This Week in the CCHA: Nov. 13, 2008

Checking the Planetary Alignments

Last weekend, the three ranked CCHA teams playing league games didn’t fare as well as they’d hoped.

Michigan split with Alaska in Fairbanks, giving the Nanooks just their seventh win in this all-time series.

Ferris State took three points from Miami in Oxford, having “lost” the tie following Friday’s shootout but won Saturdayss game outright.

Ohio State swept Michigan State in Columbus, outscoring the Spartans 6-1 in the process.

Given that I detest the idea of discussing the league’s favorite buzzword, parity, this early in the season, I thought I’d consult the heavens to see if astrology offered a credible explanation.

Nothing out of the ordinary. Earth still revolves around the sun. Chrion, the wounded healer, went direct in late October, so there was really no need for the RedHawks to revisit their two losses to the Bulldogs last February. Venus was sextile Neptune on Nov. 5, and that should have elicited a lot of love.

Ah yes. Of course. There was some love in Kalamazoo in the handshake line after Nebraska-Omaha’s shootout “win” over Western Michigan following a 2-2 tie.

And there was a lot of love in Ferris State’s 2-1 win Saturday. Especially at the end of the second period.

Who’s Your Doggy?

Following the logic of the league regarding shootouts — fans love them, and shootouts keep people in their seats — I’m now officially advocating for fighting in college hockey.

Fans and announcers alike loved the fight at the end of the second period of FSU’s 2-1 win over Miami last Saturday. I loved it, as much for what was happening on the ice as for how it was being spun by ONN announcer and local talent, Dave Allen:

“I don’t know! We’ve got a player lost a helmet! We’ve got a linesman down! We’ve got Chupp trying to rip a helmet off! Players jumping on top of each other … all of a sudden, these guys have lost their minds!”

Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together. In short, mass hysteria — and great for ratings.

The scrum as the buzzer sounded at the end of the second period saw Miami’s Tommy Wingels — whose hit from behind began the entertainment — and Trent Voegelhuber given 10-minute misconducts, while FSU’s Justin Menke and Cody Chupp each got 10 minutes. There were a bunch of minors, too.

This because FSU was controlling a game that would give them a 3-0-1 record against Miami in their last four meetings. Because the loss to FSU Saturday would give the RedHawks one win, two losses, one tie and a shootout point at the end of a four-game home stretch against teams that may not be hosting a first-round CCHA playoff series come Februar … unranked teams that Miami is expected to beat.

In this young season, the RedHawks now have two weekends during which they didn’t earn a win outright, having also lost to and tied Vermont Oct. 17-18. Last season, Miami didn’t see a loss until Nov. 9, and that came to a team that would eventually play for the 2008 national championship, Notre Dame.

Frustration? You bet. Allen twice called Wingels’ hit that began the fun a “clean” hit, and I guess it was — if a hit from behind at the buzzer with a knee to the back of the groin is clean. Sure.

As for the Bulldogs, head coach Bob Daniels said that his goaltenders, freshman Taylor Nelson and sophomore Pat Nagle, “deserve a lot of credit for a successful weekend.” Between the two netminders, the FSU team save percentage is only .897, but Nelson is undefeated (1-0-2) and Nagle is .500 (3-3-1).

And the three points were enough to give Ferris State part of the bizarre, five-way logjam for second place in the CCHA standings, along with Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Lake Superior State, all with eight points.

Frankly, I Like It

If keeping fans pleased is what the CCHA is all about, then nothing could have made the league happier than three of its televised games this past weekend. Sure, Notre Dame beat Boston College by the ironic score of 4-1 in a rematch of the 2008 NCAA title game, but the Irish controlled that game from the get-go, and the extracurricular activity was very mild compared to what happened in Oxford and Kalamazoo.

Oh, Chris Frank. Without an Aaron Voros or Ryan Jones in the league, I’m so grateful for you’re still playing at Western Michigan, Chris Frank.

A veteran scrapper and All-Girl Reporter team veteran honoree, WMU captain Chris Frank plays with a passion few in the league seem to match — and that’s a genuine compliment, no sarcasm.

I didn’t see Friday’s 2-2 game between Nebraska-Omaha and Western Michigan, but we know that Omaha got the extra point for the shootout “win” … and thanks to the miracle of mass communication, we also know that there was some exigent behavior in the handshake line following the game and — here’s no surprise — Frank was involved. From what witnesses tell me, there was pushing and shoving and Dan Charleston, who scored in the shootout, was in the vicinity.

There’s that frustration factor again. And in Saturday’s contest, it reached a boiling point long before the final buzzer.

With 18 seconds left in a UNO power play late in the second period and the Mavericks up 3-1, Frank took exception to Matt Ambroz in the Bronco crease. Frank wasn’t alone. Jerry Kuhn made a save, Ambroz pulled up in the crease, Frank put himself — like a good captain should — between Ambroz and Kuhn … and two other Broncos jumped Ambroz from the side and behind.

