This Week in the CCHA: Feb. 28, 2008

Virtual Hardware, Part 2

I’m limiting each all-league team to six players.

The Girl Reporter All-CCHA Team

Ryan Jones (F, Miami)
Chad Kolarik (F, UM)
Kevin Porter (F, UM)
Kevin Roeder (D, Miami)
Brock Sheahan (D, ND)
Billy Sauer (G, UM)

Porter and Roeder earned this last season as well. Porter, who got my nod for Player of the Year last week, is just everything a college hockey player should be. Roeder is quietly the best stay-at-home D-man in the league, perhaps in the country.

Just as last year, there were many tough choices to be made. The league is deep in absolutely every position, and no more so than defensively. This year’s junior blueliners are especially impressive: Mark Mitera (UM), Alec Martinez (Miami), Kevin Schmidt (BGSU), Tyler Eckford (UA), Juha Uotila (UNO). All juniors, all excellent.

And this team leaves out great players on every team, including many personal favorites.

Congratulations to everyone for a great season.

The Girl Reporter All-Rookie CCHA Team of Guys Who Don’t Play for Michigan

Carter Camper (F, Miami)
Jacob Cepis (F, BGSU)
Mark Olver (F, NMU)
Erik Gustafsson (D, NMU)
Jeff Petry (D, MSU)
Nick Eno (G, BGSU)

Wolverine fans will grouse. Keep reading.

The Girl Reporter All-Rookie CCHA Team of Guys Who Do Play for Michigan

Max Pacioretty, F
Matt Rust, F
Louie Caporusso, F
Scooter Vaughn, D
Tristan Llewellyn, D
Bryan Hogan, G

They may be the best team in the country, and they may have the best rookie class that the league has seen in over a decade — and so many of them that the best of the rest of the league is in danger of being ignored if the Wolverines are not separately honored.

Hogan has an assist, too, which is a big bonus for a goaltender who’s only played 244 minutes.

My awards, my rules.

The Girl Reporter All-Goon Squad

What a paradoxical year for the connoisseurs of crunch in the CCHA. The league produced six of the top 10 most-penalized teams in the nation — in spite of (because of?) its recent penalty rules-reform leadership — yet the majority of the penalties have been so pedestrian. Two minutes for ticky-tackiness here; another two for looky-lookiness there.

Boring, boring, boring. While the league should be commended for its attempts at enforcing a cleaner game, the CCHA can also be faulted for creating many stop-and-start contests that are counterproductive to the league’s presumed main goal of promoting the game of hockey. Some 20-minute periods become unwatchable, as whistle after whistle robs teams and fans alike of anything resembling the graceful ebb and flow of the sport we love.

I’m sure that the league would protest that I’m killing the messenger (a role, of course, with which I am utterly unfamiliar) and that if only teams and players would adhere more strictly to the rules, this wouldn’t be a problem. It’s a fair argument, but the result is the same: many boring contests with no flow and no real sense of the game.

There were notable, outright CCHA brawls this season, more so than in recent years. Certainly, the level of play within the league was even better in 2007-08 than in last season, fueling frustration and emotion that often found inappropriate outlets.

But every year, there are players whose passion gets the best of them, both benefiting and hurting their team’s causes. The Girl Reporter All-Goon Squad honors those young men who are willing to risk the box for many reasons, and honors some who do so with unique, individual style.

So many repeat offenders, so little time. This year’s squad is diminished by the notable absence of Zack Pelletier, the bone-crushing Buckeye whose penalty-free hits can change the momentum of the game. Pelletier has assured the press that he’ll return next year post-injury, ready to play as he always has.

Happy thought on a cold winter’s day.

Chris Frank, WMU

With only 63 minutes this season (99 last year), this junior defenseman has nonetheless distinguished himself on a team that is fifth in the nation for minutes per game. It was Frank who willingly rejoined the brawl that interrupted the Western Michigan-Bowling Green game with 12 seconds remaining Jan. 18, dragging CCHA official Neil Stafford with him into the fray.

Lest we forget, all 10 skaters got the DQs for that — perhaps they should all be honored — and the teams combined for 207 penalty minutes in the contest.

But given Frank’s history, it wasn’t merely fortuitous that he was on the ice when the fight began. He paid a heavier fine than everyone but his defensive partner of the night, Jordan Collins. Both Frank and Collins earned extra two-minute minors and 10-minute misconducts.

