This Week in the CCHA: March 13, 2008

The Real Hardware

This week the CCHA named its all-league first, second, and academic teams and its finalists for Player of the Year.

While every player honored by the league this year is worthy of praise, I wonder about two things — and the public wondering will probably get me into trouble with someone, somewhere who will express his displeasure to me personally at an event that I won’t disclose that will take place March 21 and 22 in a large urban area in the southeastern part of a state immediately north of the one in which I live.

1. How was Miami’s Ryan Jones not a unanimous pick for the league’s first team? I mean, which of the coaches was either so uninformed or so bitter to leave him off that first-team ballot?

2. How was Michigan’s Billy Sauer relegated to an also-ran mention?

First, the voting. The league’s head coaches vote for the all-league first and second teams, and coaches cannot vote for their own players. The statistics that matter are in league-only games.

Now for Jones, who received 10 votes for first-team honors. Honestly, I really want to know who thought that Jones wasn’t worthy of being on the first team? Like Michigan’s Kevin Porter, who rightfully did receive 11 votes, Jones is the senior captain of a team that has been ranked among the top five teams in the country all season and — like Porter — is universally considered one of the best leaders in the game.

(Or, so, apparently not universally… .)

Jones’ and Porter’s stats are comparable but not similar in many ways. Both Jones and Porter have four game-winning goals in league play, but Jones leads the nation in overall GWGs. Porter has more points than Jones, but Jones has more goals in both league and overall play. Both captains are stalwarts on the power play; both have styles of play — though dissimilar — that can change the momentum of a game.

Each is dynamite to watch, and neither team could be where it is this season with its current captain.

Maybe it’s Jones’ instigating that has soured someone to his overall contributions, but 10 other coaches either saw that as an asset or as something that didn’t really matter. Over the course of Jones’ career, I think I’ve made it quite clear that I think his ability to rattle opponents, his brand of dirty, is something to be admired.

Then there’s Sauer, who along with Miami’s Jeff Zatkoff led the nation statistically for a few weeks in the second half of the season. However, it’s Michigan State junior Jeff Lerg who led the league in both save percentage and goals-against average in CCHA play, and played an astounding 98.2 percent of the time between the pipes for the Spartans in conference games, amassing a league-leading 19 wins.

Sauer’s turnaround may be an extraordinary story of the season and was absolutely essential to Michigan’s success this year, but Lerg and Zatkoff were the top two goaltenders in conference play at season’s end. Add to that what Jeff Lerg goes through with his asthma just to play the game.

2007-08 CCHA All-Conference First Team

Kevin Porter (F, UM)
Ryan Jones (F, Miami)
Chad Kolarik (F, UM)
Tyler Eckford (D, UA)
Alec Martinez (D, Miami)
Jeff Lerg (G, MSU)

2007-08 CCHA All-Conference Second Team

Bryan Marshall (F, UNO)
Derek Whitmore (F, BGSU)
Tim Kennedy (F, MSU)
Mitch Ganzak (D, Miami)
Mark Mitera (D, Michigan)
Jeff Zatkoff (G, Miami)

2007-08 CCHA All-Conference Honorable Mention

These are in order of votes received: Billy Sauer (G, UM), Kyle Lawson (D, ND), Eddie Del Grosso (D, UNO), Justin Abdelkader (F, MSU), Justin Mercier (F, Miami), Mike Ratchuk (D, MSU), Daniel Vukovic (D, MSU), Nick Sirota (F, NMU).

Congratulations to all, especially Eckford, Marshall, and Whitmore, guys on teams not among those in the top of the league. It’s good to see them recognized.

And I’m so glad to see Spartan forward Tim Kennedy recognized. I really feared that he’d be overlooked this season — as all Spartans on the 2006-07 NCAA championship team were a year ago.

The three finalists for this year’s RBC Financial Group Player of the Year are Jones, Porter and Lerg.

More Than Just Gritty Faces

Eleven players were nominated for the CCHA 2007-08 Scholar-Athlete of the Year.

Candidates much have a 3.25 grade point average through the fall term of the year in which they were nominated. Faculty representatives from each school do the nominating, and there’s one selection per school.

Except for this year, when there’s one selection from every school but one: Michigan. I find it odd that there is no one on this year’s Wolverine squad with a GPA of 3.25 or above. The Wolverines do have a large rookie class, and perhaps some of those players are having great academic years, but there are other teams in the league with large rookie classes who had players to nominate.

