This Week in the CCHA: March 4, 2010

The Photo Finish

Going into the last weekend of regular-season CCHA play, we knew several things. Miami had taken the regular-season title. Neither Bowling Green nor Western Michigan could move much. There was a lot of real estate, however, that was yet to be claimed.

With the regular-season wrapped up and the first round of the Girl Reporter hardware behind us, it’s time to reflect a little bit more esoterically heading into this weekend’s first round of CCHA playoffs.

They’ve Got This Second-Half Act Thing Down

Northern Michigan finished fourth in the league this season, one point behind Ferris State, three points ahead of Alaska — and nothing short of miraculous, again.

The Wildcats finished with a record of 13-9-6-3 in league play (the last number is for shootout wins, which may be confusing to the two or three non-CCHA fans who have stumbled into this page); their second-half CCHA record was 8-3-3-3. That means that 30 of their 48 league points came since Jan. 1.

After shutting out Lake Superior State 3-0 Saturday to secure fourth place, NMU head coach Walt Kyle told the Marquette Mining Journal that the team was not only playing for the first-round bye, but for a shot at the NCAA tournament as well.

“We’ve quietly crept into the NCAA picture,” said Kyle. Kyle makes no secret of what motivates him down the stretch; his mind is ever on the NCAA tournament, and that has to explain why NMU has the ability to finish strong — even after really shaky first halves.

Last year, NMU finished sixth in the standings after a first half that saw just two of the Wildcats’ 11 CCHA wins. Northern beat MSU in the first round of league playoffs, bested Miami in three games on the road and lost a heartbreaking 2-1 game to Notre Dame in Joe Louis Arena, with the game-winning goal coming for the Irish at the 19-minute mark in the third, the 36th shot that goatlender Brian Stewart faced in that game.

In 2007-08, the Wildcats finished sixth with a 12-13-3 CCHA record after beginning the season with seven straight conference losses. In that year, they beat Ohio State at home in the first round of the playoffs and then eliminated the defending national champions, Michigan State, in three road games in the second round to make it to Detroit — where they lost a heartbreaking semifinal game, a 6-4 decision to Michigan in which the game-winner came at 16:00 in the third, the empty-netter at 19:48, with a 36-save performance from Stewart.

In 2006-07, they didn’t advance to Joe Louis Arena — the only they haven’t done so to date under Kyle’s direction — but they did beat Ohio State on the road in three games in the first round of the playoffs before bowing out in the second round against Michigan. Stewart was the hero of the OSU games, too.

In 2005-06, eight of their 14 league wins came in the second half; in 2004-05, it was 10 of 17; in 2003-04, seven of 13; in 2002-03, six of 14 — but that was Kyle’s first season.

Obviously, Kyle is a force to be reckoned with. He preaches the NCAA tournament as a goal all season long, and has team has striven to fulfill that goal every single year he’s been at the helm. It doesn’t hurt that Stewart is a playoff goaltender, either.

And it certainly doesn’t hurt having the CCHA scoring champ to help front the team. Congratulations to junior Mark Olver, who scored both of the Wildcats’ goals in NMU’s 2-1 overtime win against LSSU Friday and assisted on all three NMU goals Saturday. Olver is the first Wildcat to win the league scoring title since Jeff Pyle did it in 1980-81.

Mere Mortals, After All

The Wolverines finished seventh. Seventh place. To say that I’m stunned by this doesn’t go far enough. I mean, it shakes me to my core. Michigan, finishing seventh? Next, will you be telling me that an American men’s bobsledding team can capture a gold medal, or that an earthquake in Chile can actually shift Earth’s axis enough to affect the length of a day?

OK, so it’s not as bad as all that. I learned at an early age that my parents used the same wrapping paper as the Clauses, so I’m not much of a believer in things magical. But there has been a kind of magic in Ann Arbor, an ability that head coach Red Berenson seems to have had to will his team to win.

Since the 1990-91 season, the Wolverines have made 19 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and have finished lower than second place (or a tie for second place) in the CCHA once, when they ended the 2005-06 season in third place. Michigan has made 10 Frozen Four appearances under Berenson, including a streak of four from 1994 to 1998 that resulted in two national championships; UM has three total NCAA titles under Berenson.

