This Week in the CCHA: March 12, 2009

Unfitting Ends

What a way for two senior CCHA goaltenders to go out.

In Marquette, Michigan State senior goaltender Jeff Lerg played his last collegiate contest, allowing a career-high eight goals in the loss to Northern Michigan.

In Columbus, Bowling Green senior goaltender Jimmy Spratt played his last collegiate contest, left the crease during a whistled stoppage of the game, went to the OSU bench, slashed a Buckeye player and incited mayhem — one night after leaving the ice before the post-game handshake.

Neither player wants to be remembered for these things; Lerg won’t be. In four years, Jeff Lerg proved himself to be an intense but classy player, an easy and fun kid to talk to, a humanitarian, a leader on and off the ice. He also won that national championship in 2007 and climbed to No. 2 for saves all-time among NCAA goaltenders (3,996).

Spratt doesn’t have the advantage of Lerg’s numbers or widespread reputation. I’ve always liked him and found him approachable and admired his fiercely competitive nature. I was very happy for him when he shut out the Wolverines Jan. 16; after unexpectedly carrying the Falcons for the first half of the season following an injury to sophomore goalie Nick Eno, the shutout win in Yost Arena was a rewarding memory-maker for Spratt, one that not many visitors to Ann Arbor can claim.

And it’s because of Spratt’s four-year career and what he’s meant to Bowling Green that makes what happened with 5:39 left in the second period of Saturday’s 7-1 Ohio State playoff win over Bowling Green genuinely unfortunate. This is not how I want to remember Jimmy Spratt.

The unfolding of the events is a bit fuzzy. I wasn’t there, there was no video on the game, and reports from colleagues who were there are consistent about several things. I’ve asked to talk to Steve Piotrowski, the CCHA’s head of officiating, to clear up a few things but he’s a busy man this week.

I do know that OSU sophomore and captain Peter Boyd was hit away from the play just before this happened, fell to the ice, hit his head and then struggled to get to the bench. Boyd buzzed the Falcons all weekend and beat Spratt twice in Friday’s 5-4 win, scoring the game-winning goal at 14:23 in the third. As there are no choirboys in college hockey, this helped inflame the Buckeye bench when the fight erupted.

And it was a fight. The benches cleared, something that can happen much more easily in the OSU Ice Arena than in Value City. The old barn is small and intimate; there isn’t room for much more than hockey in the place.

There were 102 minutes assessed in the game, which was officiated by referees Kevin Hall and Keith Sergott and assistant referees T.J. Likens and Mike Elder — all of whom, by all reports, did a fine job of keeping the fight from getting even worse, as did Ohio State assistant coaches Steve Brent and Jason Lammers, who jumped onto the ice in an effort to minimize the damage for their own team going into this week’s games against Alaska-Fairbanks.

All told, in the bench-clearing brawl — for that’s exactly what it was — there were five major penalties for fighting with accompanying game disqualifications, and one minor penalty for delay of game. Falcons James Perkins, Kai Kantola and Kevin Schmidt each received three majors, while Spratt earned the delay of game. Buckeyes Zach Pelletier and Ian Boots received earned the other two major penalties.

This leaves me confused. Why did Spratt, who provided the spark for the fight by leaving his crease, skating to the OSU bench and slashing a player — by some accounts Pelletier, some accounts Nick Biondo — earn only two minutes for delay of game? Why didn’t BG’s Nick Bailen and OSU’s Biondo — who were by every account seriously going at it as hard if not harder than anyone else on the ice — earn nothing?

And what about the rest of the guys who jumped the dashers and headed into the fray? Word is that even Joseph Palmer, the Buckeye goaltender who lost the starting job to Dustin Carlson, was out there mixing it up. (And this amuses me on many levels.)

In any event, this is not how I want to remember Jimmy Spratt. Funny how I don’t at all mind remembering Kevin Schmidt this way; in fact, it’s a very fitting end for one of my favorite stay-at-home defensive scrappers in the CCHA.

Another Unfitting End

I never thought that a goaltender whose save percentage is second-best in the CCHA and eighth-best in the nation would receive honorable mention at the end of the season. Taking nothing away from Jeff Lerg, but didn’t Jordan Pearce have an extraordinary season worthy of at least second-team honors in the CCHA All-Conference teams?

