This Week in the CCHA: Feb. 12, 2009

Accentuating the Positive

Not exactly how you’d expect the annual Valentine’s Day column to begin, is it? After all, this holiday is a middle-aged, bitter, divorced, hockey-loving girl reporter’s dream. Underperforming flagship programs portending gate issues at Joe Louis Arena next month, key injuries to players for the league’s top team, a general sense of CCHA ennui and lack of national respect.

So much to self-loathe. Throw Friday the 13th into the mix this week and we have an even better script. Call Lifetime Television Networks!

But something’s different this year. Oh, I won’t pretend this difference has anything to do with CCHA hockey. Something’s different about me this year. Sure, I’ve moved further away from my boyfriend, Steve Cady Arena — and he never writes — and Nate Guenin still owes me a date for Valentine’s Day, but I don’t feel as driven this week to obsess about Notre Dame’s 4-1, season-ending loss to Boston College last April while listening endlessly to Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne.”

In short, I have little time for the unrequited. It could be my recent move to the heart of CCHA country coupled with gainful employment. It could be the midwinter thaw we experienced in Flint this week.

Maybe it’s the optimism of the City of Detroit, which buoyantly embraced this week’s Forbes “Most Miserable Cities” rankings.

“We’re Not the Most Miserable City Anymore!” declared the headline that accompanied the online edition of the article in The Detroit News that spread the good word that Detroit has dropped from No. 1 to No. 7 on that Forbes list.

If that isn’t heartwarming, I don’t know what is. Even my new hometown of Flint dropped from No. 3 to No. 6. Sure, it’s more miserable than Detroit — but we’re no Stockton, Calif.!

And so it is with this strange new sensation of nearly being requited that I approach Valentine’s Day this week. No need for the Roxy Music. I’m listening to Abba all week long.

Let the lovefest begin!

I Heart Buckeyes

I know what you’re thinking: When has she ever not loved the Buckeyes? Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve watched a Buckeye team that I’ve enjoyed watching, a lot of dull and often frustrating years stranded in Columbus while OSU refused to put out.

Now that I’m gone, the Buckeyes are again fun to watch (typical men) and last weekend’s series against Notre Dame was no exception. This team is young, fast, physical and unafraid to score.

Unafraid to score. The long-suffering Ohio State faithful, who understand the pain of unrequited love, must heart this Buckeye squad too, especially the line of freshmen Zac Dalpe and Taylor Stefishen and sophomore John Albert. In Sunday’s 4-1 win over Notre Dame, the three combined for three goals and five assists in just over 10 minutes, from 8:23 to 18:35 in the second period.

In all, OSU scored four unanswered goals after Notre Dame’s Christiaan Minella made it a 1-0 game on the Irish power play at 7:44 in the second.

Even more impressive than answering the third-ranked Notre Dame power play (21.8 percent) less than a minute later is doing so after the way in which Ohio State managed to lose Friday night’s game — a true heartbreaker.

Dalpe had the go-ahead goal in that contest at 17:05 in the third, making it a 3-2 game. Just when it looked like OSU would take the opener from the top team in the league — the goal did seem to deflate the Irish a little, as late goals can — Buckeye freshman Ian Boots inexplicably and stupidly speared Notre Dame’s Ian Cole 44 seconds later.

The Irish scored twice on the ensuing five-minute major, with what looked like 1.2 seconds left in regulation to tie, and :49 seconds into OT to win.

“Selfish penalty cost us the game,” said the understandably-testy OSU head coach John Markell after the loss. When pressed about how the Buckeyes may have let down in the last three minutes of the game, Markell went one further.

“It’s called a spearing penalty, away from the puck. It’s a selfish play. There’s no call for it. It had nothing to do with three minutes or us letting down. That’s what cost us the game.”

Markell said that the Buckeyes would have to “be big boys and stand up and play a better hockey game on Sunday.?

They did — without Boots, who was serving his well-earned disqualification.

With 3.57 goals per game on average, the Buckeyes are currently top in the league, fifth in the nation.

Oh yes, and one more thing: I heart straight-talking coaches.

I Heart the Fighting Irish

Sure, the Buckeyes were shorthanded in the closing minutes of regulation and opening minutes of overtime, but they didn’t give the game away; the Fighting Irish had to earn it.

Erik Condra’s game-tying goal from a sharp angle close in was a perfect snipe, a cool-headed play by a talented veteran. After taking the pass from Billy Maday, Condra shot up and over Buckeye goaltender Dustin Carlson to send the game to OT. Calle Ridderwall’s shot to win the game came from the bottom of the right circle, perfectly placed through traffic.

“I give credit to the kids,” said Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson, who noted that the end of regulation was just the second time in recent memory that the Irish had to pull senior netminder Jordan Pearce for the extra attacker.