I’m not bashing, nor am I being a Michigan apologist. It is sad, however, for a team from a school that prides itself on academics to have not a single player eligible for this award this year.

Scholar-Athlete Nominees

• Trevor Hyatt, Alaska junior forward, majoring in civil engineering. Hyatt has played in 16 league games, and has an assist.

• Kyle Page, Bowling Green sophomore defenseman, majoring in sports management. Page, a stay-at-home defenseman, has played in 27 league games, has a plus-minus rating of -2, with no points.

• Aaron Lewicki, Ferris State sophomore forward, majoring in finance. Lewicki has played in all 28 league games, with two goals and eight assists.

• Jason Blain, Lake Superior State senior forward, majoring in finance/economics. Blain has played in 25 games, and has two goals and six assists.

• Charlie Effinger, Miami senior goaltender, majoring in American studies/political science. Effinger is 4-0-0 in league play this season, with a .915 save percentage and 2.46 goals-against average.

• Jeff Lerg, Michigan State junior goaltender, majoring in finance. Lerg is 19-6-3 in league play, with a 9.35 SV% and 1.98 GAA in conference play.

• Jeremie Dupont, Nebraska-Omaha sophomore goaltender, majoring in psychology. Dupont is 0-4-0 in league play, with a 8.29 SV% and 4.15 GAA.

• Billy Smith, Northern Michigan sophomore forward, majoring in entrepreneurship. Smith played in all 28 league games, with two goals and eight assists.

• Jordan Pearce, Notre Dame junior goaltender, majoring in anthropology/pre-med. Pearce is 13-8-4 in league play, with a .922 SV% and a 1.80 GAA.

• John Dingle, Ohio State senior forward, majoring in finance. Dingle played in all 28 league games and had a goal and an assist in conference play.

• Dave Krisky, Western Michigan junior forward, majoring in business. Krisky played in 20 league games, with a goal and six assists.

It should be surprising to no one that four of the 11 guys named, a disproportionate number, are goaltenders. Why? Goalies tend to be bright, problem-solving, focused players. Of course, that’s a nice way of saying that goalies are head cases, as the conventional hockey wisdom goes.

Each of these young men should be commended for his academic achievements. It’s tough for student-athletes in a league that requires so much road time to maintain higher-than-average GPAs. Seniors Blain, Dingle, and Effinger, especially, should be commended for their academic excellence over the course of four years.

But the two names on this list that emerge as players who have especially been examples for their teammates are Lerg and Pearce. Both of these guys have been the starting backstops for their teams all season long, with Lerg logging 1666:59 conference minutes and Pearce 1533:43. Lerg was on the ice for his team just over 98 percent of the time in conference play, Pearce just over 90 percent.

And Lerg does his bit while having to take extra time to prepare physically for games; Pearce majors in anthropology and pre-med at Notre Dame.

Kudos to all these young men for defining the term “scholar-athlete.”

Oh, and by the way, this is the fourth year that the league has honored a nominee from every school, but it isn’t the first year since doing so in which a school was unable to nominate someone for this award. The last time 11 players were nominated for this award was 2004-05.

The school without a nominee? Michigan State.

Perhaps Pigs Do Fly

I had a pleasant email exchange with a WCHA fan this week. Wow. I hope you were sitting down when I said that.

Actually, the exchange only because pleasant after I’d revealed to the fan how I’d voted in this week’s poll. This fan originally said that my league bias in the poll was to be expected. That led me to telling him that my top five were these: No. 1 Colorado College, No. 2 North Dakota, No. 3 Michigan, No. 4 New Hampshire, No. 5 Miami.

Then the exchange became pleasant.

It has been amazing to me the amount of “fan” mail that I’ve received from WCHA fans this season about the allegedly overrated CCHA. (To be fair, the email to which I’m referring this week came to the USCHO editstaff, not to me personally.)

At issue is anyone who questions the WCHA’s superiority. In fact, I’ve never said that the CCHA is the superior league — which, I’m sure, irritates every coach in the league and everyone in its office. What I have done, however, is defend the top programs in the league, which are every bit as legitimate as the top programs in the WCHA.

As it stands, the top four CCHA teams remained this week exactly where they were a week ago, and I have no problem with that. And if other voters want to put NoDak ahead of Colorado College, I have no problem with that, either.