This year, however, they’re merely mortal. In the first half, they struggled both offensively and in net. When junior goaltender Bryan Hogan settled down toward the end of the first half of the season and began playing steadily in the second half, the team in front of him didn’t. You’d think that having a more consistent netminder would produce a more confident product out front, but the Wolverines never seemed to knit this season, even after increasing their offensive output after December.

“We’re playing pretty well, but we’re not on a roll,” Berenson told The Detroit News this week.

Further jeopardizing UM’s chances to advance in these playoffs — or even to escape the first round this weekend at home against LSSU — is that Hogan is injured. He came out of Michigan’s 4-0 shutout Thursday win over Notre Dame (Feb. 25) at the 10:49 mark of the first period, apparently with a groin injury. Junior Shawn Hunwick finished that game and registered the 5-3 loss to the Irish in South Bend Saturday. Hogan is questionable for this weekend.

A League of One

There’s no question that Miami hockey has dynasty potential. A few more years of strong NCAA tournament performance and a national championship will cement that.

I was among the doubters early in the season. I didn’t vote the RedHawks first in my preseason poll … but, really, no one did. After their collapse in the final moments of regulation in last year’s NCAA championship game — and that gut-wrenching overtime loss to Boston University — I didn’t know how they’d react this year. They were an unknown quantity.

Miami has exhibited second-half uncertainty in recent, letting down at key times as the season came to a close. Even last year, the RedHawks missed the CCHA tournament in Detroit after losing at home to NMU in the second round of league playoffs.

The ‘Hawks also did the same thing in 2006-07, backing into the NCAA tournament after losing their home playoff series against LSSU.

Now I think I’ve learned something: Miami’s second-half swan dive has come later and later, last year (unfortunately) occurring at the last possible moment. Perhaps this year, no letdown at all.

Miami has achieved this status by recruiting quality players in every position. The RedHawks have incredible depth. They’re speedy. They’re as skilled as anyone playing the game. They’re well coached. Enrico Blasi preaches a steadiness in Oxford that has certainly translated into wins this season. The “Brotherhood,” as the program calls itself, is tight.

If chemistry counts, Miami wins.

Other End-of-Season Musings

• I still can’t figure out why Western Michigan announced Jim Culhane’s fate weeks before the end of the regular season. Do they think there will be some sort of rush for head coaching talent, a spate of firings that will make the pickings slimmer? I don’t get it. I don’t see what they stand to gain. And I can’t imagine how difficult these last few weeks have been for Culhane knowing that everyone knows they’re his last.

• Many people have asked whether this is John Markell’s last season at Ohio State. I have no idea. It’s the last year of his contract, so that ramps the speculation. I’ve known Markell a long time and will repeat that I hate to see any coach lose his job because I know of such a move’s ripple effect. Full disclosure: I’m genuinely fond of his assistant coaches, having known them since they were toddlers. (Well, not really, but it feels that way).

I do know this. If Markell is let go, Ohio State needs to bring in a guy who will force the university to build the Buckeyes a rink of their own. This weekend, having earned home ice, OSU plays in the Ice Arena with its capacity of 1,415. Every year they’re home for the playoffs, the Buckeyes are bumped out of Value City Arena because of that facility’s commitment to other paying customers. Can you imagine what would happen if men’s or women’s basketball were told they couldn’t play their playoff series in the Schott?

• I know the Fighting Irish were injured this year, but that doesn’t go far enough to explain Notre Dame’s lack of offense. The Irish have the 50th-best scoring offense in the nation, averaging 2.42 goals per game, keeping company with the likes of recent perennial offensive powerhouses such as Alaska-Anchorage, Holy Cross and Michigan Tech. Seriously? Last year, ND was eighth in the nation, averaging 3.38 goals per game. ND’s disappointing ninth-place finish is its lowest under Jeff Jackson and the Irish’s poorest showing since they finished in last place in 2005-06.

• No, I’m not advocating that they fire Jackson, either. Stop e-mailing me.

• Adjusting the points available in each game this season seems to have been a really good move. We all know that I’m no fan of the shootout, but the way in which points have become available — three for a win, one to each team for a tie, one extra for winning a shootout — has created some really dramatic swings from weekend to weekend (and even game to game) among the league standings. It certainly kept things interesting as the season closed. It’s interesting, too, that this change seemed to have no effect on the two teams that have lingered near the bottom for so long — and, no, I’m not being catty.

• After watching the IIHF World Junior Championship this year, I’m now a big fan of the four-on-four overtime.

