This Week In The CCHA: March 5, 2009

The Difference of One Week

I thought I was a little off last week. Insert your own punch line here.

It seems as though I’m a week behind giving out the annual Girl Reporter Awards. So I’m a week behind in that — Part Deux soon to follow.

But heading into the first round of the CCHA playoffs this week, I marvel at the difference seven days can make.

When this weekly column with Part One of the hardware was published seven days ago, my friend and colleague, Mike Lockert, was alive — so alive that I still cannot believe a week later that he’s gone.

Mike was the radio voice of Notre Dame hockey for seven years, and that’s how I knew him. He was smart, professional, funny, compassionate, outgoing, friendly and a whole bunch of other positive adjectives. Mike died in his sleep of an apparent heart attack in the early hours of Feb. 27, leaving behind a family in California who loved him and scores of friends, colleagues, and hockey fans who liked and respected him.

In a blog I wrote earlier this week, I said that I couldn’t wrap my brain around this. I still can’t. Mike was just 43 years old. I know I’m not the only one who will forever miss his warm smile.

But Mike, I know, would want me to get on with it, and I don’t think he’d be offended a bit if I mentioned him in the company of things that seem trivial by comparison, as long as we’re talking hockey. In fact, I think he’d chuckle.

Mike’s death puts much in perspective, like the triviality of who gets a bye week in the first round of the CCHA playoffs. But this week did make a difference for several teams, and since we all shared Mike’s passion for college hockey, let’s have it.

For starters, what a difference a week makes for the Alaska Nanooks. Sure, they were shut out twice in nonconference play against the arch rival Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves. Sure they lost the Governor’s Cup. But because of one little point, the Nanooks with host a second-round CCHA playoff series, having earned a first-round bye by tying their program-best CCHA finish, fourth place.

That’s a shootout “win” against Lake Superior State or Nebraska-Omaha. One point.

And with a two-game sweep of Bowling Green, the Western Michigan Broncos have earned home ice for the first round of the CCHA playoffs. These are the same Western Michigan Broncos who had two season-high, two-game win streaks twice in 2008-09 and who needed to finish the campaign with three in a row to vault themselves ahead of Ferris State and Lake Superior State.

And they did so in memorable fashion. Junior forward Jared Katz scored the winning goal in Saturday’s 5-3 victory over BG, clinching that home ice. It was Katz’s first goal as a Bronco.

Bronco junior goaltender Riley Gill made 71 saves in the two games against the Falcons as BG outshot WMU 76-45. Gill also made 37 saves in 4-1 Bronco win over Lake Superior State Feb. 21 that got this six points rolling.

With a split against Ohio State, the Miami RedHawks lost sole possession of second place…and the Michigan Wolverines finished tied for second, their 18th consecutive year of finishing at least tied for No. 2 or better in the CCHA.

Is it any wonder that the University of Michigan extended Red Berenson’s contract through the end of next season? I’m guessing he can stay as long as he wants.

And by not capturing one more point this season, the Ohio State Buckeyes will remain home to play this weekend. That’s one more goal against MSU two weeks ago — or one against Michigan back in October.

Any way you look at it, it’s been a week of unexpected developments. I haven’t even digested the fact that we have a guy in the Oval Office who’s calling for taking a hard look at how defense contracts are awarded.

That is certainly something I can’t wrap my brain around. I think I’ll take things one day at a time from now on and enjoy every single one of them. Yeah, I know it’s a cliche, but what better time than playoff hockey to resolve to live in the moment?

Round One

Just like last season, here’s a brief synopsis of each team playing this weekend, in order of league finish. All stats are overall; stats that follow the slash in each bulleted list indicate a team’s ranking among CCHA opponents in overall play.

The head-to-head matches are to the right.

No. 5 Ohio State

Overall record: 20-12-4
Home record: 11-5-2
Last 10 games: 4-5-1
Goals scored per game: 3.44/3rd
Goals allowed per game: 2.75/8th
Power play percentage: 13.8/7th
Penalty kill percentage: 80.6/11th
Top scorer: John Albert (11-26-37)
Top goal scorer: Corey Elkins (14-20-34)
Top goaltender: Dustin Carlson (.919 SV%, 2.42 GAA)

Once again, the Buckeyes find themselves third-class tenants of their own home building. After earning “home” ice for the first round of the CCHA playoffs, Ohio State will host in the OSU Ice Arena rather than the state-of-the-art Schottenstein Center, home of Value City Arena and the Buckeyes’ home rink since 1999.

