This Week in the CCHA: Feb. 21, 2008

Red Carpet Time

Now that the writers’ strike is over and the Academy Awards are safe, I think it only fitting to return to what all writers should be doing all the time: handing out hardware.

Player of the Year

Last year when I gave out this award, I didn’t think anything could top the performance of CCHA players in the 2006-07 season, and that was before Jeff Lerg and Michigan State had played their way to a national championship.

In 2007-08, however, the CCHA is again fortunate to claim many of the top players in college hockey as its own. Five of the nation’s 20-plus goal scorers are CCHA players, two of the country’s top-10 goaltenders reside in the league, and a slew of CCHA defensemen have distinguished themselves this year.

This year, the player who comes to mind as absolutely essential for the success of his team is Michigan senior captain Kevin Porter. Not only does he lead the nation right now in scoring (25-23–48), but as one of two seniors on a Wolverine squad with 11 freshmen on its roster, the Northville, Mich., native has been credited by his coaches as a true leader without whom the Wolverines would not be staring another regular-season championship in the face.

Runners-up: Ryan Jones (Miami), Billy Sauer (UM).

Coach of the Year

Last year, eventual Spencer Penrose winner Jeff Jackson was the hands-down choice for this, having taken the Irish from the cellar to the roof in three short years.

This year, however, I’m giving the award not to someone who has had to overcome insurmountable odds, but someone who is perennially overlooked for league and national accolades in spite of consistent excellence.

My award goes to Michigan head coach Red Berenson. Picked as low as fourth in the preseason polls — third in my own — the Wolverines have surpassed everyone’s expectations (even Berenson’s) with a large rookie class and a junior goaltender who until this season was a liability, not an asset.

It’s true that Michigan has resources that smaller schools don’t, but so does Ohio State and look where the Buckeyes are. It’s true that Michigan has a recruiting edge compared to other schools, but that’s mainly because of Berenson’s leadership and the legacy he has created at Michigan.

Berenson has surrounded himself with excellent staff — including assistants Mel Pearson and Billy Powers, and now goaltending coach Josh Blackburn — and he consistently makes the best of what he has, year in and year out.

It’s a shame that our collective mentality would rather reward improvement than consistent excellence. I’m all for the attention that improvement earns, but not at the expense of consistent excellence.

Runners-up: Scott Paluch (talk about improvement) and Enrico Blasi (talk about consistency).

Rookie of the Year

This one is pure favoritism — as in, he’s my favorite rookie this year. He’s fun, fast, he can score. It’s Miami’s Carter Camper.

Camper is third among rookies nationally in points (13-20–33), averaging 1.23 per game. His plus-minus is +19, and he has just seven minor penalties for 14 minutes, on a team that knows how to go.

And he’s an Ohio native playing for an Ohio team, hailing from Rocky River. And he’s not yet old enough to drink.

Runners-up: So many, given the talented rookies in the CCHA this season, but I’ll limit my picks to two and non-Wolverines. Jacob Cepis (BGSU), Mark Olver (NMU).

Team of the Year

The Bowling Green Falcons. I know that I should be consistent, pick coach with team (as director and picture often go hand-in-hand at the Academy Awards), but this another pick among favorites. Frankly, I’m grateful that the Falcons’ first-round home ice may help head coach Scott Paluch keep his job.

The Falcons secured home ice in the first round of the CCHA playoffs one year after finishing in last place in the league. Last year, BGSU had just five league wins and seven overall; this year, the Falcons are playing .500 hockey and they look pretty good.

Surprise of the Year

Ohio State, of course. The Buckeyes are in 10th place in the league and in danger of finishing in 11th. Last year, OSU finished with a .500 record in seventh place and ended the season by losing the first-round home CCHA playoff series they worked so hard to secure.

Perhaps, however, I shouldn’t be surprised. Two years ago, the Buckeyes finished the league in 10th place after finishing second in 2004-05.

What an asset this program could and should be for the league. I do, however, love OSU’s freshman class, and the Buckeyes have secured a highly-rated rookie class for next season, so I’m willing to wait and see for another year.

But just one year.

Runner-up: Western Michigan.

Ferris State Memorial Defenders-of-the-Realm Award

Congratulations to the Michigan Wolverines, who with just one loss in nonconference play (7-1-0) have mostly successfully defended the realm.

The loss was to Minnesota early on, and that’s tough to take given the Gophers’ season, but the Wolverines brought honor to the league in the College Hockey Showcase at Thanksgiving and captured the Great Lakes Invitational title at midseason.

The Miami RedHawks will have valid grounds for a challenge on this one, having gone undefeated (6-0-0) against outsiders. However, I claim the strength-of-schedule defense; Miami beat Canisius, Rensselaer, and Vermont twice each, and St. Cloud State once at the Ohio Hockey Classic in December. While that 2-1 overtime St. Cloud win was a beauty, I’m going with the greater honor brought upon the league by the Wolverines.

Overall, it was a pretty good year for the league in nonconference play, as all teams went 48-31-8 collectively against nonleague opponents. Alaska, Lake Superior State and Northern Michigan were the only three to have losing records out of conference, and Miami was the only undefeated team in nonleague play.

It’s good to see that the CCHA still owns Atlantic Hockey (11-0-1); however, the WCHA still owns the CCHA (9-13-5), and the CHA gained considerable ground this year (9-6-2) as that league’s overall play has improved.

If this weren’t a regular-season honor, of course I’d be talking about Michigan State, who defended the realm against all comers last April.

Perseverance Award

This year, the team that wins this started with a schedule more frightening than a Paris Hilton movie and reversed its fortune so significantly from early on that it may host a first-round CCHA playoff series after having finishing 10th last season.

