This Week in the CCHA: Feb. 18, 2010

Inevitabilities

Congratulations to the Miami RedHawks, the 2009-10 regular-season CCHA champions. As this season progressed, there was never a question about whether the RedHawks would earn this title. It was always a matter of when.

Miami clinched its third title with a 3-2 road win over Bowling Green last Friday night. On Saturday, the RedHawks beat the Falcons 10-2 in BG, extending Miami’s conference unbeaten streak to 22 games (18-0-4).

That this is impressive, that Miami is the cream of the CCHA crop this season, goes without question. This year, the RedHawks have established themselves as a dominant force in college hockey, and their 2009-10 campaign is an exceptionally good follow-up to their run to the 2009 national championship game.

That the RedHawks have been able to maintain focus on their goal so soon after the death of their friend Brendan Burke is a testimony to their determination.

This year’s Miami team is deep, fast, talented, smart — the whole package. The RedHawks are among the top 10 nationally in every important statistical category: wins, win percentage, scoring offense, scoring defense, combined special teams.

They’re also among the top five nationally in another category: penalty minutes. In this they met their match last weekend in Bowling Green. At 19:23 in the second period of Miami’s 10-2 win Saturday, both teams showed college hockey fans — yet again — how they’ve become penalty minute specialists this season.

Moments after Chris Wideman’s shorthanded goal gave Miami a 6-1 lead, the Falcons’ Max Grover crashed the net — skates-first — into Miami goaltender Connor Knapp. This was completely unnecessary, and the RedHawks were upset, understandably. When Grover slid to the boards behind the net, two guys in red jerseys made sure that his collision would be felt.

Then the predictable pile-up began. The inevitable was even more inevitable because of how trigger-happy these two teams have proven to be this year.

I don’t believe I’ve seen an instance in the last decade that didn’t provoke a fight from the Falcons. I mean, these guys are now and in recent years have been ever ready to go. Sometimes, this is what happens to down-and-out teams, the result of pent-up frustration and an inability to distinguish themselves in other ways. Making a mark becomes a literal thing. I am not condoning this. Four different Falcons have registered a total of five game disqualifications this season. That’s unacceptable.

The RedHawks? I don’t understand. I’m sure that fans and those close to the program will argue that Miami is targeted, and there may be some truth to that as top teams often are. That Miami’s aggressive style of play is an asset is another argument, and I can concede that as well.

What I don’t get, however, is the difference between the philosophy preached by coach Enrico Blasi — never get too high, never get too low — and how that simply is not translating on the ice this season. I’m not necessarily taking issue with anything that Blasi and his staff are doing; after all, Miami’s record has few blemishes this season, and it’s hard to argue with success.

A team can find tremendous success, however, without carrying a seemingly endless supply of mountain-sized chips on its collective shoulders. On any given night, I expect a team to come to the defense of its goaltender, without question. One night after winning a league title and with a five-goal lead, however, I also expect a team to disengage from fighting in a timely manner.

I certainly don’t think I’m going to see a goalie for the winning team jump into the fray well after his teammates have begun to brawl — and Knapp did take a big swipe at Grover, double-teaming him against the boards (after he surfaced) with Wideman.

Nor do I expect to see someone from the winning team skate across the ice to go after a guy entering the penalty box, as did happen. When Grover was going into the box — without his helmet for protection — he was knocked to the ice by RedHawk Alden Hirschfeld, who got far too physical with assistant referee Tony Molina as Molina escorted him to the box.

What I expected least of all, though, was to see the coach of the team that had clinched a regular-season conference title the night before wave goodbye to the CCHA officials as he left the ice after being ejected. I don’t know what Blasi did or said to earn that ejection, but at 8:57 in the third, the Falcons’ Ian Ruel was given two minutes for charging and the Miami bench earned a 10-minute misconduct. Blasi was ejected and could have chosen to leave the ice in a much more appropriate fashion than he did, demonstrating that never-get-too-high-or-low philosophy in action, instead of waving goodbye.

In the end, there were 166 penalty minutes assessed in the game. Falcons Grover and James Perkin and the RedHawks’ Hirschfeld were each issued game disqualifications, deservedly so. Twenty-seven of those penalty minutes were assessed in the third period, including the Miami bench misconduct and a five-minute penalty for kneeing issued to Robert Shea — the Falcons player who distinguished himself previously this season with two game DQs.

Clearly, there’s something deeply wrong going on here. Seven of the league’s 12 teams are among the top 20 most-penalized teams in the nation, including two of the CCHA’s top three teams, Miami and Ferris State. As I reported in mid-January, the contact-to-the-head penalties are not only common but frequent — and it’s not just because the league is paying more attention to such penalties this season. In fact, I don’t think that drawing attention to such penalties has deterred these at all, given the play that I’ve seen this season.

Grover is lucky he landed as he did without his helmet; Hirschfeld is as well, as he could have been the architect of a deadly injury.

Kudos to Miami for the conference title. The RedHawks have the potential to go very, very far in postseason play, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them in Detroit. I’d like to see them get there without incident.

Kudos, too, to CCHA referees Kevin Hall and Dean Sanborn, and to assistant referees Molina and Patrick Bracco. That fight was brutal and the men in stripes did everything they could to prevent serious injury. It also took a lot of courage to make the bench misconduct call.

I do wish, however, that every guy on the ice who took a swipe had received a game disqualification — and nearly every guy did. DQ them all. Do it every time someone takes a swing. Throw them out.

Going Out with a Blais

You have to admire what the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks are doing as the season winds down.