Each year at this time, the Schott is booked for something other than Ohio State hockey. Every year. Every single year.

That was probably incentive for last weekend’s series against Miami, which the Bucks split. Had OSU taken just one more point from the ‘Hawks, they would have earned a first-round bye and they’d be hosting in Value City Arena in two weeks.

Instead, it’s the old rink.

“We have to have a lot of heart going into these games,” says head coach John Markell, “no matter where we play.”

There are some advantages to playing in the old rink. The place is small — I don’t think it legally seats over 800 people — and it gets loud and rocking. The ice is flawless, thanks to rink manager Duke Johnson and his crew. It will feel much more collegiate than anything OSU can present in the VCA.

Two years ago, the Buckeyes hosted a first-round series against Northern Michigan in the old rink. The place did rock. The Bucks did lose in three games.

OSU limps into the playoffs with a shaky second half, although the Buckeyes have played well against ranked squads going down the stretch.

Here’s some irony: OSU is the only first-round CCHA team that is a team under consideration in the PairWise Rankings. Should the Buckeyes win this weekend, they’ll travel to Fairbanks for another best-of-three series, playing against a team whose PWR is significantly lower.

They’re young, they can score, Dustin Carlson can defend the net — and if they’re confident, it could be a fun weekend for OSU fans in Columbus. Maybe.

No. 6 Northern Michigan

Overall record: 14-15-5
Home record: 8-8-1
Last 10 games: 7-2-1
Goals scored per game: 2.56/7th
Goals allowed per game: 2.65/6thPower play percentage: 13.4/8th
Penalty kill percentage: 81.4/10th
Top scorer: Mark Olver (13-16-29), Gregor Hanson (11-18-29)
Top goal scorer: Mark Olver
Top goaltender: Brian Stewart (.922 SV%, 2.36 GAA)

This team is looking really pretty right now, with a strong second half and good games against ranked opponents. Since the beginning of this calendar year, NMU is 11-3-2 overall, and they’re undefeated (5-0-1) at home.

“We’re starting to get our game where we like it,” head coach Walt Kyle told the Marquette Mining Journal this week. “We’re inching back to where we want to be, and we’re close to being in full stride right now.”

Once upon a time, this former Hardest Working Team in College Hockey had an insurmountable work ethic, and that’s what the Wildcats are inching back towards. If they get there with consistency, they’ll be nearly impossible to beat.

Last weekend, the Wildcats gave up four third-period goals in a pair of wins against the Lakers, two in each contest. That’s the kind of letdown that NMU needs to avoid in playoff hockey.

“For long stretches of the game tonight, I saw us play in the style we need to play,” said Kyle after Saturday’s 4-3 win. “We had a lot of guys play hard and we get a lot of scoring out of the freshman-sophomore classes right now.”

That scoring is coming from guys like sophomores Mark Olver and Gregor Hanson, as well as their classmate Jared Brown and Phil Fox, each 10-goal scorers this season.

What really makes me like NMU’s chances postseason is Brian Stewart, who can play remarkable playoff hockey.

No. 7. Western Michigan

Overall record: 12-17-7
Home record: 6-9-3
Last 10 games: 5-4-1
Goals scored per game: 2.72/6th
Goals allowed per game: 3.03/11th
Power play percentage: 18.1/3rd
Penalty kill percentage: 80.0/12th
Top scorer: Patrick Galivan (17-25-42)
Top goal scorer: Patrick Galivan
Top goaltender: Riley Gill (.924 SV%, 2.68 GAA)

Western Michigan? Who knew?

This playoff series is the third time in the last 10 years that the Broncos have hosted, and they worked hard to get here. At the start of the season, I saw an enthusiasm and unity from this WMU squad that I hadn’t seen from the Broncos in a long, long time — and I’m genuinely happy that it bore the Broncos through the season and earned them home ice.

