This Week in the CCHA: March 11, 2010

Round One

In my idea of heaven, college hockey generates so much interest that local network affiliates not only run second-round conference playoff games in prime time, but slick teasers to promote the games. I see the four winning coaches from last week’s first round of the CCHA playoffs walking toward the camera side-by-side, the obligatory slow-motion tracking their determined progress, their creased faces in the soft spotlight while the smoke behind them, back-lit, billows to indicate the seriousness of the situation. (Back-lit billowing smoke does indicate the seriousness of a given situation, doesn’t it?)

Then they pause, side-by-side, staring intently into the camera. Each gets his own three-second close-up while a voice-over announcer says, “These four men guided their teams to first-round success. The battle continues this weekend.”

For the sakes of Red Berenson, Dean Blais, Dallas Ferguson and John Markell, I so wish that my idea of heaven were a reality, because reality this weekend will likely be much, much harsher. Michigan State, at least, has the billowing smoke when the players take the ice.

Congratulations to the Wolverines, Mavericks, Nanooks and Buckeyes on their very much decisive first-round victories in the CCHA playoffs. After the games began, the victors were never in question. The four victorious teams outscored the four losing teams by a collective score of 42-7. The only game that appeared close was the first game of the Notre Dame-Ohio State series, which the Buckeyes won 3-1. Even that, though, didn’t sound as close as the score, and OSU spanked ND 8-2 the following night for good measure.

“Just one of those nights where shots you were taking were going in,” said OSU’s Sergio Somma after the lopsided Saturday win in which he scored two himself. “It happens sometimes.”

“I just thought we did a good job of staying with it, then taking the lead and growing [it],” said UNO assistant coach Mike Hastings after the Mavericks registered their second consecutive 6-1 win over Bowling Green Saturday night.

“I thought we got a lot of good bounces tonight,” said Berenson after the 6-0 win Saturday sealed UM’s sweep of LSSU. “Some of the goals were lucky, but when you’re working hard, it seems you get lucky.”

After the Nanooks beat the Broncos, 4-1, Saturday, Ferguson told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, “Obviously, getting it done in two games is a nice thing when you’re moving on to the second round.”

Last weekend was a first in recent CCHA history — the first time that all four home teams swept opponents in the first round of playoffs since the league made the move to its two-week playoff series format in 2006. What does this say about the league this year? Well, it reinforces what we all probably knew going into the weekend, that the middle of the pack was very competitive this season.

However, I also thought that Notre Dame would rebound in the second half and that Lake Superior State was competitive, period, and look what happened to them last week.

What does this say about the series to be played this weekend? Not a clue. I don’t believe that the top-tier teams are exponentially stronger than the mid-pack teams they’re hosting, except for Miami — which lost its second round playoff series to Northern Michigan last year before going to the NCAA title game.

As I said, not a clue.

More Than the Usual Rivalry

Two sets of archrivals are facing off in the second round. Everyone on this side of the Michigan-Ohio border is aware that State and Michigan are playing a second-round, to-the-death (well, sort of) series this weekend, but perhaps the rivalry between Ohio State and Miami isn’t as widely known as it should be — and it should be.

First things first. I get to cover the UM-MSU series, and I’m gleeful. If you had asked me at the start of the season whether such a series were possible, I would have said, “Sure, the Wolverines might host the Spartans in the CCHA playoffs.”

What a difference a year makes. Last year, the Wolverines had 26 wins going into the second round of the CCHA playoffs, which they hosted. This year, UM has 21 — not so bad — but is .500 in the last eight games and facing a rested MSU team on the road, an MSU team that took three of the squads’ four matches this season.

And UM has renewed vigor, it seems, in front of Shawn Hunwick, the junior walk-on goaltender — a true, non-scholarship player — who came in for the injured Bryan Hogan two weeks ago and backstopped the Wolverines to two lopsided wins last weekend. Hunwick, the younger brother of former Wolverines player Matt Hunwick, registered his first career start in the second game against Notre Dame two weeks ago. He’s now 3-2-0 with a .915 save percentage and 1.96 goals-against average.

