This Week in the CCHA: Feb. 4, 2010

Thank You, Punxsutawney Fraud

You’ve been had. We’ve all been had.

For reasons clear only to The Weather Channel and the rest of the Media-Greeting Card-Big Pharma complex that controls these United States, Groundhog Day has gained alarming momentum in recent years, spawning a new niche plush toy industry and celebrations that include trademark-infringing Whac-A-Mole ripoffs and predictable PETA protests.

It’s a total ruse. That rodent predicts nothing. The vernal equinox — the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere — arrives on March 20 this year. Groundhog Day is Feb. 2. See your shadow, Dunkirk Dave? Six more weeks of winter, Punxsutawney Phil? Yeah, that’s a prediction that takes courage.

(Hint: Do the math, people. Do the math.)

In the spirit of this holiday — which, oddly enough, does not include actual groundhog on any suggested menu — this is a column that is devoted to stating the obvious. Of course, in true Groundhog Day fashion (the movie, not the holiday), longtime readers will argue that I’m perpetuating a theme, as I am well-versed in stating the obvious.

What can I say? “Reaching” is as American a concept as, well, Groundhog Day.

RedHawks Win the Regular-Season Title!

Not yet, but soon.

My good friends and USCHO colleagues, Jim Connelly and Todd Milewski, discussed in this week’s USCHO Extra feature, “Tuesday Morning Quarterback,” that Bemidji State could have secured the regular-season title for the CHA had the Beavers swept Robert Morris this past weekend.

Claiming a conference title in January is early, but as Todd noted, with only four teams in a conference, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility.

Then Jim wrote that he was “shocked” to see Miami with a 10-point lead over Michigan State with two games in hand, as though the RedHawks are out of reach. While it’s unlikely that anyone will catch Miami at this point, there are still several teams that can catch the ‘Hawks in theory, given the new math of the CCHA.

At the beginning of the season, we all wondered about how the new CCHA points system would affect the league standings. (Next year, we can turn our attention to an 11-team league. It’s very thoughtful of the conference to provide us with something different to discuss every season.)

Now we know how the three-point games have affected the league. First, we’re all having to rethink how we look at points. A 10-point lead is no longer a five-game lead. You can’t blame Jim Connelly for not considering this; it’s hard to look at Miami’s 51 points at the beginning of February without doing a double take.

Second, we can now see that the three-point system returns the league to some sort of equitable way of divvying up points in our shootout world. Or rather, I’m beginning to wrap my brain around how the new points system seems more equitable. After nearly two seasons with the shootout, I’m leaning toward a five-minute overtime of four-on-four hockey, too.

As for Miami, the RedHawks have eight games and 24 possible points remaining. The second-place Spartans have 41 points currently and six games and 18 points remaining. It’s possible — not probable, nowhere likely — that MSU can catch Miami. Eighteen points would give MSU 59 points, which is currently more than the 51 points that the RedHawks have.

(See? Groundhog Day!)

Because of their current points and number of games remaining, five CCHA teams other than MSU could mathematically finish ahead of Miami in points, although that wouldn’t necessarily translate into any of these teams attaining first place. Third-place Ferris State, fourth-place Lake Superior State, sixth-place Michigan, eighth-place Ohio State and 10th-place Northern Michigan each has the capability of earning more than Miami’s current 51 points.

Wacky and completely unlikely. The RedHawks are unbeaten in their last 18 conference games (14-0-4), dating to their Oct. 24 overtime home loss to Michigan State, Miami’s only CCHA loss this season.

And none of this — not the points, the math, or Miami’s steamroller to a regular-season title — accounts for two losses to Robert Morris (!) to kick off the second half of the season, but perhaps that weekend will be the only second-half blemish for the RedHawks.

Riley Gill Robbed!

Of points, that is.

It’s tough to be the best player on a team that’s not performing well, but it seems to be a familiar refrain in the history of CCHA goalies. Western Michigan’s Riley Gill is just taking his place in history.

Gill (2.79 goals-against average, .922 save percentage) played spectacularly well in two losses against Miami last weekend, especially in Saturday’s heartbreaking 2-1 loss, when the game-winning goal came on a power play at 15:39 in the third, after he’d kept the powerful RedHawks offense from scoring since the 4:22 mark of the first period.

In two games, Gill stopped 86 of 92 shots on goal, including a season-high 47 Saturday — a game in which the RedHawks outshot the Broncos 49-16.

Wolverines, Spartans Renew Rivalry Rippingly!

After Michigan’s five-game sweep of Michigan State in 2008-09 and MSU’s two-game sweep of UM earlier this season, this past weekend’s two games were just what college hockey fans with no dog in this particular hunt needed. I’d argue that fans of each team probably enjoyed the set, too.