Jordan Collins, WMU

See above. See also that Collins, a sophomore, had 17 penalties for 64 minutes in just 19 games. It took his teammate 33 games for his 63 minutes.

Justin Abdelkader, MSU

Here’s a player I just love. He shoots, he scores, he gets in your face. This is the third straight Goon-Squad honor for Abdelkader, who has 33 penalties for 85 minutes. He also has 14 goals and 16 assists, making him fourth on the defending national champion Spartans in scoring.

I’m so glad he’s a junior.

Ryan Jones, Miami

Second in the nation in goals per game, Jones — also making his third appearance on this list — plays my favorite kind of dirty. He’s the Great Instigator, who, like Abdelkader, can agitate to the point of changing the momentum in a game.

He’s also a purist, with 31 penalties for 62 minutes. Every penalty a two-minute infraction. I have to respect that.

In fact, he reminds me of someone who used to play for another CCHA squad, who spent much time in the box but all in two-minute increments. That player, former Nanook Aaron Voros, is now with the Minnesota Wild — which is where Jones is heading. Think of the possibilities.

But Jones is more disciplined than Voros was in his CCHA days, and his Fabio-like tresses are destined for Locks of Love, a wonderful organization that provides hairpieces for kids who have lost their hair because of illness.

Talk about the embodiment of a college hockey player.

Matt Rust, UM

Here’s a kid who may be cut from the same cloth as Abdelkader and Jones, an mischievous, passionate player who can score both ugly and with finesse. This Wolverine freshman had 19 penalties for 57 minutes, and has great potential.

Zac MacVoy, LSSU

One of the reasons that sophomore forward MacVoy earns a place on this squad is that he has 22 penalties for 71 minutes in 30 games played for a team that is averaging just 14 minutes per contest. There are six CCHA teams among the top 10 in penalties in the nation, and Lake Superior State is No. 34 in the country.

Talk about distinguishing yourself.

Blair Riley, FSU

This list just wouldn’t feel complete without a Ferris State Bulldog to represent, and Riley — a sophomore with 78 minutes (21 penalties) — is the perfect Bulldog for the job.

The Bowling Green Falcons

It’s unusual to name an entire squad to the goon squad, but I’m calling it like I see it. The Falcons are tough, hard-working, they take the body whenever they can, and they — ahem — “use their sticks” more creatively than any team I’ve seen in ages.

They’re third in the nation in PIMs per game, averaging 19.6. Yes, the numbers are inflated because of the brawl with Western Michigan Jan. 18.

Yes, the Falcons were absolutely in that fight.

Playoff Chatter

As interesting as the first half of the CCHA season was, the second half has been even more so, with several teams emerging as real postseason contenders.

It is not beyond the realm of possibility to see more than one CCHA team in Denver this year. I love the way the Spartans are playing now, Michigan is not overrated as some have suggested and the RedHawks … well, the RedHawks have the talent.

It is also not beyond the realm of possibility to see some second-round playoff upsets this year. Those middle-pack teams are good and they’re (mostly) playing their best hockey of the year just as they’re finishing up the regular season.

Four teams — Bowling Green, Northern Michigan, Ferris State, Nebraska Omaha — are tied for fifth place right now, each with 26 points. UNO cannot earn more league points, as its CCHA play is over for the season, so the Falcons, Wildcats and Bulldogs each have chances to differentiate themselves from the others, but each also has a wickedly hard row to hoe this weekend.

I’m not going to get into every permutation of every possible playoff scenario, long ago having admitted to being a right-brained kind of thinker.

Falcons, Wildcats, Bulldogs…and Mavericks

BGSU, NMU, and FSU each have home-and-home series to end the regular season. The Falcons play Michigan State, the Bulldogs play Michigan, and the Wildcats play Lake Superior.

Last year, the Falcons and Spartans exchanged a pair of wins in each other’s buildings to end the regular season, so the Falcons know they can win in Munn. Consistency has been the big problem for the Falcons last season and this, but this year BG has more wins to show for effort and better goaltending thanks to Brian Eno.

However, of the four teams hosting the first round of the CCHA playoffs, I think Bowling Green is the most beatable; should BG win its first-round playoff series, I don’t expect it to win beyond that.