I just happen to think that CC is the current top team, this week. With the top four teams in the CCHA playing this weekend, I may change my mind next week.

That’s the difference between polls and PairWise, the human factor. Not perfect, but perfection is boring.

Bedtime Narratives, Or What’s Your Narrative?

With this year’s presidential politics, pundits at the major news outlets have been spinning candidates’ “narratives.” As someone who has taught college-level writing for the past 20 years, hearing this term used daily on national television is a bit bizarre. I can’t get half my students to define “narrative” even though what we teach in basic composition is, in part, “narrative writing,” and these are people for whom everything — from a poem to an essay — is a “story.”

So, why do candidates have “narratives” and not “stories”? I do not know. The two terms seem interchangeable, since they’re both constructs of events, whether true or otherwise — and isn’t it fitting in an election year to be talking about constructing the events of a given candidate’s narrative?

I digress.

In hockey, each team has a narrative, too, without which none of us writers would be working. It’s not enough for games to be played on the ice, a team to win or lose or tie, and someone to go home at the end of it all with a shiny trophy.

Hockey fans want to talk endlessly about their teams, almost willing themselves to become part of their team’s narrative. And, of course, perception — interpretation — is what makes the season as interesting as the games themselves.

This week, four teams’ season-long narratives will end, and four teams will skate their narratives to Detroit. As there was last week, here is a brief synopsis of each team playing this weekend, in order of league finish. All stats are overall, 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. 1 Michigan

• Overall record: 27-5- 4
• Home record: 13-2-2
• Last 10 games: 5-2-3
• Goals scored per game: 3.86/2nd
• Goals allowed per game: 2.11/3rd
• Power play percentage: 21.1/2nd
• Penalty kill percentage: 86.4/3rd
• Top scorer: Kevin Porter (27-27–54)
• Top goal scorer: Porter
• Top goaltender: Billy Sauer (.925 SV%, 1.99 GAA)

Michigan’s narrative has been on the Cinderella side all season — if Red Berenson is the narrator. The Wolverines head coach has expressed his genuine surprise at the performance of his team this season, a team that was picked fourth in the preseason media and coaches polls.

(Never before in my life have I been prouder of picking Michigan third.)

Everyone should know not to count out the Wolverines. Michigan has received outstanding leadership from Porter and other upperclassmen, something that was necessary to steward a team so dependent on freshmen. Granted, many of those freshmen are draft picks, but pulling together a green team can be a tricky thing, and seeing it all the way to a regular-season championship even trickier.

There are six Wolverines with 10 or more goals, including three freshmen: Max Pacioretty (14-18–32), Matt Rust (11-9–20) and Louie Caporusso (11-7–18). Porter has an impressive 14 power-play goals, third in the nation.

But the Wolverines are much more than offense, a claim they couldn’t have made outright a year ago. In addition to a solid defensive play, Michigan can now rely on junior goaltender Billy Sauer — something else the Wolverines couldn’t have said a year ago.

No. 2 Miami

• Overall record: 19-6-1
• Home record: 14-3-1
• Last 10 games: 6-3-1
• Goals scored per game: 4.22/1st
• Goals allowed per game: 1.83/1st
• Power play percentage: 20.2/4th
• Penalty kill percentage: 89.1/2nd
• Top scorer: Ryan Jones (29-15–44)
• Top goal scorer: Jones
• Top goaltender: Jeff Zatkoff (.932 SV%, 1.70 GAA)

Miami’s story is one of balance in every position. They were, as MSU head coach Rick Comley said to start the season, built for this year.

The RedHawks have five players with 10 or more goals scored, including the under-appreciated Justin Mercier (23-13–36) who has six game-winners and 10 on the power play.

Miami has a rock-solid blue line — the second-best defense in the nation — and an entire team defense that’s impossible to overestimate. Everyone’s in on the act, from the forwards who know how to protect the puck to the stay-at-home guys who know how to change the game.

Then there’s the goaltending duo of Zatkoff and Charlie Effinger. Effinger, a senior, hasn’t seen much game time this season, but that doesn’t mean he’s not game ready. Effinger (.912 SV%, 2.16 GAA) ended the regular season for Miami with a 4-3 win over visiting Ohio State, a victory he had to earn himself in the last, frantic two minutes.

