This Week in the CCHA: March 20, 2008


There are times when a woman has to say what’s on her mind, even though she knows how much it’s gonna hurt.

I am elated that Northern Michigan is heading to Joe Louis Arena this weekend.

I am saddened, however, that the Wildcats’ trip comes at the expense of Michigan State.

Here I sit, feelin’ like a fool, because no one else, Spartans, can have the part of me I gave to you.

Hockey has twice brought tears to my eyes, not counting the time I took a puck to the head in the old OSU Ice Rink. (And even then it was the subsequent tetanus shot that made me cry. Insert punch line about hard-headedness here.)

The first time was in 1998, after I saw MSU goaltender Chad Alban pack up his gear for the last time as a Spartan. Andre Signoretti had just sent the Buckeyes to the Frozen Four with his overtime game-winner.

The second time was last April, in St. Louis. When the championship game was over, I went to the ladies’ room to grab a paper towel to dab my eyes before heading to the press conference.

I don’t know why the Spartans have this effect on me. I’ve never shed tears for any other CCHA team, for any other reason — and if the first half of this season in Value City Arena wasn’t enough to make a fan cry, I don’t know what was.

I cried when the Buffalo Bills lost the Super Bowl in 1991. I cried when the Boston Red Sox won the World Series in 2004. But I can’t say that I’m a fan of Michigan State any more than I am of any other CCHA team. Maybe I respond to their perceived second-fiddle status in the state of Michigan. Maybe I’m too empathetic toward USCHO’s executive editor, Scott Brown, an MSU alum.

Or maybe it’s a throwback to my early years at St. Margaret’s School in Mattydale, New York. Our uniforms were green and white.

All I know is that I am saddened that the Spartans won’t be playing this weekend in Joe Louis Arena for the first time in 17 years. Since I began my run as CCHA Correspondent in 1996-97 and began covering the league the year before that, I’ve seen MSU in Detroit every March for more than a decade.

I’m saddened, too, that the game-winning goal came on a power play. Kudos to Matt Butcher, the hero of that game at 11:04 in OT, to Brian Stewart and his 41-save performance and to the rest of the Wildcats for taking advantage of their opportunity, but no one wants to see an overtime playoff game-winner result from a penalty situation, except for the winning team.

I didn’t see the game and I haven’t seen video, so I can’t comment on the call or the fact that it was the only call made in OT. I trust that the officiating crew had its reasons, as they most often do, and I have never in my career seen a college hockey game decided because of officiating.

My sadness is alleviated not only by the presence of NMU in Detroit this weekend but by the incomparable Jayson Moy’s assurances that in his opinion there appears to be no scenario in which the Spartans sit out the NCAA tournament.

Which, circuitously, makes me even happier that the Wildcats will be playing this weekend. If the Wildcats beat the Irish for the title this weekend, I think five CCHA teams make the tourney. I think.

Talk about breakin’ all the rules. This would require both lower seeds to beat the higher seeds to advance to the title game. Will it happen? Unlikely. Could it? Sure. That’s why — as the coaches say — they play the game.

In honor of the first day of spring and the CCHA tournament, here’s a poem in homage to NMU and the Wildcats’ chances in Detroit:

Roses are red,
The Spartans are blue,
Northern Michigan wins the Mason Cup,
And five CCHA teams are invited to the NCAA tournament.

I know. The rhyming and scansion need work. I’ll get right on that.

Go Wildcats. Go Irish. And someone, for the love of all that is holy in hockey, go to Denver this season.

Detroit, Rock City

Here is a brief synopsis of each team playing this weekend, in order of seed for this tournament. 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.

While my heart is talking underdog, my head is saying otherwise.

No. 1 Michigan

• Overall record: 29-5-4
• Last 10 games: 7-3-0
• Record against the field this year: 5-0-3
• Goals scored per game: 3.97/2nd
• Goals allowed per game: 2.05/3rd
• Power play percentage: 20.9/2nd
• Penalty kill percentage: 86.2/4th
• Top scorer: Kevin Porter (28-28–56)
• Top goal scorer: Porter
• Top goaltender: Billy Sauer (.926 SV%, 1.93 GAA)

The Wolverines come to this tournament after dispatching of the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks in impressive fashion, winning 10-1 Friday and 2-1 Saturday. After Friday’s contest, head coach Red Berenson said that he couldn’t remember “a game this year where the puck was going in like it did” in that game.

Eight different players scored in the 10-1 game, including Chad Kolarik (27-19–46), who had a hat trick.

While UNO head coach Mike Kemp said that the loss was a microcosm of the Maverick season, the weekend was analogous to the way in which Michigan’s offensive season has gone. The Wolverines are second in the country among scoring offenses with a strong committee approach that averages nearly four goals per game. But when they’re cold — and it doesn’t happen often — they’re nearly mortal.

Kevin Porter leads the nation in scoring, and the one-two punch of Porter and Kolarik is the best in the country, having combined for 55 goals. The Wolverines will be without two other 10-goal scorers for Friday’s contest. UM’s 10 skating freshmen have accounted for 43.1 percent of the Wolverines’ offensive output this season (62-106–168).

