This Week in the CCHA: Dec. 10, 2009

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

For the months of October and November and for the first few weeks of December this year, Flint resembled Columbus in climate. As much as I wanted to leave Ohio for Michigan — nothing personal, Buckeye State — I knew one week into November 2008 that I had been spoiled by 19 years of milder and shorter central Ohio winters and that the weather hardiness on which I had prided myself as a native upstate New Yorker was nothing but a self-deluded ploy.

One week into November 2008 and I was crying, “Uncle!” By mid-February of this year, I was simply crying.

It’s not that the return of winter is completely unwelcome. There’s a big holiday approaching — the one with the tree, the late-night gift-wrapping in a desperate attempt to send out the packages to arrive in time for Christmas Day, the eggnog spiked just enough to help make palatable yet another retelling of stories from my dad’s years working quality control for General Electric in Syracuse — and the frigid weather and drifting snow help to feed the seasonal illusions.

The sudden onslaught of winter, however, coupled with the piles of end-of-the-semester grading (I’m surprised that my eyes can’t, in fact, bleed) has made me grumpy — or grumpier, as people who are forced to interact with me personally would say.

I’m not usually a Christmas curmudgeon. I’m fairly chipper this time of year. I break out the music, from the A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector to the soundtrack of A Charlie Brown Christmas, and I bake those cookies, address those cards, wrap those gifts — all after a full day of bleeding eyes — and I do so without rancor.

Usually.

As I am hitting a midseason slump about a month shy of its usual arrival, I thought now would be a good time to grab some cocoa and search the CCHA for things that have made me smile so far this season. I encourage you to reach for your beverage of choice and smile along.

The Michigan Wolverines Have Yet to Experience the Shootout

I’m not saying that the Wolverines have never experienced a shootout per se, but the Wolverines have taken care of business — one way or another — in regulation since their 5-4 overtime loss to Notre Dame in the 2008 Frozen Four.

That means that the Michigan has yet to experience CCHA regular-season points determined by a shootout; the Wolverines were 29-12-0 last season and are 8-8-0 this year.

Of course, Michigan plays a home-and-home series against Notre Dame this weekend, and given how much I love the shootout and on which of Santa’s lists my name rests this year, that streak will probably be broken Friday, when the Wolverines play the Irish in Yost Ice Arena … and I’m in attendance.

The Last-Place Michigan Wolverines

Before all you Maize-and-Blue fans get your hate on and e-mail in, I take no pleasure in watching Michigan languish near the bottom of the standings. I admire Red Berenson and what he’s accomplished in Ann Arbor, and a weak Wolverine team is bad for the league.

However, it was interesting to see Michigan anchoring the CCHA standings — briefly — after the Wolverines’ loss to Ohio State last Friday, Dec. 4. It’s even more amusing because I don’t think that UM is out of the running for a much loftier spot at the end of the season, as Berenson seems to possess some magic and regular-season wins are worth three points now.

Ferris State Fans

Some of the best, brightest moments I’ve had during the past few weeks have come by way of Ferris State fans, and I’m sure that my reaction was the opposite of what was intended.

Whenever a team that doesn’t often threaten the top spot in the league emerges as a very strong competitor, that team’s fans emerge from hibernation, eager to vent their seasons-long spleen at the most convenient target.

That target, of course, is me.

Over the course of the last few weeks, I’ve received at least half a dozen e-mail messages from Bulldog fans — that’s actually quite a few, relatively speaking — berating me for not doing enough to beat the Ferris State drum. These e-mails usually begin with, “I’m a big fan of Ferris State,” and end with either “Thank you” or “What’s wrong with you, anyway?”

One of my favorites came this week and although the tone was vaguely polite — there was no cursing, no questioning of my lineage, no suggestions for cosmetic surgery — the implication was clear: I’m useless because I haven’t declared the 11-3-2 Bulldogs supreme leaders of the universe, or at least the CCHA.

Another favorite came to nearly everyone on the USCHO e-mail list, as far as I can tell, and was close to being a press release touting FSU’s first half. It reminded all of us that Ferris State is in Big Rapids and encouraged me (and others) to “catch a game of the Bulldogs.” I wondered if it were written by a player’s dad.

It’s true that the Bulldogs are having a great year. Blair Riley (13-5–18), Taylor Nelson (.942 SV%, 1.59 GAA) and Pat Nagle (.933 SV%, 1.84 GAA) are having career seasons. FSU took four points — by way of two shootout “wins” — from Miami in Oxford. They’re in the top 10 in my USCHO.com Poll ballot.

