This Week in the CCHA: Nov. 20, 2008

As Firsts Go, This Wasn’t Bad

The Western Michigan Broncos finally earned their first CCHA win of the season in the most improbable of places — Yost Ice Arena.

“We were extremely pleased with getting the win at Yost Arena on Friday,” said WMU head coach Jim Culhane. You don’t say, Coach. Really?

True freshman Kevin Connauton — a name you should hear often in his career — earned the game-winner for Western Michigan, an unassisted goal from a turnover at 15:38 in the third period.

“I never thought I’d have the game-winning goal here at Michigan when I was growing up, but it’s pretty exciting,” said Connauton, who hails from Edmonton, Alb., where apparently Michigan hockey dominates the minds of the youngsters. “Now we have to continue on and get the sweep tomorrow.”

Alas, it wasn’t so. The Broncos returned to Kalamazoo the next night triumphant, to be sure, but Saturday belonged to the Wolverines and Louie Caporusso, who earned his first career hat trick with three straight goals in the third period.

Michigan head coach Red Berenson said that Saturday’s game was “not an easy win,” adding, “It’s tough to go into Western.”

Don Blasi

“That’s part of our culture, to be a family and be together.”

No, that’s not a line from The Godfather flicks. That’s Miami head coach Enrico Blasi’s not-so-secret philosophy of success. It’s fun, however, to contemplate the made men on the RedHawks squad.

The RedHawks swept Michigan State in East Lansing last weekend, handing the Spartans their third and fourth consecutive losses and a five-game winless streak.

In doing so, Miami not only held on to first place in the CCHA, but the RedHawks also continued to perform better on the road than at home, a strange phenomenon for any Miami team. With the wins, Miami is 4-1-2 away; the ‘Hawks are 2-2-1 in Steve Cady Arena.

“I don’t know why that is right now,” said Blasi. “A young team sometimes just presses a little bit too much at home. It’s one of those things; I think we’re still a work in progress. It doesn’t matter where we’re playing right now. It’s just a matter of us playing together. I think we’re steadily improving as we go here and we’ll just keep on going and see what happens.

“Any time you win two games in a row — I don’t care where you are — you’re doing a pretty good job.”

Miami is getting the job done with two freshmen goaltenders, Cody Reichard on Fridays, Connor Knapp Saturdays, and Blasi said he has no plans to alter that rotation.

“We’ve been here before,” said Blasi, “and credit goes to the two goalies because they’ve been working their tails off. The competition in practice is fierce and they know it and at the same time when the other one’s in the net, the biggest cheerleader on the bench is the other goalie.”

Another head coach who continues to rotate goaltenders is Blasi’s counterpart this week, Michigan head coach Red Berenson. The Wolverines are playing Billy Sauer Fridays and Bryan Hogan Saturdays. Sauer — who ended the 2007-08 season as one of the best goaltenders in the nation — is 2-4-0 this season, while Hogan is 6-0-0.

“I think we’ve got two goalies that we can win with,” said Berenson, whose Wolverines play two games in Oxford this weekend. “I think Billy’s been snake-bit a little bit by maybe our team’s lack of offense more than anything else.

“We’ve scored more than twice as many goals for Hoagy on Saturdays than we have on Fridays, and we addressed that with our team. This is a team thing; this isn’t a goalie thing.”

Last year, Michigan took three points from Miami in Steve Cady Arena, with Sauer in net both nights. “Billy Sauer went down there and beat that team in Miami and nearly beat them again — tied them on Saturday night,” said Berenson. “I don’t see us changing.”

The Wolverines have been banged up defensively and are still searching for offensive consistency, so Berenson knows how hard this series will be.

“Right now, they’re the best team,” said Berenson. “Certainly going in sweeping Michigan State the way they did they proved they’re a top-two or top-three team in our league. We knew that they would be. There were some question marks about their young goalies, but they’ve answered the bell.

