This Week in the CCHA: March 19, 2009

Get Down to It

Congratulations to the four teams in Detroit this weekend for the CCHA tournament. Two teams had to earn their way to The Joe by playing three games. Two teams posted two shutout wins each, one with a shutout sweep of its opponent. One team had to win on the road.

Already the CCHA postseason is interesting.

Here’s a look at the field of four representing the states of Alaska, Indiana and Michigan.

The stats are overall. 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: 29-5-3
• Last 10 games: 9-1-0
• Goals scored per game: 3.43/2nd
• Goals allowed per game: 1.65/1st
• Power play percentage: 23.7/1st
• Penalty kill percentage: 89.3/2nd
• Top scorer: Erik Condra (13-24-37)
• Top goal scorer: Christian Hanson (16-14-30)
• Top goaltender: Jordan Pearce (.934 SV%, 1.62 GAA)

The Fighting Irish come to Detroit in impressive style; Notre Dame shut out Nebraska-Omaha twice last week, beating UNO 5-0 and 1-0. Senior goaltender Jordan Pearce was perfect, turning aside all 60 shots he faced in the two games.

“I watch him now and he competes as hard as any goalie I’ve ever coached,” said Irish head coach Jeff Jackson after Pearce’s second shutout in a row. “It’s just his nature. It’s a great trait in a goalie to be emotionally under control.

“Tonight, he just looked like he wasn’t going to give up a goal. He had that look about him, that confidence, like there was nothing getting by him.”

There isn’t much getting by Pearce, period. In his last five outings, Pearce has allowed just one goal. That’s four shutouts in five games, dating back to Feb. 21. Three of those goose eggs came at the expense of UNO.

In his last 299:59 minutes of play, Pearce’s goals-against average is 0.20 with a save percentage of .971. Never mind that all of that play came against UNO and Michigan State. Completely shutting down teams that have no business scoring on them is something good goalies should do, and something few do.

In Notre Dame’s 20-game unbeaten streak (Oct. 30-Jan. 31, 17-0-3), Pearce was the goalie of record with a 1.36 GAA and .944 save percentage in that span. He has eight shutouts this season, 12 in his career.

But the Irish are no one-man show. In fact, Notre Dame is very much a committee. Six different ND players scored the six goals in last weekend’s sweep of UNO: Ryan Guentzel, Billy Maday, Calle Ridderwall, Ben Ryan, Ryan Thang and Justin White. That’s three sophomores, one freshman, one junior and one senior.

Notre Dame is the whole package in every sense of the word. The Irish can score, they can defend, they’re excellent on special teams and they have the ability to change up their style of play to match an opponents — or shut one down.

Head coach Jeff Jackson is 32-7 all-time in CCHA postseason play. With last week’s wins, Jackson now has 101 in his four years as the Notre Dame head coach.

No. 2 Michigan

• Overall record: 28-10-0
• Last 10 games: 9-1-0
• Goals scored per game: 3.68/1st
• Goals allowed per game: 2.00/3rd
• Power play percentage: 16.0/5th
• Penalty kill percentage: 88.1/4th
• Top scorer: Aaron Palushaj (12-36-48)
• Top goal scorer: Louie Caporusso (23-23-46)
• Top goaltender: Bryan Hogan (.917 SV%, 1.89 GAA)

The Wolverines are the other balanced team in this field of four. Although Bryan Hogan didn’t manage back-to-back shutout victories, he did limit Western Michigan to three goals in two games as UM outscored WMU 11-3.

After sweeping the Broncos, UM head coach Red Berenson delivered his usual mastery of understatement.

“It was a good game for us tonight, a good start again,” said Berenson after Saturday’s 6-1 win. “We got an important first goal and we were lucky this weekend. We were good, but we were lucky. We got the bounces. We scored those last-minute goals, just about last-second goals, three of them this weekend. Those are back-breakers.”

Last weekend, Michigan scored goals with less than two minutes to play in three of six periods, excluding the empty-netter Friday. Carl Hagelin’s shorthanded goal at 19:58 of the first gave UM a 3-0 lead. David Wohlberg scored at 19:57 of the first period Saturday for a 3-0 Michigan lead, while Aaron Palushaj’s goal at 19:35 in the second made it 4-1.

While Saturday’s game was perhaps as lopsided as it looked, Friday’s contest was nowhere near a done deal after one. In spite of the back-breaking, late first-period goal to make it 3-0 Friday, the Broncos came back with two of their own in the second period, including a late one at 18:24.

The key to the sweep may have been those last-minute goals, as Berenson said, but the relentlessness with which Michigan pursued the Broncos — especially Friday, when WMU fulfilled that old hockey cliche and left everything on the ice — is what earned them the sweep.

