This Week in the CCHA: Feb. 19, 2009

The Honeymoon Is Over

Last week’s column was my nine-page valentine to you, dear reader. This week is different.

When my Mott Community College students complained about the single class in which they received chocolate this week, I told them, “I only love you enough to buy you half-priced, post-Valentine’s Day candy once, not twice.”

And when a friend complained to his wife about her decision to go brunette instead of blonde, she quickly snapped, “Adapt.” I’ve never actually met the woman but I know already that I like her.

That’s my theme this week, for every aspect of my life. Adapt. Adjust. And if neither of those works, just get over it. This is an especially useful February survival skill when the skies above Flint spit out yet another dose of winter a week after 50-degree weather.

But I digress.

It’s knuckle-down time in the CCHA. With two weeks of regular-season action remaining, it’s time to put up and adapt or shut up and adjust. Reality may be very cruel in the coming weeks for several CCHA teams — but any number of squads hold their fates in their own gloves.

Adapt. Adjust. Get over it. Skate through it. Play hockey.

You Oughta Know

Well, he ought to know better. After committing the major penalty that allowed Notre Dame to tie with 1.2 seconds left on the clock and then win in overtime Feb. 6, Buckeye freshman Ian Boots served his game disqualification the following night and was a healthy scratch for Ohio State’s 1-1 road tie against Michigan State Feb. 13.

Boots played Saturday evening and would have completely redeemed himself … had he not been in the penalty box when Spartan Jeff Petry netted the game-winning, power-play goal at 16:13 in the third.

Boots isn’t the only Buckeye to find himself in hot water lately, even if his penalty against Notre Dame was a notable act of flagrant stupidity. The Buckeyes have earned three major penalties with accompanying game disqualifications in their last five contests.

In a 6-2 road win against Alaska-Fairbanks Jan. 31, Corey Toy was given a five-minute major for cross-checking and a game DQ at 11:42 of the first period. It’s interesting to note that Toy was also assessed a double-minor for roughing at the same time — and was dressed to play at home the following Friday night when the Irish were in town. Apparently, there was some confusion about that call. Toy was pulled from the lineup when Notre Dame understandably protested.

Then against the Spartans, Mathieu Picard received a game disqualification for checking from behind at 8:44 in the third, a call that could have been a misconduct; it wasn’t intentional, nor was it malicious.

OSU head coach John Markell urges his team to play a physical brand of hockey — not a reckless one. And, in fact, the Buckeyes are on their game when they take the body, lackluster when they don’t. After Friday’s 1-1 tie, Markell said that OSU just seemed a bit off. “I just didn’t think we were getting pucks into open areas where we needed to get them. Any time that we did do that, I thought we created opportunities. We know how we play; we know how we’re successful on the forecheck.

“We were a little aloof tonight, and we have to get back on our game.”

Peter Boyd, one of the Buckeye captains, said that the line between physical play and plays that lead to penalties is a fine one, and that the Bucks cross it when they don’t move their feet.

“We’re a skating team and I think when we’re skating, hits show themselves,” said Boyd. “When we don’t skate, we kind of go after it a bit. We’ve got to get back to moving our feet first and generating hits off of that.”

In fourth place in the CCHA standings, one point behind the Nanooks and with four league games remaining to UAF’s two, the Buckeyes have a lot of say in their own destiny. To finish out the season, Ohio State hosts Michigan for two games and plays a home-and-home series against Miami — both teams ahead of OSU in the standings and both with strong enough PairWise Rankings to lift the Buckeyes from bubbleland to solid ground in the PWR.

All OSU has to do is take points. “We’ve got to get back to what we’re good at — chipping pucks, working down low,” said Boyd.

A blue-collar work ethic and a physical brand of hockey aren’t just luxuries against the Wolverines and the RedHawks.

All By (Him)self

“His preparation is phenomenal. He’s always doing things to make himself better. He’s real focused; he doesn’t give up rebounds. He was the series-changer for sure.”

That is what Boyd said about Michigan State goaltender Jeff Lerg, who stopped 69-of-71 shots for a .972 save percentage against the Buckeyes in two games last weekend. While OSU may have skidded a bit in January and February in the goal department, until mid-January Ohio State was scoring more goals on average than any team in the league, well more than four per game.