Other than chemistry, it’s difficult to say what fuels this Bronco team. There is talent — as Patrick Galivan, Max Campbell, Tyler Ludwig, Riley Gill and several others have shown us. There’s passion, as Chris Frank as demonstrated.

There have also been 11 games that haven’t counted as wins for the Broncos decided by one or fewer goals. The feeling is that this team is just almost there.

And they’re riding a three-game win streak into the weekend, their longest of the season.

No. 8 Nebraska-Omaha

Overall record: 13-15-8
Home record: 8-6-5
Last 10 games: 0-7-3
Goals scored per game: 2.50/8th
Goals allowed per game: 2.64/5th
Power play percentage: 16.2/5th
Penalty kill percentage: 83.7/8th
Top scorer: Eddie Del Grosso (5-26-31)
Top goal scorer: Tomas Klempa (14-9-23)
Top goaltenders: Jerad Kaufmann (.915 SV%, 2.35 GAA), Jeremie Dupont (.909 SV%, 2.72 GAA)

This team has all the ingredients. If only the Mavericks could purchase an antidote for that snakebite they’ve been carrying in their veins through the second half of the season.

Nebraska-Omaha is winless in 14 games straight — an extraordinary streak with which to end a season and secure home ice in the first round of the CCHA playoffs. It’s a testimony to how well UNO did in the first half.

Before the holiday break, the Mavericks were 11-3-3, averaging 3.24 goals per game. Since the break, the Mavs are 2-11-5, averaging 1.94 goals per game.

And it gets worse. If you take away the 12 goals scored in those two second-half wins, UNO has averaged 1.44 goals in its winless second-half games.

And it gets even worse; the Mavericks have scored two or fewer goals in 13 of those contests, one or fewer goals in nine of those games.

After losing 1-0 at home Feb. 21 to Notre Dame in UNO’s last regular-season series, head coach Mike Kemp put it all in perspective.

“You look at how the league’s shaped up and if you think about it, all you needed was for three of those one-goal games to go the other way and all of a sudden we’re in fourth place with a bye. That’s how close it is all the way through.

“From that standpoint, we didn’t think that would happen back at Christmas, and I don’t think anyone would have predicted this.”

No. 9 Ferris State

Overall record: 12-17-7
Away record: 6-6-4
Last 10 games: 2-6-2
Goals scored per game: 2.44/9th
Goals allowed per game: 2.69/7th
Power play percentage: 16.4/4th
Penalty kill percentage: 85.7/6th
Top scorer: Brendan Connolly (8-18-26)
Top goal scorer: Aaron Lewicki (10-8-18)
Top goaltenders: Taylor Nelson (.914 SV%, 2.47 GAA), Pat Nagle (.912 SV%, 2.73 GAA)

Ferris State head coach Bob Daniels is another coach who’s shaking his head a bit at the way things ended up.

“The season didn’t end the way we wanted it to,” said Daniels this week, “but this is a new opportunity to start off the second season with everyone else. We would like to take advantage of that opportunity.”

The Bulldogs flirted with home ice for most of the season, but just two wins in their last 10 games put and end to that story. FSU rides a five-game losing streak into the playoffs after home-and-home losses against Michigan last week, a pair of losses in Fairbanks the week before, and a split in Bowling Green the week before that.

FSU is another snake-bitten team; the Bulldogs have averaged a goal per game in their last five and each of their last 10 games has been decided by one or fewer goals except for their 7-1 win over Nebraska-Omaha Jan. 30.

They have tenacity on their side, decent special teams, good goaltending — but those are things they have in common with their host, UNO.

No. 10 Lake Superior State

Overall record: 10-18-8
Away record: 4-10-3
Last 10 games: 3-7-0
Goals scored per game: 2.78/5th
Goals allowed per game: 2.92/t9th
Power play percentage: 12.3/10th
Penalty kill percentage: 83.8/7th
Top scorer: Troy Schwab (10-18-28)
Top goal scorer: Zac MacVoy (14-11-14)
Top goaltender: Brian Mahoney-Wilson (.914 SV%, 2.63 GAA), Pat Inglis (.904 SV%, 3.01 GAA)

The Lakers were a team that did pretty well against evenly matched CCHA opponents this year, but they didn’t fare as well against ranked and top-tier teams. LSSU is a team that can score and that doesn’t quit — they netted two third-period goals in each loss against Northern Michigan last weekend — but their defense leaves them vulnerable.