The hard-working Wolverines are 19-3-0 since the start of December, having averaged 4.2 goals per game in that stretch. During that span, Bryan Hogan is 16-3-0, while Billy Sauer is 3-0-0.

Michigan’s overpowering offense — balanced, fast, transitional — is its biggest strength. Six different Wolverines have reached the double-digit goal plateau, and 12 veteran players have matched or beaten their own single-season high for goals.

The Wolverines are the defending CCHA tournament champions and have captured eight post-season titles, all under the direction of Berenson.

No. 3 Alaska

• Overall record: 17-14-6
• Last 11 games: 6-5-0
• Goals scored per game: 1.97/11th
• Goals allowed per game: 1.70/2nd
• Power play percentage: 9.9/12th
• Penalty kill percentage: 88.2/3rd
• Top scorer: Dion Knelson (10-12-22)
• Top goal scorer: Dion Knelson
• Top goaltender: Chad Johnson (.939 SV%, 1.67 GAA)

Even though the Nanooks needed three games to down the Buckeyes, Alaska twice shut out one of the top offenses in the nation to do so. Senior goaltender Chad Johnson sandwiched UAF’s 4-2 loss last weekend between 4-0 and 1-0 shutouts.

In doing so, Johnson tied former Nanook goaltender Wylie Rogers’ career shutout record with seven; six of Johnson’s shutouts are from this season alone. In three games last weekend, Johnson stopped 94-of-98 shots for a 1.35 goals-against average and .959 save percentage.

UAF won the series in the last possible minute of regulation when freshman Ron Meyer netted his fourth goal of the season at 19:10 in the third period Sunday night to win the Nanooks a trip to Detroit.

Junior Dion Knelsen scored two goals on the weekend, bringing him to a team-leading 10 goals on the season.

The Nanooks are making their third appearance in the CCHA championship tournament, and they rode a wave of defense to Detroit all season long. In addition to Johnson in net, the Nanooks have talented a talented but young blue line, with only senior Steve Vanoosten and junior Dustin Molle as the lone upperclassmen.

If the Nanooks are to be successful, they’ll need to get a top performance from the blue line back; while they beat Ohio State in three games, they netted just seven goals total in the contest, averaging slightly better than their season-long average of about two goals per game.

No. 4 Northern Michigan

• Overall record: 18-16-5
• Last 11 games: 7-3-1
• Goals scored per game: 2.77/6th
• Goals allowed per game: 2.59/6th
• Power play percentage: 13.8/8th
• Penalty kill percentage: 82.1/10th
• Top scorer: Mark Olver (16-19-35)
• Top goal scorer: Mark Olver
• Top goaltender: Brian Stewart (.924 SV%, 2.33 GAA)

The fourth seed in the field is another team that rides excellent goaltending into Detroit — but don’t tell that to junior Brian Stewart, who credits NMU’s “offense” and “team mentality” for a solid second half that led to Joe Louis Arena.

“Our offense has really gotten going, which has been huge,” Stewart told the Marquette Mining-Journal this week.

While it’s hard to argue with a guy whose team is averaging 3.71 goals per game since the start of the calendar year, it’s not offense alone that has carried the Wildcats. In their last nine games, the ‘Cats have given up 2.11 goals per game on average.

Last weekend, Stewart was stunning, making 117 saves in three games for an average of 39 per contest. In Saturday’s 3-2 overtime win, Stewart turned away 12 shots in the third period as the RedHawks outblasted the Wildcats 13-3 in the stanza. Stewart was a perfect 3-for-3 in OT.

The Wildcats scored on their only shot in overtime Saturday, Gregor Hanson’s goal at 5:12. That’s what forced Game 3 in which Mike Maltese’s second-period goal held up to be the game-winner. Nick Sirota led all Wildcats with three goals on the weekend.

In the second half of the season, Northern was as poised and balanced as any team in the CCHA. With Eric Gustafsson and Blake Cosgrove anchoring the blue line and Mark Olver, Jared Brown, Gregor Hanson, Nick Sirota and Phil Fox turning up the heat up front — and with a work ethic as tough as any in Division I hockey — the Wildcats may come into the tournament the lowest seed and the only without a bye week to escape the opening rounds of the playoffs, but they’re absolutely peaking at the right time of the year.

See You Next Year, Bowling Green

So, the Bowling Green State University Falcons will compete in 2009-10.

In an open letter released March 17, BGSU athletic director Greg Christopher addressed the school’s potential $6 to $10 million budget shortfall for the coming academic year but said that hockey will not be sacrificed — yet — to help bridge that gap.

“Rather than eliminating any sports,” said Christopher, “in the coming year budget cuts will be made throughout the athletics department. This will significantly affect all 18 of our sports and support areas.”

There is nothing in Christopher’s letter that suggests that hockey is safe beyond next season.