Fitting Ends

Three seniors distinguished themselves at home for the last time last week, all worthy of mention.

In Columbus, senior Corey Elkins netted his second career hat trick and a career-high four-point game in OSU’s 7-1 win over BGSU Saturday. His four-point effort gave him 40 points on the season, the first time a Buckeye has hit that mark since Tom Fritsche (45) and Rod Pelley (41) did so in 2004-05. In his first three seasons at OSU, Elkins had nine goals and 19 assists in 60 games.

In Marquette, senior Nick Sirota scored twice and assisted on the game-winning goal in Saturday’s 8-2 win over Michigan State. Sirota had five goals in 34 games going into the weekend.

In Omaha, senior goaltender Jerad Kaufmann stopped all shots he faced in Friday’s 3-0 UNO win over Ferris State, earning his fourth career shutout. Kaufmann’s save percentage in his final two home games was .954. Kaufmann’s save percentage is .919 this season; his average save percentage for his first three seasons as a Maverick is .893.

A Little Clarification

I did get the chance to talk to Steve Piotrowski, the league’s head of officiating, regarding goal calls in a contentious 3-2 OSU home win over Michigan Feb. 21. I received a lot of email from fans regarding the Louie Caporusso “goal” that wasn’t allowed, and C.J. Severyn’s game-winner that was allowed.

On Caporusso’s goal, Piotrowski said that “the issue that made that not a goal was that he directed the puck off the back of his glove.” Piotrowski said the situation was a little unusual in that Caporusso didn’t exhibit the normal swat-in. “He did have two hands on his stick but he used his glove to direct the puck into the goal,” said Piotrowski.

As for Severyn’s goal, “The puck was legally propelled by the Ohio State player’s stick … but the impetus of that puck moving toward the goal and into the goal was the Michigan player’s skate.”

So there you go. No word on non-captains arguing their teams’ calls.

A Little More Clarification

Earlier this week, another website reported that the Bowling Green hockey program may be in imminent danger of being cut, and the Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune also ran a story Wednesday. We picked up the story after that.

I haven’t written anything about this yet in my column because there’s nothing concrete to report — only rumors. No one has said anything specific.

The Sentinel-Tribune wrote, “Rumors about the fate of the program have been flying for several weeks and intensified late Tuesday.”

What was this event that intensified the rumors late Tuesday? No one knows. I talked to Steve Barr of BG’s athletic communications, and he doesn’t know, either.

The article in the Sentinel-Tribune did quote a Bowling Green trustee, Michael Marsh, who said that “everything is on the table” — including hockey — because BG is facing a budget deficit between $6 and $10 million dollars.

The rumors are thick and people are panicking. According to Marsh, quoted in the Sentinel-Tribune story, several rumors are not true. BGSU president Dr. Carol Cartwright has not made any recommendation to cut hockey; there have been no meetings of the board of trustees to discuss cutting hockey and the board hasn’t voted to do so.

The board next meets April 23.

Given the nature of the BGSU budget woes, I can see this as a real and very sad possibility. It would be irresponsible to cut academics before athletics at any school, and hockey is an expensive program to operate.

But nothing has been decided yet, and now there are rumors surrounding the information surrounding the rumors and — this is infuriating — this column now feeds that cycle.

It’s out there now. Perhaps BGSU ice hockey supporters and alumni can do something about it.

Round Two

Last week, each home team prevailed to advance to the second round of the CCHA playoffs, and each series had its own interesting story.

In Columbus, the Buckeyes rocked an 800-seat arena and swept in-state rival Bowling Green, capping the season off with an interesting melee mid-game Saturday.

In Marquette, the Wildcats ended Michigan State’s season in a two-game sweep in which they outscored the Spartans 13-5, posting eight goals on an all-world netminder.

In Kalamazoo, the Broncos needed three games to eliminate Lake Superior State — and WMU needed two overtimes in the second to keep from being eliminated itself in a thrilling come-from-behind series win.

In Omaha, the Mavericks bested Ferris State in two games by a collective score of 7-2, earning their first wins since Jan. 9.

This week, each of these teams travels — one much farther than all the others — to try to upset four well-rested and confident hockey teams.

Here’s a brief synopsis of each team in order of league finish. All stats are overall, and stats that follow the slash in each list indicate at team’s ranking among CCHA opponents in overall play.