Freshman Max Pacioretty (14-20–34) who has eight power-play tallies and is Michigan’s fourth leading scorer, will be serving a game suspension for the disqualification he picked up last Saturday. His classmate, Matt Rust (11-9–20) is nursing a broken leg, and fellow freshman, defenseman Scooter Vaughn is out with a broken jaw.

While UM’s offense is dazzling, the Wolverines perhaps don’t get the credit they deserve for their defensive play, which collectively is fifth-best in the nation. Mark Mitera, a finalist for this year’s CCHA Best Defensive Defenseman award, is a staggering plus-30 in overall play, and as a team the Wolverines protect the puck as well as anyone in the nation.

This is Michigan’s 19th consecutive trip to the CCHA championship tournament. UM is 12-6 in semifinal action, and has played for the title in six of the last seven years. The Wolverines are 7-5 in title games all-time, and they’re entering this tournament with their league-best 10th regular-season championship.

The hot hands to watch for the Wolverines: Carl Hagelin rides a career-best, three-game goal streak into the weekend. Brandon Naurato has four goals in five games.

Said Berenson of Michigan’s match against Northern, “I don’t think anyone’s playing any better hockey in our league than Northern Michigan since we saw them with those hard-fought ties. They’re as good as anyone.”

And this may make the Wolverines work that much harder.

No. 2 Miami

• Overall record: 31-6-1
• Last 10 games: 6-3-1
• Record against the field this year: 3-2-1
• Goals scored per game: 4.21/1st
• Goals allowed per game: 1.82/1st
• Power play percentage: 20.6/4th
• Penalty kill percentage: 89.2/1st
• Top scorer: Ryan Jones (30-16–46)
• Top goal scorer: Jones
• Top goaltender: Jeff Zatkoff (.934 SV%, 1.68 GAA)

Want to know Miami’s story? Read what I wrote about the Wolverines.

Seriously, the RedHawks have a committee-based approach to offense, precision puck protection for excellent overall team defense, and great goaltending. These two teams have topped the polls and are currently Nos. 1 and 2 in the PWR for similar reasons.

While the RedHawks didn’t outscore their opponent last weekend in the same manner as did the Wolverines, that they beat the Bowling Green Falcons in two consecutive games to advance to JLA was in itself an accomplishment — and a relief.

“It’s amazing what a difference a year makes,” said Miami head coach Enrico Blasi, whose ‘Hawks sat out last year’s championship tourney after losing their first-round, home CCHA playoff series.

“Last year we were [in Oxford], disappointed, and wondering if our season was over. Now, we have an opportunity to play for a CCHA championship … Now we are going to Detroit.

“We’re very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish.”

The Miami offense, averaging over four goals per game, is scary good — and nearly everyone’s in on the act. Wolverines Porter and Kolarik may be the best one-two punch in college hockey, but RedHawks Ryan Jones, who leads the nation in goals, and Justin Mercier (24-15–39) are right there with them, accounting for 54 of Miami’s overall goal production this season, or 34 percent.

And, like the Wolverines, the RedHawks have talented freshmen in Carter Camper (14-22–36), Tommy Wingels (14-14–28) and Andy Miele (6-8–14). Miele, remember, was a midseason pick-up and has those 14 points in 14 games.

Miami is every bit as balanced as Michigan is and without the lopsided freshmen-senior ratio.

Defensively, the RedHawks are second in the nation, with a defensive corps that often gets overlooked — just like the Wolverines. Among the best in the country are senior Mitch Ganzak and junior Kevin Roeder; Ganzak is just one point away from hitting the century mark, too.

Miami is 3-7 all-time at Joe Louis Arena, and 0-2 in the title game, and the RedHawks lead ND 29-15-8 all-time.

Who’s the hot hand for Miami? Nathan Davis, who has four goals in his last five games.

No. 4 Notre Dame

• Overall record: 24-13-4
• Last 11 games: 4-4-3, including a three-game, first-round series
• Record against the field this year: 2-2-2
• Goals scored per game: 2.88/5th
• Goals allowed per game: 2.05/2nd
• Power play percentage: 15.9/6th
• Penalty kill percentage: 88.6/2nd
• Top scorer: Erik Condra (15-23–38)
• Top goal scorer: Ryan Thang (16-11–27)
• Top goaltender: Jordan Pearce (.916 SV%, 1.95 GAA)

The Wolverines are undefeated against the three teams in this field and the RedHawks are unbeaten in six straight games. What are the Irish? Well … a little chilly.

Notre Dame arrives in Detroit having beaten Ferris State two games to one in last weekend’s best-of-three series. The Bulldogs took a one-game lead Friday night, but the Irish rebounded with a 6-3 Saturday win. Sunday’s 2-1 rubber match was, said head coach Jeff Jackson, a typical Game 3, hard-fought battle.