“There’s no quit in our team,” said Laker head coach Jim Roque after last Friday’s 7-3 road loss to NMU. “We had good chances tonight. We were around the net. We have to produce on the power play and we have to have more discipline.”

That could be the story of LSSU’s season. The Lakers have some talented forwards who can buzz and a couple of goaltenders who can give them chances to be in games, but they can’t seem to bury the puck with consistency. Their second half has been punctuated by big wins — 8-4 over Bowling Green Jan. 24, 7-4 over Western Feb. 20 — but many games without scoring rhyme or reason. Three-goal losses. Four-goal losses. One-goal losses. Ties against Wisconsin and Notre Dame.

But if they were going to finish in the bottom half, they may have drawn their best chance to advance. At least they know they can score on the Broncos.

No. 11 Michigan State

Overall record: 10-21-5
Away record: 2-13-2
Last 10 games: 5-3-2
Goals scored per game: 1.58/12th
Goals allowed per game: 2.92/t9th
Power play percentage: 11.1/11th
Penalty kill percentage: 87.2/5th
Top scorer: Matt Schepke (14-9-23)
Top goal scorer: Matt Schepke
Top goaltender: Jeff Lerg (.925 SV%, 2.70 GAA)

If I were hosting this weekend, this is the team I’d least like to see in my building. Why? Senior goaltender Jeff Lerg.

Sure, the Spartans have had a crappy season, and not just on the ice. But Lerg is, without question, one of the best playoff goaltenders in college hockey.

This week, Lerg became the CCHA’s all-time save leader and the NCAA’s second all-time in saves with 3,951.

“You can’t say enough,” said head coach Rick Comley. “He’s one of the best ever. He certainly joins, legitimately, the company of Ryan Miller and Chad Alban.

“He gives you a chance very night and that’s why despite the difficult situation for us, you go into the playoffs with a chance. In the playoffs, goaltenders can steal games.”

And if the Spartans are to somehow get past the Wildcats this weekend, Lerg will have to steal some games. MSU has just enough skaters to dress a team, after injuries, suspensions and departures have depleted this year’s Spartan squad.

Comley has repeated all season that it’s difficult to win games without centermen, but as difficult as that is, if this young and understaffed MSU team can keep the games close, they may steal wins. Maybe.

No. 12 Bowling Green

Overall record: 11-22-3
Away record: 2-13-1
Last 10 games: 2-8-0
Goals scored per game: 2.33/10th
Goals allowed per game: 3.31/12th
Power play percentage: 12.7/9th
Penalty kill percentage: 83.4/9th
Top scorer: Dan Sexton (16-22-38)
Top goal scorer: Dan Sexton
Top goaltender: Jimmy Spratt (.896 SV%, 2.88 GAA)

BGSU head coach Scott Paluch is one of the genuinely sunniest people I know. Here the Falcons are in last place, heading to Columbus to play a team that swept them in two heartbreaking regular-season games, and Paluch has found something about which to be positive.

“It certainly adds an exciting element to the playoffs to be playing an in-state rival,” said Paluch this week. Let the U.S. 23/Ohio 15/I-75 series begin!

(It just doesn’t have the right ring, does it?)

Paluch is realistic about his team’s chances — or options — against Ohio State. “They are an up-tempt team that has been as consistent offensively as any team in the CCHA. Puck possession and our ability to keep play in [their] offensive zone will be very important to success this weekend.”

The Falcons are 2-13-1 on the road this season, outscored 56-29 in those contests, and they bring a seven-game road losing streak into Columbus Friday night. But … they’re not playing in the cavernous Schottenstein Center, and the homey digs of the old OSU Ice Arena may help spark the Falcons in this series.

While Jimmy Spratt has been the workhorse in net for the Falcons this year and admirably so, he’s received very little support from the team in front of him, either by way of defense to help him defend that net or offense to cut him some slack. Nick Eno has returned to play after being injured, but how he’ll perform is anyone’s guess.

