in save percentage (.907), but he’s young — a week shy of his 19th birthday — tall, imposing, and wickedly quick. He sees the ice well and gives opponents little. With the right development, he could be the kind of goaltender that gives Bowling Green a chance in every game.

It’s no secret that senior Derek Whitmore (21-5–26) is having a career season and that Cepis (12-11–23) is among the best rookies in the conference, but there were a bunch of other BG players who left an impression, among them junior defenseman Kevin Schmidt, who is seventh among all defensemen nationally in points per game and fourth among Falcons in scoring (4-16–20), as well as defender Mike Nesdill and forward Kai Kantola.

The Falcon rookie class is first-rate, with Eno and Cepis, and forwards Dan Sexton and David Solway. Very talented.

But what impressed me the most was the passion with which Bowling Green played. After seeing them live, I understand better the brawl at the end of the 4-1 Falcon win over Western Michigan Jan. 18 and the penalties racked up in BG’s 6-1 loss to Notre Dame Jan. 25.

Had this energy not coalesced into a skirmish with half a minute to go in Saturday’s game in Columbus, I had no doubt that there would be an immense explosion when the buzzer sounded. When several players from both teams went to the box before the end of the game, I was relieved.

It’s the way they play. They’re hard-hitting, in your face, and they’re not afraid to use their sticks. When a couple of Falcons and Buckeyes hit the box before the end of the game, the tension was released. There was zero visible animosity in the post-game handshake line Saturday night.

The Falcons are averaging 20.8 penalty minutes per game, second in the nation.

My Hockey-Colored Glasses

Valentine’s Day may be over a week away, but it’s never too early to talk about bitterness.

I’ve been riding the afterglow of Michigan State’s national championship since April. Some people go to church; I go to the rink. The Spartan win over Boston College has sustained me in many a dark hour, and when I’ve been tempted to reach for Roxy Music’s Avalon or Sarah McLachlan’s Surfacing — both fine testaments to unrequited love — I’ve thought of that day in St. Louis, of the clunk of the championship trophy as Chris Lawrence foisted it onto the table in the postgame press conference, and I’ve felt that there is at least a little bit of hope for humankind.

Until last weekend.

In anticipation of this weekend’s match between Michigan and Miami, I thought about how incredible it was that the top two ranked teams in the nation were duking it out for the top spot in the CCHA. Then Michigan tied Northern Michigan twice and the prestige of No. 2 visiting No. 1 seemed lost.

But then Minnesota State became my favorite team in college hockey, momentarily. Thank you, Mavericks, for sweeping Denver to preserve the match between No. 2 and No. 1 in Oxford this weekend.

Also helping my mood was ESPNU’s rebroadcast Tuesday of that MSU-BC title match. Even though I knew that Justin Abdelkader was going to score that game-winner at 19:41 in the third, I sat on the edge of my seat in anticipation. It never gets old.

All-CCHA Weekend at CSTV

Speaking of televised college hockey, CSTV has apparently remembered how it sold itself to its fans, as the network that would bring you more college hockey than any other. (That’s how I remember it, anyway.)

This weekend, CCHA fans can see two entirely different conference games, on two entirely different nights. Friday night features No. 2 Michigan at No. 1 Miami; Saturday, it’s Ohio State at Nebraska-Omaha.

This is a welcome departure from whatever it is that’s had me changing channels fast most Fridays at CSTV.

CSTV will feature the Wolverines again when it broadcasts the Lake Superior State-Michigan game from Yost Arena Feb. 15.

Now that’s a lovely Valentine.

The Way the Wind Blows

Last week, I wrote of the incredible midweek winds that blew through central Ohio, in anticipation — perhaps — of this week’s match in Oxford between Michigan and Miami.

I was wrong. It was anticipation, all right, but for something more immediate.

Former Nanook Aaron Voros was in town when the Minnesota Wild beat the Columbus Blue Jackets, 4-1, last Saturday night.

I know that Voros had at least one penalty in the game, but I don’t know how he fared for the whole thing, nor do I know if he fought outright. I know he did the last time he was in town, Dec. 8, because the game was on a monitor in the OSU press box, and I caught a glimpse of the skirmish.

In 36 games for Minnesota, Voros has seven goals and six assists … and 89 penalty minutes. I say that with respect.

Voros is a force of nature.

Beware the Sweep

Happy new year! According to the Chinese calendar, the Year of the Rat (year 4705) began Feb. 7.

CCHA teams should be very careful about their play this weekend. According to Chinese lore, using a broom too close to the new year will sweep away one’s luck for the remainder of the annual lunar cycle.

Word to CCHA teams: Sweep with caution.