“To be able to score like that obviously is huge momentum and I thought it helped us going into overtime.”

Jackson’s team paid a price for the victory. Junior winger Ryan Thang left the game with a high ankle sprain and is out indefinitely; senior center Christian Hanson was concussed and is day-to-day. Both were out of the lineup at the end of that game.

“We had the power play, so it was a matter of fitting in the extra man,” said Jackson, who didn’t have many extras to spare. “It was kind of a crazy situation because we had Erik Condra with a bad skate and a couple of kids injured so we were playing with a short bench for most of the third period and part of the second.

“I was coaching by the seat of my pants. Our lines were all broken up and it was kind of rotating guys in. It wasn’t any magic; it was just the kids did a great job of getting the puck to the net and creating traffic in front of the crease.”

“I think we were just trying to get a shot on net,” said Condra. “They were blocking a lot of shots … so we had to kind of pump and walk around them a little bit and finally it bounced right to me.

“I can’t take too much credit when it comes right to your stick.”

Jackson insisted there was no magic. Condra wouldn’t take credit. You gents fool no one.

Going into the weekend, everyone knew the wonder of Jordan Pearce. Perhaps those who saw the contests now understand that Dustin Carlson ain’t so bad, either. Pearce made 43 saves on 50 shots for the weekend while Carlson stopped 51-of-56.

Now, if only the rest of the country could heart Notre Dame and the CCHA as much as I do. It was as though poll voters couldn’t act fast enough a week ago to vote for someone other than the Irish in the top spot of the USCHO.com/CBS College Sports Division I Men’s Poll when Michigan snapped Notre Dame’s incredible 20-game unbeaten streak.

This week, after the Buckeyes lost to No. 2 Notre Dame in a close game and then came from behind to beat the Irish two days later — delivering to ND its first road loss in 12 contests, the first since team’s season-opening 5-2 loss to Denver Oct. 11, 2008 — Ohio State actually dropped in the USCHO.com/CBS College Sports poll.

I Heart Straight-Talking Coaches, Part 2

The Buckeyes made a point of playing a physical brand of hockey in their two games against the Irish in Columbus. “The coaches harped on us this week to play the body,” said OSU’s John Albert. “If you take the body you get the puck back and get more chances to score.”

Makes sense, but perhaps asking the losing coach about how the winning team’s physicality may have worn down his squad on the road after two of his best players have been injured isn’t the most politic of approaches. Jeff Jackson made that pretty clear in his response to one reporter who did just that.

“I think we outshot them, if I’m not mistaken. I didn’t sense that they wore us down physically. We are playing a little shorthanded, by the way.”

If I could only convey the tone — which hearted no one — I’d finally consider myself a passable writer.

The Irish and the Buckeyes played the weird Friday-Sunday series to accommodate a far better-loved tenant in Value City Arena, the OSU men’s basketball team which played Saturday. Friday’s game was at 8:05 p.m., Sunday’s at 2:05 p.m., prompting Jackson to make a candid confession.

“You have to make adjustments based on other teams in the conference sometimes. At least [Sunday’s game is] an afternoon game. I don’t like these eight o’clock starts. It’s past my bedtime when the game starts.”

Heartbreak Hotel

Yes, I promised you the positive this week, but what’s more exquisite than the pain of having something wonderful snatched away from you at the last moment — the very last second, actually?

My good friend and colleague in Columbus, Jeff Svoboda, brought to my attention that fortunes have changed at the last second on several occasions in Value City Arena. He recalled five games, including Friday’s Notre Dame win, when goals were scored to tie or win games with a second or less on the clock at the Schott, a number that he deemed high for a building just a decade old.

The four games in addition to last Friday’s that Svoboda mentioned:

Nov. 30, 2001, Miami vs. OSU. The RedHawks win with one-tenth of one second left in overtime. Michael Glumac scores to give Miami the 1-0 win. I remember this one well. A certain losing coach complained about being victimized by the accuracy of his high-tech time clock.

Jan. 6, 2004, Quinnipiac vs. OSU. After having stopped 49 Buckeye shots through nearly 60 minutes of regulation to maintain a 0-0 tie, Quinnipiac’s Justin Eddy allowed Andrew Schembri’s game-winning goal with less than one second left on the clock. Buckeyes win 1-0. Another memorable heartbreaker.

Dec. 3, 2005, UAH vs. OSU. Leading Alabama-Huntsville 2-1, OSU’s Dave Caruso lets in Steve Canter’s game-tying goal at 19:59. After standard overtime, the game ends tied, 2-2.

