The Sky Is Falling!
I suppose I should be writing some sort of feel-good Thanksgiving column about what each team should be thankful for, as I have attempted with little success in years past. I’m sure that there are plenty of CCHA-related things for which to be grateful, but I’ve seen so much mediocre hockey this season that I find myself being grateful for other things during Thanksgiving.
Like that I didn’t know until this week, well past midterm, that one of my favorite students is a Dallas Cowboys fan.
And that I’m bringing some truly excellent Michigan wine to share with my Buckeye-loving friends in Columbus for Thanksgiving dinner. (I’m not going to tell them it’s from Michigan until they’ve had a glass and liked it. I’m counting on a spit-take.)
And that my colleagues in Flint hate my warmest coat, an Ohio State jacket. (Hey now — it was a gift.)
And that I finally get to see Nebraska-Omaha play this weekend.
Oops. It does come back to hockey, doesn’t it? But certainly not in any way that I expected.
When I moved to Flint in August, I was excited about my proximity to Ann Arbor and East Lansing, neither more than an hour’s drive away. I knew that I’d be closer to all of the CCHA’s Michigan teams, but being closer to the Wolverines and the Spartans would — I thought — bring me great college hockey joy in my first season as a Michigander.
And now the Wolverines have lost four of their last six, the Spartans six in a row and winless in seven games.
Both UM and MSU were swept on the road last weekend. It should be some consolation to their fans that they lost to ranked teams, but I doubt that their faithful see it that way.
The RedHawks were the last CCHA team to sweep the Wolverines in a two-game, regular-season set, Dec. 2-3, 2005. Yes, it’s been three years since a league opponent took two in a row from Michigan, and it was in Oxford, Ohio, then as well.
The last time that both Michigan and Michigan State have been swept by league opponents on the same weekend was Nov. 19-20, 1999, when the Wolverines dropped two at home to Lake Superior State and the Spartans lost twice to Miami at the old Goggin.
“You’re going through a stretch that’s really tough that we haven’t had to go through and the question I ask myself…is, ‘Is there an end in sight? Is there relief in sight?’ I don’t know,” said MSU head coach Rick Comley in his weekly press conference. “I don’t have any answer for you.”
This uncharacteristic non-dominance by the Wolverines and Spartans can be attributed to one thing: lack of scoring. In each of their six losses this season, the Wolverines have scored two or fewer goals, and they’ve been shut out twice. In their past six games, the Spartans have scored five goals — seven total in this winless streak.
Michigan head coach Red Berenson has been concerned about his team’s offensive output at even strength all season, and in a pair of losses to Miami in which the Wolverines scored just one goal, Berenson said that was the difference maker. “Five-on-five, we couldn’t put our chances in,” said Berenson, interviewed earlier this week. “We’ve only scored five full-strength goals in the last six games and only 11 goals in the last six games.
“We’re definitely not the Michigan team that typically that can find a way to score goals. We’re getting our goals against down; now we’ve got to get our goals for up.”
Both the Wolverines and the Spartans were bitten early and hard by the injury bug this season. For the Wolverines, the impact was mostly defensive; for the Spartans, it’s right up front. Two forwards — senior Nick Sucharski and freshman Andrew Conboy — suffered shoulder injuries in Saturday’s 3-1 loss to UNO. Sucharski dislocated his shoulder for a second time and is likely to be out for the rest of the season, while Conboy is expected to miss a few weeks.
“I think what we’re missing as a team is obvious to everybody,” said Comley. “We’re just not good enough down the middle of the ice. I’m just a great believer that you must have skilled centermen in order to create offense and we don’t. The loss of Sucharski on top of everything else is just a crippling blow for us.”
Comley said that he believes that there’s “more offensive talent there,” but said that he thinks some players “have to work harder to accomplish some success.”
The last time Michigan State suffered through a winless streak of seven or more games was Nov. 8-26, 2005. That stretch lasted for eight games in which the Spartans went 0-5-3 — and it culminated with a loss and a tie in the College Hockey Showcase.
First for a Wolverine, First for a Spartan
Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Miami was sophomore Michigan goaltender Bryan Hogan’s first loss of the season.
