There is one team in the CCHA that controls its destiny, and one whose destiny is now predetermined. If Notre Dame wins its last four games, no one else can capture first place. No one else can capture last place, either; that belongs to Bowling Green alone.
The top three teams in the CCHA — Notre Dame, Michigan, Miami — have each earned a first-round playoff bye, but the order of their finish has yet to be determined and the remaining two byes are up for grabs.
As many observers and fans have noted, it may all come down to goaltending in the end.
“I am feeling a little bit better about our goaltending than I did three weeks ago,” Fighting Irish coach Jeff Jackson told the South Bend Tribune earlier this week. “I don’t have any problem with playing two different guys right now.”
Those guys are sophomore Mike Johnson (2.57 goals-against average, .904 save percentage) and freshman Steven Summerhays (3.17, .840). The two split time in the Irish net in a sweep of Bowling Green last weekend, with Johnson taking the 2-1 win and Summerhays the 5-1 routing the following night.
This is where statistics can be deceiving. In his last eight starts, Johnson is 5-2-1 with a .919 save percentage. Summerhays is .896 in his last two games — a tie with Miami and a win over Bowling Green.
In Ann Arbor, Shawn Hunwick has done what he did a year ago — emerge as the starter after taking over for an injured Bryan Hogan. Hunwick and Hogan were splitting time in net to start the season, but neither had spectacular numbers. Since becoming the go-to guy for the Wolverines, though, Hunwick has been outstanding.
In January, Hunwick (1.92, .935) started every game and was 5-2-0 with a 1.72 goals-against average and .946 save percentage.
After sweeping the Buckeyes at home in two one-goal games last weekend, Hunwick summed up the sweep in his unique, straightforward way:
Tied with Michigan for second place, Miami has only two regular-season league games remaining, as the RedHawks sit out this weekend and watch everyone else jockey for position. With Western Michigan at home last weekend, the RedHawks knew how important those points were; after losing two of six possible points with a tie and shootout loss to the Broncos, coach Enrico Blasi told the Hamilton Journal News that he and his team are well aware of what transpired and what it means.
“They’re a good team and we didn’t have an answer for them,” said Blasi. “We’ve got to execute down the stretch. We didn’t execute.”
The RedHawks have lost points to teams lower in the standings in three of their six second-half series, including having been swept by Ohio State. After losing 7-3 to Michigan State on Jan. 21, Blasi talked about improving team defense. One area that has improved is in net.
Juniors Connor Knapp (2.17, .903) and Cody Reichard (2.17, .908) are playing better, more consistent hockey. Now would be the time to do it.
The first-place Fighting Irish have 50 points; the Wolverines and RedHawks each have 49 in second place. Three teams — Northern Michigan, Alaska and Lake Superior — are tied for sixth place with 35 points. Western Michigan is in fourth with 41 points; Ferris State in fifth with 38. The current Nos. 4 through 6 can take fourth and fifth place, and Ohio State (31 points) can still climb as high as fifth, although that’s unlikely.
Given how tight it’s going to be to get to the end of the regular season, clearly there’s a lot that can happen in the playoffs where every series is a best-of-three. Jackson knows that.
“If you finish first or you finish fourth or fifth, you are going to play a tough opponent in the second round,” Jackson told the Tribune after Saturday’s win. “That’s the way our conference is right now, and it’s a best-of-three. Even if you make a mistake, you can come back and still win.”
A show of another kind
I saw two games last weekend, NMU’s 4-2 win over MSU Friday, and UM’s 2-1 win over OSU Saturday. The Friday game? Ugh. It was boring. I hate being bored at a hockey game. I do, however, like talking to Wildcats coach Walt Kyle whenever I get the chance. Win or lose, Kyle is honest, sincere and absolutely dead-on.
“We’ve been fragile, mentally, I think,” said Kyle, whose Wildcats were 2-6-0 in the second half before sweeping the Spartans last weekend. “Early in the year, we were winning some games. Our goaltending was winning some games. Since Christmas we’ve kind of struggled to score. We haven’t been as sharp as we would like to be. Mentally, we just lost our mojo for a little bit.”