In short, they can do it all…providing they come to play. Now, I’ve done it. I’ve written the very thing that head coach Enrico Blasi admonished me for at the OSU game I mentioned. Before that contest, I wrote that Miami may have a tendency to let down after time off. It was a fair comment. Last year, the RedHawks earned a bye week, then lost their first-round home playoff series to Lake Superior State. This season, the ‘Hawks hosted the Wolverines after a weekend off, and took a point from the two-game series.

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

No. 3 Michigan State

• Overall record: 23-9-5
• Home record: 13-3-4
• Last 10 games: 6-4-0
• Goals scored per game: 3.32/3rd
• Goals allowed per game: 2.38/4th
• Power play percentage: 21.1/3rd
• Penalty kill percentage: 86.1/4th
• Top scorer: Tim Kennedy (18-20–38)
• Top goal scorer: Kennedy and Bryan Lerg (18-17–35)
• Top goaltender: Jeff Lerg (.924 SV%, 2.25 GAA)

One of the best things about this team — aside from the fact that MSU is the defending national champion — is that most people still think of the Spartans the old way, the defense-first way, the trap-and-score-a-couple way.

Well, that’s not this team’s narrative.

MSU has six guys with 10 or more goals, including junior Matt Schepke (11-14–25), whose career season includes six on the power play. Those six goals are more points than Schepke had in 23 games last season.

In fact, the Spartans have the ninth-best scoring offense in the country (two behind Robert Morris, in case you’re wondering), and dozen ways to score goals, a genuinely balanced offense that is a threat from anywhere on the ice.

If the Spartans have a weak point, it is defense. But that’s a big if, and it doesn’t include goaltender Jeff Lerg, and I’m not sure it applies to postseason. Because perhaps Michigan State’s strongest asset at this moment is that it’s time for playoff hockey, and this is a team that has played outstanding second-season hockey for the past two years.

No. 4 Notre Dame

• Overall record: 22-12-4
• Home record: 9-4-3
• Last 10 games: 4-3-3, plus an exhibition win (for 11 games)
• Goals scored per game: 2.87/5th
• Goals allowed per game: 2.05/2nd
• Power play percentage: 15.7/7th
• Penalty kill percentage: 90.2/1st
• Top scorer: Erik Condra (14-21–35)
• Top goal scorer: Ryan Thang (16-9–25)
• Top goaltender: Jordan Pearce (.916 SV%, 1.94 GAA)

While Notre Dame ended the regular season on a win, the campaign hardly had a storybook ending. That win broke a five-game winless streak, with the Irish going 2-2-0 before beating Western Michigan in that final game before their bye week. One of those losses, the night before the win, was a 3-0 blanking at the hands of the worst team in the league, WMU.

So what is the issue here? Well, it’s not the same team as it was last year, something that seems to baffle the team and coaching staff. Head coach Jeff Jackson has said repeatedly this season that the team has a lot of work to do — and the Irish still do, which is not the way to end a campaign.

Five of Notre Dame’s top scorers returned from a year ago, but those five who produced 83 goals in 42 games last season have netted 56 in 38 games this year.

One big question for the Irish at the start of the season was how to replace goaltender David Brown, but Notre Dame can have no complaints about Jordan Pearce.

No. 5 Ferris State

• Overall record: 17-14-5
• Away record: 7-8-2
• Last 10 games: 7-2-1
• Goals scored per game: 2.86/6th
• Goals allowed per game: 3.57/11th
• Power play percentage: 17.4/5th
• Penalty kill percentage: 85.7/5th
• Top scorer: Cody Chupp (10-19–29)
• Top goal scorer: Blair Riley (14-9–23)
• Top goaltender: Mitch O’Keefe (.922 SV%, 2.23 GAA)

Ferris State is the one team in the league that makes you sit back and say, “You know, they’re not bad.”

The Bulldogs have two goaltenders who can play, including Pat Nagle (.900 SV%, 2.63 GAA), but it’s Mitch O’Keefe who has proven himself against the Irish this season, with a 2-0-1 record against ND and a .951 SV% in those games. O’Keefe is a solid, top-20 goalie, with the 17th-best goals-against average in the country, and the 16th-best save percentage nationally.

Don’t forget that O’Keefe has four legitimate assists this season, too.

The Bulldogs have another story they’d like to tell you — they can score goals. FSU has four double-digit goal-scorers on this squad, including Brendan Connolly (13-11–24) and Justin Lewandowski (11-4–15). FSU’s offense is 22nd in the nation.

