A Merry Christmas to all, and to the first half of the season, goodnight!

It doesn’t seem possible that it’s two days before Christmas, and it doesn’t seem possible that two days before Christmas there is a mere dusting of snow on the ground in Flint, Mich. Know what else doesn’t seem possible? A first-place Ohio State. Miami and Michigan as close to last place as first. No runaway scorer, and guys from Lake Superior State and Michigan State in the hunt to become league scoring champ.
As I sit here nearly deranged from sleep deprivation on a cold, bright Friday morning, a stack of half-graded research essays to my left and the unsent Christmas cards to my right, holiday music on the stereo, coffee never out of reach, I can’t think of anything better than to take a quick look back at the first half of the season.
You in?

The big picture

After the craziness of the offseason, anyone expecting the CCHA to roll over and die must be sadly disappointed. The league usually parts itself into three tiers, with the teams in the upper tier emerging as clear front-runners by the holiday break. With 12 points separating the team at the top from the two teams sharing the sixth-place spot — just four games either way, and seven teams in that span — this season has plenty of intrigue remaining.
In the past, the word parity has been abused shamelessly by coaches and press alike in reference to the CCHA, and that chestnut about any team being able to beat any other team on any given night has been worn to the bone, but it’s impossible to deny the reality of parity this season. Anyone who’s read me over any length of time knows that I’m fond of reminding people that equal doesn’t necessarily mean equally good, but this season it just may. If the PairWise Rankings are any indication, the CCHA is a strong league; if the season were to end today, the conference could have as many as seven teams in the NCAA tournament.
Maybe the fact that four different CCHA teams have played for an NCAA title in the past five seasons isn’t a fluke after all. Yes, I have been skeptical. Yes, the three-year Frozen Four drought left me wondering. I guess we’ll know more at the end of March.