• While I admire Walt Kyle’s drive to get to the NCAA tournament, I am an even bigger fan of FSU head coach Bob Daniel’s desire to make the CCHA a prize in itself. He calls the NCAA tournament “icing” — no pun intended — and beyond the charm in keeping the sport we love genuinely collegiate, there’s something to be said for seeing the conference play as a worthy end in itself.

• I know I’m forgetting many things. I have a pile of grading on the brain, spring break beckoning beyond that and the constant intrusion of middle age. E-mail me to remind me of what I’m forgetting, and I’ll get to it next week — unless you’re on the “Fire Jeff Jackson” bandwagon, in which case you’re e-mailing the wrong girl reporter.

Virtual Hardware, Part 2

For the third year running, I’m limiting each Girl Reporter All-League team to six players each.

The 2009-10 Girl Reporter All-CCHA Team

Zac Dalpe (F, OSU)
Dion Knelsen (F, UAF)
Mark Olver (F, NMU)
Matt Case (D, FSU)
Jeff Petry (D, MSU)
Drew Palmisano (G, MSU)

I know I’m going to take grief over my picks of Knelsen and Case — and I don’t care. Knelsen scored 14 conference goals … for Alaska. While the Nanooks are the eighth-best team in the nation defensively, they’re tied for 38th offensively. Knelsen, a senior, is having a career season.

Case, another senior, is also having a career season. He and Petry are just the two most dominant defensemen I’ve seen play this season. FSU gets a lot of credit for having a couple of lines that can score and a goaltending duo that is solid, but Case is also a big part of the Bulldogs’ success this year.

It was difficult making the choice between Palmisano and Alaska’s Scott Greenham for goaltender. I’ll leave it at that.

The 2009-10 Girl Reporter All-Rookie CCHA Team

Derek Grand (F, MSU)
Jordan Samuels-Thomas (F, BGSU)
Andy Taranto (F, UAF)
Joe Hartman (D, Miami)
Kyle Follmer (D, NMU)
Mike Johnson (G, ND)

The 2009-10 Girl Reporter All-Goon Squad

I can’t even joke about this — and that makes me even more irate about what I’ve witnessed this season. I enjoy a good throw-down. I love instigators. I don’t enjoy the disrespect, malice and lack of control I’ve seen increase this year in CCHA play.

The Silver Lining

There’s nothing like discovering that the game you love and cherish is still, after all, relevant.

The men’s gold-medal game last Sunday between the U.S. and Canada was watched by an estimated 27.6 million viewers according to NBC, making it the most-watched hockey game since the 1980 miracle from Lake Placid and the third-most watched televised hockey game in history.

This is good news, especially since NBC’s announcers couldn’t get enough of the gentlemen we’ve known and loved for decades. If U.S. sports fans didn’t know before this Olympics that the NHL is full of talent with NCAA experience, they do now. They know that Ryan Miller played at Michigan State — and they know that both he and Chris Drury won the Hobey Baker. (That they’ve now heard of the Hobey Baker Award is a bonus.) They know Jack Johnson played for Michigan, Zach Parise for North Dakota, that Dan Boyle played for Miami University — often mentioned without the “Ohio” attached, another bonus.

In all, five former CCHA players won medals — Boyle (Miami 1994-98) and Duncan Keith (MSU 2001-03) taking home gold for Team Canada, and Johnson (UM 2005-07), Ryan Kesler (OSU 2002-03) and Miller (MSU 1999-2002) earning silver.

Congratulations to Tessa Bonhomme and Lisa Chesson, former teammates at Ohio State, on their respective gold and silver medals. I had the privilege of interviewing these two extraordinary women for an article when I lived in Columbus; I came away from the interview thinking that Bonhomme could rule the world, if she so chose.

Remembering People Gone Too Soon

This week, I’m thinking of Mike Lockert, a beautiful voice that was silenced a year ago. Mike was the radio announcer for Notre Dame ice hockey for seven years when he died suddenly Feb. 27, 2009. Mike was 44.

I can’t help thinking, too, of Brian Fishman, the sports information director for Michigan hockey who died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning in 1999. He was 28.

And, of course, Brendan Burke. Watching his father, Brian, at the Olympics last week, I couldn’t help but admire him for soldiering on so soon after such a life-changing loss. Brendan was 21, and he died last month.

This hockey world is such a small community. One ripple affects so many people.

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