There are two more things about the Bulldogs that make me smile. First is that they’re leading the nation in penalty minutes, averaging 22 per game. This bolsters my theory that some teams need to play with passion to win, like the RedHawks did last weekend in two home shutout wins over Notre Dame last weekend, two games in which Miami amassed 83 penalty minutes.

The other thing about Ferris State that makes me smile, though, has nothing to do with how they’re playing. No, I’m just happy that FSU heads to Madison in three weeks for the Badger Showdown, and I’m hoping that history repeats.

The Penalty Killing Non Sequitur

The top three penalty-killing teams in the country are Michigan, Ferris State and Notre Dame. One of these things is not like the other.

The Bulldogs and the Bemidji State Beavers have the best defensive teams in the country, allowing 1.75 goals per game on average. FSU’s goaltending tandem is impressive, and the Bulldog defensive corps of sophomores and juniors — Chad Billins, Zach Redmond, Michael Trebish, Scott Wietecha and Brett Wysopal — is the best under-the-radar unit in the country.

Notre Dame is allowing 1.94 goals per game on average and is a team known for superior defense. That freshman Mike Johnson (.932 SV%, 1.79 GAA) and junior Brad Phillips (.919 SV%, 2.53 GAA) provide solid backstopping helps to explain the Irish penalty-kill dominance.

But Michigan? Bryan Hogan’s .902 save percentage is, frankly, below average in a league that includes all of the aforementioned goaltenders plus half a dozen other CCHA netminders with better numbers. And the Wolverines have the 12th-best scoring defense in the country, allowing 2.38 goals per game. Yet, UM’s penalty kill is tops in the nation (91.7 percent), and the Wolverines haven’t allowed an opponent power-play goal in five contests.

Red Berenson Is 70

Coaching hockey is not like coaching other sports, where one is not required to skate on a surface that can break a hip.

Red Berenson celebrated his 70th birthday Dec. 8, and he can probably still take you.

Fuzzy Shutout Math

Last weekend, there were three shutout wins in the CCHA, including Taylor Nelson’s blanking of Nebraska-Omaha and the back-to-back shutouts by Miami’s Cody Reichard and Connor Knapp against Notre Dame.

(And who starts the guy who didn’t deliver the shutout the night after the shutout? The coach who knows the other guy can also deliver a shutout. Wow.)

This got me thinking about shutout hockey in the CCHA. So far this season, league goaltenders have posted 17 shutouts, including the gripping 0-0 tie Lake State recorded against Union Nov. 27.

Last year, CCHA goaltenders recorded a total of 45 shutout games. That’s impressive … until you take Alaska’s Chad Johnson and Notre Dame’s Jordan Pearce out of the mix. Between them, Johnson (six) and Pearce (eight) had 14 shutouts for the season. Subtract that from the total number, and we’re down to 31 — less than half of the recorded shutouts so far this season for the CCHA.

So … with my fuzzy math, the mere mortal CCHA goaltenders this season are on a pretty good pace to eclipse the mere mortals of a season ago.

Not CCHA Hockey, but Funny Anyway

I covered my first College Hockey Showcase this season, an experience that yielded unexpected laughs.

After Wisconsin’s 7-3 win over Michigan State, Derek Stepan — who had a goal and four assists — explained his offensive outburst this way:

“Coach has been working with me the last couple of weeks and discussing what part of my game has been missing. He kind of pounded last weekend that I wasn’t playing with an edge, I wasn’t getting hits. I wasn’t getting my five hits a game.

“I’m not a guy that’s going to go out and blow somebody up, but if I get my five hits a game, I tend to play with a little more edge. I found that tonight, and with that came the points, which is good. It was a good feeling tonight.”

So, Bowling Green, Notre Dame, Western Michigan, Ohio State — get your five hits a game. Don’t blow someone up, but get your hits, by all means.

The post-game quote was provided by Benjamin Worgull, USCHO’s arena reporter in Madison. I met Benjamin for the first time that night, and the meeting spawned the Last Ten Seconds theory of hockey. If you run into him in Madison, ask him about possible shanking and it will all make sense.

My Really, Really, Really, Really Bad Timing and Sense of, Well, Everything

Based on Ohio State’s weak Friday-night performances this season, I picked it to split with Michigan last weekend by losing Friday, winning Saturday. Guess what happened instead.

Based on MSU’s re-emergence as a team to be reckoned with and UM’s less-than-impressive start to the season, I predicted the Spartans would sweep the Showcase and the Wolverines would not. Guess what happened.

Based on Louie Caporusso’s three goals in four games after being placed on a new line, I suggested that the UM junior may be on the verge of finding his scoring touch again. He didn’t score last weekend.