With Lerg in net, the Spartans are also a bit of a darkhorse for the CCHA playoffs. His save percentage is .924 and he’s an even better playoff goalie than he is a regular-season starter. I don’t care if Michigan State is down to six forwards and four defensemen; if 10 Spartans can keep an opposing team off the board through the first 30 minutes of play, Michigan State has a chance in every game it plays because of Lerg.

The Spartans are four points behind eighth-place Northern Michigan and this weekend are playing the only team behind them in the standings, Bowling Green, home-and-home. MSU finishes out the season with another home-and-home series against Notre Dame.

It’s not impossible for Michigan State to catch home ice for the first round of the playoffs. It is, however, nearly impossible for me to wrap my brain around the fact that MSU is chasing home ice for the first round of the playoffs.

Losin’ End

Three teams were swept outright last weekend, none of them doing themselves any favors. Just ask Northern Michigan head coach Walt Kyle, whose Wildcats gave up four power-play goals in a 5-2 loss to Notre Dame in South Bend.

“We took ourselves down,” said Kyle. “The calls were legit. We put ourselves in a big hole with no chance to dig out.”

Those four goals came within four minutes of game time, straddling the end of the first period and the beginning of the second. Billy Maday scored five-on-three at 18:37 in the first, followed by Calle Ridderwall at 19:52, also with a two-man advantage.

Thirty seconds into the second, Kyle Lawson netted the eventual game-winner, and Ben Ryan scored the final PP goal at 3:18.

What Kyle found most frustrating is that six of the eight NMU infractions Saturday were committed by upperclassmen. “We had real good performances by our young guys, but the guys that have been here need to play better in these big games … to play better and be more committed to being disciplined.”

That 5-2 loss came after being on the wrong end of a 9-5 score the night before — a game in which the Wildcats gave up six power-play tallies.

“We come in as the least-penalized team in the league,” said Kyle, “then we have a weekend like this where we take too many penalties. It’s not where we want to be.”

Another team swept by a top-tier, top-10 CCHA team was Lake Superior State. The Lakers recorded just one goal against the visiting Miami RedHawks in a pair of losses last weekend, losing 2-1 Friday and 4-0 Saturday. It was the first time LSSU had been shut out since losing 5-0 to Miami in Oxford, Jan. 19, 2008.

“We need to find a way to get more production,” said Laker head coach Jim Roque. “It’s tough to win when you only score one goal for the weekend.

“I know all the guys are trying to score goals and obviously everyone wants to score goals. We’re just not putting the puck where it needs to be on that last pass. We need to do a better job of setting up shots.”

For his efforts last weekend, Laker goaltender Pat Inglis recorded two losses in spite of stopping 60 shots.

And the third team to have been swept was Nebraska-Omaha, with 8-3 and 4-2 road losses to Michigan — but UNO head coach Mike Kemp sounded a bit more upbeat after Saturday’s loss than did his Upper Peninsula counterparts.

“We looked at last night’s game and it wasn’t a horrible game,” said Kemp. “The score was really not indicative of the game — four power-play goals and a shorty, other than that, it was a fairly close game. It was a 3-3 tie outside of those incidents.

“Tonight I thought we came out. Jerad Kaufmann played an excellent hockey game.”

The Mavericks have had, as Kemp said, “a tough second half.” UNO is 2-9-4 since the midseason break, after beginning the campaign 11-4-3.

In the two losses to Michigan, the Mavs scored five goals — one more than they had scored in their five previous games total, and two less than they’d netted in their last six. That was a bright spot, said Kemp.

“This weekend, at least, we found five goals on the weekend — that’s doubling our output for the last few weeks. It’s been a tough stretch for us.

“It hasn’t been for want of opportunities. Last week [against Western Michigan] we had 88 shots on goal, and many of them of the sterling variety. We just didn’t capitalize.

“The weekend before [against Ferris State] we had 60-some shots on goal and only came up with two goals. I feel bad for the goaltenders because they’ve kind of been left out where we haven’t really produced much support for them.”

Kaufmann (.913 save percentage) and Jeremie Dupont (.911) have split time evenly in the UNO net and each has a .500 record; Kaufmann is 7-7-3, Dupont 6-6-4.