This battle wasn’t nearly as vicious as the fight in Steve Cady Arena, but it did result in perhaps my favorite hockey moment of the weekend when Kuhn skated to the clump of tangled players and jumped on Maverick sophomore Joey Martin from behind.

In a word, it was awesome. The Lawson Lunatics went nuts.

Ben Holden, who was announcing for CTV, spoke words that could not be truer: “You can always count on Chris Frank being in the middle of any kind of melee associated with the Broncos.”

Holden went on to say that he didn’t mind “Western Michigan getting a little rough in front of the goaltender on the man advantage.”

Hey now. If Ben Holden — a television announcer and a man, giving him twice my credibility — can make this claim, then I can only come to the conclusion that fighting is good for college hockey.

We’ve got the shootout, which we all know is an exciting thing that fans want. We have mass dropping of the F-bomb in at least two arenas — Lawson in Kalamazoo and Yost in Ann Arbor — and that’s something that the fans love and the NCAA obviously condones.

Ergo, we should encourage fighting in college hockey. Fans love it. No one in either the FSU-Miami received a game disqualification and only and only Ambroz and Frank did in the UNO-WMU, even though there were clearly punches thrown (and is that the only criteria we have for fighting?) and the Bulldog-RedHawk encounter was especially spirited — so fighting must not be that bad.

Surely fighting drives television ratings and ticket sales, too, and quite frankly — pardon the pun — isn’t that part of what college hockey is becoming all about?

For the record, Frank has more penalty minutes than any other CCHA player (35) but he’s earning them with help from major penalties. It’s Michigan State freshman Andrew Conboy — with 14 minors for 28 minutes — who embodies the true penalty spirit.

The Real Mavericks

While former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin made caribou stew in high heels for the press in Alaska — and doesn’t that just define the very nature of “maverick”? — Nebraska-Omaha was earning good publicity the old-fashioned way, with four points on the road.

UNO may have had the benefit of a softer schedule to open the season, with games against Mercyhurst, Union, and American International, and the Mavericks haven’t opened CCHA play against the league’s toughest opponents, but the Mavs are making the most of their chances early on and building a solid base of confidence going into the meat of the CCHA schedule.

“It’s not a team of stars,” is what UNO head coach Mike Kemp told CTV before the Mavs’ 5-2 win over WMU last Saturday. “It’s a hard-working group, four lines deep, and they all seem to be having fun and playing for each other.”

That — as any fan knows — can be the recipe for success. Add to that the best goaltending duo in the nation and a kick-butt power play, and you have a team poised to do some damage in the CCHA.

Right now, junior Jeremie Dupont (.935 SV%, 1.72 GAA) and senior Jerad Kaufmann (.931, 1.88) are putting up career-season numbers. Last year, Dupont’s save percentage in nine games played was .816 and his career save percentage through his first two seasons at UNO is .852. Kaufmann’s career save percentage through three seasons is .893.

Even more impressive are their goals-against numbers, which indicate not only an improvement in net but a huge improvement so far this season in team defense.

Then there’s the Maverick power play, which is converting at 21.3 percent for second in the league and seventh in the nation. The first unit of junior defenseman Eddie Del Grosso, senior forwards Dan Charleston and Tomas Klempa, and freshman forwards John Kemp and Alex Hudson is frighteningly good, having accounted for the first three UNO goals in the 5-2 win and one of the two goals in the tie Friday night. Hudson has four goals in six games.

Given their 6-1-1 start to the season, the Mavericks will remain humble if Kemp has anything to do with it. “By no means are we ready to lay claim to anything other than the the fact that we’re a team that’s evolving and developing,” Kemp told the Omaha World-Herald this week.

This Mavericks will have plenty of chances to evolve now that they’re into their CCHA schedule. In three of their four immediate CCHA series, Nebraska-Omaha will be facing the three most recent league giant slayers: Ferris State, Ohio State and Alaska. The two other teams UNO faces before the holiday break, Michigan State and Lake State, have plenty to prove.

Slaying Giants or Shaking Monkeys?

Before heading to Alaska last weekend to play the Nanooks, Michigan head coach and Regina, Saskatchewan native Red Berenson said that Fairbanks “[is] as cold as Saskatchewan but not as windy, so people don’t lean over when they walk.”

Maybe that’s why the Wolverines didn’t expect the Nanooks to lean into them so hard on Friday night, when UA beat UM 4-1 for the Nanooks’ seventh overall victory in 43 games between the two teams.

The ‘Nooks netted two goals 1:10 apart in the middle of the second to overcome a one-goal deficit before scoring two more 1:26 apart at the end of the third. It was the first time this season that UA won a game during which an opponent scored first.

In Saturday’s 3-2 loss, Alaska scored both of its goals on the power play.

“We knew we had to be very intense and tenacious and match their intensity early, because we knew they were going to come out guns-a-blazing,” said UA head coach Dallas Ferguson after the loss. “And they did, but … I thought we responded pretty well and our guys competed.

