This Week in the CCHA: Jan. 22, 2009

Seemed Like Old Times

Bryan Hogan, a victim of Mercury retrograde.

In Ann Arbor last Friday, Hogan felt a little bit of the love that senior goaltender Billy Sauer was feeling for the first half of the season when he provided solid goaltending for the Wolverines with absolutely no support from the offense.

Hogan, a sophomore, understood his teammate’s plight when Bowling Green blanked Michigan, 3-0, in Yost Arena Jan. 16.

The Wolverines had been shut out three times previously this season — twice on a Friday, once on a Saturday — and all with Sauer in net when he and Hogan were splitting duties every weekend. The two goalies’ numbers were nearly identical in every category except for wins and losses.

Through the end of November when the two were still sharing time in the Michigan net, Sauer’s save percentage was .903 with a 2.64 goals-against average, and his record was 2-6-0. Hogan’s save percentage was .909 and his GAA 2.29 — and his record was 7-1-0. During Hogan’s first eight games of the season, the Wolverines netted 35 goals; in Sauer’s first eight games, Michigan was outscored 17-2.

In the 3-0 home loss to Bowling Green, the Wolverines may have kept the Falcons to three first-period shots, but they couldn’t keep BG off the scoreboard — and they only generated four shots themselves in the first 20 minutes, after which the Falcons led 1-0.

Michigan head coach Red Berenson, ever the master of understatement, began his post-game comments by admitting that the contest “was not a good game from our standpoint.”

“They outworked us in the first period and after that we didn’t put our chances in,” said Berenson. “We didn’t generate a lot but we generated enough and they made their chances count.”

Even though the Wolverines rode a six-game win streak into the weekend against Bowling Green — a streak that culminated in a two-game home sweep of the Miami RedHawks Jan. 10-11 — Berenson underplayed his team.

“We don’t know from week to week what we’re going to get,” said Berenson. “We knew that Bowling Green was a lot better than everyone talks, and I don’t know what our team talk was but I know that our coaches were really concerned about Bowling Green because they’re a better team than their record. You saw that tonight.”

Berenson said that the Falcons “kept it simple” while the Wolverines “got cute.”

Michigan captain Chris Summers said that the loss was all about preparation or the lack thereof.

“Today, we weren’t obviously ready to go,” said Summers. “I think it kind of showed up in the locker room beforehand, guys not really being focused as normal. Whether it had to do with [last weekend’s] change in schedule or who we were playing, we weren’t ready as a team to come out and really play our game.”

Summers didn’t come right out and say that the Wolverines might have overlooked the Falcons after sweeping the RedHawks — “I like to think that’s not the reason” — but he would not let himself and his teammates off the proverbial hook when asked about the Saturday rematch.

“Guys are going to have to show up. They’re going to have to really look at themselves in the mirror tonight and make sure they want to play tomorrow because no one wanted to play tonight.”

Apparently, the mirror trick worked. Michigan returned the shutout favor the following night, beating Bowling Green 1-0 on BG’s home ice. It was a pleasant turn of events for Sauer, who played his first game since a 3-0 loss to Wisconsin Nov. 29 in the College Hockey Showcase. It was Sauer’s seventh career shutout and his third win of the season.

And the Wolverines only scored one goal for the guy.

Three for Ohio

With Mercury in retrograde, it figures that streaks would come to an end. For three Ohio teams last weekend, they did.

With their win Friday night, the Bowling Green Falcons snapped a nine-game losing streak at Yost Arena dating back to Jan. 25, 2002. It was also BG’s first shutout victory over UM in the 107 meetings between the teams, and senior goaltender Jimmy Spratt’s second career shutout.

Falcon head coach Scott Paluch said that puck possession was key to BG’s win. “We got a good game out of Jimmy in goal, our defense held up well, and most importantly I thought our forwards did a good job of getting enough pucks out of danger, keeping pucks in the right area.

“We didn’t find ourselves under pressure the majority of the game. We played a good road game and kept the game boring at times.”

Spratt really didn’t have to play a spectacular game, but he was solid and utterly unflappable in the Bowling Green net. It was a nice reward for the senior who was a workhorse for the Falcons during the first half of the season after sophomore goaltender Nick Eno was sidelined with an ankle injury.

“Going into the year we thought that goaltending depth was going to be something that we could rely on and Jimmy was forced into playing 21 straight games,” said Paluch. “I think he’s had some really good moments. I think last Friday night was a pretty tough night for him. For him to bounce back in this building the way he did was a testament to Jimmy and his competitive nature.”

