With last week’s Thanksgiving holiday, there wasn’t a lot of CCHA league action to follow, but the two conference series that were played were very telling. In fact, when we get to the end of February, we may be glancing back at the last weekend of November as a definitive moment in the 2011-12 season.
A study in Superior-ity
Early in the season, Lake Superior State took advantage of a favorable schedule to rack up league points by sweeping both Michigan State and Miami while those teams were apparently down. As a result, the Lakers flirted with first place for much of the first half of the season.
I’ll admit that when their schedule got tougher, I expected Lake to fall farther behind. Instead, LSSU has hung tough, taking points from every league opponent the Lakers have faced, including last weekend’s home split with now-No. 2 Notre Dame. Because of their timely points, the Lakers are still in the hunt for the CCHA’s top spot, four points behind first-place ND, three points behind second-place Ohio State.
How have they maintained pace with the top of the pack? Well, it isn’t the offense. LSSU averages 2.69 goals per game, 36th-best in the nation. The defense — anchored by sophomore Kevin Kapalka (2.30 goals against average, .919 save percentage) — is tied for eighth in the country, but other than Kapalka and perhaps junior Zach Trotman, it’s not comprised of players with name recognition.
One of those defenders, though, is instrumental in LSSU’s success this season. In fact, two seniors, blueliner Kyle Haines and forward Fred Cassiani — two guys with 32 career goals between them and two honors for league player of the week — are providing the essential ingredient for LSSU’s first-half success.
“The biggest things we’ve had from day one is really good leadership,” said LSSU coach Jim Roque. “Freddy Cassiani and Kyle Haines have been really good. You don’t see it in points, but Fred’s probably been our best forward from the beginning, willing to play with different guys, willing to do whatever it takes.”
Roque said that Cassiani and Haines have been able to keep the rest of the team level while building on the success of reaching the CCHA championship tournament at Joe Louis Arena last season. They’re selfless, said Roque, and they are enjoying their senior seasons.
“Sometimes seniors get really worried about themselves, through no fault of their own,” said Roque. “They wonder, ‘Where am I going to play next year? What am I going to do?’ Fred and Kyle have been focused on the moment.”
Each had an assist in LSSU’s 5-2 win over Notre Dame Saturday, the game that snapped the Fighting Irish’s 11-game unbeaten streak.
That was an important game for the Lakers, said Roque, because confidence has been another factor in his team’s success this season. “You start winning and you get some confidence,” he said. “For us to come back from that on Saturday meant a lot to our team.”
The No. 11 Lakers will be tested on the road this week when they face the No. 7 Buckeyes, a team they face four times this season. “We compete really hard,” said Roque, “and we’ve had a lot of one-goal games. Our concern is still scoring goals.”
LSSU will look to stop another streak this weekend, OSU’s nine-game unbeaten streak. This is the first meeting between the teams since the Lakers eliminated the Buckeyes from the first round of the 2010-11 CCHA playoffs, outscoring OSU 7-2.
Class gets rewarded
In last week’s notes, I related a story I’d been told about Alaska senior goaltender Scott Greenham, a player that is by all accounts a class act.
Last weekend, that class act schooled visiting Bowling Green, posting back-to-back shutouts by stopping all 39 shots he faced in the 3-0 and 2-0 wins — and he still managed to stay classy.
“I wish you could have seen the way that Hammond played,” Greenham told me by phone Monday night. We were chatting about Greenham and his season and the weekend against the Falcons, but Greenham wanted to be sure that everyone knew how well BGSU goalie Andrew Hammond performed in those two losses.
“The way he played was unbelievable,” said Greenham. “I knew that when I had my chance to make a save I had to because of the way he was playing.
“I didn’t really know much about him. I heard that he was a really good goalie, but he was making unbelievable saves. That second night, they had 44 penalty minutes … so we were on the power play quite a bit. It was all on him at that point.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised when the conversation took this turn. Greenham was very frank about how his season had been going, completely guileless and totally honest. Until last weekend against BGSU, Greenham’s save percentage had been under .900; in 77 games during the past two seasons, his save percentage averaged .918.
“I think it came down to that I wasn’t making that one key save kind of thing,” said Greenham. “Really, when you looked back at my college career this is the only time I’ve really been faltering. It’s kind of nice to go through the adversity, too — although I’m kind of hoping that we’re through it.”
