Back to School
As the second half of the regular season begins, there is one undeniable truth: the top four teams in the CCHA are from states other than Michigan — some very far away from Michigan. With all due respect to the teams in my new home state, this continued non-Michigan dominance of the league tickles me.
Imagine the possibilities: Alaska and Nebraska get first-round byes. Miami beating Ferris State in three games in Oxford to get to the Joe. The Wolverines playing through Fairbanks or Omaha to get to Detroit.
Wait a minute. Imagine for a moment the Wolverines not having a first-round bye and having to travel anywhere for CCHA playoffs.
With Notre Dame, Miami, Alaska and Nebraska-Omaha rounding out the top four teams, the fantasy that no teams from the state of Michigan — where half the teams in the league reside — advancing to Joe Louis Arena for the CCHA championship tournament is delicious. Sure, it would be disastrous for ticket sales, JLA would be pretty empty and there might be some tears in Farmington Hills.
(Did you know that Oakland County, Mich., is one of the wealthiest in the country? But I digress.)
Of course, the fantasy is just that: fantasy. It’s more than likely that the Wolverines will somehow be in the mix at the end of the season (when are they not?) and there are a couple of other Michigan teams that may make some playoff noise. Don’t forget that the Bulldogs are 3-0-1 against the RedHawks in the last four meetings of that series, with a win and a tie this year at Steve Cady Arena.
It’s a new year and all, and while most of us are making resolutions we’re likely to break within minutes, it is or soon will be back-to-school time for college hockey players. It’s a fine time to review what we’ve learned from the first half of the CCHA season.
Defense Wins Games…
Three CCHA teams have had dominant defenses this season and another hasn’t been so shabby — and that has won all of them games and earned a couple some recognition.
Alaska has the No. 1 defense in the country, allowing on average just 1.45 goals per game. For their efforts, the Nanooks are in third place in the CCHA with 21 points — just three points behind the top-ranked team in the country and the CCHA’s top team, Notre Dame.
Notre Dame has the third-best defense (1.62), Miami the sixth-best (1.90) and Nebraska-Omaha (2.14) is 11th. And look! Those are the top four teams in the CCHA!
All four teams have outstanding goaltending, with Alaska’s Chad Johnson (1.62 GAA, .940 SV%) the best in overall games in the CCHA. His goals against average and save percentage are second-best in league play (1.58 GAA, .944 SV%), but he’s behind one of the two kids from Miami who have split time in net almost equally.
That’s to take nothing away from those two freshmen, Cody Reichard (.925 SV% overall, .945 CCHA) and Connor Knapp (.917, .926).
Notre Dame’s Jordan Pearce (1.66 overall GAA, .935 SV%) is right behind Johnson nationally and not far behind him in league play.
The Mavericks also have a dynamic duo in net, junior Jeremie Dupont (.931) and senior Jerad Kaufmann (.922), who stand at No. 11 and No. 25, respectively, among all D-I netminders for save percentage.
Both Alaska and Notre Dame have positively smothering defenses, which has led to some technically brilliant yet sometimes unentertaining hockey.
The Nanooks were allowing 2.97 goals per game on average at the end of last season, giving them the 39th-best defense in the country. This year, new head coach Dallas Ferguson is preaching a defensive game that the whole choir is buying.
“We’ve kind of laid out a foundation of how we want to play in the D-zone, and I credit our players for committing to it,” said Ferguson. “We take a lot of pride in playing defensive hockey first, working from our net out. We talk about it pretty much every day. That’s basically what we’re doing.
“It’s no secret [that] we don’t score a lot of goals. We’re going to work to create more scoring opportunities, we’re going to manufacture more opportunities and with that I think we’re going to score more goals. The other end of that is that we make sure that we take care of our D-zone first. We get scoring opportunities off of playing good D-zone; if we’re playing in our zone all the time, we need to be good at it.”
The result of this new faith in the back end is a transition game that is, literally, second to none. That transition game may not generate a whole lot of offense, but it does help keep Alaska’s opponents from generating any of their own; the Nanooks have just 46 goals to their credit this season, but they’ve allowed only 29. UAF is the only team in the CCHA outscoring opponents in overall games with fewer than 50 goals.
The Irish demonstrated their defensive dominance during the inaugural Shillelagh Tournament — and they did so without blueliners Ian Cole and Teddy Ruth, who were off with Team USA at the IIHF World Junior Championships.
Puck possession is one secret to Notre Dame’s defensive success. At the Shillelagh Tournament, the Irish won 58 percent of their faceoffs against Union and nearly 55 percent against Minnesota-Duluth. Junior forward Kevin Deeth won 21-of-25 faceoffs for the weekend, which is a percentage that I can’t figure out in my head. (Obviously, I didn’t attend the University of Notre Dame.)
In those two contests, the Irish gave up a total of 41 shots and two goals — and they did so with three freshmen playing defense with Cole and Ruth absent. Rookie Sean Lorenz has played in ever game this season, but his classmates Eric Ringel and Nick Condon have not. The game against Union was Ringel’s fifth of the season and Condon’s second.
