Before the season began, nearly everyone knew that Notre Dame would be vying for first place in the CCHA standings by mid-November. Two months ago, though, if someone had suggested that the Fighting Irish would be tied in that top spot with a stubborn Lake Superior team and a seemingly resurgent Ohio State squad, no one would have listened.
It’s been a strange season for the CCHA following a stranger summer of dismantling, dislocation and — to some — dismay. For the first four weeks of conference play, some teams turned preseason expectations upside down while other teams seemed to be spinning in place. Two weeks ago, Miami appeared to be a team that would prove the preseason pundits wrong largely because the RedHawks were spinning in place; the RedHawks were winless in their first four league contests, every loss a close one.
A week ago, Miami was in eighth place with six points, three ahead of Bowling Green and Michigan State, who were tied for ninth, four ahead of last-place Alaska.
This week, the RedHawks host the Falcons and things look very different than just a few days ago. With five points earned at home against Michigan, Miami boosted its point total to 11 while Bowling Green gained none because of its nonconference series against Canisius. Now the Falcons are alone in 10th place and unable to catch Miami in the unlikely event of a BGSU sweep this weekend. The RedHawks, in eighth place and six points out of first, are on the rise.
“Honestly, I think everybody inside our program knew that we would have some difficult times ahead,” Miami coach Enrico Blasi said Tuesday. “We have very young freshmen with a lot of expectations and senior and junior classes that needed to understand their new roles. You put all that together and you have the potential for some ups and downs.”
The RedHawks (5-6-1, 3-4-1 CCHA) received preseason first-place votes in the CCHA coaches and media polls as well as the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll, and so it was somewhat surprising — at least to those of us outside of the Miami hockey program — to witness Miami’s rocky start, which included a five-game losing streak that began with an Oct. 15 loss to Colgate and spanned Miami’s first two league series.
Blasi, however, remained unfazed. “We’ve always gone through a rough patch, no matter what year,” he said. “Every team goes through something. It just so happens that we went through it in October, hopefully. We were 30th in the PairWise in January and look at where we ended our season.
“I’m not putting much stock in October. I’m happy with where we’re at. There’s excitement to come to the rink. A lot of guys are energized.”
Part of the struggle is the adjustment to life after Hobey Baker Award winner Andy Miele, as well as his classmates Carter Camper and Pat Cannone. Between the three of them, Miele, Camper and Cannone scored 57 of Miami’s 146 overall goals in 2011-12, or just about 40 percent of the offensive output. “I’m sure there’s a little bit of a hangover from that,” said Blasi. “How could there not be?”
Miami’s offense finished the 2011-12 season with the fourth-best offense in the country, averaging 3.74 goals per game; through a dozen games this season, the RedHawks are scoring 2.33 goals per game (41st). It isn’t just the offense that’s struggling, though. The Miami defense is a work in progress as well, as the diminished numbers of seniors Cody Reichard (2.33 goals against average, .906 save percentage) and Connor Knapp (3.17, .888) reveal.
“We were making careless mistakes and backdoor goals,” said Blasi, “nothing that was the cause of their goaltending. Maybe one game each they’d like some goals back, but it’s just trying to figure out how things come together.
“Everything is — give or take a game here or there — everything is pretty much on schedule and I’ve always said that this team will be better in January than October. In the meantime, we’re learning how to play at a high level and guys are starting to figure things out and find their roles.”
Since slumping to begin league play, the RedHawks are 3-0-1 with a sweep of Alaska and those five points taken from Michigan last weekend. If all is as Blasi suspects — if the RedHawks are just taking a little time to balance some chemistry — that’s good news for Miami fans.
And that would be bad news for everyone else, beginning with the struggling Falcons.
Bigger and better, but not there yet
“Things are going better,” Bergeron said on Tuesday.
I believe him. Bergeron — an intense, high-energy guy in his second year in charge at BG — doesn’t sugarcoat anything.
“Unfortunately, we have physical issues where we’re not good enough,” said Bergeron. “That’s going to change with time. Things we’re fighting are mental.”
Bergeron, a Miami grad who played with Blasi and served as an assistant to Blasi for nine years in Oxford, inherited a mess in Bowling Green. Those aren’t words he’d use, but everyone in college hockey knows the story now. Under Scott Paluch — who also inherited more than he bargained for when he took over the job in 2002 — the Falcons saw several assistant coaches come and go, and the program itself was threatened with extinction until community and alumni support strengthened.
As a result, the Bowling Green program is rebuilding more than just a hockey team; it’s rebuilding a whole hockey culture.
“There’s a mental thing here we need to change,” said Bergeron. “I do think the guys expect more but I’m not sure they truly, truly believe that good is going to happen. We’re beating the teams that we’re supposed to beat on paper, but I think there’s more to us than there is right now.”