The Wildcats, Lakers and Mavericks shouldn’t be too hard on themselves. They lost to the second-best, fifth-best and eighth-best defensive teams in the country, respectively. Notre Dame is giving up 1.84 goals per game on average, Miami 1.97 and Michigan 2.12.

Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart

It’s hard not to like the depleted Spartans, especially since their Conboy-Tropp drama of a few weeks ago. They are truly Spartan: their game is simple, they keep their heads down and grind it out and what you see is what you get.

Literally. There’s no one left to dress except for the guys on the bench. Through injuries, decisions to leave the team, suspensions and decisions to let players go, the Spartans are down eight men from when they began in October, and they have just enough players to field a team.

It hasn’t been an easy season.

“I think the biggest challenge I’ve had is not only to help them get better but to keep their heads and hearts in it,” said head coach Rick Comley. “That’s been the biggest challenge. You need wins to get reinforced; we haven’t had a lot of those.

“I think it’s obvious to everybody that these kids are getting better, they haven’t quit playing and they’re competitive. This is the core of our team next year. That’s what you always have to remember.

“I’m encouraged by the growth. We’re just trying to sneak out a few here and go into playoffs on a good note.”

MSU is 2-0-2 in its last four, the best stretch of points the Spartans have seen since Halloween weekend.

(And who told you in these very pixels that the Buckeyes should beware because MSU is a holiday team? Hmm?)

With the drama behind them, the team is more relaxed — as is their coach, who can be howlingly funny post-game. Last weekend after tying OSU Friday night, Comley told the story of one Spartan who was trying to catch his breath during the contest.

“Some of those forwards have to play so much. I looked for [Dustin] Gazley one time and [trainer] Dave Carrier said, ‘He’s winded. He’s in the tunnel.’

“And I said, ‘Well get him back here. There’s no time to be winded. He can be tired after.'”

Having so few bodies to put on the ice leads to unexpected circumstances during the practice week, too.

“We’re on the ice Tuesday, practicing,” said Comley, “and all of a sudden a guy’s coming down in a maroon jersey and I say, ‘Now, who is that?’

“I look at this kid and — I didn’t realize he was going to practice Tuesday — and I said, ‘Come on now. Who are you?'”

Turned out it was Jake Schering — “Nice kid,” said Comley — who was a Michigan Mr. Hockey finalist in 2006.

“He was not playing on the club team,” said Comley. “He’d written me a letter and said that he’d played for Trenton High School and if I needed a body he was more than willing to come out. Can’t practice every day because he has classes.”

About those practices, said Comley, “We’re going 45-50 minutes a day and that’s all. We do what I think we need to do. I want to keep them mentally fresh.”

It’s Your Call

Nebraska-Omaha would have loved a call late in the third period against Michigan last Saturday night.

Luke Glendening had the goal that put the Wolverines ahead of the Mavericks, 3-2, at 15:32 in the third. Just before that play, Glendening was in the very near vicinity of Maverick Mark Bernier, who was heading out of the UNO defensive zone with the puck.

In fact, it was contact that appeared to be a trip that forced the turnover that led to the game-winning goal. When play came back into the UNO zone — with Bernier still on the ice — Glendening passed up to Louie Caporusso, Caporusso back to Glendening and Glendening scored.

UNO head coach Mike Kemp isn’t one to grouse without diplomacy, and he knows his team should have scored more goals. Still, said Kemp, “I thought Mark Bernier — I don’t think he tripped over his feet coming out of the defensive zone.”

And that’s love for you.

Kemp and the Mavericks looked great recently shorn, too.

It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To

Okay, so it wasn’t exactly crying … but it sure felt an awful lot like whining.

Fred Pletsch, associate commissioner of the CCHA, asked me Saturday if I liked the shootout any more now that I’ve seen it a few times. I told him that I didn’t like it any less.

My rationale is that it has little to do with the game, and the league disagrees. I also think that it’s perfectly okay to end things tied. Not everyone’s a winner — nor does everyone have to be.

And when a team that isn’t “supposed” to win pushes a more talented team to a deadlocked score, I think that’s just dandy. And sporting. And exciting. And more indicative of what each team deserves.

And that’s all, folks.

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