…But Only Garners You Recognition When You’re from the Lower 48
So, the Nanooks have had one of the best goaltenders in the country all season and have been tops defensively forever and they’re 10-6-4 overall, but they split with MSU on the road and drop from No. 18 to No. 19 in this week’s USCHO.com/CBS College Sports poll.
That same poll ranks Colorado College No. 10 while the Tigers and Nanooks are tied in this week’s PairWise Rankings.
(Full disclosure: I ranked CC fourth and UAF 15th this week. Clearly, I’m not part of any solution.)
And adding insult to injury, now that the ECAC has finally played a few games it’s all about Cornell. Cornell this. Cornell that. Scrivens blah, blah, blah. In their “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” feature this week, two of my favorite human males — Jim Connelly and Scott Brown — fall all over themselves to proclaim that the east is fabulous and Cornell is for real. Scott goes so far as to point out that Cornell has the second-best scoring defense in the country.
Yeah, that’s right. Second best. Second to whom? The Alaska Nanooks.
(And let’s not forget that the Cornell defense is now being coached by Casey Jones, who returned to his alma mater from another CCHA team, Ohio State. Casey is also a coach who is grateful that I’m not USCHO’s ECAC Correspondent.)
In all seriousness, it’s only good for college hockey for Cornell to return to winning form.
And, in all seriousness, you really do have to hail from a state a little closer to what the rest of us call home in order to garner any real recognition at all.
We’ve Learned that UAF Has Two Goalies Who Can Play
Freshman Scott Greenham was the goalie of record when UAF beat MSU 3-1 last Saturday night, allowing his first goal of the season in three games played. Greenham debuted with a 5-0 shutout against Connecticut (Oct. 11) and beat Mercyhurst 5-0 the following week.
Johnson had the 2-1 loss Friday, when the Spartans scored two goals just over a minute apart late in the third.
“Chad played every CCHA game until tonight,” said Ferguson after Saturday’s win. “We feel really comfortable with Scott Greenham, but when you have a goaltender like Chad Johnson playing the way he is, you don’t want to disrupt his routine.”
The Spartan who disrupted Greenham’s routine was freshman Andrew Conboy, whose third goal of the season was the first Greenham allowed.
And It’s Nanook, Rhymes with Book
Why is it that color guys like to rhyme the Alaska namesake with words like “kook,” or “spook”?
I’d think it a fluke — I know it’s painful — except that I hear it repeatedly from both television and radio announcers.
We’ve Learned to Be Skeptical
Of the Ohio State Buckeyes, that is. OSU finally cracked the poll this week, but only because the Bucks are on a roll so big that no one can ignore — eight wins in a row, 11 wins in their last 12 games.
The problem with Ohio State is twofold: 1) They’ve been painful to watch for a long time, so it’s difficult to believe in the hockey that they’re playing now; 2) They’ve beaten a lot of teams that they should have beaten in that streak, teams below them in the standings, teams without their talent — Bentley, Army, Robert Morris (twice!).
That is what they should be doing, of course. But everyone in college hockey is taking a wait-and-see approach to these Buckeyes. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, to see them in Detroit in March.
We’ve Learned that Michigan State Really Likes a Holiday
It seems that the special occasions have been pretty good to the Michigan State this season, but the Spartans probably don’t want to be known as the Holiday Kids.
Halloween, Christmas, the New Year — these were memorable for MSU. Thanksgiving was halfway decent — but who hasn’t endured a disappointing November holiday with distant cousins?
Those ordinary weekends of the year? Not so good. Between Oct. 31 and Dec. 27, the Spartans went 11 games without a win — 12, if you count an exhibition loss to the U.S. Under-18 Team — with only a Nov. 1 tie with Western Michigan and a Nov. 29 tie against Wisconsin in the span.
Then, on Jan. 2, Michigan State did what all smart teams do when outmatched: they capitalized on two rare Nanook defensive mistakes less than two minutes apart late in the third to overcome a 1-0 deficit and beat No. 18 Alaska-Fairbanks, 2-1, for their second win in three games.
So a quick look at the calendar may predict when the Spartans will next find success. I’m not sure, however, whether federal holidays are better (2-1 win over UAF Jan. 2) than non-federal holidays (3-1 win over Western Michigan Oct. 31).
â€¢ Jan. 17 — in Oxford, two days before Martin Luther King’s birthday.
â€¢ Jan. 31 — in Sault Ste. Marie, two days before Ground Hog Day.
â€¢ Feb. 14 — at home against OSU, doubly lucky (Valentine’s Day, two days before Presidents Day)
And things look good for the CCHA championship tournament, just two days after St. Patrick’s Day — should the Spartans get that far.
MSU is 2-2-0 in the last four games, and they take this weekend off. “One positive is that when we had the break over Christmas, we came out [at the Great Lakes Invitational] with a lot of energy and played really well that first game back,” said senior Spartan captain and goaltender Jeff Lerg.
“Hopefully we can find a way to get into the home range for playoffs and be a dangerous team,” said Lerg, who warned reporters before the holiday break that the Spartans are a second-half team.