Head-to-head matches are to the right.

No. 1 Notre Dame

• Overall record: 27-5-3
• Home record: 11-3-2
• Last 10 games: 8-2-0
• Vs. UNO 2008-09: 2-0-0
• Goals scored per game: 3.46/3rd
• Goals allowed per game: 1.74/2nd
• Power play percentage: 23.9/1st
• Penalty kill percentage: 88.8/2nd
• Top scorer: Erik Condra (13-22-35)
• Top goalscorer: Christian Hanson (16-14-30)
• Top goaltender: Jordan Pearce (.929 SV%, 1.72 GAA)

For the second time in three seasons, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are the top seed in this field — such a far cry from the 13-19-4 season of 2005-06, the rookie season for this year’s Irish seniors.

Junior defenseman Kyle Lawson doesn’t even remember those bad old days, but this week he summed up the team’s feelings about going into the so-called second season when he talked to Jake Brown of the South Bend Tribune.

“This is definitely why you play, not those middle-of-January, lackluster days,” said Lawson. “That’s for sure.”

Those middle-of-January lackluster days? Lawson must have been referring to the dreary South Bend winter, because the only thing remotely lackluster about Notre Dame in mid-January was a tie game in Sault Ste. Marie Jan. 17 — and the Irish even pulled out the extra point in that one via the shootout.

The Irish carry a six-game win streak into the weekend, and the only three blemishes on Notre Dame’s second half are that tie against LSSU and single losses to Michigan and Ohio State.

While this Notre Dame team is impressively balanced and deep, the biggest Irish advantage never takes the ice. Head coach Jeff Jackson is 30-7 all-time in CCHA postseason play. Jackson needs just one more win to give him 100 in the four seasons he’s been at Notre Dame.

The Irish are a team that wins as a team, with hard-working forwards, solid defense and a stellar goaltender. Junior left wing Ryan Thang (9-7-16), sidelined with an ankle injury since Feb. 6, is skating and listed as day-to-day.

No. 2 Michigan

• Overall record: 26-10-0
• Home record: 14-3-0
• Last 10 games: 8-2-0
• Vs. WMU 2008-09: 1-1-0
• Goals scored per game: 3.58/1st
• Goals allowed per game: 2.03/3rd
• Power play percentage: 16.0/6th
• Penalty kill percentage: 88.1/3rd
• Top scorer: Louie Caporusso (23-20-43)
• Top goalscorer: Louie Caporusso
• Top goaltender: Bryan Hogan (.917 SV%, 1.91 GAA)

The Wolverines are hosting their 21st consecutive home CCHA playoff series and the Wolverines have advanced to conference semifinal play for 19 straight seasons. That tells you nearly everything you need to know about Michigan hockey.

Almost. What’s impressive about this Michigan team is the way in which it came together in the second half of the season. Like the Irish, the Wolverines have just three blemishes on their record since the start of the calendar year, single losses to Bowling Green, Notre Dame and Ohio State.

In the first half of the season, Michigan was 11-7-0; since returning from the holidays (and including the GLI), the Wolverines are 15-3-0 and UM is 17-3-0 since the start of December, averaging 4.1 goals in those 20 games.

Junior captain Chris Summers — the de facto spokesman for the team with senior captain Mark Mitera out for most of the season — said that the Wolverines have always been a second-half team for as long as he’s been in Ann Arbor. “We had trouble early on finding our roles,” Summers. “Guys are starting to find their roles and play their roles.”

Any discussion of the Wolverines’ postseason induces serious deja vu. This Michigan team, like teams before it, is loaded in every position. The Wolverines are talented and creative up front but not afraid to play blue-collar hockey. They score. They block. They grind. Bryan Hogan saves.

Michigan got a big boost with the return of Mitera for the last weekend of regular-season play. The Wolverine captain actually scored a goal in the second period of UM’s 4-0 home win over Ferris State — the fourth goal in his four-year career. Senior Billy Sauer also earned a shutout in his final regular-season game at Yost Arena.

Post-game, both were asked about the Wolverines’ stellar second half, and each quipped something about not really playing down that stretch, one moment of levity among many for the Wolverines this season. They’re as relaxed as they are talented, a good combo to defend a playoff championship.