In Friday’s 7-1 loss to Nebraska-Omaha, senior Kurt Kivisto scored Michigan State’s only goal, his first of the season and the second of his career.
Showcase, Anyone? Anyone? Hey! Is This Thing On?
My good friend and excellent colleague, Todd Milewski, and I are channeling similar thoughts this week. In his blog, “From the Press Box,” Milewski writes this week about the impact of the timing of the College Hockey Showcase on the games, that there’s a danger of them losing relevance (I’m paraphrasing here) because they’re played when people are distracted by a holiday and students are nowhere near the campus venues.
“I think they’re prime games,” said MSU head coach Rick Comley, “and they should be played at prime times.”
While the timing of it is an issue that’s always a concern, what intrigues me most is an idea that Comley has been suggesting for years, that the Big Ten should play a more prominent role, in a way, in college hockey.
“I hope the day isn’t very far away when we play all the Big Ten schools four times,” said Comley. “We’d have to reduce league games. I don’t think we have to form a league. I think we should have an opportunity to play for a Big Ten championship and a CCHA championship. That’s what I would like to see. I would like to go back to 24 league games and then play Big Ten schools four times.”
It’s certainly something that Ohio State head coach John Markell has been grousing about — and perhaps rightly so — for several years, that Michigan and Michigan State get to play their WCHA Big Ten rivals annually while OSU does not.
Given the decreased media coverage of college hockey — fewer games on Fox Detroit, which is rumored to be dropping the Great Lakes Invitational this year, and de-emphasized newspaper coverage — perhaps college hockey should take advantage of the one outlet that’s willing to increase its coverage of the sport, the Big Ten Network. Think of the exposure the sport itself could have.
For his part, Michigan’s Red Berenson said that he likes the Showcase. “I think it’s good to play Big Ten competition. These are long-time rival schools in other sports as well as hockey. Minnesota-Michigan brings out the best in both teams, and I’m glad we continue play it.”
Such games, however, would be much better played in arenas packed with rabid student fans, televised live.
Oh, the Whole State of Michigan
The whole State of Michigan continues to suffer a Rookie-of-the-Week drought.
This week’s league honoree is Alaska rookie forward Justin Brossman who had the game-winning goal in UAF’s 2-0 win over Ferris State Saturday.
Previous winners this season include Miami’s Connor Knapp and Chris Wideman, Ohio State’s Zac Dalpe and Matt Bartkowski and Notre Dame’s Billy Maday.
Being Careful What I Wish For
Finally, some real parity in the CCHA. The top three teams in conference play represent three different states, none of them Michigan: Miami, Nebraska-Omaha and Notre Dame.
Half of the four teams clustered in fourth place — Alaska and Ohio State — are also decidedly non-Michigan teams.
Five of the league’s top seven teams from outside of the state of Michigan. Sure, it’s early…ish…kind of, certainly too early to make proclamations about how anyone will finish, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the top league Miami, Notre Dame and UNO finished one, two and three, in that order.
Wouldn’t that be the end all? Seriously. I’m asking.
I’ve joked through the years that my dream CCHA tournament in Joe Louis Arena consists of Alaska, Nebraska-Omaha, Notre Dame and any team from Ohio. Given that southeastern Michigan is on the verge of total economic collapse — as opposed to the just-holding-on phase it has been dancing with for years — I’m beginning to lose my sense of humor about the possibility of a Michigan-free JLA.
How tied to the economy of Michigan is the viability of the CCHA? I know that most people don’t think of college hockey or any one league in particular as a business, but it is. And I’m not questioning the competency of Tom Anastos here, either.
As money gets tighter, people cut back on luxuries, and college hockey is a luxury. It’s been years since the league has been able to rock Joe Louis with a truly packed house during the CCHA tournament. Even before Michigan State began to struggle on the ice this season, the Spartans were struggling to put bodies in seats near the state capital.
Add to that the cost of travel and accommodations for fans who have to come some distance. Even fans from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula might find it difficult to justify the funds should Northern or Lake go to The Joe.