“We know they’ll be as good as BU, and we’ll have to be a lot better than we were against BU, so this will be a tough challenge for our team.”

The Wolverines lost 7-2 to Boston University Oct. 25, their last game against a ranked opponent.

Guys Putting Out

For some players, the fast track is relative.

Zach Pelletier, senior Ohio State captain and former bruiser, scored the second goal in OSU’s 4-0 shutout of Robert Morris last weekend, equaling his entire previous goal output for the Buckeyes in 50 career games, spanning three seasons.

Pelletier is a favorite of mine and anyone who enjoys a bone-crushing, momentum-changing hit. The native of China Village, Maine, redshirted last year after a tough injury at the start of the season and returned a kinder, gentler, non-bone-crushing kind of leadership guy…the kind of player that makes for feel-good stories and does nothing to further my agenda of promoting fighting in hockey.

Okay. So Pelletier was a favorite of mine. Spoil sport.

But the fact remains that he scored a goal, such an infrequent thing for a role-player that it deserves mention. Pelletier is not alone in this. There are several role-playing guys who have found their small but significant offensive voices early this season, and each deserves recognition.

Alaska junior Ryan Hohl, a transfer from Bowling Green, played 17 games and had two goals for the 2007-08 season. They were the only two goals of Hohl’s career until the 4:45 mark of the first period of Alaska’s 5-0 win over Connecticut Oct. 11.

His teammate, junior winger Cody Rymut, played three games his rookie season, none last year, and netted his first career goal at 8:37 in the third period of that same game. It’s the only game that Rymut has played this season.

Bowling Green’s Kevin Schmidt, a senior blueliner and another of my favorite bruisers, is one-fourth of the way to equaling his goal output of a year ago with his single marker on the season, a shorthander against the defending national champion Boston College Eagles Oct. 17.

Senior RedHawk defenseman Ray Eichenlaub is also one-fourth of the way to equaling the his career-high, four-goal seasons — his freshman and sophomore years, as he was scoreless last season — with his game-winning power-play goal in Miami’s 5-1 win over Michigan State last Friday, Nov. 14.

Tim Hartung, a fifth-year senior for Northern Michigan, scored three goals in 38 games last season and has seven total tallies in 83 career games prior to this season. With his first-period goal in NMU’s 3-2 loss to Notre Dame Oct. 31, Hartung is two goals away from last year’s totals.

Derek May, a Wildcat senior defenseman from an excellent family, netted his first career goal in a 5-3 loss to Michigan Oct. 18. May had played 81 games prior to this season, with three assists to his name — all from last year. At least he’s improving with age.

And finally there’s Justin White, a senior Fighting Irish centerman, has a goal this season, one-fourth of his total of a year ago and five away from surpassing his career output. In order to reach that goal, however — no pun intended — White may have to play over 80 games this season. White went scoreless in nine games his rookie year (2005-06), had two goals in 29 games his sophomore season and four in 43 last year.

I’m not very good at math, statistics, probability and all that stuff, but there’s a trend I can read. Hope he got to keep the puck.

No Scoring At All

In 14 of 88 games played by CCHA teams this season, some unlucky squad didn’t score a single goal. So far, there have been seven shutout contests in nonconference play (excluding exhibition games) and seven in league play. The CCHA is 5-2-0 against nonconference opponents in those games.

Is scoring down as a whole this season? I’d say that based on the early superficials — lots of shutout games, a handful of CCHA players averaging more than a point a game, and only Nebraska-Omaha cracking the top 10 nationally in terms of scoring offense — I’d say yes.

Another superficial factor: games have been excruciatingly dull to watch, with lots of neutral-zone trapping.

And here’s empirical proof: after his team lost 2-1 to Western Michigan last Friday night, Michigan head coach Red Berenson said, “Goals against are so precious. You know that all these games are going to be close games. There’s not much difference between these teams, so you just can’t give up goals that easily.”