No. 3 Miami

• Overall record: 19-10-5
• Home record: 9-5-2
• Last 10 games: 6-2-2
• Vs. NMU 2008-09: 0-1-1
• Goals scored per game: 3.21/4th
• Goals allowed per game: 2.15/4th
• Power play percentage: 19.5/2nd
• Penalty kill percentage: 91.1/1st
• Top scorer: Carter Camper (19-19-38)
• Top goalscorer: Carter Camper
• Top goaltender: Connor Knapp (.906 SV%, 2.06 GAA)

Here’s my favorite positive spin of the week, straight from the Miami RedHawk weekly press release: “Miami has not lost a CCHA second-round home series since being swept by Lake Superior State University in 2007.”

Now, I’m not very good at math and this whole calendar thing, but doesn’t that mean that Miami won last year but lost the year before?

Last year, the RedHawks beat Bowling Green in two games to advance to Joe Louis Arena. The year before, the Lakers won a pair of 2-1 playoff games to cap the inaugural year of Steve Cady Arena, and in 2005-06, Miami swept WMU in two games to put the old Goggin Arena to bed.

What does all of this mean? I don’t know — they brought it up.

The RedHawks are a stealthily good team, with an outstanding power play fueled by Carter Camper (19-19-38) and Pat Cannone (11-22-33). Eleven of Camper’s and five of Cannone’s goals have come with the man-advantage; seven of junior Jarod Palmer’s eight markers have come on the PP this season.

With six players in double-digit goalscoring, the RedHawks are formidable with the puck. They’re also pretty good without it, with the seventh-best scoring defense in the country.

Freshman Knapp has the stats where it counts, in wins and losses this season, but his classmate Cody Reichard (.912 SV%, 2.19 GAA) has played 14 games for the RedHawks in 2008-09. Knapp has played the last three straight.

No. 4 Alaska

• Overall record: 15-13-6
• Home record: 9-6-2
• Last 10 games: 4-5-1
• Vs. OSU 2008-09: 1-1-0
• Goals scored per game: 1.94/11th
• Goals allowed per game: 1.74/1st
• Power play percentage: 9.5/12th
• Penalty kill percentage: 88.1/4th
• Top scorer: Dion Knelson (8-12-20)
• Top goalscorer: Braden Walls (9-8-17)
• Top goaltender: Chad Johnson (.937 SV%, 1.70 GAA)

For the second year in a row, the Alaska Nanooks have had a player named to the CCHA All-Conference team. Last year, it was Tyler Eckford; this year, it’s senior goaltender Chad Johnson, who has become one of the most formidable netminders in the country.

But Johnson knows that his top stats haven’t come in a vacuum; the Nanook defense is right up there with him. Speaking with my colleague Danny Martin at the Fairbanks News-Miner, Johnson said, “Usually when a goalie gets recognized, his team has done something well.”

That little something translates into the stingiest defense in Division I men’s ice hockey. No one on the Nanook team has reached the 10-goal plateau for the season, but every single one of these players defends. The ‘Nooks block shots and limit much of what opponents see to parameter chances on Johnson, who obviously can handle himself when the puck does get through.

Playing on the Olympic sheet helps UAF in this regard; they’re not a very physical team, but they’re fast and they know how to negotiate the space they have to block in their opponents. At home this season, they’ve outscored opponents 41-27 in 17 games, limiting visitors to 1.6 goals per game on average in Fairbanks.

The Nanooks have the third-worst power play in the country, and even given their emphasis on defense that’s surprising. But their penalty kill is solid — not that they need it. UAF averages 11.2 PIMs per game, fourth-lowest in the nation.

No. 5 Ohio State

• Overall record: 22-12-4
• Road record: 7-7-2
• Last 10 games: 5-4-1
• Vs. UAF 2008-09: 1-1-0
• Goals scored per game: 3.58/2nd
• Goals allowed per game: 2.74/7th
• Power play percentage: 14.1/7th
• Penalty kill percentage: 81.6/11th
• Top scorer: Corey Elkins (18-22-40)
• Top goalscorer: Corey Elkins
• Top goaltender: Dustin Carlson (.920 SV%, 2.43 GAA)

With last week’s two-game sweep of Bowling Green, the Buckeyes won their first playoff series since 2004-05, when they beat Ferris State in three games in Columbus. That means that this was the first playoff victory the seniors on this squad had tasted — except for Zach Pelletier, the fifth-year senior captain.