Hence, Kyle wasn’t surprised with the way the Wildcats took the ice against the Spartans. He was also not surprised by freshman goaltender Jared Coreau’s amazing 50-save performance, the only interesting thing about the contest.
“We came out the first period and definitely played like a fragile team, lot of mistakes,” he said. “When you’re a team in that state, you need something to be a rock and Coreau was … something we can cling to and get our stuff together around. He’s had a number of performances like that.
“He’s the real deal. There’s no doubt about it. We like both our goaltenders. Reid [Ellingson] has been good but Coreau is as good a young goaltender as I’ve seen.”
After allowing three goals in the first 14 minutes of Saturday’s 6-5 NMU win, Coreau (3.64, .911) proved that as good as he is, he’s still a work in progress. As he’s only a freshman, the only drawback to that is how it may affect the Wildcats down the stretch.
Saturday’s 2-1 Michigan win over Ohio State was electric. It was good hockey, and — in my humble and not so important opinion — both teams played well. The third period was as good a period of hockey as I’ve seen. Cal Heeter (2.36, .920), OSU’s junior goaltender who has played all but 22 minutes in the Buckeyes’ net this season, was outstanding in the first period, when the Wolverines outshot the Buckeyes 17-7.
Afterward, first-year Ohio State coach Mark Osiecki had few words about his team’s performance — and none of them good. He said that the Buckeyes played “not very well.” He didn’t comment on Heeter’s performance at all.
“I think in the second and third period we played better,” said Osiecki, “but the hard thing, it’s very disappointing how [there are] 11 upperclassmen in the lineup and you come out with a start like that.”
After talking to Osiecki a few times, I get the impression that there is little the players from the John Markell era can do that will ever earn a good word from their coach. Every new head coach at the college level looks forward to the time when his team is his team, players that he recruited and didn’t inherit. Not since former Lake Superior State coach Frank Anzalone, however, have I heard a coach express himself so singularly and consistently about the team he has inherited.
Best in show
I’m never disappointed in Michigan State coach Rick Comley. Contrast the way he talked about his team after Friday’s 4-2 loss with Osiecki’s comments.
“The whole game, I thought the kids worked really hard,” said Comley. “Controlled play, obviously. When you get that many shots and chances — sometimes you get a lot of shots and not many good chances [and] we had both.”
At one point in their 6-5 loss to Northern Michigan on Saturday, the Spartans led 4-1. To say that Saturday’s contest was “disappointing” would be an understatement — yet, this is how Comley responded after the game.
“They’re frustrated,” Comley told the Lansing State Journal. They’re young, I’m old, but the frustration is equal. It’s really hard right now. You try to stay positive and not chew too much.”
Perhaps it’s unfair to make comparisons here. Comley’s comment about relative age may be something to take into consideration as well. After all, he’s exiting the MSU program — and he was a firebrand not that long ago himself — and Osiecki is trying to build something at Ohio State. Still, I’m struck by key differences in the way coaches express themselves.
“They’re trying,” said Comley after the 6-5 loss, “but there was a point when we needed some people to step up and get it done, and it didn’t happen.”
Perhaps we can all benefit from Comley’s experience — and Red Berenson’s, in the video below.
Well, not really, but I always find post-game interviews at Yost very entertaining. I thought you might, too.
After sweeping the Buckeyes, Wolverines Hunwick and Carl Hagelin shared some insight about what fueled the Wolverines in the 2-1 win.
Berenson, though, sounded more sober after the sweep.
This is how I voted this week. There were a lot of interesting results among last week’s top 10 teams. Seems like parity isn’t limited to the CCHA.
1. Boston College
2. North Dakota
7. Notre Dame
10. New Hampshire
14. Western Michigan
15. Boston University
19. Colorado College
20. Ferris State