CCHA Special: Dec. 11, 2008

Was It a Dream, or Not?

The other night, I drifted off while watching my favorite cinematic adaptation of the Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol, the 1951 version entitled Scrooge, adapted by Noel Langley, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and starring Alatair Sim in the most definitive performance ever of the title role.

Although I’m ashamed of having fallen asleep while watching one of the best ghost movies of all time, I was suffering from the usual end-of-semester teacher exhaustion coupled with an unusual new development, a rare eye fatigue from exposure to mediocre college hockey and a bewildering new CCHA landscape.

Through fitful hours of darkness, I encountered three spirits who identified themselves as the Ghost of CCHA Past, the Ghost of CCHA Present and the Ghost of CCHA Yet to Come.

The Ghost of CCHA Past took the form of mustachioed man who (with skates) was about as tall as I, holding a festive drink that smelled of orange and booze in an old-fashioned tumbler. Although his blue eyes twinkled, he showed me sad reminders of a past squandered, from a national championship just two years old to a luxurious 17,000-seat arena in one state’s capital city.

Back further he took me, to an eight-year run of CCHA championships captured by none other than Spartans and Wolverines, to viable teams from the lands of northern Ohio and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, to players who took only one season to reach 70 or more points — back to years when a 35-goal season was not unheard of, when four or five players were named All Americans, when Chicago was the best road trip of the season.

But soon into our journey, the spry Ghost of CCHA Past had to retire, and I was left alone until a buzzer sounded and there appeared the second spirit of the night.

The Ghost of CCHA Present took the form of a tall Greek man, opulently robed in green and white, sitting on a glimmering stack of innovations. I touched his robe and we traveled all over the league — reminding me much of my current Decade of Divorce Memorial Tour of the CCHA — alighting in rinks where wondrous things were happening!

In Fairbanks, we observed Chad Johnson, whose .949 save percentage is second-best in all the land!

In Ann Arbor and Oxford and South Bend and Omaha we observed Louie Caporusso (14-7–21), Carter Camper (10-10–20), Calle Ridderwall (8-12–20) and Rich Purslow (5-7–12) belie the sophomore slump!

In northern Indiana, we saw a team with a 12-game unbeaten streak top the national polls! In northern Michigan, we saw a freshman goaltender bring rookie of the week honors to his team’s state for the first time this season! And in central Ohio, we saw the most miraculous sight of all — a team with a record over .500!

But soon into our journey, the shrewd Ghost of Christmas Present had a deal to cut, and I was left alone yet again until another buzzer sounded and there appeared the final spirit of the night.

The Ghost of CCHA Yet to Come was genuinely disturbing, an uncommunicative figure with a shadowed face, wearing the most hideous combination of maize, red, gold, white and blue. I mean, it would have worked had it been done in a 1950s-ornament sort-of way, but the whole thing lacked subtlety and the skates were clearly rented.

Anyway, this ghost took me on a freaky, silent journey into the future, where tumbleweeds blew through the stands of Joe Louis Arena in spring. Then we hovered over our Washington, D.C., where I saw a vision of my name … on a place card … and a WCHA 2008-09 yearbook close to my side as I prepared for Wednesday practices and press conferences, a chilling reminder that the future looks very much like a not-too-distant past.

When I awoke, I found myself hugging the cats’ scratching post and muttering, “I do believe in shootouts! Oh, I do, I do, I do believe in shootouts!” Then I sent some home cooking to Ferris State and healed Mark Mitera’s knee before hoisting him up on my shoulder and carrying him down Saginaw Street. That last part would have been a lot more fun had he taken off his skates.

No more blots of mustard before bedtime for me.

All Right. Who Were You Then?

Well, we once knew them as the Michigan State Spartans. You know, the guys who won the 2007 national championship.

Now, they’re the Michigan State Spartans who stand alone in 11th place in the CCHA, one point ahead of last-place Western Michigan, one point behind ninth-place Bowling Green and Northern — and 16 points out of first place.