“At times, we bent a little but we didn’t break, and I thought that was something for us to pull out of the weekend mentally.”

Perhaps Berenson ought to rethink his wind-related comments before hitting the road, because clearly the Nanooks put their shoulders into it for two games.

Michigan continues to rotate goalies, with Billy Sauer earning the loss Friday, Bryan Hogan the win Saturday.

As the Buckeye Net Turns

With two wins at home over ranked Michigan State, it appears that sophomore Dustin Carlson has won the starting spot in the Ohio State net — for now.

With a 3-0 victory Friday and 3-1 win Saturday, Carlson improved his save percentage from .863 to .896 in just one weekend. For a few weeks prior to Carlson’s back-to-back wins — the first of OSU’s season — Buckeye head coach John Markell was rotating Carlson with freshman Cal Heeter while junior and former start Joseph Palmer watched from the bench.

But in spite of Carlson’s performance last weekend, Markell still insists that the position between the pipes is “ever-evolving.”

“I’m probably not going to use three [goaltenders],” said Markell. “I expect Cal and Joe to compete for the job but obviously Dusty deserves to start. What we have to consider there is rhythm. Our job is to win that hockey game and the best way we can do that is to have solid goaltending.”

Given the way that the Buckeyes played against Michigan in a 6-1 road loss the Saturday prior to the MSU sweep, the weekend was especially impressive for Ohio State.

“I think we have a better mixture in our lines,” said Markell. “Any time you get scoring from depth it makes you a dangerous team. I’d like to think that all of those guys are able to play in the last minute, but you never know.”

With the wins over Michigan State, the Buckeyes have a respectable 3-4-1 record against ranked teams. OSU “won” the first CCHA shootout in history after tying Miami, 3-3, Oct. 10; they split with Denver in Denver Oct. 24-25; they played a good, tough game against the Wolverines in Ann Arbor, losing 4-3 on Halloween before tanking the following night.

A sweep of Michigan State, a split against Denver, but can they beat … Robert Morris?

This weekend, the Buckeyes play a game in Pittsburgh against Robert Morris (!) and will host the Colonials in Cleveland Dec. 6 — defending the entire state of Ohio, I suppose.

Last year, the Bucks didn’t fare so well against the scrappy Colonials in Value City Arena. “Robert Morris came in and beat us last year and tied us,” said Markell. Obviously, it’s great competition, and they did a good job against Ferris State who just beat and tied Miami.” RMU beat and tied FSU Oct. 17-18.

“They’re right there,” said Markell. “It’s tremendous parity and providing us with competition that we have to be able to beat. We have to be able to meet their intensity that they’re going to have over there.”

The teams will play in Pittsburgh’s Mellon Arena Friday night. RMU is in Moon Township — no kidding — about 20 minutes from Pittsburgh. The Buckeyes recruit heavily in that area, so the nonconference rival is a natural one.

As for the game scheduled in Cleveland, Markell said, “They want to build up hockey there, and it’s nice for us to go back in that area, too, with all the guys that are from there.”

I’m still pulling for the Colonials to join the CCHA. Come on, Commish. How hard would it be to add Robert Morris (!) and Alabama-Huntsville?

It’s all about growing the sport, right?

For the record, while the Buckeyes may have swept the Spartans last weekend, they technically got the best of senior MSU goaltender Jeff Lerg, but Lerg came out of the series looking every bit as good as he did going in. Lerg made 69 saves in the two-game set, including 46 in Friday’s contest.

Clearly, the Spartans have some work to do when they possess the puck.

Sad News

It was reported this week that Korinne Croghan succumbed to cancer. She is the California teenager in whose name former Miami RedHawk Ryan Jones donated his hair for Locks of Love last year in his senior season.

Jones was set to meet Croghan Nov. 11, but learned last week that she had died. Croghan was 14 years old.

Jones, who now plays for the Nashville Predators, told reporter John Glennon of The Tennesseean that knowing Croghan touched him in a way that he “never realized it could. You don’t want to take any day or any small thing for granted.”

Odds and Ends

• In that five-way tie for second place in the CCHA, everyone has eight points but no one has earned them in the same manner. Michigan (4-2-0-0) is the only team in the bunch with four wins; Ferris (3-1-2-0), Lake (3-2-1-1) and Ohio State (3-4-1-1) each have three wins; Michigan State has the most interesting record (2-2-2-2). OSU has played eight games to the other second-place teams’ six.

• After playing their first three CCHA series, the Bowling Green Falcons (2-3-1-0) are off their pace of a year ago by two wins — but they also have one tie, something they didn’t have for the entire 2007-08 season.

• Last year, Northern Michigan began the CCHA season with six losses against ranked opponents. This year, the Wildcats went 1-4-1 in their first three CCHA series, all against ranked opponents.

• Western Michigan is the only team in the league still looking for its first CCHA win.

• Notre Dame can beat Boston College any time a national championship isn’t on the line, and only when the Eagles are ranked No. 1 or No. 2.