This Week in the CCHA: October 22, 2009

Youth in a Young Season

This season is a scant two full weeks old, and already some interesting tidbits — too early to call them patterns — have emerged.

Last season, the CCHA seemed to have had a particularly promising freshman class. Notre Dame’s Billy Maday, Michigan’s David Wohlberg, Ohio State’s Ian Boots and Zac Dalpe, two great goaltenders at Miami and a slew of rookies at Western Michigan helped to get their teams noticed for all the right reasons.

This year, there are several CCHA sophomores who have had very fast starts — notable because not one of them established himself as a household name across the league last season. Yes, the year is young and nothing said at this point in the season is statistically reliable, but these gentlemen have shown early promise.

Western Michigan’s J.J. Crew. The Broncos have played just two games this season, sweeping Mercyhurst in the process. Crew, who had seven goals in 37 games in 2008-09, tallied four in the two contests, making him the current national leader in both goals and points per game. Oh, and Crew scored the game-winner in each contest.

Yes, it’s early. Yes, he has either really cool or really cruel parents.

Western Michigan’s Greg Squires. In the same two games, Crew’s classmate assisted on five of WMU’s nine total goals. Squires had 22 helpers in 2008-09.

Northern Michigan’s Reid Ellington and Ohio State’s Cal Heeter. Who, you ask? Well, Ellington is the goaltender of record in NMU’s only win so far this season, having allowed one goal on 33 shots in Northern’s 3-1 win over Minnesota-Duluth last Sunday in the Superior Showcase.

Heeter blanked Denver last weekend, earning the Buckeyes their first and only win so far this season. Heeter was not in net when OSU lost 2-0 to Denver Oct. 15, but he was flawless in the Bucks’ 4-0 win the following night, turning away all 39 Pioneers’ shots on goal. Heeter is 1-1-0 on the season, having lost to Quinnipiac the week before, but he’s undefeated against the Denver Pioneers, after beating Denver in the Mile High City Oct. 25, 2008.

Ellington and Heeter have each posted .970 save percentages so far, tying them for second-best in that category, nationally.

Nebraska-Omaha’s John Faulkner and Alaska’s Scott Greenham. These gents have played three and four games respectively; Faulkner (0.94) is second in save percentage nationally, Greenham (0.98) is third.

Ferris State’s Taylor Nelson. Another CCHA sophomore goalie off to a quick start, Nelson has played two games and has the sixth-best goals-against average (1.00) nationally and fifth-best (.961) save percentage.

Yes, I know, it’s just fun with early numbers. That, however, is just my point. It’s fun, especially since these aren’t the guys who made names for themselves last year. We know those kids — especially those two in net from Miami, significantly battle-tested– will probably avoid sophomore slumps because last year’s rookie class, league-wide, was pretty good.

To see quick starts from the classmates of the Madays, Wohlbergs, Bootses, and Dalpes is, well, fun.

Speaking of Fun

Every year, a few key phrases permeate the coach-speak of the CCHA. I’m sure it happens in every league. Coaches talk to each other, read about or hear what the others have said, and certain phrases — parity, puck luck, PairWise — get bandied about more often than they had before.

This year, it’s a turn of phrase: pluralizing last names, turning individual player names into player archetypes.

Your Gustafssons, for example. Erik Gustafsson is the underrated junior defenseman who graces Northern Michigan’s roster, a quick, offensive-minded blueliner who plays both sides of the puck well and can really grind it out. Ergo, your Gustafssons are quick, offensive-minded defensemen who play both sides of the puck well and can really grind it out.

This specific Gustafsson, by the way, has played two games and is tied among defensemen in points per game this season (2-2–4).

And now that I’ve pointed out that I’ve heard a lot of pluralizing of names so far this season among the CCHA coaches, said coaches will probably stop. This would be a pity, as I really like the way your Kyles, Roques, and Berensons speak.

More Youthful Hockey

Five CCHA freshmen are among the national leaders in points per game among their classmates. Michigan State’s Derek Grant has played four games and is averaging 1.75 points per game for second in the nation. Lake Superior State’s Domenic Monardo (1.67 ppg) has played three games and is third; Bowling Green’s Jordan Samuels-Thomas and Michigan’s Chris Brown have each played two games and are tied for fourth (1.50 ppg); and Miami’s Curtis McKenzie — what a great
hockey name — is seventh, with 1.25 points per game on average through four contests.

Talk about Defending the Realm

The most recent and spectacular act of realm defense came from Notre Dame, as the Irish kept the 2009 NCAA champion Boston Terriers scoreless in Boston, ending BU’s current longest streak of avoiding the shutout at 99 games.

Junior Brad Phillips made 34 saves in his first win of the season as the Irish netted two goals in 12 seconds — from Maday and junior Ben Ryan — en route to the 3-0 win.

“It was the defense in front of me,” said Phillips. “The guys played real well, blocking shots. In the first couple games they would block shots, but they just played a lot better in front of me [tonight].”

Phillips, who didn’t know he was playing until a couple of days before the game, said the closing moments of the game were “a blur” until the defense “just finally got the puck out.”

