This Week in the CCHA: March 6, 2008

Congratulations, Wolverines!

Picked fourth in the preseason league coaches and media polls and third preseason by this reporter, the Wolverines surpassed all expectations by capturing their 10th regular-season league title last weekend.

Upon winning, head coach Red Berenson said that his young team “found a way to win games night after night, home and away, close games, games that we played really well, games that we didn’t play so well.”

The Wolverines did so with a combination of talent, grit, determination, enthusiasm — and improvement from almost every player who returned last year, and no one more so than junior goaltender Billy Sauer.

Congratulations, too, to senior forward Kevin Porter, who with 22 goals and 20 assists in 28 league games, is this year’s CCHA scoring champion. Porter’s teammate, T.J. Hensick, was last year’s leading CCHA scorer.

To date, nine Wolverines have captured the league’s scoring title.

Awards, Revisited

How could I have missed Matt Siddall?

Several Northern Michigan fans wrote in last week to protest Siddall’s absence from the annual Girl Reporter All-Goon Squad, and rightly so. With 33 penalties for 102 minutes in 33 games, the Wildcat senior with 14 goals and 14 assists leads all CCHA players in minutes and is the first man this season to reach the century mark in minutes.

Perplexed by my own oversight — why hadn’t I even thought of Siddall? — I called NMU assistant coach John Kyle to ask him to define my problem, a risky endeavor.

“A lot of them [the penalties] come here, on the big sheet of ice,” said Kyle. “He’s one of our top penalty killers. He’s trying to contain on a big sheet of ice. He’s a big, physical guy.”

Affectionately known as “Sid Vicious” by the Northern faithful, Siddall “doesn’t like being disrespected,” said Kyle. “That sums him up. If the game is physical but clean, he’s out of the box. He knows he can police the ice if he has to.”

And that’s why I overlooked him. The two Wildcat games I saw this season were here in Columbus, against Ohio State, and they were fairly clean, well-played, back-and-forth games. I’d say there was plenty of respect on OSU’s part, since they’re so down in the standings and the Wildcats beat them in the first round of the last year’s CCHA playoffs in the OSU Ice Arena.

It’s not that I didn’t notice Siddall — clearly a heck of a player, and a great defensive forward — but there was little need for him to enforce.

And, in my defense, Siddall’s been a bit more disciplined in the second half of the season, said Kyle. “He’s been doing the right things. He’s been getting it done on the ice, taking fewer penalties and scoring.”

Siddall got it done on the ice in more ways than one in Northern’s 1-1 overtime tie with Michigan Tech Dec. 14. Siddall scored the tying goal for the Wildcats at 18:32 in the second, and was one of two Wildcats who received game disqualifications for a spectacular brawl that erupted with 10 seconds left in the five-minute overtime.

Kyle said that Siddall sometimes need to “clarify his commitment to fair play…to be sure the play is fair on the ice.”

Fair enough.

More importantly, Siddall is another player — like Michigan State’s Justin Abdelkader and Miami’s Ryan Jones — whose brand of dirty is something I admire. Not only can Siddall enforce when the need arises, but he can instigate and irritate opponents into making mistakes. And like Ohio State’s Zach Pelletier, he can alter the game with one, clean, bone-crushing, open-ice hit.

“With one portion of a shift, he can change the complexion of the game,” said Kyle. “He’s got that size and strength and he has the mentality. If you want to mix it up with us, you’ll pay for it.”

Awards Revisited, Part 2

Apologies to Michigan junior Travis Turnbull, whom I incorrectly originally listed last week on the All-Rookie CCHA Team of Guys Who Do Play for Michigan.

No, it’s not that Turnbull in any way plays like a rookie; this reporter, however, wrote like one last week.

Another Hockey State of Mind

After Miami beat Ohio State 4-3 last Friday night, I said to RedHawk captain Ryan Jones, “That was a fun game to watch.”

He said, “For you.”

Actually, it was a great hockey game and not just for the home fans who watched the No. 5 RedHawks survive a tenacious lower-tier Buckeye team. It was a made-for-television contest, with CSTV doing the honors. Miami jumped out to a three-goal lead after one, but the school with the Big Ten name recognition forced an excellent match for the remaining two periods, and all of it played in the made-for-college-sports Steve Cady Arena, which never disappoints.