The littler pictures

Every team has had an interesting first half. Every one of them. Here are some observations about each team — and by no means are these meant to be comprehensive. Please, chip in with your observations in the forum.
Ohio State
This team is one of the biggest surprises in college hockey so far this season. After finishing last season in ninth place with 36 points, the Buckeyes were picked in preseason to finish seventh in the coaches poll, ninth again in the media poll. Now just four points away from their total in 2010-11, the Buckeyes have the highest PWR ranking and are tied for the highest win percentage overall nationally with defending NCAA champion Minnesota-Duluth. How have they done this? Outstanding defense, led in net by senior Cal Heeter (2.11 GAA, .926 SV%) and blue line leadership from Heeter’s classmates, Sean Duddy and Devon Krogh. The real change, of course, is the response of the team to second-year head coach Mark Osiecki, who brings a certain WCHA (a.k.a., winning) sensibility with him.
Notre Dame and Western Michigan
Each of these teams was expected to finish near the top, so it’s not surprising that the Fighting Irish and Broncos are tied for second place at the end of the first half of the season.
Nothing has surprised me about Notre Dame’s season so far. The Irish are getting scoring from sophomores T.J. Tynan (7-20–27) and Anders Lee (12-8–20) with committee-style contributions from a host of other players. At the start of the season, coach Jeff Jackson said that his team was often inaccurately characterized as a defensive team; given that the Irish are allowing 2.75 goals per game and are tied for 25th in the nation for defense, I’d say Jackson once again knew exactly what he was talking about. Goaltending has been an issue for ND, with senior Mike Johnson (2.60, .889) seeing the bulk of the action and sophomore Steven Summerhays (2.77, .878) playing a few games, but it would be unfair to lay the blame completely at the skates of the netminders. Team defense is the issue — and it’s what may sink the Irish in the end.
The only surprising thing about Western Michigan is how deftly the team has handled its transition from head coach to head coach. Considering that this year’s junior and senior Broncos are now playing with the third head coach of their short collegiate careers, that’s no small feat. Of course, first-year head coach Andy Murray was proven long before he arrived in Kalamazoo, and he kept assistants Rob Facca and Pat Ferschweiler on board — more because of what they helped accomplish with Jeff Blashill last year than merely for the purpose of transitioning. Okay, so perhaps I’m a little surprised by how well freshman Frank Slubowski (1.87, .908) and junior Nick Pisellini (2.25, .909) have performed. It’s nice to see players formerly in the CCHA shadows — junior forward Dane Walters (9-8–17) and his classmate, defenseman Matt Tennyson (5-6–11) come to mind — have such outstanding seasons, too.
Lake Superior State
All alone in fourth place, the Lakers are another very surprising team. LSSU made the most out of a favorable early schedule to jump out ahead and lead the league for a while. Early sweeps of Michigan State and Miami — two teams that played much better as the season progressed — tested the Lakers and gave them confidence, and LSSU took points in the first half from every CCHA opponent except for Ohio State. Sophomore Kevin Kapalka (2.42, .917) is following up his outstanding freshman season with solid, mature goaltending, and this is one of the big reasons why LSSU is still competitive at midseason. The team in front of Kapalka knows it can rely on him to make saves when necessary, and in turn they are producing more in front of him. While 2.65 goals scored per game on average may not seem like a lot, it’s more than the 2.38 the Lakers averaged last season. Combined with good, steady, overall play, that’s enough to make a difference in a few games this season.
Ferris State
The fifth-place Bulldogs are exactly where they usually are each season — solidly in the mix, more toward the middle of the pack. At the start of every season, coach Bob Daniels wonders where the FSU offense will come from, and he’s not being coy. Last year, it didn’t come at all. The Bulldogs averaged 2.41 goals per game; they’ve improved a bit to 2.67 this season. Junior Kyle Bonis (9-3–12) leads the team so far in goal scoring with junior Travis Ouellette (7-7–14) and senior Jordie Johnston (7-6–13) not far behind. That’s 23 of FSU’s 48 overall goals at midseason from a trio that netted 25 total in 2010-11. Of course, the one thing that gives FSU a chance to win on any given night is goaltending. Senior Taylor Nelson and freshman C.J. Motte have combined for a team goals-against average of 1.82 and team save percentage of .934.
Michigan State and Northern Michigan
To say that I’m not surprised by each of these teams tied for sixth place would be a lie — but each surprises me for different reasons.
The Spartans have certainly adjusted well to first-year head coach Tom Anastos. That they have improved isn’t the surprising part; that they have improved at near-lightning speed is. As someone who sees a lot of MSU hockey because of my proximity to East Lansing — and also as the only someone who sits in the press box that is not writing for a strictly MSU audience, unless visiting press shows up — I have no problem speaking with frankness about my skepticism regarding Anastos’ hiring. It had nothing to do with the man personally and everything to do with the hiring of someone who hadn’t coached this particular game in 20 years. Early in the season, the team was struggling to adjust to what Anastos wanted, but more importantly the team was also striving to succeed under the new head coach. Anastos wanted a more up-tempo game and he got it — often with disappointing defensive results in the early going. Now that the team defense has adjusted, the Spartans are doing the best they can with the talent they have, and the result is a competitive team that is fun to watch.