And the team is +13 overall, collectively, and the defense is 19th in the nation.

They’re just good. Solid. Good. Really. And they finished the season playing their best hockey.

No. 6 Bowling Green

• Overall record: 18-19-0
• Away record: 9-9-0
• Last 11 games: 5-6-0
• Goals scored per game: 2.76/7th
• Goals allowed per game: 3.03/8th
• Power play percentage: 16.1/6th
• Penalty kill percentage: 83.2/7th
• Top scorer: Derek Whitmore (27-9–36)
• Top goal scorer: Whitmore
• Top goaltender: Nick Eno (.908 SV%, 2.73 GAA)

While Eno has played 21 games, Jimmy Spratt (.887 SV%, 3.02 GAA) has also seen significant time in the Falcon net, with 18 games played. Eno is the kind of goaltender that coaches claim can give a team a chance to win on any proverbial night, but both goalies need to be more consistent and the Falcon defense also needs to be better from the dots down.

That Falcons defense, however, is bruising, and the whole team is — for lack of a better word — spicy. The Falcons are the fifth most-penalized team in the nation, averaging 19.4 minutes per game, and while that brawl with Western Michigan may have jacked up the number of minutes BGSU earned this season, the Falcons do earn what they accumulate.

Let’s just say that it’s been a few years since I’ve seen a team so creative with its stick work, and leave it at that.

The only double-digit goal scorer beside Whitmore for the Falcons is freshman Jacob Cepis (15-16–31), who’s as good a speedy little forward as they come. Thirteen of Whitmore’s 27 goals have come on the Falcon power play, tying him for fourth in the nation.

No. 7 Northern Michigan

• Overall record: 17-18-4
• Away record: 9-9-2
• Last 11 games: 6-3-1
• Goals scored per game: 2.67/8th
• Goals allowed per game: 2.69/6th
• Power play percentage: 15.1/10th
• Penalty kill percentage: 78.1/11th
• Top scorer: Mark Olver (18-17–35)
• Top goal scorer: Olver and Nick Sirota (18-16–24)
• Top goaltender: Bryan Stewart (.917 SV%, 2.54 GAA)

This Wildcat narrative tells the tale of a hard-working hockey team that’s as comfortable on small ice as it is its own Olympic sheet. In fact, NMU doesn’t look to me like a team built for bigger ice, but remarkably the squad performs on any surface.

Speedy but also intensely physical, this is a team that wants to recapture a lost reputation, and NMU does indeed work hard. The Wildcats finish checks, they work the boards and corners, and they don’t give up. That’s their story.

They have four players total who’ve scored 10 or more goals, including Matt Siddall (16-16–32) and Phil Fox (12-5–17). Siddall leads all people on the planet in penalty minutes. Okay, he doesn’t — but he does have more than 100 PIMs this season, and I’m sure he’ll see more time in the box. But he’s not undisciplined, and I’m writing that with a straight face.

This is a very young team, with freshmen who have seasoned for the past five months and a sophomore goaltender who is amazingly quick for his tall frame. Stewart is also hard to rattle, making him a real asset in postseason play.

No. 8 Nebraska-Omaha

• Overall record: 17-17-4
• Away record: 8-9-4
• Last 12 games: 6-5-1 (plus an exhibition tie)
• Goals scored per game: 3.24/4th
• Goals allowed per game: 3.42/12th
• Power play percentage: 24.4/1st
• Penalty kill percentage: 82.5/8th
• Top scorer: Bryan Marshall (13-30–43)
• Top goal scorer: Mick Lawrence (21-19–40)
• Top goaltender: Jerad Kaufmann (.890 SV%, 2.92 GAA)

It’s unknown whether Marshall will return to play this weekend. The senior forward remains the team’s leading scorer in spite of knee injury that’s kept him out since mid-February. Even without Marshall, offense remains UNO’s strongest story, with two other players — Dan Charleston (11-24–35) and Brandon Scero (16-17–33) — hitting double-digit goals this season.

Mick Lawrence’s 15 power-play goals are second in the nation, and Lawrence is one of the reasons the Mavericks lead the country with the man advantage.

While the Mavs are creative, fun to watch, and as good as anybody up front, this second season is the time for honesty. If UNO is to get past Michigan, the Mavericks are going to need Kaufmann to perform well beyond his numbers, and the UNO defense — 53rd in the nation — to give him better help.