In East Lansing Friday, MSU was up 3-0 before the Wolverines made it extremely interesting in the third period following a some pushing and shoving that finally got the Michigan blood going. The Spartans won, 3-2, but only because the game was 60 minutes long.

In Detroit Saturday, UM took a 3-0 lead into the second period, but the Spartans scored four unanswered goals after that, starting with Andrew Rowe’s shorthander at 3:42 in the second and ending with Dean Chelios’ marker at 13:09 in the third.

Two Michigan goals less than three minutes apart — Matt Rust’s shorthanded goal at 15:12 and Chris Brown’s game-winner at 17:53 — gave the Wolverines the 5-4 win.

Both head coaches agreed that, in Friday’s contest, the momentum changed when the mood did, early in the third period when nearly everybody was pushing and shoving in the corner. “It was a real barn-burner, absolutely, but those penalties …,” said MSU coach Rick Comley, his voice trailing. Comley went on to say after the game that had 10 players not engaged in extracurricular activity in the third — after which Wolverines Carl Hagelin and Louie Caporusso found the net — MSU goaltender Drew Palmisano would have earned a shutout.

Michigan coach Red Berenson acknowledged that the feistiness seemed to bring the Wolverines back to life. While he was happy that his team battled back, he didn’t seem to pleased about the motivation.

“I hope it didn’t take a scrum to wake us up,” said Berenson. “There should be emotion between these teams but it should be in better control.”

Saturday’s contest was intense with fewer penalties. Well, fewer penalties called. Ask Spartans player Dustin Gazley about the hit he took from the Michigan bench while battling for the puck along the boards and you may learn a thing or two about the nature of penalties.

After Saturday’s game, Berenson said that his team shouldn’t have had to have battled back in the contest, but that he was pleased with the way the Wolverines “came to play.”

“We were a different team than last night,” said Berenson. “It showed in the first period.”

The Wolverines have shown an amazing resiliency this season, proving that they can become a different team in a matter of 24 hours, or a different team in a matter of eight weeks. At the start of December, Michigan was in 10th place in the CCHA standings and looking for all empirical evidence as though they would sit this NCAA tournament out.

I wouldn’t count out the Wolverines now. In fact, Michigan could earn a first-round bye for the CCHA playoffs. UM’s remaining schedule isn’t exactly light, but the Wolverines do fare well against Bowling Green, Northern Michigan and Nebraska-Omaha, usually. They also have two games in hand on Notre Dame, whom they play twice. The Irish are one point ahead of the Wolverines in the standings, as are the Lakers — and UM has three more conference wins than does LSSU.

Obviously, this is going to be an interesting end.

And This Mistress of the Obvious Cuts This One Short

I’ve had longer columns this season, obviously. Some have also clocked in at about this length — obviously.

Here is more obviousness for you to ponder as you head into the weekend. Happy hockey, everyone!

• The Buckeyes were 4-1-1 in January. This baffles me. Their power play performed at 28.9 percent. Also baffling. They split with Ferris State and Michigan State, two ranked teams, and swept a team they should have swept, Bowling Green. In other words, OSU played in January like I (and many other people) thought that OSU would play all season. I can’t count them out yet.

• The Mavericks earned four of their nine CCHA wins in January. This also baffles me. UNO has never been an easy team for me to figure out, but this season the Mavs’ roller-coaster ride through their last campaign in our fair league has me completely flummoxed. Swept by NMU earlier in the season, UNO crushed the Wildcats two weeks ago, and last weekend beat Notre Dame in South Bend for the first time since Feb. 5, 2005. Another team that I’d like to count out but can’t — hey, they’re leaving — I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see Dean Blais somehow get his Mavericks to Joe Louis Arena, an exclamation point on the program’s CCHA tenure.

• CCHA goaltenders are amazing. Miami’s Cody Reichard (1.34 GAA, .934 SV%) leads the nation in stats, but the league is littered with netminders who can, potentially, make a difference. (See Riley Gill, above.) Look at these save percentages: ND’s Mike Johnson (.927), FSU’s Pat Nagle (.926), MSU’s Drew Palmisano (.923), Gill (.922), FSU’s Taylor Nelson (.920), Miami’s Connor Knapp (.919), NMU’s Brian Stewart (.917). That’s eight of the top 20 in the nation, and it’s nothing new.

• The league is 45-27-12 in nonconference play this season. Through March 8 of last year, the league was 46-29-10 against non-CCHA foes.

• The Irish raised $41,604 for the Wounded Warriors Project last weekend by auctioning off their game-worn jerseys. Kevin Deeth’s jersey brought in $1,575. My whole wardrobe combined wouldn’t earn $15 on Craigslist. Nice work.


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