The Wildcats, like another Upper Peninsula team we know, have made the very best of an early schedule — and that is surprising, given NMU’s proclivity to come out of the gate rather slowly. The Wildcats’ winning first-half home record (7-1-3) includes a sweep of Miami, a win and a tie against Michigan and a series against Notre Dame that resulted in two ties with NMU earning extra shootout points in each contest. This early reserve of home points is something the Wildcats may need to draw upon in the second half, when four of their seven remaining CCHA series are on the road — where they have just two wins. NMU has also relied on a trio of players — seniors Tyler Gron and Justin Florek, and sophomore Stephan Vigier — for the bulk of its goals. Each player has nine, more than half the team’s total goals; no one else on the team has netted more than four.
Michigan and Miami
These two teams are a point and place apart in league standings, but somehow they seem mired in the same spot to me. Each is equally puzzling. Each has lost its defensive edge.
The eighth-place Wolverines have the fifth-best offense in the country, averaging 3.55 goals per game — and improved from last season — but defensively, Michigan has dropped from sixth to 20th. It’s an overall team defense, a lack of cohesion, that seems to be the problem. Senior Shawn Hunwick’s numbers are slightly down, but his save percentage (.917) is more than adequate.
The ninth-place RedHawks finished 2010-11 with the fourth-best offense and defense; this year, Miami is averaging 2.75 goals per game, keeping company with Bemidji State and Minnesota State in 34th place, and the RedHawks are allowing 2.70 goals per game for 22nd best. Unlike the Wolverines, the RedHawks have also been struggling between the pipes. Seniors Connor Knapp (2.70, .896) and Cody Reichard (2.52, .901), two goaltenders who formed a dominating tandem their first three seasons of CCHA play, have struggled behind an experienced defense.
Without knowing what really goes on with any given team, it may be a bit unfair to speculate about team chemistry and leadership, but that’s what comes to mind when looking at the veteran talent of each program here. The Wolverines lost Louie Caporusso, Carl Hagelin and Matt Rust to graduation — a trio of seniors last year that couldn’t have been better leaders for a very low-key, hard-working Wolverine team. The RedHawks lost Carter Camper, Pat Cannone, Vincent LoVerde, Hobey Baker winner Andy Miele and Justin Vaive to graduation — a quintet that provided the heart of Miami’s team.
What remains for each team is talent, for certain, and each team welcomed new impact players — Miami’s Austin Czarnik, Michigan’s Alex Guptill and Phil De Giuseppe — but neither team seems to have coalesced yet this season. Each team experienced an uncharacteristic five-game losing streak, and Michigan’s winless streak was seven. It will be very interesting to see how each of these squads responds in the second half.
Another surprise is Alaska — and only because the Nanooks aren’t higher in the standings. Picked fifth in both the coaches and media CCHA preseason polls, the Nanooks are good enough to be in that top-tier mix, but their first half has been a series of near-misses. Five of Alaska’s eight CCHA losses have been by one single goal, and two of those — against Notre Dame and Michigan — came in overtime. Coach Dallas Ferguson said late in the first half that his team’s spirits are high because they’ve worked hard in every game and they know they’re competitive, but every fan of the program would like to see the Nanooks rewarded just a little more for that hard work. Senior Scott Greenham — one of the best kids in the CCHA — struggled quite a bit in the early going and was frank about his own performance; his normally solid save percentage didn’t climb above .900 until two-thirds of the first half were gone. He’s back on his game (2.18, .914), which is good news for a 10th-place team that will spend the first two weeks of January in Michigan, playing Northern and Ferris.
Bowling Green
There’s little that’s surprising about Bowling Green this season, and that’s not all bad news. The last-place Falcons are still looking for their second conference win of the season, their first and only coming against Lake Superior State Oct. 21 — and they scored just one goal in that contest to win that game. That’s part of BGSU’s story this season, a lack of offense. Last year, the Falcons were dead last nationally in that category (1.80); this year, they’re not last … but only because Canisius, Rensselaer and Alabama-Huntsville are worse, because the Falcons are still averaging 1.80 goals per game. Bowling Green is not the sum of its statistics, though. The Falcons work hard for second-year head coach Chris Bergeron, who inherited a bigger mess than he may have originally thought. A glance at the BGSU roster shows you a lot of underclassmen in a program that is rebuilding — and that’s a recipe for a long, tough first half.

Coming up

Next week, we return to regular columns on Wednesday. In that, I’ll preview the second half a little. I’ll also have picks in blog form for all of the holiday tournaments, and on Monday a chatty blog catching up on a few things.
Do write ([email protected]) or tweet (paulacweston) or join in the conversation below, please. And please have a lovely Christmas, Yule, and Hanukkah. It’s officially winter, folks, and that means the days are getting longer — and isn’t that a beautiful thing?