My first Michigan-Michigan State regular season series was anticlimactic, but not for any way that I could have anticipated.

In both games, the Wolverines rose to meet the challenge of playing their archrival with an injury-shortened bench. In Friday’s 6-1 Michigan win, the Wolverines played good hockey with three unanswered goals in each of the second and third periods. In Saturday’s 5-3 win, Michigan did what every genuinely good team does, turning up the heat and simply taking control of the game as the third period progressed.

In doing so, UM swept MSU for the first time since 2004. “It has been a long time since we had our way with this team in two games, whether it was here [Munn Arena] or at our place,” said Michigan head coach Red Berenson. “It was a good weekend for us.”

Had their way with them — accurate, since even when the Spartans went ahead within the first two minutes of the third period Saturday on Dustin Gazley’s two goals 30 seconds apart they never looked as though they controlled the game.

In both games, Michigan State played uninspired hockey. In Friday’s contest, it didn’t look as though any two Spartans could make a single, crisp pass. Saturday, there was nothing MSU could do to sustain the momentum of Gazley’s two goals, nothing they could do once Michigan turned up the volume; the Wolverines scored three goals in the final three minutes of the game.

After being swept, Spartan senior captain Jeff Lerg finally vented a little bit, careful to say that “everyone is responsible,” and adding, “As senior leadership, we’ve tried to harp on playing 60 minutes, respecting the game and taking advantage of the privilege of playing here.”

Now that Michigan State is riding an 11-game winless streak — its worst 1955-56 — it’s not hard to surmise that there are Spartans who are not playing 60 minutes, not respecting the game, not taking advantage of the privilege of playing in Munn Arena.

The Wolverines, however, are starting to show the kinds of signs of life that promise a decent enough second half to perhaps catch second-place Notre Dame … maybe. The decision to play sophomore Bryan Hogan in net both nights instead of rotating him with senior Billy Sauer must have been difficult for Berenson and his staff, who value loyalty very highly and who remember full well that they rode Sauer all the way to the Frozen Four last year.

The weekend was anticlimactic for another reason as well. I couldn’t make it to the game in Munn Arena, as the weather in Flint was very bad and I had visions of being stranded on the side of I-69 at midnight in a 16-year-old Oldsmobile that had exhibited an intermittent stutter on the drive back from Ann Arbor.

I did get to watch Saturday’s game — I’m still jazzed about how much hockey I get to DVR here in Michigan — but I’ll have to wait until next season to watch the Wolverines and Spartans mix it up in Munn, as their second regular-season weekend is a Joe-and-home series in January, with the Wolverines hosting the second night.

I Don’t Know Anything

I never did know anything. But now I know that I don’t know anything — as my picks weekly prove.

At the beginning of the season, I doubted the RedHawks and Nanooks while having complete faith in the Wildcats and Spartans.

Please forgive the short column; I promise to blather on again after the first of the year.

As the first half of the season comes to an end, I’m contemplating a holiday break that doesn’t include an under-attended tournament in Columbus but brings me back (for the second night, at least) to the Great Lakes Invitational, my favorite midseason distraction.

And as we look toward a somewhat brief break in the action, I’m contemplating the ways in which the league’s landscape has changed and why, I’m thinking about how the shootout will impact the standings at season’s end and I’m trying to get a grip on this year’s incredibly inflated Division I save percentages.

And I’m also trying to figure out a way to reach coaches during the week — the fault of my schedule, not theirs — to bring you better coverage while appealing to the car gods to keep old Bridget running (that’s the name of the Olds) so that I can continue my touring through the winter.

And — of course — I’m looking forward to my trip to Hacienda Weston to visit with my tribe and partake of Dolly’s cutout cookies, the recipe for which can be obtained by searching the USCHO archives or emailing me.

If you’re traveling for hockey or holidays, be safe.

Merry Christmas, CCHA fans, in keeping with the situation.

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