I’m talking about the Northern Michigan Wildcats, who began CCHA play this season with six straight losses — to Michigan, Michigan State and Miami. Since those six games, the Wildcats have been 12-9-3. Before splitting with Ohio State on the road last weekend, the ‘Cats had swept the Spartans at home and tied the Wolverines twice in Yost Arena.

In fact, after their Friday win in Columbus last week, they had gone 3-0-2 straight against Big Ten teams. When that was brought up to head coach Walt Kyle by one of my colleagues post-game, Kyle quipped that the Wildcats “should petition” for league inclusion. Funny moment.

Better still, however, was that win in Columbus. It was NMU’s first-ever in the Schottenstein Center, which opened in 1999.

Assistant coach John Kyle has been telling me in recent years that the Wildcats want to be worthy of their former title, the Hardest Working Team in College Hockey.

I’d say they’re getting there.

2008 Attaboy

No one likes to see a talented guy out for the majority of his senior season, but this is a game that can lead to just that reality.

Miami senior forward and assistant captain Nathan Davis has been out with injury for most of the 2007-08 campaign, having played just 12 games this season. In those 12 contests, he has four goals and four assists, but according to his coaches he’s been invaluable off the ice, in the locker room and around the RedHawk team.

Runner-up: Billy Sauer, for working so hard to improve his game this season.

Chris Richards Most-Likely-to-Be-Overlooked Memorial Award

This one is tough. Named after the Buckeye whose senior-year achievements were largely ignored, this award usually goes to the guy whose performance is outstanding but whose team is underachieving.

Because there are so many outstanding forward in the league this year, not every one of them can and will be recognized by the league. Some will be left off the All-CCHA First and Second teams, and I’m convinced that every player who makes those squads will have earned it.

Last year, a couple of defensemen earned the award. This year, I’d like to give it to Michigan State’s Tim Kennedy.

Kennedy’s contributions to the Spartans cannot be overlooked, but he’ll likely be a victim of the number of outstanding forwards whose raw numbers are better. With 14 goals and 18 assists, the junior from Buffalo, N.Y., leads MSU in scoring, is among the nation’s leaders in game-winning goals (five), has seven power-play tallies, and three shorthanders. He’s also an assistant captain.

Runners-up: Tyler Eckford (UA), Jeff Lerg (MSU), Derek Whitmore (BGSU).

Mike Comrie Most-Likely-to-Leave-Early Memorial Award

Perhaps this award should be renamed to include the word intentionally, as in, he meant to leave early. Kevin Quick’s midseason departure is just one of several in recent years that wasn’t planned, so I’d like to make clear the distinction.

I’m so glad that last year’s pick, Maverick Bryan Marshall, returned to play.

I hope I’m wrong about this guy, too. My pick is RedHawk junior Justin Mercier (22-12–34) who is second on the squad in scoring. Mercier (Erie, Pa.) was picked 186th overall by the Colorado Avalanche in the 2005 draft.

My reasoning? The RedHawks are built for this season, as MSU head coach Rick Comley reminded us all at the start of the year. Mercier is having a fantastic season, and the RedHawks lose a lot when the current senior class leaves.

Aniket Dhadphale Garbage Man Memorial Award

Named for the Notre Dame player who could pick up the trash like no other around the net, this award has to go to UNO’s Mike Lawrence, who can make wonderful things happen around an opponent’s cage.

Thirteen of Lawrence’s 18 goals come from the power play this season, and while he can snipe like the best of them, he has a knack for scoring with the man-advantage from anywhere.

Mike York Poetry-in-Motion Award

Sadly, I haven’t seen enough pretty hockey this season to make a qualified judgment for this award. I’ve seen a lot of so-so hockey, and many games where penalties disrupt the flow to the point of no one being able to make a game pretty.

I do like what I’ve seen on several occasions from BGSU’s Jacob Cepis, OSU’s Tommy Goebel and Michigan’s Matt Rust … but I have seen no one reminiscent of the lovely play of former Spartan Mike York.

Although … I really liked what I saw of Brian Stewart in net for NMU last weekend. It’s hard for a big goalie to be graceful, and he was. Still, no award.

Best Offensive Goalie Award

There have been two goaltenders in CCHA history who have registered goals themselves. Western Michigan’s Mike Mantua did it in 2002, and Michigan State’s Chad Alban did it in 1998.

The accuracy needed to lob a puck nearly the entire length of the ice, from one goal into the empty net of an opponent, is impressive, which is why it’s done so infrequently.

However, goaltenders can be integral parts of offensive play, transitioning the puck effectively up the ice to help a teammate score a goal.

The goaltenders in the CCHA had a banner year offensively, as 13 goalies combined for 20 points! It’s extraordinary!

Eight goaltenders had one assist each, and two netminders — Alaska’s Wylie Rogers and Michigan’s Billy Sauer — had two each. In most seasons, two assists would be enough to earn this award.

Three assists is a great accomplishment for any college goaltender, so Ohio State’s Joseph Palmer should be very proud of the season he’s had.

But Palmer is our runner-up. With four assists — a genuinely vulgar display of offensive prowess — Ferris State junior Mitch O’Keefe is the CCHA Best Offensive Goalie for 2007-08.

O’Keefe’s four points come in 18 game, as he’s shared the net with freshman Pat Nagle. In fact, that’s so many assists that henceforth the award will be named in O’Keefe’s honor.

O’Keefe has as many assists and total points as senior Bulldog defenseman Nick Spezia, and he scored them in two fewer games. O’Keefe is also ahead of Bulldog defenseman Adam Welch (0-2–2, 25 GP), who — like Spezia — skates beyond the scope of his own crease when he plays.

Mitch O’Keefe, setting the standard for goalie offense in the CCHA.

Next Week

More awards — including the All-Goon Squad — and the playoffs!