This Week in the CCHA: Oct. 30, 2008

Talk About Scary

What a perfect time for Halloween — less than a week before a hotly-contested U.S. presidential election and after three full weeks of college hockey. Given how the season has begun for the CCHA, which would you say is scarier?

In the early going this season, CCHA fans have witnessed more than a few frightening things related to college hockey, some of which have been scary good.

Here are the scariest, spookiest, most chilling and downright evil things I’ve noticed about the CCHA so far this season, in no particular order.

Last-place Notre Dame. It’s early so it’s completely unfair to point this out, but the team that represented the CCHA in the 2008 NCAA championship game is technically at the bottom of the standings after having been swept by Miami at home last weekend in Notre Dame’s first league games of the season.

“It’s early in the season, and we’ve got a lot of work to recover,” said Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson. “That’s what it’s all about right now.”

The two home losses were the first time the Irish have lost back-to-back in South Bend since losing two to Alaska in the first round of the 2006 CCHA playoffs. Notre Dame’s power play went 0-for-16 on the weekend against Miami.

“We’ve got some guys who are dinged up and tired,” said Jackson. “Erik Condra’s not fully normal yet, so we’ve got guys who are recovering right now and once they get back, that will certainly help us offensively.” Condra suffered a season-ending injury March 17 of last year.

“I’m not in a panic mode, but we’ve got to get things turned around,” said Jackson. “We’ve got a tough schedule. Two games here against Miami and then we’re at Northern for two, and then we play Boston College and Providence. It’s just a tough month for us, but hopefully it will be something that spearheads confidence and turns this thing back in the right direction.”

This is chilling, however, in the sense that the Irish netted just two goals against the RedHawks and are outscoring opponents 14-10 in five games so far this season.

First-place Miami. The RedHawks are scary — scary-good, that is. Again, it’s early in the season, but Miami doesn’t seem to have missed a beat so far this year, and even its loss to Ohio State isn’t alarming, as the Bucks also beat the Denver Pioneers. With a stable of talent in front of two freshman goalies, the RedHawks look every bit like a team that’s going the distance.

“For early season, our guys stayed in the system and trusted each other, which is part of our try-to-get-better-every-day mentality,” said Miami head coach Enrico Blasi after the RedHawks swept the Fighting Irish.

“They didn’t look like they had a young defense or goaltending this weekend,” said Jackson.

Two freshmen, Cody Reichard (.919 SV%) and Connor Knapp (.889 SV%), are rotating through the RedHawk net, with Reichard starting Fridays and Knapp Saturdays.

“Competition is a good thing,” said Blasi. “When they’re young like this, you have to make them earn it, and they have to play, and they have to experience college hockey. Sometimes, it’s easier to get up for one game as opposed to two games.

“Right now, they’ve got a healthy battle, and very fortunate for us that they’re best of friends. They’ve really become very good friends, and they work hard.”

And the ‘Hawks are getting it done offensively as well. With just four league games played, three of the top four leading scorers in the CCHA are RedHawks, sophomores Pat Cannone and Carter Camper and junior Gary Steffes. Steffes leads the league in goal scoring, with five in four games, and all of Camper’s points have come on the power play.

The briefly first-place Ohio State Buckeyes. Even though it lasted a week, seeing the Buckeyes in first place by virtue of a point gained in a shootout and with just two league wins in four CCHA games was unsettling, a kind of Twilight Zone, nightmare scenario the league doesn’t want to see at the end of the season, teams with shootout points ahead of teams with more league wins.

At least I think the league wouldn’t want to see that. What do I know?

The Lake Superior offense. In their last four contests, the Lake Superior State Lakers have outscored opponents 23-10. I don’t care that two of those wins — 7-0 over Windsor and 7-3 over the U.S. Under-18 team — were in exhibition and don’t officially count. That’s an impressive number of times to find the net, especially for a team that was outscored 125-91 overall last season.

In spite of all those goals scored, no one player on the Lake Superior squad is ripping it up offensively, yet; in four games played, no one Laker has more than two total goals. Six different Lakers scored against the Under-18s, five against Windsor and four against Ohio State, a 7-3 win Oct. 17, in Columbus, when it counted.

The Alaska defense. The Alaska Nanooks have allowed five goals in six games and are currently the best defense in the nation. That success is, in large part, because of the play of senior goaltender Chad Johnson, whose record may only be 1-2-1, but whose goals-against average is 1.23 with a .951 save percentage.

After a solid rookie season in which he had a .917 save percentage, Johnson struggled his sophomore year and then played only seven games last season, with a record of 0-6-0. In fact, until Johnson shut out Bowling Green, 3-0, Saturday night, he hadn’t had a win since Nov. 25, 2006, a 3-1 decision over Lake Superior State. Between his latest two wins, Johnson had gone 0-13-1.

“I think he had given up five goals this year in three games, and that’s pretty gad that he hadn’t gotten a win yet,” said Adam Naglich, the Nanook captain and Johnson’s classmate, after Johnson’s win.

Boston University 7, Michigan 2 And it wasn’t even that close. The Terriers were up 4-0 after two. Five of BU’s goals were on the power play, three scored on Billy Sauer in the first two periods, two on Bryan Hogan in the remaining stanza. Both of UM’s third-period goals were with the man advantage.

