This Week in the CCHA: Jan. 28, 2010

Kickin’ It Old School

After a few columns of a more somber variety lately, I think that ending January with a more gazette-style offering is a good idea. It’s a chatty one. Grab your coffee.

I Love the Buckeyes!

That seems to be the subtext that some readers gleaned from last week’s column, when I said that a strong, consistent Ohio State hockey program was good for college hockey in general. Although I don’t live in Columbus anymore, I apparently pine for the Scarlet and Gray.

It is what it is. Pass the tinfoil, please.

Speaking of OSU, I was happy to read what coach John Markell said after the Bucks’ 5-2 loss to Michigan State last Friday. Markell — whom I’ve known for 16 years, since his children were wee and I was a top American model (really) — surprised me with his succinct and timely response to unseemly, unnecessary Buckeye penalties.

“We have to work smarter,” said Markell. “If you’re going to finish a check, then keep your elbow out of his head. If you are going to hit a guy, keep two hands on your stick.”

The Buckeyes were called for nine minor penalties in that loss.

Unranked OSU ruined my weekly pick and earned the split with MSU the following night — earned it, breaking a 2-2 deadlock at 18:53 in the third and adding an empty-netter. Dalpe, a sophomore, had a goal early in the third and because he is who he is — a second-round 2008 draft pick of the Carolina Hurricanes and a potential superstar — he was a media darling post-game. Actually, he’s a nice kid with an easy demeanor that may stay that way, even though the television people were pumping him up a bit and he was loving it.

One funny anecdote about Dalpe: He counts his shots per game. I wouldn’t know this if I hadn’t witnessed with my own eyes the Paris, Ontario, native discussing his shot total with the OSU associate athletics communication director Leann Parker. (It’s fair game; he did this in front of a cadre of press … and he joked about it.)

Dalpe leads the Buckeyes in scoring (13-11–24) and shots on goal (95) this season.

What surprised me the most about the Buckeyes — other than how grown-up some of the players look, as I haven’t seen them in a while … I think I actually saw Patrick Schafer, who had that game-winner, sporting facial hair — was how well they played. I had them picked fourth at the start of the season and there they are in ninth place. Of course, ninth is only six points behind fourth in the CCHA — that’s two games — so perhaps standings can be deceiving.

I do know that if OSU finishes in that middle third and hosts a first-round CCHA playoff series and wins it, I wouldn’t want to be the top-tier team hosting the Buckeyes in the second weekend of CCHA playoff action. And the Bucks are one of three current mid-pack teams that can play its way to Detroit on the road.

I also know that assistant coach Steve Brent and his wife Adi welcomed their second child, a son named Alexander, in December. Congrats to the Brents!

For full disclosure, Brent was a student of mine 17 years ago in an Early American Literature class I taught at The Ohio State University. Ask him what he earned.

I Really Like Those Bulldogs, Too

Before catching up with the Buckeyes Saturday night, I got to watch a very good hockey game in Ann Arbor Friday. The Wolverines beat the Bulldogs, 2-0, in that contest, prompting FSU coach Bob Daniels to say, “It’s nice to play good defensively … but you’re not going to win the game if you don’t score any goals.”

It was the second time in three games that the Bulldogs found themselves with no goals on the scoreboard, something of a concern for Daniels. FSU has the 17th-best scoring offense in the country, averaging 3.23 goals per game.

Part of Ferris State’s success this season — and the Bulldogs are for real, for sure, as one CCHA coach would put it — is the Bulldogs’ top line, all seniors. Blair Riley (16-12–28), Casey Haines (6-16–22) and Cody Chupp (7-15–22) are responsible for 29 of FSU’s 84 goals, and Daniels said that his seniors are having “a very good season.”

The Bulldogs are, however, more than the sum of one line. Matt Case — a senior — is a monster defenseman and perhaps one of the most underrated in the league. He was everywhere he should have been in that 2-0 loss, and for being one of the biggest guys on a team that spends a lot of time in the box, Case plays a hard, clean game; he had two tripping penalties for the series against UM last weekend. He’s 6 feet tall and solid, smart, has eight minor penalties in 18 league games, impossible to ignore when he’s on the ice and undrafted. He’s scored twice in his last three games.

The rest of the FSU defense is solid and the Bulldogs netminding duo of Pat Nagle and Taylor Nelson is very impressive. Nagle (1.88 goals-against average, .933 save percentage) has the second-best stats in the nation. He and Nelson (2.32, .921) split time in net. “It’s for the most part what we’ve come to expect from them,” said Daniels. “We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve got two guys playing at that level. Very steady. Very comfortable in net.”

The Bulldogs split their weekend with the Wolverines — I called it, for once — without Chupp and junior defenseman Scott Wietecha, who had both been injured in the previous week’s series against Miami. Both are expected to play this weekend against Ohio State.

FSU’s 17-7-2 start is its third-best in program history.

And Then There’s the Wolverines

Well, two Wolverines that caught my eye last Friday.

UM sophomore Luke Glendening scored both goals in that 2-0 win over FSU. With the markers, Glendening is one shy of his six-goal total from his freshman season.

