Alaska coach Dallas Ferguson wasn’t looking for an early birthday present, but he got one Friday night when the Nanooks beat visiting Ferris State 2-0. It was Alaska’s first conference win in nine games this season, and Ferguson was glad that his players had finally been rewarded for working so hard.
“I think it’s kind of an interesting season so far for us,” said Ferguson, who celebrates his birthday on Thanksgiving Day this year. “If you look at just the last six games for us — Miami, two 2-1 losses at home, losing to Notre Dame in overtime when their player scores late in the third and overtime’s almost over, our home series against Ferris State.
“I don’t think our play has been bad. Our effort’s been good. We’re not getting that extra goal we need at the right time or that save we need at the right time.”
In fact, the story of Alaska’s season — at least in league play — is the story of the luck of the bounce. During the Nanooks’ eight-game winless conference streak, five losses were decided by a goal and there were two ties, back-to-back but on different weekends. The second tie was against Ohio State Oct. 27 with all the scoring coming in the third period, and the Buckeyes getting the last regulation goal on a power play. The two 2-1 losses to Miami were tied until the RedHawks’ second goal became the final one of the game. That overtime loss to Notre Dame came thanks to T.J. Tynan’s tying goal at 15:41 in the third and Billy Maday’s winner with 42 seconds left in OT.
“We’ve been in good college hockey games,” said Ferguson. “Unfortunately for us, we’ve been on the short end of it. Even us winning 2-0 Saturday, Ferris had opportunities, too.”
After that first league win of the season, the Nanooks lost to the Bulldogs Saturday. It was another one-goal affair — one that was tied 2-2 after the second, one that was decided by FSU sophomore Andy Huff’s second goal of the season, the third of his career, at 15:30 in the third.
“This is something new for us,” said Ferguson, whose team’s league-opening winless streak was the longest in school history. “Especially in the first half of the season, we’ve been on the winning side of those one-goal games. I can’t say our effort hasn’t been there. We have been playing pretty well. I think anybody’s that’s watched our team play over the last three weeks sees that we’re playing hard.”
Through the first 10 league games last season, the Nanooks were 4-4-2 and tied for fourth place in the CCHA; this year, they’re 1-7-2 and tied for last. Alaska finished the 2010-11 season averaging 2.34 goals per game but allowing just 2.39, the ninth best defense in the country. This year so far, the Nanooks’ offense is off just a little (2.14) but the defense is allowing 2.64 goals per game for 22nd, enough of a margin to make a big difference.
There are many reasons for Alaska’s slow start, but Ferguson isn’t making any excuses.
“Specialty teams is probably the area we need the most work in executing,” said Ferguson. The Nanooks’ power play is successful just 8.3 percent of the time, their penalty kill effectiveness at 79.1 percent.
They’re also young on the blue line, with three freshmen playing regularly. “We’ve been hit with the injury bug, too,” said Ferguson, “so we’re looking forward to getting some guys back after Christmas break.”
The injury list is long for a season so young: defensemen Cody Butcher (upper body), Nolan Kaiser (knee), Kaare Odegard (ankle), Michael Quinn (ankle) and forward Garrick Perry (knee). Two freshman forwards, Maxime Dumond and Michael Hill, have yet to play this season; Dumond had surgery in the offseason and Hill has yet to be cleared from a concussion he suffered at the end of the 2010-11 season with the Topeka RoadRunners (NAHL).
“Three or four of those guys are players we depend on, every game,” said Ferguson. There have been times this season, said the coach, when the injuries have affected more than just games. “You think mostly about games, but then you start to focus on what you are going to do in practice. You have to rethink practice when you don’t have enough guys.”
The plus side, said Ferguson, is the experience that the uninjured players are gaining. “It’s been accelerating guys’ development,” said Ferguson, “especially on the back end. It’s good for them. We see growth in their game. We’ve got two weekends here to get points before Christmas, and after Christmas we’ll get bodies back. By then, too, we’ll be experienced.”
One area that puzzles every Alaska fan is the start to senior goaltender Scott Greenham’s season. In 77 games in his sophomore and junior seasons, Greenham had a combined save percentage of .918 and a combined goals against average of 2.22. This season, Greenham’s save percentage is .893, his GAA 2.57.
“I don’t know what to chalk it up to,” said Ferguson. “Scott knows that there’s room for growth in his game and we expect that out of him as a senior, especially knowing the level we can play at. I wouldn’t fault him, but if you ask him I’m sure that he’d say that in order for our team to have success he’s got to be making those saves.