CCHA vs. Everyone Else. The CCHA is 19-16-4 in nonconference play, including a 2-7-2 record against Hockey East, and a 2-6-1 mark against the WCHA. This is not good news in the early going for a league that seemed to improve in nonleague play during the past two seasons, culminating with a different team in two consecutive national championship games.


“When you have Jeff, you like your chances in a shootout situation in goal.”

So said Michigan State head coach Rick Comley of senior goaltender Jeff Lerg. The Spartans won the shootout following Friday’s 2-2 home tie against Northern Michigan.

Comley is a big fan of the shootout. “As you know, we were one of those schools that was in favor. Ironic, as Walt was against it. But I just believe you’ve got to break ties. The fans loved it and they’re going to love it and it’s exciting. Nationally it’s a tie, so no harm done. Real good win for us, though.”

Last weekend, both Western Michigan and Michigan State won their post-tie shootouts to pick up an extra point each, bringing the total number of teams to play league shootouts this season to three. In all three cases, the home team won.

So Comley called the game a “real good win,” but would NMU head coach Walt Kyle call that a loss?

“I’m never going to say that,” said Kyle. “We’ve addressed it, we’ve talked about it as a team. To us it doesn’t mean anything. It’s a 2-2 tie, and they get the bonus point. That’s the way we’re looking at it, and it’s only in the league. That’s the way it is.”

Perhaps after Kurt Kivisto and Matt Schepke scored for the Spartans on the shootout, NMU goaltender Brian Stewart wasn’t thinking that that’s the way it is. Stewart stopped 35 of MSU’s 37 shots on the night and was simply spectacular. Tall but incredibly quick, the Wildcat goalie doesn’t give opponents much room when he’s on, and in game action he was definitely on. He was, as his head coach called him, “a horse.” Think thoroughbred.

So, How Do We Do This?

This is how Rick Comley determined how to proceed with his first-ever CCHA shootout.

“The referee came over and said, ‘Now Rick, you’re the home team. Do you want to go first or second?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, I’ve never done it before.’

“And Kurt Kivisto is sitting in front of me and he turns around and he says, ‘Coach, you have to go first. In the National Hockey League [the home team] always goes first.’

“So I said, “Okay, we’ll go first.'”

Kivisto, a senior who has had one goal and one assist in his three years as a Spartan — I’m not kidding — made Michigan State history by scoring on Stewart in the first round of Friday’s shootout.

“I told [the press] since this summer that we would use Kivisto if he was in the lineup as the first shooter even though he didn’t get a point last year,” said Comley, “because he scores all the time in practice.”

After the shootout, Jeff Lerg talked about the one that he didn’t stop in the shootout, Gregor Hanson’s shot.

“It was a good move,” said Lerg. “It was a real good move. It’s tough, though, because when they swipe the ice it’s real quick coming back on you. You saw that Stewart fell back in the net a few times. We try to match their speed a little bit [and when] you kind of back up to quick you slide back into the net. But he got it off quick and you can’t say too much about it.”

Comley began that post-game press conference with this: “With all due respect, I’m only going to answer questions about tonight’s hockey game.”

And here I was ready to ask him about when the foliage peaks in Michigan, his feelings about the upcoming presidential election and whether he had a decent recipe for pumpkin pie.

Comley was, of course, talking about events that concern both the Spartans and the Wolverines that have taken place off the ice, and he was doing so the night before Michigan State beat Michigan on the gridiron.

Apparently, It’s All about Ohio

The RedHawks aren’t the only team to be rotating new goalies through their net. Miami’s nearest neighbor, Ohio State, has taken to doing this as well.

Last weekend, when the Buckeyes split in Colorado against Denver — who knew? — a rookie and a relative newcomer each played a game. Sophomore Dustin Carlson lost 3-1 to Denver Friday, while rookie Cal Heeter earned his first NCAA win in the first start of his career in Saturday’s 4-3 win.

“Dusty knew going in to last weekend that he had Friday and Cal was going to have Saturday because we needed to get the kid [some experience], and he was all for it,” said Ohio State head coach John Markell. “Cal showed well for himself. The team reacted well to him, so that was very important to us.”

“We threw him into the fire,” said OSU goaltending coach Jeff Salajko of Heeter’s start. “It could have gone either way but based on his practices, we felt he was ready.

“Both he and Dusty really do in the games. One thing I look at is how they respond after giving up a goal and they’ve just been so calm. That’s what the team rallies around.”

Junior Joseph Palmer had been the starter for the Buckeyes since his arrival in Columbus, but after a 7-3 loss to Lake Superior State Oct. 17, a game that Palmer started and in which both Carlson and Heeter saw some action, Palmer has been watching the games from the bench, and that’s the way it’s going to stay until either Carlson or Heeter loses his job, according to Markell.

The Buckeyes have a shootout win over Miami and an outright win over Denver, putting them in territory that has not been familiar in recent years. And while Miami has three of the league’s top five scorers through four CCHA contests, the Buckeyes have the other two: sophomores John Albert and Hunter Bishop.

Of course, Lake Superior State juniors Nathan Perkovich and Steven Kaunisto round out the top seven scorers in the league so far this season.

RedHawks … and Buckeyes and Lakers? Oh my. That is scary.