This Week in the CCHA: Nov. 25, 2009

Thankful? You Betcha!

As Wisconsin and Minnesota will be visiting the Wolverine State this week, that opening seems entirely appropriate.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! The holiday shortens the week, which shortens the column, so it seems the perfect time to take a look back on the early going this season and express gratitude for some of what has transpired so far.

College Hockey Teaches Us that Solutions Can Be Simple

In 37 games last season, Ferris State senior Blair Riley netted seven goals. In 14 games this season, he has 14 — equaling his career-high total of 2007-08.

After his hat trick in last Friday’s 8-1 Bulldog rout of Ohio State, Riley gave the reason for his recent success: “I’m shooting the puck a lot more this year.”

Ah. Thanks for that explanation.

The Bulldog coaching staff has another reason for Riley’s success: his linemates, Cody Chupp and Casey Haines. Chupp (4-10–14) is three goals shy of the total number he netted in 33 games last year, seven shy of his best year (2007-08). Haines (3-8–11) has netted half the goals he did in 38 games last season, his career best. All three are seniors.

Riley is currently fourth nationally for goals scored per game and two of his 14 are shorthanders.

The Miami Junior Class

What do Carter Camper, Pat Cannone, Vincent LoVerde, Andy Miele, Justin Vaive and Tommy Wingels have in common? Aside from establishing themselves as household names in the CCHA, they’re part of Miami’s uber-talented junior class. I’d put this group of talent up against any other class in the nation, on any team, on any day, in any rink.

This is not a group that plays flashy hockey; these guys anchor a team known for steady hockey. Between them, forwards Camper, Cannone, Miele, Vaive and Wingels have nearly half of Miami’s 41 goals (18). Miele (5-10–15) leads the RedHawks in points and is tied for goals.

Yes, the team with just one loss has no one who has scored more than five goals in 14 games. Obviously, that speaks more to what this team possesses rather than what it lacks.

Because this class’s excellence is difficult to quantify and Miami is solid through and through, these guys don’t get the ink they deserve. Camper is small, speedy, clean and sees the ice as well as anyone playing the college game. Cannone is a clutch player. Miele has the puck-touch. Vaive is an excellent defensive forward. LoVerde stays close to home, as a good defenseman should.

These gents contribute to an overall team defensive effort that makes Miami the second-toughest team in the country to score against, allowing just 1.71 goals per game, second only to Bemidji State.

(And can’t we all be thankful for Bemidji State, while we’re at it?)

The CCHA Continues to Produce Good Goaltending

Good goaltending has been a staple of the CCHA for many years, so being grateful for that is nothing new. This year, however, has provided us with some newcomers to watch, which makes it even more interesting.

As I said, the Miami RedHawks seem to have mastered the overall team effort, and their defense is second to none in the league. While the entire team buys into a system that lends itself to good puck protection and excellent defensive play, the last line of defense for Miami is among the best in the country.

In case you’ve overlooked these guys, here’s a list of CCHA goaltenders who should be turning heads. A fella’s goals-against average is all fine and dandy, but it’s his save percentage that tells a better story. The number following the save percentage is the goalie’s rank nationally in that category.

• Mike Johnson, Notre Dame (.943/2)

• Cody Reichard, Miami (.936/4)

• Pat Nagle, Ferris State (.933/7)

• Drew Palmisano, Michigan State (.932/8)

• Brad Phillips, Notre Dame (.931/9)

• Reid Ellingson, Northern Michigan (.931/10)

• Riley Gill, Western Michigan (.931/12)

• Taylor Nelson, Ferris State (.930/13)

Half of these guys are familiar to CCHA fans, but the others — Mike? Reid? — are establishing themselves this season.

The fact that Notre Dame and Ferris State have two goalies that can share the net so well shouldn’t at all diminish the accomplishments of said goalies. The fact that Riley Gill plays for Western Michigan, the team currently in CCHA basement, makes every other team in the league take the last-place team seriously — and makes the outcomes of such meetings unpredictable.

There are other guys around the league playing good hockey in net, too — Alaska’s Scott Greenham (.920) and Lake Superior’s Brian Mahoney-Wilson (.911) — which keeps everything very, very interesting.

College Hockey Can Still Deliver a Good, Old-Fashioned Whoopin’

Ferris State beat Ohio State 8-1 last Friday, scoring three in the first, four in the second, one in the third for good measure.

Northern Michigan beat Nebraska-Omaha 5-1 the same night, scoring one in the first and two each in the second and third.

While I’m not demeaning either team on the losing ends of these equations, there is something satisfying about witnessing games in which one team is so completely in control that the other team never has a chance. Of course, it’s a better experience for you if you’re a fan of the winning squad, but such domination — as when Miami trounced Michigan 5-1 Nov. 7 — reveals so much about each team that if you’re a fan of sport, you appreciate the game.

Friday’s 8-1 FSU win over OSU exposed the Buckeyes’ general lack of preparation approaching weekends this season; Ohio State has two Friday-night wins.

“We were out-competed in every facet of the game,” said OSU coach John Markell after that loss in Big Rapids, and that says it all.

