This Week in the CCHA: Dec. 4, 2008

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas…Circa 1981

There are six inches of snow on the ground in Flint, Mich., and the weather reports call for uninterrupted cold for the foreseeable future. When the snows first fell two weeks ago in my new hometown, I grumbled as though I’d moved north from the deep South. Then some sort of cellular memory kicked in, something from my distant Syracuse childhood — the once-per-decade blizzards that shut down cities for whole weeks and backyard rinks that lasted from just before Christmas through March — and I settled into the cold with a mixture of familiarity and disconnect.

There is something equally familiar about the way the CCHA is shaping up this season — and something equally disconnected. Perhaps it’s because the Wolverines are nine points out of first place and the Wildcats nine further back, or because teams like Alaska, Ferris State and Ohio State have started well for a change — or again, for that matter.

Seven points separate No. 2 Notre Dame and No. 9 Bowling Green, with six teams between them. While it looks as though Northern Michigan faces insurmountable odds for home ice, who could have predicted at the start of the 2008-09 season that Michigan State would be sitting three points out of last place with more work to do to stay home in the first round of the CCHA playoffs than Ohio State?

There is as much at stake for some teams heading into the holiday break as there usually is approaching Valentine’s Day. After Sunday, there are only three conference series remaining to round out the first half of the season, and three of the six teams that will play — Notre Dame, Nebraska-Omaha and Alaska — will be playing teams that are currently behind them in the standings in those contest.

I just can’t put my finger on it, but something is oddly familiar in an unfamiliar way.

Defenders of the Realm

Good old Ferris State, the once and future Defenders of the Realm. Who could have predicted at the start of the 2008-09 season, however, that the realm in question wouldn’t be the CCHA, but the Whole State of Michigan?

As the first half of the season begins to wind down, five of the top six teams in the league call states other than Michigan home: Miami, Notre Dame, Alaska, Ohio State and Nebraska-Omaha. Rounding out the top six is Ferris State, the lone representative of the state that houses half the league’s teams.

The bottom half of the standings is surreal: Lake Superior and Michigan tied at No. 7, followed by Bowling Green, Michigan State, Western Michigan and Northern Michigan. BGSU ahead of MSU and NMU, and five teams from Michigan anchoring the charts.

Last weekend, Ferris State swept another Michigan team, Northern, to hold on to its top-half status. All of the scoring in Saturday’s 2-1 FSU victory came in the second period, with the Bulldog Jordie Johnston netting the game-winner 11 seconds after Wildcat Nicholas Kosinski had scored the tying goal.

“I don’t know how a team could play much better than the Wildcats played tonight,” said FSU head coach Bob Daniels after the sweep. “They dictated the pace of the game, they dictated the play in all three zones and we just held on for the ride. They were for sure the better team.”

Except that they weren’t, and FSU took four points to NMU’s none. Wildcat head coach Walt Kyle talked about the moral victory of a team struggling without its starting goaltender, Brian Stewart, who is out with a knee injury.

“It’s becoming an old song losing like this,” said Kyle, “but our fans have been great hanging with us. We’ve just got to keep going. It’s a hard place to be in but I’m proud of their effort.”

Freshman Devan Hartigan (8.72 SV%, 3.16 GAA) is 1-3-0 in four games since taking over for Stewart, who aggravated an injury Nov. 21 against Ohio State.

Not Defending the Realm

I didn’t exactly have high hopes for the CCHA going into last week’s College Hockey Showcase, but I did expect the Wolverines to score a goal against Wisconsin — and the Spartans to score far fewer than five in two contests.

For the second year in a row, Michigan beat up Minnesota in the CHS, winning 6-3 in Minneapolis. “We were rewarded tonight and I thought we worked hard,” said UM head coach Red Berenson after Friday’s win.

Saturday’s 3-0 loss to Wisconsin was another story altogether, but one oddly familiar to Michigan fans. Berenson said that the “difference in the game was [Wisconsin’s] power play,” but the real difference may have been in net — or how the Wolverines have responded to who’s playing in the Michigan net.

Michigan has been rotating senior Billy Sauer (.903 SV%, 2.64 GAA) and sophomore Bryan Hogan (9.09 SV%, 2.29 GAA) in net for the season, with Sauer starting Fridays and Hogan Saturdays. Although Sauer has performed well for Michigan, the Wolverines haven’t been returning the favor in front of the goaltender who took them to the Frozen Four a year ago; with Sauer in net, the Wolverines have been outscored 17-2. Sauer is 2-6-0 on the season, including the loss to Wisconsin, which was a Saturday start for Sauer.

Berenson — who doesn’t mince words when it comes to his team — has been openly supportive of Sauer, calling this situation a team problem, not a goalie problem. But this week, Berenson told The Michigan Daily that the rotation may be ending. “If Hogan plays Friday,” said Berenson, “we might wait until after the game to announce Saturday’s goalie.”

For Sauer, who endured two tough seasons before coming into his own last year, the situation is frustrating. Sauer told The Daily, “If I could score goals or something, that’s be great.”

The goals-to-goalie ratio has been an issue with the Spartans as well, with a difference: the Spartans haven’t been rotating goaltenders, relying on the excellent Jeff Lerg (.920 SV%, 2.57 GAA), who gives MSU a chance to win every game.

Like Sauer, though, Lerg has been short on goal-love from his teammates. Through MSU’s current nine-game winless streak, the Spartans have netted just 12 goals, with six games in which they scored one goal, one game in which they were shut out.