Both were beauties. In each case, Glendening used a Bulldogs player to screen Nagle; in each case, Glendening hit the only available open spot, the sliver between Nagle and the right post. Even Daniels conceded that they looked like goal-scorer’s goals. The goals were scored on the best two scoring opportunities of the night, too. It was one of those games where little was given.

Glendening. Who knew?

The other Wolverines player I noticed was goaltender Bryan Hogan (2.18 GAA, .906 SV%), who absolutely fascinates me. When this kid on, he’s impossible to breach; when he’s not, he plays the net so casually that I stop breathing … and things often don’t go well for the Wolverines in those games, either.

Friday night, Hogan was on. The Michigan defense didn’t allow many great scoring chances, but when he was challenged — especially in the third period — Hogan was spectacular. Hogan has now shut out opponents in each of his last two weekends, having blanked Alaska at home, 6-0, Jan. 15.

The Wolverines, who started the first half rather slowly, are 4-1-1 in the second half, 5-2-1 if you count the Great Lakes Invitational.

They are another current mid-pack team that can easily play through another city to Joe Louis Arena in March — that is, if they have to travel at all. Michigan’s four points out of fourth place. They may yet earn a bye, and I may yet have to eat my midseason words.

What words? I said that the Wolverines wouldn’t go to the NCAA tournament this year.

Yes, I know. I know.

Down, But Also Not Out

The other mid-pack team that I wouldn’t want to face in my rink in the second round of the CCHA playoffs is Notre Dame.

(That Notre Dame, Michigan and Ohio State are battling for home ice in the first round of the CCHA playoffs after their seasons last year boggles my tiny little mind.)

The Irish struggled through the first half of the season to score goals. In fact, if you ask coach Jeff Jackson, he’d tell you that Notre Dame struggled in the first half to shoot the puck. The Irish are now shooting the puck, but are struggling to put together a full, coherent line-up. While ND isn’t having to pull people out of the stands to suit up for games the way Michigan State did last season (I’m kidding, of course), the Irish have lost 51-man games this season because of injuries.

On the sidelines against Lake Superior State last weekend were Irish defensemen Sam Calabrese (broken ankle), Eric Ringel (concussion) and Teddy Ruth (concussion), and forward Billy Maday (shoulder).

Sometimes when players are injured, others on the team find opportunity. Such was the case for ND sophomore forward Patrick Gaul, who earned his first career goal in his 35th collegiate game in Notre Dame’s 6-1 win over LSSU Friday.

That was the same game in which junior Calle Ridderwall recorded his second hat trick of the season, with all three goals coming within a 6:47 span in the second period.

The Irish have scored 28 of their 69 overall goals this season since Jan. 1. That’s 3.5 goals per game, compared with the 2.05 ND averaged in the first half of 2009-10.

The Irish are getting more than solid goaltending from freshman Mike Johnson (2.03 GAA, .929 SV%), whose numbers are good enough to put him among the top 10 goals nationally. Johnson had a career-high 45 saves in ND’s 1-1 tie against the Lakers Saturday.

Solid

After L.A. Kings president and general manager, Dean Lombardi, unloaded on Michigan coach Red Berenson in an article dated Jan. 20 on Gann Matsuda’s blog Frozen Royalty, Kings defenseman and former Wolverines player Jack Johnson came to Berenson’s defense.

In the original interview, Lombardi said that Berenson had mishandled Johnson, whom he called a “thoroughbred,” and hadn’t given the defenseman enough coaching to develop in his two years in Ann Arbor.

(Again, two years in Ann Arbor … four years in L.A. … math has always been very, very hard for me.)

Johnson answered Lombardi’s lambast in Helene Elliott’s blog for the Los Angeles Times, and nearly immediately.

In a move that took a lot of courage and a good deal of class and maturity, Johnson told the press that he’s “a Michigan man” and said that Berenson “is one of the finest coaches and men” that he’s met.

Johnson attended UM’s 2-0 win over FSU in Ann Arbor last Friday, and his between-periods on-ice promotion (he found the net, by the way) was a hit with fans. Johnson will play on the U.S. Olympic squad in Vancouver next month. He scored a goal against Toronto earlier this week.

And he gained a fan in Flint, Mich.

In this whole flap, too, it’s important to note that Berenson has had no comment in response. He doesn’t need to say a word.

What baffles me is what Lombardi was thinking when he went on record to say that Berenson can’t or doesn’t coach. Seriously, what could he possibly stand to gain from such public statements? Does he think that salary dictates respect in the hockey world?

Does he know us at all?

Games of the Week

I hinted last week, didn’t I? Well, I’m giddy about it. There’s nothing older school than this.

Michigan (14-11-1, 9-8-1-0 CCHA) vs. Michigan State (16-8-4, 11-5-4-1 CCHA)
Friday, 7:05 p.m., Munn Ice Arena, East Lansing, Mich.; Saturday, 7:35 p.m., Joe Louis Arena, Detroit

A year ago, when the Spartans were languishing near the bottom of the standings during their Season of Glass Shoulders, this series lost its relevance. Sure, fans within the state of Michigan cared, but when MSU was clearly playing to stay out of the basement and UM looking for a league title, this series was moot.