Three Notre Dame goaltenders have seen game time in a season that’s just five contests old for the Irish (3-2-0). Two of them, Phillips and freshman Mike Johnson, have pitched shutouts. ND coach Jeff Jackson said that the starting position is Phillips’ to lose but that the junior won’t be alone in net for a while.

“I know he lost his first two games, but I thought we played horrid in front of him,” said Jackson. “We’ve given up breakaways and odd-man rushes.

“For me, it’s about this kid hasn’t played in eighteen months because of major knee surgery, so I feel it’s going to take him some time to get back into the game tempo. I saw this kid play when he played for the National Team Development Program — exceptional. He played some good games for us as a freshman, not a lot, but he played some good games. Last year was a lost year of experience for him, so his experience is going to have to take place now.”

Jackson said that all three Irish netminders, including senior Tommy O’Brien, may continue to play for the time being. “I don’t want to thrust [Phillips] into playing before he’s 100 percent mentally and able to develop some consistency.”

And getting back to that whole quick-start theme, the Irish PK has killed 26-of-27 in five contests (96.3 percent), including all eight it faced Tuesday night against BU, giving ND the fourth-best penalty kill in the country going into this weekend’s single game against Boston College.

“We’ve got a good group of forwards that understand how to kill penalties,” said Jackson after the BU game. “We’re trying to break in a couple of young guys in that role, but it really boils down to your goalie and your defensemen. With guys like [Kyle] Lawson and [Brett] Blatchford
and [Ian] Cole — and I thought that Sean Lorenz did a good job tonight, too — our defensemen and our goalie were effective in the penalty-killing role. Paul Pooley does a really good job of getting our team ready on the PK.”

In front of Jordan Pearce last season, the Irish had the best defense in the country and the third-best penalty kill.

Realm Defense

Speaking of defending the realm, the CCHA is 25-11-3 in nonconference play to start the season, a slight improvement over last year’s 19-14-4 in the first two weeks of play against non-league opponents.

Last weekend, the Alaska Nanooks captured the Brice Alaska Goal Rush championship in their second appearance in that tournament, defeating Robert Morris and tying Rensselaer. This came one week after capturing hardware at the Kendall Hockey Classic in Anchorage.

Two trophies in two weeks? Now that’s a fast start. In fact, UAF’s 3-0-1 start is its best since the 1987-88 season, when the Nanooks won six straight to kick off the year — before all but six of the current Alaska players were born.

In all, four CCHA teams have yet to lose, including Miami (3-0-1), who defeated and tied New Hampshire on the road last weekend. Friday’s 6-3 win saw two sophomore RedHawk defensemen, Cameron Schilling and Matt Tomassoni, notch their first collegiate goals. The RedHawks outshot the Wildcats 34-21 in the win, a game in which head coach Enrico Blasi called his squad “really sharp.”

Nebraska-Omaha is also 3-0-1, having also won and tied on the road last weekend against Colgate. UNO has not allowed a third-period goal this season, outscoring opponents 7-0 in the final 20 minutes of each contest so far.

The remaining undefeated team is Western Michigan. The Broncos swept Mercyhurst last weekend by a combined score of 9-4. It’s the second time that WMU has opened the season with a two-game sweep under head coach Jim Culhane.

And although they are not undefeated, the Ferris State Bulldogs — the original Defenders of the Realm — swept Connecticut in two home games last weekend, holding the Huskies to one goal in each game.

The Bulldogs have a sophomore of their own who’s off to a fast start; forward Derek Graham has a goal and three assists for four points in four games, half of the eight points he earned in 31 games last season.

Nature Abhors a Vacuum

Apparently, the idea of an 11-team league is too great a temptation to resist.

Word came to me recently that Mercyhurst was interested in joining the CCHA. At first I thought this absurd, until I remembered the lesson learned from the offseason Big Ten talks, of Wisconsin playing with the idea of jumping ship to the CCHA.

So I did some poking around by e-mail.

According to Aaron Kemp, associate director of athletics and director of compliance at Mercyhurst College, the Lakers are “exploring membership opportunities with the CCHA” but have “not submitted a formal application to the league.”

Kemp added that Mercyhurst is “very happy with the Atlantic Hockey Association and [is] proud to be affiliated with its member institutions.”

CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos said that he doesn’t know whether or not Mercyhurst will submit an application, and that since it takes the CCHA “the better part of a year to review an application and complete [its] due diligence before admitting a new member,” the league is going ahead with an 11-team schedule for 2010-11.

That schedule will likely include some clustering of some kind, said Anastos, and the Big Ten certainly may factor into it. “Having the BT teams clustered together is certainly an option we are looking at,” said Anastos, “as it will maximize competition between Big Ten schools and allow for more content to be available to air on the Big Ten Network.”

Anastos said that such scheduling isn’t money-driven, that it’s about content and exposure for the CCHA and college hockey.

As for Alabama-Huntsville after the 2010-11 season — a drum that I apparently can’t avoid beating — Anastos said, “Never say never.”

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