In Marquette last weekend, the Wildcats did more than just thump the Mavericks Friday night; NMU swept UNO by a collective score of 11-4, exposing a preexisting problem for the Mavericks: a sometimes porous defense combined with inconsistency in net. This has been the downfall of Maverick hockey for the past couple of seasons, but the early more solid goaltending by John Faulkner and Jeremie Dupont allowed us to forget this momentarily.

When Miami completed its two-game sweep of Michigan Nov. 7 in a game in which the RedHawks thoroughly dominated the Wolverines, two UM weaknesses were exposed: a lack of scoring ability on an otherwise talented club and a complete lack of discipline. As that game progressed, the Wolverines took stupid penalty after stupid penalty while the RedHawks remained cool. In all, UM was assessed 65 minutes in that game.

In a league where coaches routinely preach at the altar of parity, such outcomes are even more satisfying. That they are so infrequent makes them more so. And, yes, I know that validates the altar of parity.

The Spartans Surface

I cannot tell you how much fun it is to watch Spartan hockey this season.

Michigan State’s 9-3-2 record is proving that last year, the Season of Glass Shoulders, was the exception, not the rule. After all, this is a program that won a national championship just three short seasons ago.

Coach Rick Comley has said repeatedly this season that he’s recruited for what he needs this year. He needed bigger, stronger, older players — and he has them. The team that has returned from the abysmal 10-win season of 2008-09 is seasoned, and the guys he brought in are mostly non-traditional freshmen.

The result is a mix of talent and experience that gets better each weekend. I’ll wager that the Spartans learned a lesson at the hands of Notre Dame last weekend when MSU captured just one point against the Fighting Irish.

“We lost to a good team,” Comley told the Lansing State-Journal. “I don’t make any more of it than that.”

The Bulldogs Do, Too

It’s always a better party when Ferris State decides to show up. Well, it’s always a better party when anyone who isn’t among the usual suspects decides to show up, and that’s what the Bulldogs bring to this season so far.

Ferris State’s 12th-best scoring offense nationally (3.57 goals per game), sixth-best (1.97 goals against) scoring defense, fourth-best power play (25.6) and penalty kill (89.9) help legitimize a Bulldog team that went into Steve Cady Arena and came out with four points by virtue of two ties and two shootout “wins” against the No. 1 team in the country.

The Bulldogs followed that performance with the domination of Ohio State at home last weekend — that 8-1 win and three unanswered third-period goals to send the game to overtime before Haines’ game-winner with 22 seconds left in OT — to finally gain enough respect to break into the USCHO.com/CBS College Sports Division I Men’s Poll. (They’re at No. 17, but I voted them No. 8 and had them No. 11 the week before.)

The Bulldogs distinguish themselves nationally in another category, too; they top the nation in penalty minutes, averaging 21.6 per game.

Now that’s a party.

Miscellaneous Gratifying CCHA Stuff

Here’s an altogether incomplete list of things that I’ve liked so far about this CCHA season.

The Falcon way with the Wolverines … in Yost Ice Arena … for now. Last week, Bowling Green and Michigan split a series, with BGSU winning in Ann Arbor 4-2 Friday night. That was the second consecutive game in which the Falcons beat the Wolverines in Yost. The last time the teams had met prior to Friday’s match was BG’s 3-0 win over UM in Ann Arbor Jan. 16.

Attention-getting freshmen. These include BG’s Jordan Samuels-Thomas (5-7–12), FSU’s Matthew Kirzinger (5-8–13), MSU’s Derek Grant (6-7–13) and Chris Forfar (4-1–5), Notre Dame’s Ryan Sheahan (3-6–9) and Kyle Palmieri (4-2– 6), and WMU’s Trevor Elias (3-5– 8). And that’s just the forwards.

Being careful of what you wish for. It was rumored that few tears were shed when Aaron Palushaj left the UM program early for the pros. Notice how Louie Caporusso has been struggling to score this season, as have the rest of the Wolverines. Michigan has a world-class program that attracts world-class players … who leave early. I don’t wish the negatives of having such a good program upon Michigan, but this does illustrate the need for better protection of young talent at NCAA schools — and, no, I don’t know how schools can accomplish that. But, hey, where’s Robbie Czarnik?

Guys poised to make the most of their senior seasons. Alaska’s Dion Knelsen, Bowling Green’s Tommy Dee, that senior trio at Ferris State, Lake State’s Brad Cooper, Miami’s Jarod Palmer, Nebraska’s Jeric Agosta, Northern’s Ray Kaunisto, Notre Dame’s Kyle Lawson Western’s Jared Katz.

Clean chants. I don’t know why it tickles me, but when the Notre Dame student section says, “You can’t do that!” when an opposing player goes to the penalty box, I can’t help but laughing. Maybe it’s the stab at originality. Maybe I’m just glad my mom wouldn’t be offended.

Lessons learned from mistakes. Players sitting in the penalty box at the end of overtime will not leave the penalty box until the shootout is complete.

So much goodness to gobble up — and so much season left in which to do so.

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