“I think that’s Scott’s been good, but knowing him and having conversations with him, he knows he can play better as well. It’s not that we’re asking just him; we’re asking our whole team to develop and work harder and play better.”
In spite of the rocky start, Ferguson said that he, his coaching staff and — perhaps most importantly, his players — remain upbeat. Ferguson is also philosophical, in a practical sort of way.
“All our guys in our locker room know what we’re capable of,” said Ferguson. “We’ve seen some pretty good teams right now. There’s not like a game in our schedule that’s easier than others. Everybody seems to be playing well.
“It’s a fine line right now between getting three points and not getting any points in this league.”
He’s class, all the way
If you’re around college hockey long enough, you understand why we fans of the game love our sport. It’s not just the game; it’s the kind of player that college hockey — for both women and men — attracts.
One of the classiest in the CCHA, by far, is Greenham. I’ve always been impressed with him, and every season several fans write to tell me how much they enjoyed meeting him, that he impressed them as well with his sincerity, humility and generosity. This weekend, another Greenham story comes to light — a small thing, really — that illustrates the character of the goaltender from Addison, Ontario.
This time, it was something that Greenham did following a loss that was particularly impressive. Before Saturday’s game against Ferris State, word got to Greenham that there was a young kid in attendance who was a really big fan and that this kid didn’t get to games very often, and he was wondering if Greenham could give him a souvenir following the game.
By all accounts, the 3-2 loss was very tough for Alaska. Greenham stopped 17 of 20 shots as the Nanooks outshot the Bulldogs by 13.
According to the fan who wrote in, after the handshake line the Nanooks saluted the crowd and left the ice — well, all the Nanooks except for Greenham, who immediately sought out the kid who’d asked for a souvenir.
Without hesitation, after yet another gut-wrenching one-goal loss, Greenham handed the young fan his stick and did so cheerfully.
That is class. It’s also another reminder of why we love this sport.
It’s the staches, man
Many college hockey teams have embraced Movember, a global effort to grow mustaches to highlight men’s health issues. As far as I can tell, the entire Ohio State hockey team has embraced the cause, even coach Mark Osiecki.
Well, we’ve all seen some players, um, struggle with growing playoff beards over the years. Some are struggling with the mustache growing as well.
Fortunately for those who care about such things, OSU captain Sean Duddy has provided “Movember Power Rankings” for the Buckeyes in a recent blog.
He spares no one, including himself. He writes, “I’ve set up hidden cameras to make sure no one’s shaving my face while I’m asleep, and I have the thickest hair on the team so it’s only a matter of time until the stache thickens up.”
Regardless of their ability to grow facial hair, the Buckeyes are in first place in the CCHA after beginning their CCHA season 9-2-1. With an overall record of 10-3-1, it’s the first time that OSU has 10 wins in its first 14 games of a season since 1983-84. They went on to win 20 more that season.
Players of the week
It’s one of those strange weeks in which the state of Michigan is not represented.
Rookie of the week: Ohio State’s Ryan Dzingel — the Wheaton, Ill., native with the locks that drive young girls crazy — had two goals and two assists in OSU’s 6-5 victory over Michigan Saturday, a win that secured the Buckeyes’ sweep.
Offensive player of the week: OSU’s Alex Lippincott, a native of Akron, Ohio, who had the game-winning goal in that win. He had two assists in the game. I don’t know that I’ve heard any stories about his hair making young girls swoon, and Duddy didn’t call him out in that Movember blog, either.
Defenseman of the week: Miami’s Chris Wideman had three assists against Bowling Green, one in Friday’s 4-0 win and two in Saturday’s 4-4 tie.
Goaltender of the week: Notre Dame’s Mike Johnson, who had a combined 51 saves in the 3-2 win over Western Michigan Nov. 15 and 3-2 overtime win against Boston College Friday.
Yes, I’m the one who voted Colorado College No. 1 this week. Now, if we could just solve the mystery of who was voting Yale first all those weeks … .
1. Colorado College
2. Boston College
5. Notre Dame
7. Ohio State
8. Ferris State
10. Lake Superior State
11. Boston University
14. Michigan Tech
If it’s Tuesday …
… I must be finishing this column while watching the Fighting Irish and Broncos play a great game of hockey.
Wishing all my American friends a very happy Thanksgiving and safe travels during the holiday. I’m embarrassed to say that I missed wishing my Canadian friends a good holiday earlier in the month, so please accept belated good wishes now if you’re north of the border.
We have a lot to be thankful for here in the land of college hockey. I’m reminded weekly that I’ve met wonderful people from all over the globe because of college hockey, that my life has been enriched by it in ways that I will never be able to measure — and I can barely skate.