For such a low-key player, Pelletier sure knows how to manipulate a good storyline. He started his career as a walk-on, had one goal in 50 games through his first three seasons, redshirted last year after breaking his leg in preseason, and returned this year as a calm and collected presence on the OSU bench — after delivering bone-crushing, momentum-changing, crowd-pleasing hits during his first three seasons.

And for the first game of this weekend, Pelletier will be sidelined again, the result of his game disqualification during the bench-clearing scrum in OSU’s 7-1 win over BG last Saturday. He won’t be alone; Ian Boots (9-15-24), the Buckeyes’ sixth-leading scorer, will miss the first two games of the series because his DQ last week was his second this season.

This Buckeye team has six double-digit goalscorers, all sophomores except for the freshman Zac Dalpe (13-12-25) and senior Corey Elkins (18-22-40). When the Buckeyes run into problems, it usually isn’t up front (as long as you’re not counting the power play); inconsistent effort and sometimes shaky defense are what trip up this young team.

This year, sophomore goaltender Dustin Carlson matured into a steady starter, but he nearly didn’t make the trip to Fairbanks. The Buckeyes had a nightmare trip to Alaska in January, with missed connections, lost luggage, stomach issues. This time, according to Elkins’ blog of the trip, Carlson fell asleep in a gate area in the Atlanta airport “…and no one knew where he was to wake him up.” The plane was boarded, the tunnel pulled — but somehow, Carlson made it.

No. 6 Northern Michigan

• Overall record: 14-15-5
• Road record: 6-7-4
• Last 10 games: 7-2-1
• Vs. Miami 2008-09: 1-0-1
• Goals scored per game: 2.78/6th
• Goals allowed per game: 2.64/6th
• Power play percentage: 13.1/8th
• Penalty kill percentage: 81.9/10th
• Top scorer: Gregor Hanson (12-21-33)
• Top goalscorer: Mark Olver (15-17-32)
• Top goaltender: Brian Stewart (.920 SV%, 2.37 GAA)

After handing the Michigan State Spartans an 8-2 loss last Saturday night, Northern Michigan head coach Walt Kyle said, “Tonight was one of our better games of the year.”

Watch out, Red Berenson. You have some competition for CCHA Master of Understatement.

Northern Michigan has produced an excellent second half of hockey, going 11-3-2 leading up to the playoffs and sweeping MSU handily in two games last weekend, outscoring the Spartans 13-5 in the series. Several Wildcats had notable weekends, including senior Nick Sirota (2-1-3) and sophomores Mark Olver (2-1-3) and Gregor Hanson (1-3-4).

While the Wildcats have only four scorers in double-digits — Hanson, Olver, Jared Brown (11-10-21) and Phil Fox (11-7-18), all sophomores — every forward on the Wildcat squad that has seen significant, consistent play has netted one or more goals.

The balanced approach to play is backstopped by junior goaltender Brian Stewart, who makes it look easy come playoff time.

This is a team that seems to respond to each game’s specific situation. If the game calls for something close and tight, the Wildcats can rein it in and play defense with the best of them; if they have the chance to open it up, the Wildcats have the ability to do so. Cagey and dangerous.

No. 7. Western Michigan

• Overall record: 14-18-7
• Road record: 6-7-3
• Last 11 games: 7-3-1
• Vs. Michigan 2008-09: 1-1-0
• Goals scored per game: 2.77/7th
• Goals allowed per game: 3.05/10th
• Power play percentage: 19.0/3rd
• Penalty kill percentage: 79.9/12th
• Top scorer: Patrick Galivan (18-28-46)
• Top goalscorer: Patrick Galivan
• Top goaltender: Riley Gill (.922 SV%, 2.75 GAA)

From the very beginning of the season, this Bronco squad has had a refreshing new never-say-die attitude that has propelled them from last place a year ago to the second round of the CCHA playoffs this season.

WMU is a young team, skilled in ways Lawson Arena hasn’t seen in a while, and with enthusiasm that is contagious — even affecting the guys who have been around a while.