The Michigan offense is averaging 3.33 goals per game, nothing to sneeze at but still only 13th-best nationally and more than half a goal off the pace of its second-best national offense of a year ago.

At the end of last season, Miami and Michigan were the top two offensive teams in the country, with Michigan State joining them among the top 10 and Nebraska-Omaha a hair behind at No. 13.

So far this year, Miami is 17th and Michigan State is 57th, second-to-last in the country.

This Guy, However, Has Game

Ohio State goaltender Dustin Carlson has allowed one goal in three games. Yes, you read that correctly.

Carlson, a sophomore, shut out Michigan State Nov. 7 and was on the winning end of OSU’s 3-1 win over MSU the following night, and the Buckeyes defended the realm successfully against Robert Morris (!) Friday, Nov. 14, with a 4-0 win in Pittsburgh.

With his three straight wins and .913 save percentage, Carlson has earned the starting job — for now — in a Buckeye net that has seen more than its share of revolving traffic. Three OSU netminders have played this season, including junior Joseph Palmer — the starter for his first two years — and freshman Cal Heeter.

“It was time for a guy to back up a good game with a good game,” said Ohio State head coach John Markell. “They’ve all played hockey. They’ve all done that before. Why wasn’t it happening here?”

Markell added that it’s “not that the other guys can’t play,” but that now the job is Carlson’s to lose. “I expect him to be in there until such time that he warrants coming out, but right now he’s number one.”

Carlson, for his part, credits the guys in front of him for much of his success. He also credits first-year volunteer assistant coach Jeff Salajko with helping him prepare better for games this season.

“We’re doing a lot of skating drills — just skating, no shots, and that’s made all my movements phenomenal this year,” said Carlson. “I’m always there before the shot’s even taken, and it’s working. I’m beating the passes there and I’m already there. We’re doing really simple stuff, too.”

This is an interview that you had to hear to appreciate. Carlson sounded genuinely surprised by this development, that moving better in the crease can lead to better positioning, which can lead to better anticipation of the puck, which can lead to better goaltending. Who knew?

Carlson also credits in part a routine — not a superstition, but a routine — for how things have gone this season.

“I had a really good routine in juniors,” said Carlson, “and I came in here and tried to switch it up and it didn’t work last year, so I just went back to what I did then.

“I go against superstitions. They don’t do anything except get into your head more and make you mentally weak. I keep to my routine and stuff, you know, visualizing and stuff, but I don’t know, trimming my beard, cutting my hair, eating something — like, that doesn’t really matter to me. It’s just like, whatever.”

So, obsessive-compulsive in the usual goalie way is okay, but head-case superstitions are not. Just to be clear.

More Action

Nice penalty minutes in several games last weekend. I especially liked the 20-for-48 that Miami and Michigan State each earned in the RedHawks’ 5-1 win over the Spartans last Friday night. I was there for Saturday’s game, when the penalties were fewer but the tempers were flaring.

In Saturday’s Nebraska-Omaha 4-2 win over Ferris State, the Mavericks had eight penalties for 16 minutes — reasonable — but the Bulldogs were 12-for-35.

Miami is averaging 22 minutes per game, Ferris State 21.6. They’re joined among the top 10 most penalized teams in the country by Ohio State, at No. 10 with 19.8 minutes per game.

Why talk about penalties? Well…the hockey hasn’t exactly been very exciting this season, has it?

Everyone suspected that minutes would be up with the new four-man officiating system — and minutes are always up at the starts of seasons because of adjustments to new points of emphasis. And minutes are up nationwide because of the new system.

But is there a correlation between the system and the seeming increase in the number of CCHA scrums, or is that seeming increase the frustration factor because, well, the hockey isn’t very exciting?

With the sky-is-falling way in which this season has begun — Miami in first, but Michigan tied with Ferris State for second place and Bowling Green and Lake tied for fourth — several coaches are bandying about the parity argument early.