Beyond that, the intensely fought game was an appropriate cap to what has become a genuine college sports rivalry.

Who would have thought? I’ve never been a fan of the cluster system, the CCHA’s compromise to accommodate a 12-team league, but the scheduling has produced an instate rivalry worthy of greater attention. The history between these teams will never be as long or storied as that between Michigan and Michigan State, but what Miami and Ohio State have built in recent years is as good and intense as any other hockey Division-I hockey being played.

In addition to playing each other four times annually, the RedHawks and Buckeyes have also met in the title game of the Ohio Hockey Classic in Columbus for the last three years straight, bringing the total number of times these Miami and OSU seniors have faced off against each other to 19.

Jones said that 19 contests against Ohio State was “enough” for him, and after Friday’s hard-fought match, he sounded completely sincere. “Four years, 19 games against one team — I wish them all the best in playoffs and if we meet them in the finals, that would be great.”

Miami senior goaltender, Charlie Effinger, was 4-2-1 all-time against the Buckeyes with his win Friday at the Cady. “It’s always fun,” said Effinger. “It’s a great rivalry. It seems that we always get up for each other. It’s been a pleasure to be a part of it the last four years.”

In the last four years, Miami has owned a 10-5-4 lead in the series, which more often than not produces close games. Including the four ties, nine games in this series have been decided by one or fewer goals in the last four seasons. Miami has outscored Ohio State 56-47 in those 19 games, and the three games played for the OHC title have been, fittingly, split, with each winning one contest, each losing, and the 2005-06 game a 1-1 tie, although Miami won that title by way of a shootout.

The RedHawks swept the Buckeyes this season, winning two 5-1 contests in the first half of the year, but winning by just one goal in the last three, including the two last week.

The two schools disagree on the actual number of games the teams have played against each other, echoing that rivalry north of the border. According to Ohio State, the all-time series now stands at 56-56-10 while Miami insists that it has a 56-55-10 edge; the RedHawks don’t count one OSU win before Miami hockey was a varsity sport.

The records discrepancy “speaks to the heart of the rivalry,” said Effinger.

OSU freshman forward Kyle Reed said that the upperclassmen warned the 14 newcomers to this year’s Buckeye squad early in the season that games with Miami would be among the most bruising that they’d play. “You’re always getting hit,” said Reed. “The Battle of Ohio… playing Miami…you always get up for it. They’re big, tough, and they get the pucks to the paint in critical areas. They’re just a team that keeps coming.”

Senior OSU captain Matt McIlvane said that Friday’s contest was “intense” and fairly typical of games between the two schools separated by roughly 111 miles. “There was hard hitting. There were some good goals.”

And while sports fans in general tend to see Michigan as Ohio State’s most hated foe, McIlvane said that hockey operates by different rules. “Michigan’s more of a football rivalry that carries over into hockey. Miami, in my opinion, is our big rival. You can’t see a team this often and not have a rivalry develop.”

And when you play a team this many times, there’s more developing than just rivalry. “It’s definitely a fierce rivalry,” said OSU senior Tommy Goebel. “It’s funny, though, because half our friends are on each team. [Miami defenseman Kevin] Roeder is a comedian out there, so I always talk to him.

“Obviously, you play against guys enough, you’re going to talk to them a little bit, whether it be nice or otherwise.”

Round One

It’s the first round of the CCHA playoffs, with the middle four teams hosting the bottom four, and the top four teams earning first-round byes.

In the two years of this new playoff system, put into action three seasons ago to protect the top teams from PairWise damage, the bye-week, top-four seeds have advanced to Joe Louis Arena in seven of eight second-round series played. Only Miami failed to advance last season, falling in two games at home to Lake Superior State and the Lakers’ red-hot goaltender Jeff Jakaitis, but the RedHawks’ NCAA options were good enough to get them into the tourney without a trip to Detroit.

Last Friday at Steve Cady Arena, someone asked me who the top four teams should fear from the bottom eight. “Everyone from Western up,” I said.