This week, senior captain Chris Frank opines about the Broncos’ series against Michigan. “They’re a great opponent — they have great skill, great speed — but we’re the same way,” said Frank the Tank. “We have great skill, great speed and we have grit, too.

“We have confidence. We beat them at Yost already this year. We beat them there a couple years back.”

That’s the best chirping I’ve heard in years, and it wouldn’t be possible without a serious change in attitude in Kalamazoo, spurred by that young team. In last weekend’s three-game home series against Lake Superior State, seven of WMU’s 10 goals were netted by freshmen. J.J. Crew (2-2-4), Kevin Connauton (3-0-3), Kyle O’Kane (1-2-3) and Greg Squires (1-3-4) accounted for 26 points in the best-of-three battle, and Connauton scored the game-winner at 7:57 of the second overtime of the second game in the series to give the Broncos their first win of the weekend.

It may not seem like much to outsiders, but this is something special for the Broncos. With his 18 goals, senior Patrick Galivan (18-28-46) is having a career year, as is junior goaltender Riley Gill (.922 SV%, 2.75 GAA).

The Broncos score a lot of goals, but give up as many as they net.

No. 8 Nebraska-Omaha

• Overall record: 15-15-8
• Road record: 5-9-3
• Last 11 games: 2-6-3
• Vs. ND 2008-09: 0-2-0
• Goals scored per game: 2.58/8th
• Goals allowed per game: 2.55/5th
• Power play percentage: 16.5/4th
• Penalty kill percentage: 83.7/7th
• Top scorer: Eddie Del Grosso (6-28-34)
• Top goalscorer: Tomas Klempa (14-9-23)
• Top goaltenders: Jerad Kaufmann (.919 SV%, 2.21 GAA)

With their first win over visiting Ferris State last weekend, the Mavericks did two extraordinary things.

First, they won … for the first time in 14 games.

Second, they scored. UNO netted three goals in that contest, something they’d only done twice in the 14-game stretch preceding the win.

In their second win to clinch the series, the Mavs scored five goals — and none of them with the net empty. Five goals was an accomplishment UNO hadn’t seen since beating Yale 8-3 Dec. 29.

And that is the story of Nebraska-Omaha, a team that started the season on fire and forgot how to score in the second half. UNO had good team defense through the first half of the season and excellent goaltending throughout the whole thing. Jerad Kaufmann (.919 SV%, 2.21 GAA) started both games for UNO last weekend — a very smart move, as he’s the stronger of the two Maverick goalies. He’s been splitting time in net this season with Jeremie Dupont (.909 SV%, 2.71 GAA).

A two-game win streak after 14 games without a victory is a difficult gauge of this UNO team. If they have overcome their fear of scoring, they can be very competitive. Head coach Mike Kemp, talking to Chad Purcell of the Omaha World-Herald this week, said that the Mavericks should gather strength from a couple of close home losses to Notre Dame earlier this season.

“As painful as those two one-goal losses were for us at the time,” said Kemp, “our guys should believe that if we go there and compete hard, anything can happen.”

Mea Culpas

When I originally published last week, there were three typographical errors that I fixed after publication. My apologies to David Wohlberg, who was incorrectly identified in my All-Rookie Team as playing for Notre Dame and not Michigan. My congratulations still go out to Western Michigan’s Jerad Katz, whose game-winner versus Bowling Green Feb. 28 was his first goal as a Bronco. I also incorrectly identified the Marquette newspaper as the Mining News when it is, in fact, the Mining Journal.

I also made an outright error — a genuine brain fart — when I incorrectly said that Michigan has finished no lower than second for the past umpteen years. The Wolverines have finished no lower than third place in the CCHA in the past 19 years, second or better in 18 of those seasons.

I want to thank everyone who emailed in to alert me to these errors. Those of you who emailed politely to let me know of the typos earn my undying gratitude; thank you for reminding me that there are reasonable human beings who follow college hockey.

Thank you, too, to the several people who emailed me with gender-specific insults. I’m never reminded enough of the misogyny that still dogs women in the 21st century and such harsh words remind me of my early days as a reporter, when I heard them all of the time.

Mea Culpa, Part 2

My apologies to both David Wohlberg and Mark Wahlberg. Readers who caught this column before my friend, Courtney, caught my very funny error understand this reference and had an even better laugh at my expense.

I hope I didn’t offend the entire Funky Bunch.

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