Is there a parallel between the CCHA and the greater Michigan economic game-plan? The CCHA is anchored in many ways — unofficially — to the two Big Ten schools in Michigan. The CCHA promotes hockey throughout Michigan in ways that it does not in other states. The CCHA hasn’t seriously considered moving the conference championship from Detroit in many years.
If we’ve learned nothing else from the demise of the U.S. auto industry, we’ve learned that it’s dangerous to depend too much on one source of revenue to remain viable. The entire state of Michigan is paying that price now. Maybe it’s just the new Flint resident in me thinking, but I can’t help but wonder if the CCHA may also someday be in the position to learn this same lesson.
It’s a short week, making for a shorter column. Just a few thoughts here.
I’m in love. No, I haven’t ditched Steve Cady Arena. He’s still my boyfriend, my favorite arena, but Ewigleben is my new favorite barn. The rink received a 3.3 million dollar facelift this year, with lively new dashers, seamless glass and the best lighting of any rink I’ve seen in the CCHA. Worth every penny.
I was lucky enough to get to Big Rapids last Friday night for the first UAF-FSU game, my first trip to Ewigleben since before the press box was renovated — and that’s a beauty, too.
Chad Johnson and the Nanook Defense
Johnson looked very good in Friday’s 3-1 Nanook win, but he looks less mobile than he did last season, perhaps because of adjustments to that high ankle sprain he had last season. The defense in front of him, however, looked phenomenal. In the rare instance that Johnson gave up a bad rebound, the defense was there to clear it — and they block a lot of shots.
Alaska has the fourth-best defense in the nation, allowing just 1.42 goals per game.
“We didn’t take a lot of needless penalties,” said FSU head coach Bob Daniels after that Friday loss. “I’m disappointed we lost, but I’m not disappointed at all with the effort.
“I’m the first one to point out when we’re lackluster, when we’re turning pucks over, when we’re taking bad penalties and that was not the case tonight.”
Party poopers. Here I was expecting some genuine throw-down — Ferris State is averaging 19.9 penalty minutes per game, eighth-most in the nation — and the Bulldogs had the audacity to just play hockey.
Actually, it was one of the better games I’ve seen this season. Without the surfeit of penalties I’ve seen in several games, this contest had an actual flow to it, with momentum swings based on mistakes made and opportunities seized.
This Surge Is Working
Notre Dame outscored Bowling Green 14-2 in two wins last weekend. Before the contests, the Irish penalty kill was 31st in the country, converting at 15.6 percent, but a 50 percent success rate in a single game — the Irish were 2-for-6 on the power play Friday, 6-for-12 Saturday — can do a lot for a team’s numbers.
The Irish now have the best power play in the league, converting at 21.1 percent, fifth-best in the nation.
Ohio State sophomore goaltender Dustin Carlson has recorded three shutouts in five games. His latest was a 29-save performance in OSU’s 2-0 win over Northern Michigan in Marquette, earning the Buckeyes a split on the weekend.
I Knew I Was on to Something
Last week, I reported that there were an awful lot of shutouts so far for the CCHA this season. This week, the league itself makes it official.
In this week’s press release, the CCHA reports that there have been 12 shutouts in the first 56 conference games of the season and that seven of Alaska’s 12 games this season have resulted in shutouts.
Now, if the league would only get on board with that fighting… .
I just can’t write “UA” anymore for Alaska-Fairbanks. After consulting with my good friend and colleague, Danny Martin of the Fairbanks News-Miner, I’ve reverted to UAF, a three-letter nickname that I have missed since the school changed its name to the University of Alaska (sans Fairbanks). Martin uses the moniker all the time without consequence. So there.
As the first CCHA team to host the Alaska Nanooks following the Alaska governor’s unsuccessful bid for the vice presidency of the United States, the Ferris State Bulldogs had a “Sarah Palin Night” last Saturday, Nov. 22.
During Friday’s 3-2 Nanook win over the Bulldogs, the announcer at Ewigleben Arena encouraged fans in the student section to come as their own interpretation of Sarah Palin. I’m paraphrasing here, but that’s the essence of it. Fans were encouraged to dress as Palin and to bring Palin-related signs.
No word on whether a Bulldog was pardoned while the Nanooks were blanking FSU in the background.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!