Then Western Michigan shut out Notre Dame 3-0 and, unknowingly, put me in my place.

I have to say that the second half of the CCHA season offered superb hockey for fans. The race for the first-round home spots was exciting, with Ferris State and Northern Michigan emerging as teams that no one would want to face postseason. One of the league’s bottom-tier teams, Lake Superior State, ended the season as strongly as did the Bulldogs and Wildcats.

Even the Broncos ended a nine-game winless streak with a win over the nationally ranked team that won the regular-season championship a year ago.

Here is a brief synopsis of each team playing this weekend, in order of league finish. All stats are conference-only, and the statistics that follow the slash in each bulleted list indicate a team’s ranking among CCHA opponents for the same category in conference play. The head-to-head matches are to the right.

No. 5 Ferris State

• Overall record: 15-14-5
• Home record: 7-6-3
• Last 10 games: 5-3-2
• Goals scored per game: 2.75/5th
• Goals allowed per game: 2.57/5th
• Power play percentage: 18.4/5th
• Penalty kill percentage: 85.2/4th
• Top scorer: Cody Chupp (7-13–20)
• Top goal scorer: Brendan Connolly (11-8–19)
• Top goaltender: Mitch O’Keefe (.920 SV%, 2.35 GAA)
• Secret weapon: Freshman defenseman Scott Wietecha, with his +13 rating, two game-winning goals, and presence on the power play

The scrappy Bulldogs finished fifth in the league this season in part because of their record in February, culminating in last Saturday’s toppling of then-No. 1 Michigan, in Big Rapids, on Senior Night. That fifth-place finish is the highest for FSU since they captured the league’s regular-season title in 2002-2003.

One reason for FSU’s late-season success is an awakening offense, including the play of junior forward Justin Lewandowski, who rides a six-game point streak into the weekend. Blair Riley and Mike Fillinger are having good second halves, with Riley netting six goals since the start of the year to Fillinger’s seven.

The ‘Dogs are not afraid to take shots, out-gunning opponents 932-804 this season, and scoring 3.06 goals per game on average at home.

This FSU squad has the balance to get through the first round, with excellent goaltending from O’Keefe and solid defense.

And don’t forget that O’Keefe has four genuine assists this season on a team that knows how to play the transition game.

No. 6 Northern Michigan

• Overall record: 15-17-4
• Home record: 7-8-2
• Last 10 games: 5-2-3
• Goals scored per game: 2.71/6th
• Goals allowed per game: 2.79/6th
• Power play percentage: 14.6/7th
• Penalty kill percentage: 75.8/11th
• Top scorer: Nick Sirota (15-12–27)
• Top goal scorer: Sirota
• Top goaltender: Brian Stewart (.917 SV%, 2.76 GAA)
• Secret weapon: Freshman defenseman Erik Gustafsson, with his +17 rating and 17 assists, who makes things happen

This is a team with a number of tools at its disposal, not the least of which is goaltender Brian Stewart, the big, quick guy who beat Ohio State in Columbus last season in the first round of the CCHA playoffs.

The ‘Cats are deep at every position and peaking at the right time of the season. NMU has three double-digit goal scorers, with Mark Olver (13) and Matt Siddall (13) joining Nick Sirota. And the team plays excellent defense, with a +16 team rating in league play.

Matt Siddall told the Marquette Mining Journal this week that the Wildcats will have to “get some shots on net” if they are to win their first-round playoff series. “We have to play Wildcat hockey — forecheck hard, get the pucks in the corners and hold pucks for long possession time.”

That’s exactly what the Wildcats will have to do, re-capture the title of the Hardest Working Team in College Hockey. If they outwork their opponent, they can beat anybody.

No. 7 Bowling Green

• Overall record: 16-18-0
• Home record: 7-8-0
• Last 10 games: 4-6-0
• Goals scored per game: 2.61/8th
• Goals allowed per game: 3.00/8th
• Power play percentage: 14.0/9th
• Penalty kill percentage: 75.8/11th
• Top scorer: Derek Whitmore (23-7–30)
• Top goal scorer: Whitmore
• Top goaltender: Nick Eno (.918 SV%, 2.51 GAA)
• Secret weapon: Junior defenseman Kevin Schmidt, a bruising defenseman capable of jumping into the offensive play

The Falcons are hosting a first-round playoff series for the first time in four years. “We wanted fifth place, so we didn’t accomplish that, but we did earn the right to play at home in the playoffs,” said head coach Scott Paluch, “and that was a positive step.”