As much as I detest the way in which the talk about college sports devolves into some sort of pointless discussion about parity when top teams topple, this season I’m inclined to agree with the coaches and talking heads.

There is parity in the CCHA, from the No. 2 spot on down, it seems. But remember that parity means a state of equality, and equality doesn’t mean “equally good.”

I say that if you want to bring CCHA fans to the rink this year, pray for tie games — and drop the gloves.

And Apparently, We Don’t Give a Damn About the Whole State of Michigan

This trend is too unusual to save for the sidebar. So far this season, there have been six Rookies of the Week. So far this season, none has played for teams in the state of Michigan.

Miami goaltender Connor Knapp earned rookie of the week with his 24-save game against Michigan State last Saturday night — yes, he played one game — keeping the award away from the state that houses half the league’s teams, again.

Knapp is the second RedHawk rookie to earn the honor, following defenseman Chris Wideman who earned it the first week of play. Ohio State has captured it three times — twice for the play of forward Zac Dalpe, once for defenseman matt Bartkowski — and Notre Dame forward Billy Maday earned it for the week of Nov. 3.

I’m just waiting for a Falcon, Nanook and Maverick to earn it before anyone in my new home state gets it. Of course, I’m also waiting for that CCHA championship tournament that features Miami, Alaska, Nebraska-Omaha and Notre Dame.

The Grudge

Long before the movie of the bad movie of the same name joined our pop culture lexicon, the grudge signified something in sports — a genuine hatred that drove fans into a frenzy when the grudge match came to town.

If ever a place were to reinvent the grudge this weekend, it would be Marquette, Mich., where Wildcat fans can hold a grudge longer than my dead Slovakian grandfather.

The OhhowIhateOhioState Buckeyes play Northern Michigan in Marquette this weekend in a series with a grudge that has rekindled nicely in these last couple of seasons.

Said OSU head coach John Markell of his team’s opponent this weekend, “They’re a good hockey team. They’re especially good up there.”

Not only are the Wildcats especially good at home, they have two big motivators for the weekend. The first is their record. NMU has just one CCHA win to its name, largely because of a brutal opening schedule that saw the ‘Cats playing Michigan, Michigan State and Notre Dame to start the season.

The second is their record against Ohio State the last two seasons. The teams have played each other a dozen times, each winning six games. But the Wildcats have won the most important games, first-round playoff series in Marquette last year and Columbus the year before, both of which took three games to complete.

“There’s some kind of rivalry that goes with us,” said Markell. “They put us out of the playoffs the last two years.

“We need points. If they take two games from us, they’re one point away from us. The young kids I don’t think understand what kind of a viper pit we’re going into up there, after a long trip. These are not easy games by any means, on an Olympic-size ice surface.”

A viper pit, but a big one. For his part, NMU head coach Walt Kyle doesn’t see the size of the ice as an issue. “They’re a team with really good speed,” Kyle told the Marquette Mining Journal this week. “The big rink here is not going to be a problem at all.”

What troubles Northern Michigan this season is an offense that has yet to start producing. Averaging just 1.62 goals per game in conference play, NMU’s offense boasts of no one with more than three total goals in 10 total games; in eight conference games, no one Wildcat has more than two total goals.

On the other end of the ice, goaltender Brian Stewart has been rock-solid overall (.918 save percentage), phenomenal in conference play (.927 SV%). Stewart, this week’s CCHA Goaltender of the Week, “has not been an issue at all,” Kyle told the Mining Journal.

Watch the last-place Wildcats sweep the team that swept Michigan State two weeks ago. That would add fuel to that whole parity thing.

Think Good Thoughts

Nothing profound here. I just want to drive from Flint to Big Rapids for Friday’s Nanooks-Bulldogs game — 250 miles round-trip for a game in the CCHA is nothing — but I’m driving my 1992 Oldsmobile Achieva.

If the promised snow comes to Northern Michigan, however, I’ll be home by the fire tomorrow night, sad to miss a game I’ve looked forward to since September.