Last week, UNO owned Michigan in two games in Omaha. Until their pair of wins over the Wolverines Friday and Saturday, the Mavericks had never beaten UM in the Qwest Center. The Wolverines may have outshot the Mavericks on the weekend — 32-31 in Friday’s 4-3 game, 37-28 in Saturday’s 4-1 decision — but UNO gave UM very little room for scoring, and in the rare case when the Mavericks defense allowed a good chance, Omaha freshman goaltender John Faulkner was absolutely there; he stopped 65 on the weekend.

In closing out their last season with the CCHA, the Mavericks are making a run to Joe Louis Arena. In fourth place with 41 points and bookended by teams with games in hand, the Mavericks under coach Dean Blais are 6-3-1 in their last 10 games, with seven of their 10 CCHA wins coming in the second half.

Make no mistake: Blais is the difference. In his commentary this week, Dave Starman likens Blais to Herb Brooks. I can’t attest to the truth in that, but I have noticed a spirited, focused difference in the Mavericks since Blais returned from the World Junior Championship after coaching Team USA to a gold medal.

After sweeping the Wolverines, though, Blais credited his players for the weekend’s success.

“The players did this for themselves,” said Blais. “They’re playing hard for the seniors, and we’re getting a little bit out of everyone.”

The Mavericks have two remaining regular-season CCHA games, a pair in Oxford, Ohio, against the RedHawks this weekend.

Is He Going Somewhere?

After Friday’s 4-3 loss to UNO, Michigan coach Red Berenson made an interesting comment about the game’s penalty calls.

“One thing I’ll [not] miss when I’m not coaching [anymore] is the officiating in this league,” said Berenson. “I won’t miss that.”

I keep wondering whether this disappointing Michigan season will be Berenson’s last or whether the coach will stick around to end on a much higher note. He can call his own schedule, stay or go at will. He certainly has nothing to prove.

Speaking of Michigan, whatever the Wolverines did in Omaha to lose two last weekend — and they were just outplayed, from what I saw — had little to do with goaltender Bryan Hogan’s performance. He may have had a rocky start to the season, but Hogan has looked very good lately and he gave the Wolverines every chance in those games.

And He Is Going Somewhere

Western Michigan University announced Thursday that Jim Culhane will not be back to coach the Broncos for the 2010-11 season. The decision was the university’s, not Culhane’s. In a press release, WMU said that Culhane will be reassigned to work in fundraising.

I like Jimmy Culhane and I’m always saddened when a head coach loses a job. So many other people are affected, potentially. I understand that Culhane hasn’t achieved the kind of success that WMU wants out of its hockey program, but he’s a good ambassador for the school, a likeable man who has worked hard to assure that his players are students first.

The school has said that it will launch a national search for a new head coach. Might I suggest Robert Morris coach and Bronco alum Derek Schooley?

Odds and Ends

• Alaska rookie Andy Taranto recorded his first collegiate hat trick in Friday’s 4-1 win over OSU. It was the first three-goal game by any Nanooks player since Curtis Fraser’s hat trick Dec. 8, 2006.

• The Falcons allowed 10 goals in their game against the RedHawks Saturday, the first such bludgeoning BG has suffered since an Oct. 18, 2002, game against Ferris State.

• The Bulldogs have struggled of late when things have been close. In their last nine contests, the Bulldogs have had eight games decided by two or fewer goals, going 2-4-2 in those games.

• In their 4-3 win over Ferris State Friday, the Lakers scored two goals in the final minute — Rick Schofeild’s game-tying goal at 19:12, and Will Acton’s game-winner at 19:25.

• In their last seven games, the RedHawks have outscored opponents 13-0 in the first period.

• Michigan plays three of its last four regular-season games at home. The Wolverines are 8-4-1 in Yost this season.

• His team had a bye last weekend, but Spartans forward Corey Tropp still leads the conference in goals (20) and points (39).

• UNO’s Terry Broadhurst has seven goals and three assists in his last five games.

• NMU’s Ray Kaunisto is has seven goals and seven assists in the second half of the season.

• The Irish are 1-0-7 in overtime this season.

• The Buckeyes went 25 games to start the season without hitting the three-goal mark in a game, but have netted three goals in three of their last five contests.

• The Broncos have one chance left this season to register a road CCHA win. WMU is 0-12-0 in league play on the road this season.

Explain This

How many times in one’s life can one claim to have watched an excellent women’s hockey game between China and Finland? Tuesday’s 2-1 win by Finland was worth staying up late for.

Here’s what gets me, though. Already there is talk of eliminating women’s ice hockey altogether because of the dominance of the Canadian and U.S. teams, just as softball has been eliminated from the summer Games because no one could touch the U.S.

Yet, the Germans have dominated women’s luge for nearly a century — 99 years, to be exact — and no one suggests eliminating this event.

In an article in the Christian Science Monitor this week, American luger Erin Hamlin is profiled because she ended Germany’s streak of 99 consecutive world titles in 2009 by capturing the top spot for the U.S. herself. Germany has also won eight of the last 11 Olympic gold medals for this event — including Tatjana Huefner’s triumph this week.

Hamlin, a native of Remsen, N.Y., is the niece of a roommate of mine from my Fredonia State days, Carol Hamlin. If it weren’t for this connection, I never would have known about the German dominance in the sport, and knowing this makes me even grumpier about the talk of eliminating women’s ice hockey.

Finally, More Sadness

My heart goes out to all those at Alabama-Huntsville whose lives were forever altered by the deadly shooting that took place on that campus Feb. 12.

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