Part of the reason the Falcons didn’t capture fifth was their play in their last 10 games, which was decidedly mediocre. Yes, it was tough to draw two nationally ranked teams in that stretch, but if BG was to finish strong, a point or two from either of those teams would have helped significantly.

Another negative for BG in the second half is the power play, which was flying until the holiday break. Two power-play droughts — one for 43 attempts, another for 21 — stymied the Falcon special teams, and BGSU scored eight times with the man advantage in the last 17 games of the season.

Still, the season ended with BGSU tying for the most wins its seen in six years under Paluch, a definite positive step.

No. 8 Nebraska-Omaha

• Overall record: 15-16-4
• Home record: 6-8-4
• Last 10 games: 4-4-1, with an exhibition tie against the U.S. Under-18 Team
• Goals scored per game: 3.11/4th
• Goals allowed per game: 3.54/10th
• Power play percentage: 23.1/1st
• Penalty kill percentage: 82.4/8th
• Top scorer: Mick Lawrence (15-15–30)
• Top goal scorer: Lawrence
• Top goaltender: Jerad Kaufmann (.883 SV%, 3.10 GAA)
• Secret weapon: Junior defenseman Juha Uotila, who returned to the ice with renewed purpose after sitting out the first half of the season because of academics

This week, head coach Mike Kemp told the Omaha World-Herald that he and his team have to put the history between the Mavericks and the Nanooks behind them for this series, that the only way UNO can advance is to focus on the here and now.

“If we play the kind of hockey the kind of hockey we played against Mankato, we’ll go a long way,” said Kemp after UNO’s 4-2 win over ranked Minnesota State Feb. 26. What kind of hockey was that? Smart, said Kemp.

The Mavericks will have to get smart without the stellar forward Bryan Marshall (10-20–30), who has been out since he injured his knee in mid-February. The good news is that the Mavs’ other scorer in double-digits, Brandon Scero returns from injury this week.

The key to UNO’s success — aside from brainy play — is the creativity of the Maverick offense, which is diminished but not completely crippled without Marshall in the line-up. UNO has the 10th-best scoring offense in the country, a good thing since its weakness is between the pipes, a serious liability for play this time of year.

No. 9 Alaska

• Overall record: 8-19-5
• Away record: 4-10-2
• Last 10 games: 3-6-1
• Goals scored per game: 2.18/t10th
• Goals allowed per game: 2.86/7th
• Power play percentage: 13.8/10th
• Penalty kill percentage: 80.9/10th
• Top scorer: Dion Knelsen (9-16–25)
• Top goal scorer: Landon Novotney (13-6–19)
• Top goaltender: Wylie Rogers (.925 SV%, 2.51 GAA)
• Secret weapon: Junior defenseman Tyler Eckford, third among blueliners nationally in points per game

Perhaps Alaska’s real secret weapon is its ability to win road playoff series. This is the fourth year in a row that the Nanooks have traveled for the first round of CCHA playoff action, and the ‘Nooks have won each of the last three series. In the last three seasons, although UA has never played at home, the Nanooks are 9-6-0 in CCHA playoff action.

UA is fast, skilled and gets excellent goaltending from Wylie Rogers, but with a penalty kill that leaves a bit to be desired and facing the top power play in the country, the Nanooks know what they have to do to find success in Omaha this weekend.

“The biggest thing that we have to do is stay out of the box,” head coach Doc DelCastillo told the Fairbanks News-Miner this week.

While UA is one of the least penalized teams in the nation, special teams goals have worked against the Nanooks. In their 5-3 loss to LSSU to end the regular-season last weekend, the Nanooks gave up a shorthanded marker and a 4-on-4 goal, and UA let in a power-play goal in their two losses previous to that contest.