In the Wolverines’ weekly press conference, Hunwick was relaxed, joking about how the media ignored him for three years. Berenson told annarbor.com that Hunwick is a team player, never complaining about not having started a game in most of his first three seasons. “He’s obviously a players’ goalie,” said Berenson.

The Wolverines have clearly rallied around him and have found their offense, again. UM has scored 18 goals in four games with Hunwick in net, the first coming 1:11 after he replaced the injured Hogan in that first game of the Notre Dame series Feb. 25.

At the other end of the ice, Drew Palmisano has a 2.27 GAA and .917 SV% against the Wolverines this season.

This is the first time since 1987 that these two teams are meeting in a best-of-three CCHA playoff series — before the vast majority of players for either team was born. MSU swept that series.

For Ohioans, the rivalry between the Buckeyes and RedHawks is just as passionate and meaningful as that of UM-MSU, even if it lacks the storied history. I think it’s safe to say that these teams hate each other. I know that’s not politically correct, but there are few players in either camp who would argue.

The last team that the RedHawks played was against OSU, as the rivals ended their regular season with a home-and-home series. Miami owned the first game in Oxford, 6-2, but the teams skated to a 0-0 tie the next night in Columbus with the Buckeyes earning the extra shootout point.

Markell said that the Buckeyes were unprepared for the level of physicality they encountered in the 6-2 loss, but responded well the next night and know what they’re getting into this weekend.

“I think our guys know we’re going to get hit,” said Markell. “They’re going to be physical. They’re going try to run us out of that building and establish that right away.

“You don’t have to think too far back to where the ice bags were, and they’re not going to stop with that. They did it in our building and they did it in their building.”

This season, Miami is 3-0-1 against Ohio State; the RedHawks are 10-1-3 against the Buckeyes since and including 2006-07. Miami is 4-0 in Oxford against the Buckeyes in the postseason.

Markell said that in order to beat the top team in the league, his squad is going to have to stay out of the penalty box, something the Bucks were not able to do against Notre Dame but know they can’t afford against Miami.

I don’t see that happening, the way each of these teams plays and the intensity of the rivalry between them. And, with all due respect to OSU, I don’t see Miami revisiting their second-round playoff results of a year ago, when they lost in three games to Northern Michigan.

Then There’s a Bigger Picture

“First and foremost in everybody’s mind,” said John Markell, “is to win out our league first. It’s a tough darn league.”

That may be the immediate goal, but there are several CCHA teams that know the only way to secure an invitation to the NCAA tournament is to win the Mason Cup.

Entering this weekend’s play, Miami and Alaska are the only two CCHA teams who are among the top 10 teams under consideration in the PairWise Rankings. Alaska, remember, is a road team and is playing Northern Michigan, which at No. 14 is clearly on the PWR bubble — and Walt Kyle is always, always, always playing for the NCAA tournament. Wins over the Nanooks would help the Wildcats considerably toward that end.

The home team under consideration at greatest risk this weekend is Michigan State. Currently at No. 12, the Spartans face No. 25 Michigan. Losses would hurt MSU considerably — and the Wolverines are very aware that the only way to preserve their NCAA appearance streak (currently at 19 years) is to win out.

Miami, at No. 2 in the PWR, plays Ohio State, a team nowhere near consideration at this point. While the RedHawks will most likely sweep the Buckeyes (sorry, Bucks and friends), a loss or even two to Ohio State won’t knock Miami out of NCAA tournament action. Miami’s No. 1 seed for NCAA tournament play is at stake.

Then there’s Ferris State, No. 13 in the PWR, playing Nebraska-Omaha in the Mavericks’ last CCHA hurrah. UNO is currently tied for No. 16 in the PWR, so there is much at stake in this series, too.