And so this series looked in the first half of 2009-10, when it looked as though the teams had reversed fortunes; the Wolverines were clearly having an uncharacteristically down first half while the Spartans were showing people that last year was a blip.

Now MSU sits in second place with 38 points and UM is in seventh, 10 points behind. With wins earning three points in the CCHA this season, distance is far more relative than it was in 2008-09. With 11 games left, Michigan can make up for some lost time while Michigan State can run at a title — or at least solidify that first-round bye.

In a news release this week, Berenson said that the Wolverines are focusing on the Spartans this weekend and nothing more. “All we can worry about is Friday night’s game,” said Berenson, “and we can’t look back and we can’t start worrying about the math or other teams.

“All we can control is what we do. If we have a great weekend, then we’ll worry about next weekend. If we have a bad one, the schedule is still there.”

In his news conference this week, Michigan State coach Rick Comley took a different approach. “You’re worrying about how many points you need to get to a certain spot.”

Ah, reversals of fortunes, indeed.

Last week, both the Wolverines and the Spartans split, and each series featured an upset by an unranked team. How strange it was that the Wolverines were the unranked spoilers, beating the ranked Bulldogs at home Friday night before losing to FSU in Big Rapids Saturday? For the Spartans, it was a 5-2 win over OSU Friday and a 4-2 loss to the unranked Buckeyes Saturday, both games at home.

After their upset win, Berenson said that Ferris State was as good a team as he’d seen since the Wolverines played the Badgers in the College Hockey Showcase — and that would be the Badgers tied for third in the PairWise and No. 2 in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll.

“I thought defensively we had to play one of our best games,” said Berenson, “not that they didn’t get some shots. I thought the game was played the way we needed to play.”

Said Comley after the loss, “These games come along. We were OK, but we didn’t generate much.”

I love this series, especially since moving to Michigan in 2008. Last year’s games, the first MSU-UM games I’d ever had the chance to see outside of Joe Louis Arena, were a disappointment because of the Spartans’ down year. Last year, the Wolverines swept the Spartans, winning five games — including the GLI title match — by a collective score of 27-9, and all five games coming between Dec. 5, 2008, and Jan. 24, 2009.

Boring.

This season, the Spartans — the most recent GLI champs — have downed the Wolverines twice, although in much less dramatic fashion. MSU swept UM in a home-and-home series Nov. 13-14, with Spartans goaltender Drew Palmisano turning away 31 shots in Munn for a 2-0 shutout win in the Saturday game.

Much more interesting.

Now that I’m here in Flint and can feel the nuances of this rivalry — it’s all blunt and bludgeoning with Michigan and OSU, and mostly one-sided in a south-of-Toledo kind of way — I love every little thing about this series, right down to the dispute about how many times the teams have actually played.

According to the Spartans, UM leads this series 137-121-18. If you ask one of the Wolverines, Michigan’s lead is 133-120-18. And I love that MSU’s stats give UM more wins. Crazy.

Here’s the matchup by the conference numbers:

• Goals per game: UM 2.94 (t-third); MSU 2.70 (eighth)
• Goals allowed per game: UM 2.28 (fourth); MSU 2.20 (third)
• Power play: UM 81.1 (sixth); MSU 15.1 (10th)
• Penalty kill: UM 89.0 (third); MSU 84.0 (seventh)
• Top scorer: UM Carl Hagelin (7-10–17); MSU Corey Tropp (10-13–23)
• Top ‘tender: UM Bryan Hogan (2.22 GAA, .903 SV%); Drew Palmisano (2.05, .931)

Both of these teams lost in the last minutes last weekend. The Wolverines saw FSU’s Zach Redmond notch the game-winning goal on the power play at 19:36 in the third period in Saturday’s 3-2 loss in Big Rapids. The Spartans saw OSU’s Patrick Schafer score at 18:53 in the third period of Saturday’s 4-2 home loss in East Lansing.

Oh, this is going to be so good.

Chilly

And did you hear? The Spartans and Wolverines are going to play outdoors next season! Yay! (Can you also hear the real tone of my voice through your computer screen?)

Michigan announced Thursday that it will host “The Big Chill in the Big House” Dec. 11, 2010, an outdoor game against the Spartans in Michigan Stadium. It will be the second outdoor game for the two teams. MSU hosted the “Cold War” contest in Spartan Stadium Oct. 6, 2001.

In all fairness, it was a great contest that ended in a 3-3 tie in front of 74,544 fans. I recall the extra security so close to Sept. 11, as though someone in the Middle East were thinking, “Hey, if we hit the Cold War game, America will fold and the West will tumble into oblivion!”

I also remember the racoon that found its way into the press box post-game and the reaction of several media members — all male — who clearly were unaccustomed to the outdoor life.

While the outdoor games seem kind of gimmicky, I’m sure I’ll be more on board as the contest approaches. It’s also interesting that it will be the second month in 2010 in which collegiate hockey will be played on the gridiron, so to speak, in the state of Michigan.

But the title … is it just me, or is someone else also thinking of a guy named Big Nate dancing to “I Heard It Through the Grapevine?”

I’m just about to lose my mind.

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