This Week in the CCHA: Oct. 29, 2009

Scary Good

The start of every new season is nothing but sweet potential, a potent elixir of hope and talent that has yet to sour into a reality as cold and hard — and sometimes as lingering — as an Alaskan winter.

The first month of hockey is perfect, no matter what your team’s record. Here are a few things that make the start of the 2009-10 CCHA season scary good.

Corey Tropp

Tropp’s teammates pleaded to Michigan State head coach Rick Comley for Tropp’s reinstatement for the 2009-10 season after the then-sophomore was suspended for the remainder of 2008-09 following his harsh on-ice treatment of Wolverine Steve Kampfer Jan. 24. That was the incident that got Andrew Conboy booted from the MSU squad as well and ignited a Spartan-said, Wolverine-said interpretation of the whole unfortunate series of events.

Back in the Green and White, Tropp has six goals and six assists in six games (OK, so that combo’s a little scary) and is leading MSU in scoring.

Michigan State’s Offense

Last year, the Spartans were dead last in D-I hockey in scoring offense, tied with Michigan Tech and averaging 1.63 goals per game. While the season is young, the MSU offense is showing surprising and welcome signs of life.

The Spartans are averaging 3.67 goals per game this season and are tied with Ferris State and Merrimack for eighth in the nation, with each team having played six games. MSU has netted 22 goals this season, one fewer than national leaders Colorado College and Union. Last season, the Spartans scored a total of 62 goals. Period. The end.

At the start of this year, Comley said that he thought that goal scoring would still “be a challenge this season.” Tropp and rookie Derek Grant (4-5–9) have 10 goals between them, each having registered points in all six games of the year.

Broncos, Undefeated

Three teams remain undefeated at the start of this season, but only one remains unblemished. The 4-0-0 Western Michigan Broncos need just one win to equal the program’s best start, ever, a five-game streak to start the 1989-90 campaign.

It took WMU 21 games to earn four wins last season, in spite of having several guys who could score goals and two solid netminders. Even though senior goalie Riley Gill has played three games this season, he is off to a 3-0-0 start with a .942 save percentage. Sophomore J.J. Crew has four goals.

The Laker Power Play

Raise your hand if you thought that Lake Superior State’s power play would be performing at over 30 percent at any point during this season. Really? Liars.

But that is the scary-good truth of it, as LSSU’s man advantage has converted 8 of 26 attempts for 30.8 percent, third-best in the nation. During his weekly radio show, “Laker Hockey Live,” coach Jim Roque said that his players are “producing and making other teams play,” which makes “teams think a bit more about being too aggressive against us.”

Junior Chad Nehring (4-2–6) has half of LSSU’s power-play goals. Even goaltender Brian Mahoney-Wilson has a point on the power play, having assisted on Simon Gysbers’ second-period goal in LSSU’s 3-2 win over OSU Friday.

The Laker Radio Team

That point prompted Laker play-by-play guy Paul VanWagoner to quip, “The point drought is over for Brian Mahoney-Wilson.” The assist was the junior netminder’s second career point, the first since his rookie year. Slacker.

The broadcast team of VanWagoner and Mike Ellis is terrific. They’re smart, informative, not at all snarky, not completely homeristic — and they’re often genuinely witty, as evidenced by the line above, delivered with perfect dryness.

My favorite Ellis line of that game: “Two things have picked up in the second here, Paul: the pace and the hate factor.”

And VanWagoner can give Alaska’s Bruce Cech some competition for animation when the action’s near the opponent goal. Lots of fun to listen to.

Early Goaltending

Inflated early-season numbers aside, Nebraska-Omaha’s John Faulkner (.958 SV%), Alaska’s Scott Greenham (.953 SV%), Ferris State’s Pat Nagle (.952 SV%) and Ohio State’s Cal Heeter (.947 SV%) join Gill with the hot starts in net.

Just Plain Scary

The Bowling Green Falcons are the only CCHA team not to have recorded a win yet this season. In four games played, BGSU has netted six total goals. The Falcons have yet to score more than two goals in any contest, including an exhibition loss to the U.S. Under-18 Team.

Senior Tommy Dee is the only Falcon with more than one goal; he has one of BG’s two power-play tallies. This is a good start for Dee, who had seven goals in 37 games last season and 12 total in his first three years.

Averaging just 1.5 goals per game, Bowling Green is tied with Connecticut for the second-to-last scoring offense in the nation.

Hauntingly Familiar

Sometimes, the scariest thing about following college hockey is the deja vu that comes when you least expect it.

CCHA Officials Like John Markell

OK, I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t think it’s true. Jim Roque thinks it’s true. That’s what really counts.

Back when Roque was a rookie head coach, the Lakers were swept in two games in Columbus (Nov. 18-19, 2005). Roque was upset with the officiating and said so in some pretty specific terms after the second game, earning him a fine. I did not and do not think that Roque should have been fined for his comments. I also thought the officiating was unquestionable in that game.

Fast-forward to last weekend. One night after beating the Buckeyes 3-2, the Lakers found themselves in the penalty box for what seemed like an endless number of minutes at the end of the first period Saturday. The penalties kept coming, overlapping, and OSU’s Matt Bartkowski eventually scored with four seconds left in the stanza to cut the Laker lead to 2-1.

After the first period, Roque told the Laker radio guys that Markell had, at some point, talked to the officials before that flurry of LSSU penalties. The implication — as it was in 2005 — was that Markell has some sort of sway over CCHA on-ice officials.

This would come, of course, as a great surprise to John Markell and every Buckeye hockey fan. The notion that Markell has any kind of power on this earth — even over something as seemingly insignificant in the greater scheme of things as CCHA officiating — is one genuinely scary notion.