I think the home teams win out. If any series goes to three, I think it will be UM-MSU. Of course, I’ve been wrong about a great many things in 2009-10, all season long.

A Little Editorializing, Justified

This week’s MSU press release points out two very interesting things about CCHA rookie of the year and player of the year honors. BGSU’s Jordan Samuels-Thomas is a finalist for ROTY even though he received honorable mention for this year’s All-Rookie team. NMU’s Mark Olver is not a finalist for POTY, even though he received more votes than anyone for all-league honors.

This comes by way of questioning why Spartans freshman Torey Krug — who did make the all-Rookie team — is not in the running for ROTY, and it’s a fair question.

To take this one step further, I’m not at all surprised to find FSU’s Matt Case a finalist for the best defensive defenseman award, even though Case didn’t even receive honorable mention — an absolute miscarriage of justice — for this year’s All-CCHA team. The Spartans’ Jeff Petry, who’s not a finalist for the best defensive defenseman award, was on the league’s second team. Both Petry and Case are deserving of all-league honors.

Talk About Stopping the Buck

After being swept by Ohio State in the first round of the playoffs and finishing with a disappointing 13 wins one year after notching a 31-win season, Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson didn’t mince many words.

“This is the poorest season I have had, even our first season when we started together five years ago,” he said. “You can point fingers and make excuses in a lot of different ways but the bottom line is the buck stops here. I have to make some serious decisions on how we move forward here. But we do have good young players and an outstanding class to come in here next year.

“But it is going to have to be a recuperation of our values as a program and our work ethic and discipline and a lot of things are going to have to change and that may include some personnel.”

Harsh, and you have to wonder who among the personnel isn’t safe.

‘Here today, NHL tomorrow’

Little sticks in my craw these days like the OHL. Given that I live in the heart of the league, I can’t avoid seeing commercials for the Saginaw Spirit while watching the local news, and the tag line, “Here today, NHL tomorrow” makes me ill.

Sure, the pitch is primarily marketed toward fans. See future NHL stars play locally now! But the subtext is that if you’re a young player living in the area, you’re better off going the OHL route than going to college. As I’ve pointed out in past columns, even some Canadians are beginning to question the wholesome goodness of the OHL’s “Best of Both Worlds” campaign and its claim to fast-track players to the NHL.

Our executive editor (and all-around good guy), Todd Milewski, highlighted some interesting facts, compiled by College Hockey Inc., about Olympians with NCAA experience in his blog this week.

What struck me immediately after the gold-medal game was something Todd highlighted in his column, that all three IIHF Directorate Awards went to former collegians: Ryan Miller (MSU), Brian Rafalski (Wisconsin) and Jonathan Toews (North Dakota).

It’s difficult to prove that young men with NHL potential will fare better by taking the college route — and long-time readers know that I’m biased in more ways than one, with 20 years of college teaching to my credit — but if that recognition by the IIHF doesn’t speak to the kind of leadership that can be developed in the NCAA, I don’t know what does. Most fans of college hockey would argue that young men who go to college develop more than just their on-ice skills. The Olympic tournament itself showed the world what NCAA hockey players — men and women — can do.

It’s good to see College Hockey Inc. using the Olympics in the best possible way in this border war.

Goodbye, Jim Culhane

I, for one, will miss Western Michigan coach Jim Culhane, who was 158-222-48 in his 12 seasons behind the Broncos bench. He was and remains an excellent ambassador for WMU, ever committed to the school he loves and the academic performance of his student-athletes.

He’s always been nothing but nice to me, and he’s been a good, honest interview over the years. I’ve especially enjoyed our informal chats. If you ever get the chance to ask him about the outdoor hockey he and his family play at Christmas in northern Ontario, do.

Another Tough Septuagenarian

Chuck Norris turned 70 years old this week. My money’s still on Berenson.

Contributing: J. Justin Boggs, Bob Miller and Matthew Semisch

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