So it was with some relief that MSU netted four goals to tie Minnesota Saturday. “It really takes some pressure off to score goals,” said Spartan head coach Rick Comley. “Every game you’re under such darn pressure because if you give up one you might lose. That’s how it’s been, so I think this might, hopefully, relax them some. It’s been a tough month.”

And a tough break for Lerg, who wasn’t in net when the Spartans finally performed — something else he has in common with Sauer. Freshman Drew Palmisano had the tie for MSU Saturday, making 22 saves in the effort.

Lerg won the national championship two years ago, Sauer took the Wolverines to the Frozen Four last year…these are two seniors who clearly deserve a better performance than they’re getting from the men in front of them.

This Almost Makes a Believer of Me

I was really young when I figured out that Santa and my parents were using the same wrapping paper at Christmas and it’s been a long time since I attended Mass, but this makes me wonder about the genuine possibility of miracles.

For the second time this season, Notre Dame’s Billy Maday was named CCHA Rookie of the Week. No, it’s not miraculous that Maday was named ROTW, as his play is as outstanding as his excellent hockey name.

But the awarding of the honor to Maday this week continues to shut out the Whole State of Michigan in ROTW honors. Not one single player representing a Michigan team has been named ROTW for the season.

So far, Maday has been named twice, as has Ohio State’s Zac Dalpe. Miami has been represented twice, Notre Dame twice, Alaska once and OSU three times. (Okay, so that last one might be a bit miraculous in itself.)

Given the number of Michigan teams in the bottom half of the standings, this may be understandable — but it still boggles my tiny little mind.

The only reason that Nebraska-Omaha hasn’t yet been represented is that the Mavericks are one of the more experienced teams in the league. But after watching UNO play last weekend, I wouldn’t be surprised to see rookie John Kemp do something to get attention in any given weekend.

Tough Ways to Lose

Last weekend, I made a quick trip to Columbus for Thanksgiving and to continue my Decade of Divorce Memorial Tour of the CCHA (that’s its new official title). I was lucky enough to see many old friends, among which was Nebraska-Omaha head coach Mike Kemp. Kemp is one of the nicest guys in college hockey, and in two games against Ohio State, his Mavericks deserved a nicer fate.

The Mavericks lost two one-goal games to the Buckeyes. Friday’s 4-3 contest was decided by Buckeye sophomore C.J. Severyn’s first career goal with 1.1 seconds remaining in regulation. In Saturday’s 3-2 loss, the Mavericks led 2-0 on second-period goals by Eric Olimb and Tomas Klempa, only to lose when the Buckeyes scored three unanswered in the third period. Two of OSU’s goals were consecutive tallies by John Albert, five minutes apart in the second half of the final stanza.

“They just wanted it more than we did,” said Kemp after Saturday’s game. “Even though we put a lot of shots on goal, we didn’t necessarily have a lot of quality shots. And quite honestly, they ended up beating us to those pucks. They out-muscled us low and took advantage of the opportunities they got.”

One thing that bothers Kemp this season is the first-period performance of the Mavericks. In CCHA games this season, the Mavericks have been outscored 9-4 in the first period; in CCHA losses in which first-period goals were scored by either UNO or its opponent, the Mavericks have been outscored 5-0.

“That’s been the story of our season,” said Kemp after Friday’s game. “I’m frustrated with our team because they’re not coming out with the kind of jam they need to come out with in the first period.”

Rich Purslow, who netted two in that contest, points to the team’s pre-game routine as one reason for the Mavericks’ slow start to games. “We just have to sit down as a team and figure that out. I think sometimes in warm-ups we’re a little loose, a little lackadaisical, so I think if we get into our warm-ups and get our legs really going, I think we’ll be fine.”

Jeremie Dupont, who was solid in Friday’s loss, said that the team isn’t “exactly sensing the urgency as much as we need to to come out strong,” and that the way the team is beginning games “just doesn’t cut it.”

Watching the Mavericks, I got the sense that if they could perform from the initial drop of the puck, they’d be nearly uncatchable for the rest of the game. Purslow said that there’s an ah-ha moment for the team in the second period.

“For some reason, after the first period, we just all of a sudden wake up and snap,” said Purslow. “If we could do that in the first period, obviously, it would be a lot better. In the locker room we just get ourselves going for that second period and it just seems like all of a sudden a light bulb goes on and we’re playing with jam and we’re all over them in the second.”

I thought that last weekend’s series might prove to be a litmus test for both the Mavericks and the Buckeyes. Fans of both teams emailed me before the series to ask if their respective programs were legit this season, a fair question. After watching Friday’s contest and hearing about Saturday’s game, I’d say that the answer is definitely yes for both.

Going into that weekend, I thought that UNO was more legit than OSU and picked them to sweep — and I took it from several Buckeye fans about this, fans who should know better. Consistency has been an issue with this program for years now, and as someone who has seen a lot of Buckeye hockey I was skeptical.

Friday’s contest was terrific hockey, wide-open and clean between two evenly matched teams. I still think that neither is of Miami caliber yet this season, but it’s entirely possible that either or both of these teams could earn a first-round CCHA playoff bye.

I can’t believe I just wrote that. Perhaps I should be asking Santa for that pony.

Next Week

While we only have a few CCHA series remaining in the first half, there will be enough to talk about to merit a column.

I’m excited about heading to my first Michigan-Michigan State regular-season series — I’ve only seen these rivals play each other postseason or at the Great Lakes Invitational — but I fear that it will be anticlimactic. I’ll follow up with that next week.

I’ll try to conjure some holiday magic while I’m at it.