The Nanooks have won three of their last four, and those three games are the sum total of their conference wins this season. It’s an unusual phenomenon for Alaska under coach Dallas Ferguson, but I was unclear as to how it would be “nice” to experience it. Greenham had the perfect answer.
“Obviously, losing isn’t nice, but — I shouldn’t even say that because it’s only been two weekends — but I’m hoping that it’s kind of behind us now and we’re moving forward,” he said. “A little different experience for our team. We haven’t really gone through that before. It’s nice for us to see what it tastes like to lose. We were in the games [we lost] and we just couldn’t win. This will teach us what it tastes like to win. Just the experience of going through that kind of loss makes you a more complete player.”
If I hadn’t been talking to him myself, I never would have been able to appreciate the sincerity and logic of his answer.
As for his own personal slump this season, Greenham said that he went through a crisis of confidence after the Nanooks lost 6-0 to Ohio State Oct. 28.
“My mental side of the game took a little bit of a lapse after that time,” said Greenham. “We have a lot of young freshman defensemen … and I wasn’t stepping my game up trying to counter for those. As a senior and one of the leaders on this team, that’s something I have to do.”
Getting over it was mind over matter. “I think it was just talking with some of my support systems like my parents, my girlfriend, and Coach Ferguson especially,” said Greenham. “I had a few meetings with Coach about my feelings and his and the team play and my play … and how my play has affected the team. It made me realize what kind of position that I’m in, how goalies in general can influence the outcomes of games.
“To me, the belief that Coach Ferguson had in me got me to realize that I shouldn’t be over-thinking games.”
Clearly, Greenham’s head was in Alaska’s games against Bowling Green, when he had long stretches of time to watch his counterpart at the other end of the rink, long stretches where Greenham didn’t face a shot but had to be ready when challenged.
For the record, Hammond stopped 61 shots in the series. I think Scott Greenham would want you to know.
Hard work for hardware
Everyone loves a trophy, and I love a team that can bring hardware to the CCHA. Congratulations to Miami and Michigan State for their hard work defending the realm during the Thanksgiving weekend.
Miami captured the Denver Cup Classic by beating Providence 6-2 Friday and Denver 4-2 Saturday. Senior Cody Reichard had 32 saves in the title game, one on Denver’s Jason Zucker on a penalty shot. That victory was Reichard’s 50th with the RedHawks.
Michigan State defeated visiting Minnesota 4-3 Friday before tying the then-No. 3 Golden Gophers 4-4 Saturday. That was enough for the Spartans to defend the Bessone-Mariucci Trophy, the hardware awarded to the winner of this annual series, for the second consecutive season.
Daultan Leveille had the tying goal Saturday less than two minutes after Kyle Rau put the Gophers ahead by one. It was Leveille’s second goal of the season.
Back to basics, maybe?
Michigan’s slump continues. The Wolverines, now winless in six games, lost 4-1 to Northeastern on Friday and 6-3 to Union on Sunday — at home, in the comfort of Yost Ice Arena. No current Wolverines player was alive the last time Michigan dropped four in a row at Yost, because the last time it happened was in 1986.
The Wolverines still have the fourth-best scoring offense in the country (3.75 goals per game), but during their slump they had three games in which they scored a single goal.
Players of the week
Rookie of the week: For the second time this season, it’s Miami’s Austin Czarnik, who had a goal and three assists in the Denver Cup Classic, earning him a spot on the all-tournament team.
Offensive player of the week: For the second time this season, it’s Miami’s Reilly Smith. The junior had three goals combined against Providence and Denver and was named the Denver Cup Classic MVP.
Defenseman of the week: For the second time in his career, it’s Alaska senior Aaron Gens, who had three assists and seven blocked shots in the Nanooks’ double-blanking of Bowling Green.
Goaltender of the week: For the first time this season, it’s Michigan State senior Drew Palmisano. Palmisano made 75 saves (.915 save percentage) in MSU’s victory over and tie with visiting Minnesota.
1. Boston College
2. Notre Dame
6. Colorado College
7. Ohio State
8. Ferris State
9. Lake Superior State
11. Boston University
12. Western Michigan
13. Michigan State
16. Michigan Tech
19. Northern Michigan
I don’t remember the last time I didn’t include Michigan in my weekly poll.