The six-goal output was an anomaly for Notre Dame, a team that had scored more than two goals in a contest just once since the beginning of February. In fact, in their last 11 games — including last weekend’s three-game series — the Irish have been outscored 24-23, and that includes the six-goal outburst.

During that stretch, Notre Dame is 4-4-3, and it can be argued that the real reason why the Irish prevailed through their sluggish second half and last weekend’s series is the play of junior goaltender Jordan Pearce.

Pearce, who has the sixth-best goals-against average in the country (1.95) and 24th-best save percentage (.916), stopped 72 of 78 shots last weekend, and allowed just two goals in Friday’s loss.

ND head coach Jeff Jackson said that he was “most proud” of Pearce after Sunday’s contest for the “journey” that Pearce “traveled this year,” adding that Pearce was “a big reason” the Irish won Sunday’s game.

“He took her home for us,” said Jackson. “He’s done it all season, but tonight was different. There is immense pressure when you’re trying not to end your season.”

The Irish lost leading scorer Erik Condra for the rest of the season after Condra injured his knee in the first period Sunday. Condra, who has four game-winning goals, six power-play tallies, and three shorthanders, is arguably Notre Dame’s best player — and the Irish can ill afford to lose someone who can score when they’re not scoring many to begin with.

Notre Dame is 6-9-0 all-time in games at Joe Louis Arena, and 3-6-0 in CCHA tourney play at JLA.

The hot(ish) hands for Notre Dame belong to a pair of freshmen; defenseman Ian Cole has three goals and five assists in his last eight games, and forward Ben Ryan has two goals and two helpers in his last four.

No. 7 Northern Michigan

• Overall record: 19-19-4
• Last 10 games: 6-3-1, including two three-game playoff series
• Record against the field this year: 1-5-2
• Goals scored per game: 2.62/8th
• Goals allowed per game: 2.69/6th
• Power play percentage: 14.4/10th
• Penalty kill percentage: 78.4/11th
• Top scorer: Mark Olver (20-17–37)
• Top goal scorer: Olver
• Top goaltender: Bryan Stewart (.919 SV%, 2.54 GAA)

This week’s league press release calls Northern Michigan the “party crasher at the Joe this weekend.”

I have to disagree. Sure, I picked the Spartans to win twice last weekend; I thought they’d be a couple of really good, really tight, one-goal games with empty-netters. I came to this conclusion based on my perception that MSU is a playoff hockey team (they are) and that NMU is less experienced (and they are).

What I failed to recognize, however, was that the Wildcats have realized their postseason potential that I saw blossom last year in Columbus, when Northern beat Ohio State in a first-round CCHA playoff series.

So I’m not as shocked as the rest of the world seems to be that NMU won, and the Wildcats didn’t advance to Detroit by crashing anyone’s party; they simply did more than R.S.V.P.

The Wildcats began the second half of the season in similar fashion to the way they began the entire campaign. NMU went 2-8-0 in the first 10 games of the year, but six of those losses were at the hands of three top-10 teams: Michigan, Michigan State and Miami.

To kick off the new year, the ‘Cats went 2-4-0 in their first six games in January, losing two they never should have to Wayne State, but also splitting series with ranked Notre Dame and a Ferris State team that we all know now to have been resurgent.

Since February 1, NMU is 9-4-3, with two ties against Michigan, four wins over Michigan State. In short, Northern has absolutely played its way into this particular CCHA party.

In addition to Olver, the Wildcats have three 10-plus goal scorers: Nick Sirota (18-17–35), Matt Siddall (16-16–32), Phil Fox (13-5–18). Siddall also has the distinction of earning 116 penalty minutes, which is a sign of his intensity at the very least.

The team has an overall plus-minus rating of plus-18, with defenders like senior Blake Cosgrove, sophomore Alan Dorich and freshmen Erik Gustaffson, who are playing as well as any blueliners in the league right now.

But it’s the play of sophomore goaltender Brian Stewart that is garnering much attention, and rightfully so. Head coach Walt Kyle told the Marquette Mining-Journal this week that Stewart “has been a key cog” for the Wildcats in the second half. “We’ve quietly had a good second half,” said Kyle. “Part of it has been Stewart, part our defense.”

Stewart himself credited his defensemen after Sunday’s 3-2 overtime win clinched the series. “They’re doing a hell of a job clearing rebounds, blocking shots and letting me see when yelling at them, so it’s been great.”

The Wildcats won’t be under Michigan’s radar this weekend. The hot hand for NMU? Olver, with five goals in his last eight games.

It’s always good to have your leading scorer pour it on at the end of the season.

Keeping It Academic

I began the column with a direct quote from the song “Torn Between Two Lovers,” written by Peter Yarrow and Phil Jarrel, recorded by Mary MacGregor in 1976, and I continued quoting and alluding for a little bit after that. The song was actually a chart-topper for two weeks in 1977, in spite of its overwhelming cheese.

Overwhelming cheese. What a fitting ending to the last column of the season.

Enjoy the playoffs, everyone, and have a great spring and summer. As always, thanks for reading weekly and emailing occasionally. If you see me at The Joe or Frozen Four, be sure to say hello.