In the preseason, I predicted that Notre Dame would top the league, UM would come in second, MSU would finish eighth, Ferris State ninth. My prediction record this season is 53-41-17 — and that’s inflated because I had my first good weekend in a month last week.

It’s a Party in the … Locker Room.

This amuses me more than it should. Perhaps it’s because it illustrates the real youth of college hockey players. Maybe it’s because it’s another non sequitur.

I have heard the Miley Cyrus song “Party in the U.S.A.” blasting from more than one CCHA locker room post-game this season. No, the song wasn’t used as punishment after a loss. I’ve heard this after wins.

Seriously.

I’ve also heard similar reports from other leagues. So I’m nodding my head. Like, yeah.

It Will Be a Party in … Detroit

I do love my adopted state of Michigan and I am still in love with Flint — seriously — but now that I’ve lived in the area that amounts to the epicenter of the fall of Western civilization as we know it, I find it extraordinarily amusing that every single Division I men’s college hockey team is playing its collective heart out for a trip to Detroit, Mich., in April.

Detroit. In April.

That just tickles me.

They Play Hockey in Flint

They do play college hockey in Flint, ACHA club hockey. The University of Michigan-Flint campus has a team, as does Kettering University. UM-Flint is toying with the idea of adding D-III sports to its campus, including football and men’s ice hockey.

What amuses me even more, however, is that former Spartan and NHL journeyman Bryan Smolinski is playing — willingly — for the Flint Generals of the IHL. Smolinski, who played 17 seasons in the NHL, wanted a professional gig close to East Lansing.

The Generals have 13 former NCAA players on their roster, including seven from the CCHA including Smolinski: Chris Bogas (MSU 1995-99), Brandon Gentile (MSU 2005-09), Tyler Howells (MSU 2003-07), Steve Silver (WMU 2006-09), Tony Tuzzolino (MSU 1994-97) and Nathan Ward (LSSU 2003-06).

The number of Spartans is no surprise once you know that Jason Muzzatti (MSU 1987-91) is the Generals coach and director of hockey operations.

The Cure for the Bah Humbugs

The list of things that hasn’t made me smile this season is far longer but not nearly as entertaining. We all know that I don’t like the shootout, that I’m not happy that the WCHA poached UNO but people groused that the CCHA was in the wrong for trying to preserve its own league, that people throw the word “parity” around as though it means “equally good” and that so many people fail at geography — as in not knowing that Huntsville, Ala., is closer to Oxford, Ohio, than is Marquette, Mich.

I’m not overly fond of the Great Lakes Invitational tournament — and I am beginning to loathe Joe Louis Arena’s press box and press parking — I dislike that there’s no college hockey tournament in played in Chicago proper, that the city of Columbus couldn’t support a midseason tourney, I’m tiring of the outdoor hockey gimmick and I’m far more bitter than I should be about the Buffalo Bills.

It’s cold, my head hurts from reading essays that include variations of the phrase “there for me” — as in, “My mother was always there for me,” or, “I knew my girlfriend would always be there for me” — and I haven’t baked a single cookie.

That having been said, I’m grateful to you, my readers, for checking in with me weekly and keeping me honest, and I wish you a very happy Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Solstice and Festivus.

Try the following cure for the bah humbugs, my mother’s cut-out cookies. My mom, Dolly Weston, is 75 years old and still baking. I’ll try to get her kolache recipe, but she can be stingy about such things.

Dolly’s Cut-Out Cookies.

3 cups flour
2 cups sugar
2 tbs. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
half tsp. nutmeg
1 cup butter
2 eggs
4 tsp. milk (1 tbs. plus 1 tsp.)
1 tsp vanilla

Method

• Combine dry ingredients and set aside.
• Cream butter and sugar. Add vanilla. Add eggs, one at a time. Add milk.
• Mix dry and moist ingredients together until smooth.
• Divide into workable amounts and wrap in wax paper. Refrigerate several hours or overnight.
• Preheat oven to 375.
• Roll a small amount of dough into one-eighth to one-quarter inch thick. Keep the remaining dough refrigerated.
• Cut into festive shapes. Mom always prefers bells and other rounded shapes, as they are less likely to get too crisp around the edges. Place on ungreased baking sheets.
• Brush with beaten egg whites and decorate with colored sugar before baking.
• Bake five to 10 minutes and watch carefully — these can burn quickly.

You’ll need to make sure your rolling pin is cold and that the work surface is floured — I cut the flour with powdered sugar so that I’m not adding too much flour to the dough. Work quickly, because the dough warms quickly.

I think these are perfect with coffee and I never ice them, but readers over the years have recommended other beverages accompany them and I know of at least one NHL player who has made and frosted these with his own mother.

See you next year.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here