From the outside, BGSU’s commitment to its ice hockey program seems tenuous at best. At the start of the 2001-02 season, the team had a new locker room and weight facility and the coaches new offices, all from private donations. Since then, a desperately needed $4 million renovation of the rink itself — in the works since 2007 and slated to begin this spring — has been put on hold.

As I said last week, putting money into athletics at the expense of academics in these very troubled economic times would be irresponsible, but BGSU didn’t seem all that enthusiastic about its ice hockey program when times were not quite so troubled.

The way in which information about the future of the BGSU men’s ice hockey program was presented to the public by the university feels manipulative at worst and puzzling at best. The cynic in me thinks that the university is trying to get alumni to pony up for the ice rink renovations, just as they did for the additions and improvements in 2001.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that per se. But why not go to the hockey alumni itself and lay it all out for them — openly, honestly — rather than leaking panic-inducing information through a university trustee before issuing an open letter that talks about “tough choices” and “potential budget reduction models”? By all reports, the alumni were never approached as a group about the potential budget shortfalls.

As the only ice sheet in Wood County, Ohio, the BGSU ice arena itself is an important facility to Bowling Green and the surrounding areas. The population of Wood County is about 120,000, and Bowling Green — the county seat — is home to about 30,000 people.

Both the varsity and junior varsity Bowling Green High School hockey teams call the BGSU Ice Arena home, and the rink hosts high school tournaments and is open to the public for recreational skating. The rink itself needs upgrades beyond the cosmetic, such as new compressors and renovations to locker rooms not touched in the 2001 improvements.

Obviously, the rink issues and the fate of the hockey program are separate but related things, and BGSU can’t be faulted for struggling with a current budget crisis during an economic downturn. But — again, to an outsider — the long-term neglect of the rink says a lot about the way in which the university thinks.

Eliminating the hockey program would not only reduce an enormous proposed budgetary shortfall, but also give BGSU an excuse to avoid updating the rink. In his open letter, however, Christopher said that the university is aware of the “significant role the Ice Arena plays in the Bowling Green community” and that BGSU will “work with Recreational Sports … and the community to review the issues related to the facility and begin collaborating on the development of possible solutions.”

In the meantime, this can affect Falcon hockey recruiting in only negative ways — and that’s the last thing that Falcon hockey needs.

Let’s just hope that BGSU’s indirect approach of asking alumni to foot the bill doesn’t backfire. In the grand scheme of the world, losing a D-I men’s ice hockey program isn’t tragic, but the sadness felt would be widespread and many people would experience genuine hardship.

If this becomes an inevitability, I also hope that the shame that BGSU shoulders will be just as acutely felt.

So Long, Courtney Welch

Congratulations to Courtney Welch, the CCHA’s director of communications and community relations. Welch has been hired by USA Hockey to serve as its manager of program services in their membership development department.

Welch, who has been with the CCHA for seven years — longer, if you count all the time she’s been associated with the league — has been an excellent advocate for college hockey. The CCHA will miss her.

And Now, the Time Has Come…

No, hopeful readers, I’m not leaving you forever. It’s just the last column of the season.

What a strange season 2008-09 has turned out to be. The season began with off-ice attacks on defensemen who play for Michigan and Michigan State, was punctuated in the middle by a nasty on-ice incident in an MSU-UM game and ended with the deaths of people dear to both Spartan and Fighting Irish hockey.

I know that’s only one filter through which to interpret the year, but it’s hard to ignore the reality of the world outside of hockey that imposed itself on us happy college hockey fans this season.

Here are a few of the highlights and lowlights of 2008-09 season that I find most interesting, in no particular order:

Meeting Western Michigan’s freshmen at the start of the season and watching them realize some potential at the end.

Climbing out of the cellar once again to finish seventh — they performed a similar turnaround between the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons — the Broncos put together a decent second half that was fun to watch.

Greg Squires, J.J. Crew, Kevin Connauton, Kyle O’Kane, Ian Slater…all guys you may know much more about in the coming years.

Northern Michigan’s phoenix-like second half.

It’s not just the return of Brian Stewart to active duty, so to speak — but, boy, does it help to have him around. This is a team that has taken points from every ranked team it’s faced in the second half except for Notre Dame. Fast, skilled, driven, and so much fun to watch.

Miami’s second-half swan dive.

I must confess that after covering the Miami RedHawks for as many years as I have — and after having seen them as many times as I did when I lived in Columbus — that I do not understand the Miami RedHawks.

Losses to Army and Clarkson at the Ohio Hockey Classic to kick off the second half? Unacceptable for a team that is molding itself into a top-tier, perennial contender.

It’s not that the ‘Hawks dove hard in the second half, but they did dive enough to blow their chances of a regular-season title and they played themselves out of the CCHA tournament — and possibly the national tourney as well.