We’ve Remembered Why We Like Jim Roque So Much
After tying Wisconsin, 1-1, in the title game of the Badger Showdown — which Wisconsin won by way of a shootout — the Lake Superior State head coach told it like it was.
“We played great. We played hard. We had a chance to win the game. That’s our team right there.”
As the Lakers are 5-8-7 overall, Roque knows of which he speaks. This team does have a chance to win the game nearly every night, and to earn a shot at hardware the Lakers beat Harvard 6-2 before that 1-1 tie with Wisconsin.
But Roque didn’t stop at a summary of his team’s season — although he didn’t go on for much more than that.
“This season we get chances and we didn’t score and our goalies make great saves but they let [expletive] goals in,” said Roque. There’s a blank you can fill in all by yourself.
“I thought that was a bad-angle goal,” said Roque of Badger John Mitchell’s game-tying tally at 18:17 in the third period, less than two minutes after LSSU scored to make it 1-0. “Of all the saves he [Pat Inglis] makes, he lets that in? That’s the way it’s been. And then we don’t leave him any room for error because we don’t score at the other end.”
For the record, junior goaltender Pat Inglis has a .923 save percentage and 2.28 goals-against average.
And We Know We Love Some Badgers at Midseason
Okay, so last year the Bowling Green Falcons lost to Wisconsin 5-3 in the title game of the Badger Showdown. And in 2005, the Badgers swept two CCHA teams — Western Michigan and Northern — in the Showdown.
But for two glorious years in a row — 2003 and ’04 — Ferris State beat Wisconsin for consecutive Badger Showdown titles, solidifying the Bulldogs as Defenders of the Realm.
Last weekend, another CCHA team stepped up to challenge that title in a big way. Sure, it wasn’t the Badger Showdown, but wasn’t it pretty?
The Northern Michigan Wildcats did their best to reclaim their status as the Hardest Working Team in College Hockey when they staged a spectacular comeback to sweep Wisconsin in Madison last weekend.
The Wildcats won 3-2 Jan. 2 on Mark Olver’s game-winner early in the third and in front of Derek Janzen’s 33-save performance in the junior goalie’s first game of the year. The following night, NMU won 6-5 in overtime, giving Janzen his second win — and I mean giving it to him.
Down 5-3 midway through the third, the Wildcats scored three unanswered goals to tie it up — freshman Justin Florek’s second and third goals of the season, and sophomore Jared Brown’s second of the year, the tying goal on the power play with 50 seconds left in regulation — and Phil Fox’s game-winner at 2:01 in OT.
“I’m proud of the guys’ effort,” said NMU head coach John Kyle. “We’ve had a lot of solid, strong effort and commitment [this year] that hasn’t been rewarded. There wasn’t one lick of quit in us. That was a trait we had last year; that’s a trait we have this year.
“One of the things we talked about with our team…[is that] there are piano players and piano movers and we really wanted our guys to identify which one of those they were and play that. You look at a guy like Florek…and that was one of our best lines on the ice this weekend. Mark’s [Olver] the piano player and he’s got two movers.”
Florek, Olver and Mike Maltese make up that musical line for the Wildcats.
Like his Upper Peninsula counterpart, Kyle flirted with saltier post-game language — all good, I assure you.
For those of you keeping track at home, it takes a Yooper team that plays in the CCHA to beat or tie Mike Eaves this season. That’s Wisconsin 0, CCHA Yoop 2-0-1.
And Jamie Russell knows that I’m not dogging him.
Other Things We’ve Learned, Much More Briefly
The Wolverines look scary-good again, although it’s hard to gauge their performance in their last four wins because three of them were against a struggling Michigan State. In their last four games — which included a successful defense of the GLI title — Michigan outscored opponents 21-5.
Jeff Lerg is superhuman. Lerg made 87 saves in the GLI, including 49 in the 5-1 loss to Michigan. His performance earned him several votes for the all-tournament team, including mine. Lerg’s save percentage in a split against the Nanooks last weekend was .941.
The Ohio Hockey Classic is no more. Reports from Columbus this week have Ohio State head coach John Markell confirming that the midseason tournament will fold because of the expense and lack of sponsorship. Ironically, this year’s attendance was the best-ever for the OHC, topping 9,000 for the two games at Value City Arena.
The state of Michigan’s collective rookie class does not dominate the league as it has in seasons past, in spite of some excellent individual efforts. Freshmen from teams in Michigan have been named ROTW in only three of 13 weeks, and none from the usual suspects: Devan Hartigan (G, NMU), Chad Billins (D, FSU) and Fred Cassiani (F, LSSU).
Moms like tied games, sometimes. Western Michigan and Brown skated to a 1-1 tie in the consolation game of the Dodge Holiday Classic Jan. 3, a game that pitted WMU freshman defenseman Kevin Connauton against his brother, Brown sophomore defenseman Sean Connauton. “I had never played against him before and it was an exciting experience,” said Kevin. “I was upset with the 1-1 tie…however, I think my mom couldn’t have asked for a better outcome for the game.”
Thanks to Todd Milewski, Benjamin Worgull, Jeff Svoboda and J. Justin Boggs for their help this week.
And Happy 2009 to everyone!