The Friday game that Paluch referred to was an 8-5 road loss to Ohio State Jan. 9, the last game that Spratt had played before heading into the notoriously tough Yost; Eno returned to action against OSU the following night with a 4-3 overtime loss.

“It’s hard to score in college hockey these days and when you get five, you generally don’t find yourself on the wrong end,” said Paluch, “but Ohio State has enough guys who can score a lot of goals.” After the win in Yost, upon hearing that the Buckeyes had beaten Ferris State 6-2 on the road, Paluch remarked, “That doesn’t surprise me.”

Paluch threw some props to the fans at Yost when talking about the Falcons’ game-winning strategy. “You don’t want a team like that [Michigan] to buzz around in the offensive zone; they play to the crowd so well. That’s a big part of playing against this team is don’t give them a chance to get the crowd involved and keeping that 1-0 lead as long as we did was really important.”

On the other side of Michigan that night, the Buckeyes beat the Bulldogs in Big Rapids (say that fast three times), ending their six-game losing streak versus Ferris State and four-game losing streak in Big Rapids.

That win gave the Bucks the longest current win streak in the nation at 11 games … until that streak was snapped the following night with a 2-2 tie.

Down in Ohio last weekend, the Miami RedHawks snapped a five-game losing streak with a 6-1 win over Michigan State Jan. 16. Gary Steffes and Carter Camper each had two goals in the contest. The six goals in that victory equaled the total number of times the RedHawks found the net during their five-game skid.

And the win was the 200th career victory for Miami head coach Enrico Blasi.

Continue at Your Own Peril

For whatever reason, I’m having a very difficult time putting together a sustained, coherent thought this week. Yes, I know the punch line that accompanies that admission.

(In fact, I spelled “peril” three different ways before I could get it right. It took me a while to get past p-a-… .)

Because of that, this will be a rather chatty column containing just about anything hockey-related that’s popped into my head or caught my interest since last week.

Proceed at your own risk.

A Logical Explanation

If you are an habitual reader of my column, you’ve come to know several things — many of which I’m sure you wish you hadn’t learned, including this tenet that is essential to the understanding of college hockey.

Astrology is important to determining the outcome of everything, but its effects on college hockey are particularly strong. This is a proven, scientific fact. This is especially true when the planet Mercury appears to retrograde in its orbit — appears to be moving opposite to its natural orbital progression, to viewers standing on the planet Earth.

(It is important to note that planets never actually reverse their natural orbital progression. That would be just plain silly.)

What happens when Mercury is retrograde? Well, since Mercury rules thinking, perception, education, communication — and the commerce and technology that accompanies communication — when Mercury is in a retrograde phase, those areas of our lives can go haywire.

We are currently in a Mercury retrograde phase that began Jan. 11 and will end — when Mercury goes direct, as they say — Feb. 1.

This explains why the Jan. 9 game between Miami and Michigan had to be rescheduled for the following Sunday. Sure, sure, Yost Arena sustained some weather-related damage and no one understood its extent until it was too late to fix in time for that Friday night game. This never would have happened at the end of December.

Then there is the matter of the Nebraska-Omaha’s jerseys, which didn’t arrive in Alaska when the Mavericks themselves did, apparently. Last Friday, the Mavs were forced to wear the jerseys of the Fairbanks Ice Dogs (NAHL) when they lost 2-0 to the Alaska Nanooks in Fairbanks. It’s Mercury retrograde — and it’s no coincidence that they battled to a 1-1 tie the following night and got at least a point when dressed in their own threads.

I’m just thinking good thoughts about my car as I travel to Detroit and Ann Arbor this week. Throw some salt for me and some knock some wood, okay?

A Very Good Cause

Mercury retrograde also explains why I was never able to coordinate my schedule with that of the Michigan State hockey team leading up to this weekend’s series between the Spartans and the Wolverines.

You see, I wanted to bring you a longer, separate feature about the extent of the Spartans’ outreach to kids with cancer in the Lansing area. The way that the team has become personally involved in this cause is worth noting. These MSU student-athletes would make any program proud.

Instead, I’ll just tell you about the silent auction to take place during Friday night’s game between MSU and UM to benefit Michigan State hockey’s “Shoot for a Cure,” the program that helps to raise money and awareness for Cure Kids Cancer at Sparrow Hospital.

Go the game and bid on items during the first two periods and through the end of the second intermission. Win and pick up your item in the third period. And buy a “Shoot for a Cure” tee shirt for $15.