On the surface it may look as though NMU has the best chance to pick up points, but consider that the Lakers are 5-3-2 in their last 10 games, and two of their three losses came to Michigan — and both of those were 4-2 games with empty-netters.

Still, the Wildcats are 5-1-2 in their last eight, with two ties against Michigan, two wins over Michigan State, and that last-second loss to OSU in Columbus. NMU looks really complete heading into the last weekend and the playoffs, and sophomore goaltender Brian Stewart is giving them that proverbial chance in every game. Last weekend, Stewart made 65 saves in a home sweep of the offensively talented Mavericks.

Of the four teams hosting a first-round CCHA playoff series, I’d nominate NMU as the team most likely to upset a first-round bye team. We could see the Wildcats at Joe Louis Arena. Like the Wolverines (and the Buckeyes), the ‘Cats have a large, enthusiastic freshman class that probably hasn’t learned its limitations yet, which is a good thing in playoff hockey.

The Bulldogs are 4-1-1 in their last six, having taken three points from ranked Notre Dame and four from ranked Miami in that stretch, but the Wolverines have beaten them six straight. The ‘Dogs are another team that could win beyond the first round of the CCHA playoffs.

As for the Mavericks, the team that has to wait out this weekend in nonleague and exhibition play, I don’t think UNO has the goaltending to advance to Joe Louis Arena. The Mavericks have a creative, talented offense and I’ve been wrong before, so don’t take it to Vegas.

Nanooks, Buckeyes, Lakers, and Broncos. Oh My.

Alaska is the other CCHA team that has finished with league play, and is therefore awaiting this weekend’s results to see where it finishes. The Nanooks are in ninth place right now and likely to stay there. With OSU and LSSU tied for 10th and each three points behind UA, only the Lakers can catch the Nanooks, and they’d need two wins outright over NMU to jump them in league standings. Points won’t do it, since an LSSU win and tie would still give UA the first tie-breaker, number of league wins.

That means that the ‘Nooks wait to see if they travel to Omaha, their most likely and least fortunate destination. While the perennially partnered Nanooks and Mavericks know each other well, the advantage is all UNO’s; the Mavs are 7-2-3 against the ‘Nooks in the last three seasons.

Ohio State has improved steadily as the season has progressed, with its large and talented freshman class coming into its own. I’m especially impressed with the play-making ability and puck-touch of forward Kyle Reed, the consistency of defenseman Corey Toy, and the outright competitive passion of Peter Boyd.

In recent weeks, I’ve also seen glimpses of the old Tom Fritsche, the guy who could pluck plays out of thin air before illness robbed him of so much. His classmate, Tommy Goebel, has emerged as one of the best forwards in the league. And OSU’s goaltending is very good.

But I know them. I know them well. I don’t know where they’re going next weekend, but I do know that they’re likely to be home the weekend after that. If they had another month of regular-season preparation, they’d be in the running to upset. But they don’t, and they’re not.

The Lakers are enigma. They’re scrappy, they’re scoring more goals than they did a year ago, but their goaltending hampers them. You have to have goalies that are saving at least 90 percent to be competitive.

The Broncos are firing on no cylinders. After showing such improvement a year ago, WMU has to be the most disappointing team of the year. With one win in the second half of the season, the Broncos have been outscored 62-28 since Jan. 1, and they’ve been shut out twice in their last four contests. It’s easy to predict an early exit for WMU.


Miami troubles me. That four-game swoon reminded me what happened last year. The RedHawks had a weekend off before they welcomed Michigan to Steve Cady Arena Feb. 8-9, when they took just one point from the Wolverines. Then they went to Big Rapids and lost twice to unranked Ferris State, giving up six goals in one contest to the Bulldogs.

Remember, the RedHawks are still the top defense in the country, allowing 1.80 goals per game. But they were allowing fewer on average before those two weekends in which they were outscored 19-13.

Sure, they rebounded by sweeping the Broncos last weekend by a collective score of 10-1, and they’re on a three-game streak after beating Ohio State 2-1 Tuesday night, but Tuesday’s game was close and in spite of the one-goal contest, goaltender Jeff Zatkoff has looked better.

Last year, the RedHawks had a first-round bye and lost in two straight to Lake Superior State. This year, they had a four-game winless streak after a week off. They’ll have a bye this season, too.

Don’t think. It can only hurt the team.

Next Week

The first round of the playoffs and hockey in my adopted home state.