Last weekend, the Falcons swept Canisius at home, 4-1 and 3-1 — good nonconference wins for a team looking for confidence. The Friday win broke a five-game losing streak, all of which were CCHA games. BGSU has one league win this season, 1-0 over Lake Superior State on Oct. 21, and hence the three league points and last place.
“That’s where we want to make our biggest improvement is in the league,” said Bergeron. “The 1-0 win at Lake Superior was really a step forward. Then we came out and laid an egg the next night.
“We’re all frustrated. We all think we’re a better team, but we need to start going and getting better results. Our process is pretty good, but the results don’t show it yet.”
The hardest part, said Bergeron, is keeping the belief alive in Bowling Green. It’s been so long since the Falcons have experienced sustained success that they don’t yet quite believe that they can achieve it. Because of that, said Bergeron, helping the players see that all of their hard work is progress — even without wins — is a big part of the challenge.
“That is exactly the issue,” said Bergeron, “making sure that we all believe that this is going to work. The plan is moving forward — whether we get wins or losses, the plan is moving forward. I’ve said from the beginning that it’s not a matter of if this is going to happen, but when.”
The Falcons were picked to finish last in both preseason CCHA polls based on their three wins and last-place finish in 2010-11. As realistic as Bergeron is about where the program is at this moment in time, he does see improvement from a year ago.
“I honestly think we’re a bigger team, physically,” Bergeron said, adding that better conditioning was a big goal for this season. “I didn’t think we were big enough to compete in our league [last season]. We got pushed around too much.”
Bergeron said, too, that he does see changes in expectations among his players, but that it’s “not different enough.” He remains frustrated by what he calls “poor decisions at poor times.”
“I do think that guys are expecting better things to happen,” said Bergeron, “but we’re still waiting for something bad to happen sometimes versus making something good happen.
“I wish our guys could get more positive feedback based on how hard they work,” said Bergeron. True to character, though, he added, “Now, the results are what they are and you get what you deserve.”
The Falcons will bring a young team to Oxford this weekend with as many as 16 freshman and sophomores skating. “We just don’t want our guys to be overwhelmed by that stage,” said Bergeron. “I hope our guys can just go and play and not get caught up in the stage.”
Two of Bowling Green’s three regular-season wins in 2010-11 came before the holiday break. After Miami, the Falcons face Alaska, Michigan State and Western Michigan to round out their first half.
Speaking of Alaska …
The Nanooks — which rhymes with “books,” not “kooks,” for any of you on-air types who may glance at these humble pages — are still looking for their first league win of the season. Their two losses to Notre Dame last weekend mark the first time they’ve dropped four in a row under fourth-year coach Dallas Ferguson. Their 0-6-2 start is their longest winless streak to begin a CCHA season, ever.
Speaking of Michigan State …
Who are these Spartans? MSU has swept back-to-back opponents and won five of its last six. Most impressive is that the Spartans took two from Western Michigan in Kalamazoo last weekend to follow their home sweep of Robert Morris two weeks before. It was the first time MSU registered consecutive sweeps since December 2007.
Players of the week
Hey, look at that! A couple of MSU players are honored this week, right on cue — and deservedly.
Rookie of the week: Miami’s Austin Czarnik — a forward from Washington, Mich., with a killer hockey name — had a goal and two assists in Miami’s 3-3 tie with Michigan last Saturday. It’s the second week in a row that a RedHawks player has been named ROTW. Get ready, CCHA.
Offensive player of the week: Notre Dame’s T.J. Tynan — the forward from Orland Park, Ill., whose name has a distinctly legalese sound — makes his debut in this season’s POTW honors with his goal and four assists in ND’s sweep of Alaska.
Defenseman of the week: Michigan State’s Brock Shelgren — the defenseman from Chicago whose name sounds like a hero from a 1970s television detective series — was instrumental in MSU’s sweep of Western Michigan with a career-high seven blocked shots Friday and another on Saturday plus two assists Saturday night.
Goaltender of the week: MSU’s Will Yanakeff — the goalie from Jerome, Mich., who also has a great hockey name — was the goalie of record in that sweep of WMU, with 66 saves and a .943 save percentage in the series.
I find it amazing that people debate my votes. It’s a poll. We all know what determines the field at the end of the season.
2. Boston College
4. Ferris State
5. Colorado College
7. Notre Dame
9. Western Michigan
10. Lake Superior State
12. Boston University
13. Michigan Tech
14. Ohio State
You know how to find me
I find that an oddly discomforting thought, sometimes. Follow on Twitter (@paulacweston), email me ([email protected]) or post in the forum below. Remember that niceness counts, and at this time of year, I’m not the only one keeping that score.