Virtual Hardware, Part 2

Just like last year, I’m limiting each Girl Reporter All-League team to six players. Unlike last year, I won’t need a separate team for Wolverine rookies.

The Girl Reporter All-CCHA Team

Louie Caporusso (F, UM)
Erik Condra (F, ND)
Patrick Galivan (F, WMU)
Chad Langlais (D, UM)
Brett Blatchford (D, ND)
Chad Johnson (G, UAF)

Oddly enough, while it was difficult for me last week to pick one player as the best in the league overall, it’s doubly hard to narrow down my all-league team — but not for lack of talent. There are simply too many candidates.

This year, the entire league seems to be doing things by committee. Sure, there are household names but many good players have contributed to an interesting and seemingly more democratic season.

Caporusso is an obvious pick that needs no explanation. Erik Condra (13-22-35) is clearly a difference-maker for Notre Dame. Patrick Galivan (17-25-42) has become a force on the ice for the Broncos.

I don’t think that Langlais and Blatchford — one of my favorite stay-at-home guys — need explanation, but I do think it’s important to note that Johnson is doing what he’s doing in Fairbanks, not South Bend.

Having said that, it was hard not to pick Jordan Pearce.

The Girl Reporter All-Rookie CCHA Team

Zac Dalpe (F, OSU)
Billy Maday (F, ND)
David Wohlberg (F, UM)
Matt Bartkowski (D, OSU)
Chris Wideman (D, Miami)
Connor Knapp (G, Miami)

I should have included Ferris State’s Taylor Nelson among my list of guys mostly to be overlooked this season. No rookie goaltender carried a team alone this season. Nelson has the highest save percentage among freshmen goalies in the CCHA, but Knapp has the best win percentage.

The Girl Reporter All-Goon Squad

You know, bone-crunching hits and harmless brawling were so much more fun to contemplate in the first half of this season before a certain night of unnecessary drama in Yost Ice Arena. Sigh.

And with four guys in stripes on the ice, you’d think there would be a lovely variety of interesting penalties. Instead, the kids seem to be behaving more.

Mostly. Thank goodness for the Ferris State Bulldogs.

The Bulldogs are this year’s most-penalized team in the nation, amassing 815 total minutes for an average of 22.6 per game. I could man an entire squad with Bulldogs, but that would be overlooking some significant contributions from other fellas around the league.

But a trio of Bulldogs cannot be overlooked.

Brandon Connolly, Justin Lewandowski and Blair Riley, FSU

I don’t know what’s more impressive: the fact that these three gentlemen have combined for 256 minutes — nearly a third of FSU’s overall penalty minutes — or that they’re all forwards.

Connolly alone has 33 penalties for 101 total minutes. Five other guys on the FSU squad have over 40 minutes each, and the entire team plays an instigating brand of hockey.

I wonder how junior winger Casey Haines feels among his teammates. Haines has played in all 36 games this season and netted six goals with 10 assists, but has earned only 10 PIMs on five calls.

Probably eats his spinach and washes behind his ears, too.

Chris Frank, WMU

They don’t call him “Frank the Tank” for nothing.

I will so miss this senior when he’s gone. This defenseman plays with all-out passion and would be the Broncos’ enforcer — were it ethically appropriate to have a designated enforcer in college hockey.

This is Frank’s third consecutive season on the Goon Squad. His 73 PIMs are up from last year’s 63 minutes but he’s still nowhere near his 99-minute sophomore season.

Brandon Gentile, MSU

A blueliner with 81 minutes? He’s in. And I’ve seen why.

Tristan Llewellyn, UM

Another blueliner who significantly beefed up his game from a year ago — at least for time spent in the box. Two years ago in his freshman year, Llewellyn was called for 18 penalties and 36 PIMs; this year, he has 88 minutes on 36 calls.

And he plays for the second-most penalized team in the nation. Thank goodness, too, for the Wolverines.

Next Week

The second round of the CCHA playoffs, and a recent chat I had with Steve Piotrowski, head of officiating for the CCHA.

And no bad news.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here