Feb. 16, 2008, NMU vs. OSU. After tying Northern Michigan on a power-play goal at 16:08 in the third, Buckeye Tommy Goebel bangs in the game-winner at the buzzer, giving OSU a 3-2 win. This game was memorable, too, because long-time fan favorite, senior third-string goalie Phil Lauderdale, got the start for Ohio State. A very tense opening 49 seconds for Buckeye fans.

I remember a lot of games at the Schott where the Buckeyes either scored or allowed tying or winning goals within the last 30 seconds of regulation, and I seem to recall a last-second goal or two by former Buckeye Dave Steckel (2000-04), who currently plays for the Washington Capitals. Steckel wasn’t exactly a scoring machine, so I don’t think I’m fabricating this, but I can’t remember or find the exact games.

Anyone remember those?

I Heart Michigan State

After experiencing their first shutout “loss” last Friday in Munn Arena — a 2-2 tie with Ferris State after which the Bulldogs earned the extra point — the scrappy Spartans went into Ewigleben Arena and delivered a 1-0 shutout to FSU. They did this with just 12 eligible men on their roster.

Okay, so that’s an exaggeration — but not by much.

“We’re at a point where we’re low on numbers,” said MSU head coach Rick Comley, “and this is just a gutsy win for us tonight. Our guys really did a great job of blocking shots and doing all the little things we needed to do to be successful.

“A three-point weekend for us is huge. We’re in playoff mode, and every little bit is going to help.”

Hats off to Spartan senior uber-goaltender Jeff Lerg, who stopped 32 shots in his 12th career shutout. Hats off to the Michigan State defense, too. Keeping the Bulldogs to two goals in two games was no easy feat, as FSU is averaging more than 2.5 per contest.

With those three points, the Spartans clawed their way out of last place in the CCHA, vaulting two points ahead of now-last place Bowling Green.

I Heart Those Other Three Teams with “Michigan ” in their Names, Too

Northern, Western and just plain Michigan each took four points from their opponents this week.

Northern Michigan earned its first home sweep of the season with two wins over Bowling Green. This week’s CCHA Offensive Player of the Week, Jared Brown, had two third-period goals in NMU’s 3-0 win Friday and a shorthander in the 4-1 game Saturday.

The excellent Brian Stewart earned his third season and sixth career shutout Friday, blocking 28 shots.

The ‘Cats are 8-1-1 since the start of 2009 and are riding a four-game win streak into this weekend’s series against Notre Dame.

Western Michigan’s four-point performance on the road against Nebraska-Omaha is more than just a little surprising. The tie and shootout “win” plus the outright victory mark the first time this season that the Broncos earned four points in one weekend from a CCHA opponent.

“Both teams competed at a high level, and you’re going to see that down the stretch through February and the end of conference play,” said WMU head coach Jim Culhane. “The bottom line is that we got two points and our guys competed really hard against a very good hockey team.”

Bronco junior goaltender Riley Gill earned his sixth career shutout Saturday in Western’s 5-0 win over Omaha, a feat that broke Marc Magliarditi’s career shutout record at WMU. (Doesn’t seem possible that six is a record, but there it is.)

Saturday’s game marked the fourth time this season that the Broncos managed five goals in a game, and — remarkably — only the second time they’ve won while doing so. WMU has lost two overtime 6-5 decisions this season, to Minnesota-Duluth (Oct. 18, 2008) and Northern Michigan (Jan. 30, 2009).

The Wolverines beat the Lakers handily in Friday’s 6-2 win, and barely in Saturday’s 2-1 contest. Lake State was shorthanded for four of the last five minutes of the Saturday game with consecutive minor penalties — something that did not open the hearts of the Laker coaching staff post-game. They declined to talk to the press.

I Heart — and Hug — UNO Hockey

After starting the 2008-09 season like a collective ball of fire fueled by creative offense and stalwart goaltending tandem, the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks have done more than just falter in the second half.

Before the holiday break, the Mavs were 11-4-3, ranked nationally and averaging three goals per game.

Since kicking off the second half of the season with an 8-3 win over Yale Dec. 29, UNO is 2-7-4, averaging 2.08 goals per game, a number that is artificially inflated by that single-game, eight-goal output. Take away the Yale win, and the Mavericks have scored 1.41 goals per game in their last 12 contests. They’ve scored more than two goals twice since the Yale game. Since a 4-3 win over Northern Jan. 9 — their last win this season — they haven’t scored more than two goals in a contest; in their last five games, they’ve netted one or no goals.

This past weekend, the Mavericks earned one point against visiting Western Michigan, a team they took four points from in a tie with shootout win plus an outright win Nov. 7-8.

They lost 5-0 to Western Saturday; the Broncos have the 40th-best scoring offense in the nation, averaging 2.47 goals per game this season (and bolstered by five goals against UNO).