In all fairness to Roque, he’s a passionate guy and was interviewed immediately following the power-play goal that let the Buckeyes into a game that they went on to win, 4-3. He must, however, rethink his world view.

Zombie Hockey

The irony this week for the Buckeyes is that Halloween is Saturday night. Why ironic? Because Ohio State plays its zombie hockey on Friday nights, not Saturdays.

OSU fans are by now far too familiar with this tired pattern out of Columbus. The 2-4-0 Buckeyes have registered both of their wins on Saturday nights, and — lo! — they’re against the same opponents they played for the same results at the start of last season.

The Buckeyes split with Lake last weekend, Denver the weekend before. Reverse the order and you have the third and fourth weekends of October 2008. This was also the pattern for weekend splits against Northern Michigan, Notre Dame, Michigan, Alaska. They also lost the first game of their best-of-three opening CCHA playoff series in Fairbanks last year before winning the second game … and losing the third.

For the last few seasons, Buckeye fans have lamented the Friday-Saturday cycle, watching their team play uninspired hockey to open any given weekend. Last weekend was typical.

“Some guys were competing on Friday night and other guys weren’t,” Markell said in a midweek press conference. “I dropped it down to three lines on Saturday and went with the guys that were there.”

Markell said that the “inconsistencies” from Friday to Saturday — or, rather, from Saturday to the following Friday — “can’t keep happening.” He lamented that he thought the consistency would come with a more mature team this season.

“Hopefully we understand that,” said Markell, “because on Friday night if we go in with any kind of — if one guy’s not there, it’s a break in the chain and it’s not good enough against teams like this on the road.”

This weekend, the Buckeyes travel to South Bend to face Notre Dame.

“We’re going to have to be a better hockey team than we were last weekend,” said Markell, “in order to beat them.”

Markell said that the Bucks are “battling through a couple injuries” and “breaking in a few freshmen.”

And, he added, “There’s parity in the league; any time you’re on the road you want to get points.”

Especially on Friday night.

A Comforting Consistency

Last season, the Ferris State Bulldogs were the Division I penalty minute champs, averaging 22.4 per game. Through six games this season, the Bulldogs are again leading the nation, averaging 27.3 per game.

A Discomforting Consistency

It’s too early to label the beginning of Northern Michigan’s season as slow, but a 1-2-1 start doesn’t qualify as quick, either. Last weekend, the Wildcats tied Bemidji State and lost to the Beavers at home — no shame, as BSU went to the Frozen Four last year.

But that was the warm-up to the Wildcats’ CCHA schedule, which begins this year at home with Miami — the NCAA national runner-up — and winds through Columbus and South Bend, and continues on with Nebraska-Omaha and Alaska, a schedule that includes several potentially very tough series.

Last year, NMU went 1-6-1 through its first eight CCHA contests; in 2007-08, Northern went 1-7-0 to start regular-season conference play.

This week, Wildcat head coach Walt Kyle told the Marquette Mining Journal that he hopes his more veteran team has learned that they have to “be disciplined” and “compete” against the top teams NMU faces. “We have the opportunity to play one of the best teams in the country [this weekend] and see where we are,” said Kyle.

Not So Scary

After losing 3-2 to Boston University last Saturday on a heartbreaking goal with 2:31 left — and goaltender Bryan Hogan way behind the Michigan cage — UM coach Red Berenson was asked if he’d like to begin the postgame press conference with an opening statement.

“Yeah, we’re not going to allow tape recorders,” said Berenson. “Just kidding.”

That he was that loose after the close loss to the defending NCAA champs is a less-than-scary sign for Wolverine fans.

Said Berenson, “I thought it was a good game, from our standpoint.”

Boo!

Did you know that Nebraska-Omaha’s main rival in the CCHA is Bowling Green? Well … if you read this column, you see it mentioned occasionally. If you’re a UNO fan, you certainly know this; if you’re a loyal BGSU fan, you may recall something about it.

This dates back to a nonconference series the teams split Jan. 2-3, 1999. Something about Jason White’s goal midway through the second to give UNO a 5-1 lead. Something about a cross-check delivered by BGSU’s Scott Hewson, a gift to White as he was celebrating. Something about White missing the rest of the game, Maverick Dave Noel-Bernier tracking down Hewson and giving it a go, something about Noel Bernier calling the Hewson cross-check “a pretty cheap shot” after the game.

Something about 162 penalty minutes — and the length of time the UNO faithful can cherish a grudge.

This week in the Omaha World-Herald, staff writer Chad Purcell makes mention of the fairly one-sided (and mostly in-the-stands) rivalry in a nice article about the Bowling Green hockey program’s attempt to regroup.

Purcell quotes UNO head coach Dean Blais on the speculation last year that the BGSU hockey program would fold. Blais said that one would “hate to see anyone have to drop out,” and that we all “want to see college hockey keep growing, not shrinking.”

Keep beating that drum when you move to the WCHA, Coach, and UNO is looking for a new conference rival.

Boo, Part 2

One of the great voices in college hockey is now silent, and I’m boo-hooing.

Long-time Michigan radio color man, Jim Hunt, has been absent from the WTKA broadcasts since the start of this season. I’ve heard differing stories about why, but I haven’t yet been able to connect with Jim or WTKA to get anything official.

With all due respect to play-by-play Al Randall and the two former Wolverines joining him in the broadcast booth this season, Bill Trainor and Dave Huntzicker, Jim Hunt was one of the best reasons to be stuck at home while the Wolverines were on the road; he was absolutely wonderful on the air.

Jim was doing color commentary when I began writing for USCHO in 1996. I will miss his presence in the Yost press box.

Thanks to my colleague out East, Scott Weighart, for the Berenson quotes this week and Jeff Jackson quotes last week.

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