No. 10 Lake Superior State

• Overall record: 9-18-7
• Away record: 2-10-6
• Last 10 games: 5-2-3
• Goals scored per game: 2.32/9th
• Goals allowed per game: 3.61/12th
• Power play percentage: 14.3/8th
• Penalty kill percentage: 71.5/12th
• Top scorer: Zac MacVoy (8-16–24)
• Top goal scorer: Nathan Perkovich (10-5–15), Rick Schofield (10-5–15)
• Top goaltender: Brian Mahoney-Wilson (.894 SV%, 3.15 GAA)
• Secret weapon: Schofield, a freshman forward whose under-the-radar performance this season makes him the perfect would-be Laker hero

The Lakers are riding a four-game unbeaten streak into these playoffs, making them warm if not hot outright. In their last four, the Laker offense has awakened, most notably the trio of Dan Eves, Zac MacVoy and Rick Schofield. In that span, Schofield has three goals and two assists, Eves has two and two, and MacVoy has five helpers.

And in that span, Brian Mahoney-Wilson and Pat Inglis (.874 SV%, 3.91 GAA) have split time in net, with Mahoney-Wilson earning two wins and Inglis a win and a tie.

The strength of this team comes from its work ethic and steady, disciplined play; the Lakers are averaging just 13.8 penalty minutes per game.

No. 11 Ohio State

• Overall record: 11-23-4
• Away record: 4-9-3
• Last 10 games: 3-5-2
• Goals scored per game: 2.18/t10th
• Goals allowed per game: 3.32/9th
• Power play percentage: 11.9/12th
• Penalty kill percentage: 82.3/9th
• Top scorer: Tommy Goebel (14-8–22)
• Top goal scorer: Goebel
• Top goaltender: Joseph Palmer (.894 SV%, 2.99 GAA)
• Secret weapon: Goebel, a senior who is 18th nationally in goals per game

As always, the fate of the Buckeyes rests just as much in their own hands as it does in their opponent’s. If OSU brings its best game to a contest, the Buckeyes are hard to beat.

A big key to OSU’s play is how Joseph Palmer performs between the pipes. Last year as a freshman, Palmer could get rattled, but he’s settled down this year to give OSU a chance to be in most of its games. He also has an able back-up in freshman Dustin Carlson.

A very young club, this team didn’t gel until the second half, and once it did it played some pretty good hockey. OSU is fast, so the big ice in Marquette shouldn’t be an issue.

The Buckeyes have a few interesting, fun-to-watch forwards, especially freshmen Peter Boyd and Kyle Reed.

But the Bucks have difficult scoring, period. Goebel is their only double-digit goal scorer, and their power play is a real weak spot.

No. 12 Western Michigan

• Overall record: 8-25-3
• Away record: 1-14-1
• Last 10 games: 1-8-1
• Goals scored per game: 1.89/12th
• Goals allowed per game: 3.57/11th
• Power play percentage: 12.5/11th
• Penalty kill percentage: 83.0/6th
• Top scorer: Patrick Galivan (4-17–21)
• Top goal scorer: Cam Watson (8-3–11)
• Top goaltender: Riley Gill (.898 SV%, 3.46 GAA)
• Secret weapon: Hope

The Broncos, with the worst win percentage in the nation, have the toughest road to The Joe. “We now enter what we like to call the second season,” said WMU head coach Jim Culhane this week.

For the Broncos’ sake, the second season had better be more fruitful than the first. In a season with few on-ice highlights for WMU, the Broncos shut out Notre Dame, 3-0, last Friday to cap a nine-game winless streak. It was the first shutout of sophomore goaltender Riley Gill’s career, the first shutout for the Broncos this season, and their first win of the season over a ranked opponent.

If Western is to survive this weekend, the Broncos will have to play flawless hockey against a team that has had a very good second half.

A Fitting Reminder

Even Mother Nature reminds us never to count out those resilient Wolverines.

The Associated Press reported today that a graduate student at Oregon State University snapped a photo of a wolverine in Sierra Nevada late last week.

The wolverine had thought to be gone from California and the animal is not easy to find in its natural habitat, so the electronic sighting — the student was using motion-detecting equipment in the study of weasels — is a welcome one.

And very timely.