If it were a one-time thing, I wouldn’t be scratching my head in wonder. But last year, there was the four-game February winless streak; in 2006-07, another four-game winless streak in late January and early February and a CCHA season that culminated by being swept at home by Lake Superior in the second round of the playoffs.

I don’t get it.

Ohio State’s fun freshmen and sophomores.

This week, but Buckeyes must be bitterly disappointed that they lost in Alaska and in all likelihood played themselves out of the NCAA tournament.

But, boy, were they fun to watch this year — ironically for me, the year that I left Columbus. I missed 1.5 OSU home games in the 13 seasons that I lived in Columbus covering CCHA hockey, and through all of those seasons I saw one fantastic calendar year of hockey — the end of the 1997-98 season and the beginning of the 1998-99 campaign — along with several decent years and some outright painful years to watch.

Last season, it was clear that this year’s OSU sophomores would develop into something special. This year, I’m happy for long-suffering Buckeye fans that the freshmen also look promising.

Bowling Green’s potential demise.

As I said above, it’s not just the fact of this story but the way the university released information about the story that fascinates and disturbs me.

The season that the Spartans would like to forget.

Do I really need to recap this?

Michigan’s split personality.

A highly explosive offense that would score just two goals in four consecutive losses with Billy Sauer in net during the first half just baffles me — especially since they scored 15 in four games in front of Bryan Hogan in that same month-long period.

The continued rise of a new superpower in South Bend.

What Jeff Jackson and his staff have done in South Bend is good news for college hockey, bad news for other CCHA programs.

And with a new arena on the way, this story only gets better and better.

Nebraska-Omaha’s puzzling Jekyll-and-Hyde offense.

In the first half of the season, the Mavericks averaged 3.05 goals per game.

In the games following Christmas, the Mavericks averaged 1.95 goals per game. UNO ended its season with two shutout losses in South Bend.

Jimmy Spratt.

Forced to start and carry the Falcons when Nick Eno got injured, Spratt shut out the Michigan Wolverines in Yost Arena Jan. 16.

And to cap his season, he incited mayhem in the OSU Ice Arena during the second-to-last period of his collegiate career by skating over to the OSU bench during a break in the action March 7, chirping to the Buckeyes, and slashing a Buckeye player — all en route to a 7-1 loss.

His whole senior year just reminds me of how young these players really are.

Jordan Pearce.

An amazing senior season for the best poke-checking goalie I’ve seen play in the CCHA. Pearce is named a finalist for the league’s Player of the Year award, but was named to neither the league’s first nor second teams.

Alaska’s big turnaround.

The more I know him, the more I appreciate Dallas Ferguson. He took a program mired in discontent and turned it into the best defensive team in the country, earning him a nod for CCHA Coach of the Year.

And kudos to the players who were so unhappy under Doc Delcastillo for putting that behind them and producing a successful season.

Patrick Galivan and Corey Elkins.

I just love guys who have career senior seasons.

See You in the Title Game, Nanooks

I mean in D.C., not in Detroit.

Since the Nanooks finished fourth in the CCHA standings, they must be destined to play Boston College for the national championship in D.C., right?

After all, BC can still make the national dance by winning the Hockey East tournament this weekend.

With all due respect to every other team involved, what a story this would be.

Thanks, Everyone

This was a particularly challenging season for me, after having made an unexpected move late last summer from Columbus to Flint. I didn’t know anyone in Flint when I moved here, but the good people I knew already from the CCHA helped to ease the transition, not surprisingly.

Thanks to colleagues and friends Neil Koepke, Shireen Saski, Dave Starman, Bob Miller, Sam McPherson and Jim Hunt for making me feel so at home in my new home state.

Thanks to Matt Trevor and Jamie Weir, the sports information directors for UM and MSU hockey respectively, for accommodating me all season at Yost and Munn.

Thanks to colleagues and friends Jeff Svoboda and Craig Merz in Columbus, who both helped me immeasurably this season. At Ohio State post-game, visiting coaches and players are brought into a standard press conference just as the home coaches and players are — something that is just not possible at every CCHA venue — and I never realized how important that contact was until I left it. Jeff and Craig provided valuable information for me, especially since I’m no longer living in a CCHA hockey town.

Thanks, too, to all of USCHO’s CCHA arena reporters, who helped in gathering information and providing coverage:. J. Justin Boggs, Emily Hack, Adam Hainsfurther, Ethan Magoc, Jeremy Potter, Matthew Semisch, Sean Shapiro — thank you all.

And, as always, thanks to USCHO’s executive editor, Scott Brown, who suffers more than most people know.

Until next season, happy hockey everyone! Check out my blog, because I’ll be there regularly.

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