After the loss, both head coach Mike Kemp and senior forward Dan Charleston were heartfelt and frank about the team’s situation.

“I don’t have the answers,” said Kemp. “I’ll tell you that much. We put up 88 shots on goal [for the weekend] and I do know we’re a fragile hockey team, and when you’re a fragile hockey team … we’re kind of back on our heels.”

Charleston said that the shots total “kind of lies, too. It’s kind of a smoke-and-mirrors type of thing, shots on goal, because you can shoot the puck from the blue line all night long with nobody in front, and the goalie’s going to stop it.

“It’s disgusting. We’re very disgusted and we don’t know what to say. Nothing in that locker room is very mythical that happens. There’s no secret ball that gets things done.”

Charleston is the team’s second-leading scorer and goal-getter, with nine markers and 14 helpers.

At least the Mavericks have their hearts in the right places. The UNO players and coaches agreed to shave their heads after Saturday’s game if their efforts to raise money for the Estabrook Cancer Center garnered them more than $30,000. In their series with WMU, the Mavericks wore gray jerseys for the occasion — and raised more than $40,000 from the auction of the jerseys and other fund-raising efforts.

So … they shaved their heads after Saturday’s loss. Right there on the bench.

I’m not sure how much of a sacrifice it was for some of the coaching staff.

I Heart Televised Hockey

Four CCHA games will be widely available on cable television this weekend, including the entire OSU-MSU series and two Saturday games, UNO at UM and FSU at BGSU Saturday.

Friday’s Buckeye-Spartan deal is carried by the Big Ten Network and features the immensely talented and under-used Shireen Saski. Saturday’s games from both Munn and Yost will be carried by FSN Detroit, and the game from Bowling Green is on CTV.

Saturday’s start time from East Lansing is 5:05 p.m. and the puck drops at 8:05 p.m. in Ann Arbor.

That all of these games can be seen where I live in Flint makes me heart my new home state a lot, and I’d like to add a colon with left-facing parenthesis, too.

(See? I’m even emoticoning, albeit with full words.)

It’s still difficult to find college hockey televised throughout most of Ohio, even though three CCHA teams are headquartered there. Two Fridays ago, there were five different live games available through my local cable provider. Five. Three CCHA contests, two WCHA contests.

This made being stranded at home with the germ du jour a bit easier to take. I made a fire in the hearth, made some sugar-free hot cocoa, grabbed a blanket and the remote control, got creative with the DVR and spent seven hours in semi-bliss.

I don’t think that fans in Michigan really understand the hockey drought that encompasses Ohio. They’re hockey-crazy in Fairbanks and Omaha, and close enough to Michigan in South Bend to pick up some games.

In Ohio, it’s as though the college version of the sport doesn’t exist.

This is why I also heart USA Hockey’s second annual “Hockey Weekend Across America.” The governing organization of amateur hockey in the U.S. is doing what it can to raise awareness of the sport nationwide. This coincides with the fourth annual “Hockey Day in Michigan,” while it’s “Hockey Week in Fairbanks.”

I’ve been hesitant to promote “Hockey Day in Michigan” here in these pixels, not because I’m not behind the efforts of the CCHA to heighten the profile of our beloved sport, but because there’s no corresponding “Hockey Day in Ohio,” “Hockey Day in Indiana,” or “Hockey Day in Nebraska.” (I’d like to see it statewide in Alaska, too, but Fairbanks has its own week, after all.)

Call me crazy — and you know you will, and I will have earned it — but promoting the sport in states other than Michigan to this extent seems like a smart move to me. This year, five of the top six teams in the league have consistently been from states other than Michigan. Raising awareness of the sport in a couple of those states, especially the two immediately south of the Michigan border, strikes me as the best way to insure both short- and long-term payoff.

Think JLA. Think gate. Think Notre Dame. Think Miami and Ohio State. Think long-term.

I Heart Yost

After beating up the profane fans in Ann Arbor the last couple of weeks, I’ve apparently become a Michigan hater. This is according to much email I’ve received from Wolverine fans.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I heart Michigan, and I heart Yost. I really heart Yost. In spite of the profanity, Yost is still my favorite small venue in the CCHA. It’s the perfect size, the fans are incredibly spirited, the atmosphere is electric and — best of all — there’s never any canned music.

That’s what makes it such a terrific place to see a game. Games in Yost are college games. No canned music. No announcer interrupting with commercial copy.

Now if only those talented, privileged students could throw together some creative, intelligent chants, I’d heart them even more.

I Heart the Shootout Now

Well, not really, not as the CCHA would like me to.

I heart the shootout like I heart The Jerry Springer Show: it’s highly entertaining, but has nothing to do with reality.

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