You could cool hockey items autographed by former Spartans and Wolverines as well as Notre Dame alum and current Detroit Red Wing Brett Lebda, who donated a Stanley Cup 2008 Red Wings photo (autographed, of course) and who also led to the only penalty shot I’ve witnessed in person at an NHL game — in the first professional hockey game I’d attended as a fan in over a decade — when he covered the puck in the crease, leading to the shot on which former Minnesota Golden Gopher Jordan Leopold scored to give the Colorado Avalanche the game-winner on Dec. 15, 2008.

But I digress. Curses, Mercury retrograde!

Other items on which you can bid include a Buffalo Sabres jersey autographed by Ryan Miller (presumably his jersey), a game-worn Philadelphia Phantoms jersey autographed by Mike Ratchuk (ditto), a 2007 Spartan NCAA championship photo autographed by the actual Spartan coaches and a Nashville Predators jersey signed by the entire 2008-09 team.

Shoot for a Cure, now in its second year, was founded by former Spartan Justin Abdelkader (2005-08) and current MSU senior Daniel Sturges.

In 42 games this season with the Grand Rapids Griffins, Abdelkader has 14 goals, 13 assists and 57 penalty minutes. (That’s the boy we know and love.) In 16 games this season with the Spartans, Sturges has one goal.

Bracketology

In his weekly musings about possible NCAA tournament brackets, my pal Jayson Moy poses one potential scenario based on the current PairWise Rankings and the possibility of the of the NCAA imposing new geographic bracketing rules.

This would affect everyone and pit many teams from the same league against each other in the regional playoffs. For the Midwest Regional in Grand Rapids, Jayson has Air Force playing Notre Dame and Ohio State playing Michigan.

While new rules based on geography would all but eliminate the possibility of all Frozen Four participants hailing from the same conference — slam me if you want, but the FF in Columbus in 2005 was boring for anyone but WCHA fans — I still wouldn’t want so many teams from a single conference at a single regional. I especially don’t want teams who may have the chance to go all the way from the same conference — like Michigan State and Notre Dame, two years running — facing off in a regional.

I don’t want to watch two CCHA teams bow out at the same regional because they must. (Or all three, for that matter.)

But I especially don’t want to see the kind of homogeneity that bracketing based on geography would produce. If the Columbus Frozen Four was boring, all four regionals would be equally boring — glorified versions of the four more established conferences’ own postseason tournament play.

One of the best things about the NCAA tournament is watching teams from one conference measure up (or not) against other conferences. I’d hate to see that lost.

It’s in the Stars, Man

In the second half of the season, you’ll be able to catch a lot of CCHA action on CBS College Sports, featuring our good buddy Dave Starman.

Here’s the schedule as I know it:

• Jan. 23-24, Miami at Nebraska-Omaha (via NEPT)
• Feb. 6, Michigan at Notre Dame
• Feb. 13, Northern Michigan at Notre Dame
• Feb. 21, Michigan at Ohio State
• Feb. 27, Michigan State at Notre Dame
• Feb. 28, Ferris State at Michigan

All games that may have enormous impact on the final standings.

Coach for Hire

One of the best side effects from moving to Ohio is running into people I really like when I least expect to see them. One such case was Friday night’s Bowling Green-Michigan game, when I saw Bill Wilkinson.

Wilkinson — or Wilky, as he’s known to many — was the head coach at Western Michigan from 1982 to 1999 and was the only head coach the now-defunct Wayne State Warriors ever knew (1999-2008).

One of the best guys in the business, Wilkinson is knowledgeable, funny, kind — and looking for work as a coach again. If you know of a team in Europe looking for a really good man for the job, drop me a line and I’ll pass it along to Wilky.

I have many vivid memories of Wilkinson from when I was lucky enough to cover the Broncos under his tenure. He was patient with me when I was a rookie reporter, always honest and open even when things weren’t so positive. I remember the Broncos’ 8-0 shutout road loss to Ohio State on Jan. 30, 1999, the game that seemed to spell the end for Wilkinson at Western.

I remember an elevator ride at the Frozen Four in Boston in 1998, when I looked and felt terrible after a rough night of personal drama. When I met Wilkinson in the elevator of the rink formerly known as the FleetCenter and he asked how I was, I told him that I was tired after a night of very little sleep.

“You’d never know it, Paula,” he lied. It meant a lot to me.

Then there was another elevator moment at one of the consecutive Minnesota national championships. There were several members of the press heading up to the press box and the elevator was quiet when Wilkinson stepped in. At just the right moment, Wilkinson asked very quietly, “Does anyone here know how to spell Minnesota?”

He’s a guy who always knows how to make me smile, and it was great seeing him at Yost last Friday.

And he’s taller than I remember.

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