CCHA teams chasing Ohio State as second half begins

It’s three days after Christmas and this story refuses to be written with any grace, wisdom or ease. I’m supposed to talk about the second half of the season, but given last week’s blog about the first half, what is there left to say?

It’s too early for the sports writing doldrums, that dip that sometimes affects writers many weeks into a very long season about a single beat that they cover. The doldrums usually grab me at the end of January — if they grab me at all. I doubt that I’ll be at a loss this year, given how close everything has been within the CCHA and how keenly I feel the finite amount of time I have left to cover this league.

Previewing the second half of the season in total seems pointless, too. We’ve looked back as a whole at who’s up, who’s down, who’s lost how many games by a goal. Staring at January, I see a lot of really good hockey ahead, by nearly every team in the league. Beyond that, here are a few other things that strike me as we look at the second half. Like last week’s blog, this isn’t meant to be exhaustive. I’m sure I’m leaving out many things that will interest various people. This is just what I’m thinking about as the second half of the season is about to begin.

I despise the word parity but concede its existence

For decades, I’ve felt poisoned by the little cliches that coaches toss about to explain — or rationalize — the state of the sport and of their particular programs. I’m not as familiar with the lingo of coaches in other leagues as I am with that of the guys I cover, so I don’t know if parity is the single most overused word in all of college hockey or if its abuse is limited to the CCHA.

This season, however, there’s no denying the reality of it, at least in the CCHA.

If the season ended today, seven of the league’s 11 teams would probably receive NCAA tournament invitations, and Ohio State would be the overall No. 1 seed. Others include (in PairWise Rankings order) Notre Dame, Western Michigan, Northern Michigan, Michigan State, Ferris State and Lake Superior State. Note the absence of Michigan (No. 17 in the PWR) and Miami (tied for No. 18).

In first place in the league with five points ahead of the nearest competition in the standings, the Buckeyes are in good shape to be sure but by no means in any kind of secure place. They were the most consistent team of the first half with that 11-game unbeaten streak (10-0-1) that they carried into the final weekend of first-half play against Miami.

OSU’s schedule looks favorable to start the second half, with a single game against Robert Morris, two road games against Bowling Green and a home series against Michigan to take the Buckeyes through mid-January. It helps the Buckeyes that Notre Dame and Western — currently each tied for second — play a home-and-home series Jan. 13-14.

Given the way that Notre Dame faltered toward the end of the first half and the nice schedule that WMU has — Miami, Bowling Green and Alaska filling most of January — the Broncos may be the team to challenge the Buckeyes for the top spot.

It’s not that other teams are too far out, either. Lake Superior begins the second half against Michigan and Miami, series that will be defining for each program involved. If the Lakers are for real and the Wolverines and RedHawks continue to play as they did the first half, LSSU could emerge a real contender. Fourth-place Ferris State’s schedule is much tougher in the second half, which has the Bulldogs facing three of the four opponents currently ahead of them in the standings.

Michigan State and Northern Michigan have opposite fates; the Spartans are home a lot in the second half, the Wildcats are more often on the road.

In the end, the most likely scenario is something that nobody considered likely at the start of the season, that OSU has the best chance of taking the division as the entire middle of the pack beats up on each other. It boggles the mind.

Aside from how interesting this will be for fans of CCHA hockey — because this does provide excellent in-house hockey for people who love this league — is what will happen when it comes to the NCAA tournament. How many teams from the CCHA will go is one question.

The other, of course, is how well those teams will do when they’re no longer beating up on each other. I think the league is strong, and I’m hoping that it’s as strong as I suspect it is.

And that’s why they play the game

In September, coaches picked the CCHA preseason first and second teams. After three months of play, a look back at these — and ahead to who may be all-conference at the end of the season — is interesting, indeed.

The first team included forwards Reilly Smith (Miami), T.J. Tynan (Notre Dame) and Anders Lee (Notre Dame), defensemen Torey Krug (Michigan State) and Jon Merrill (Michigan), and goaltender Cody Reichard (Miami).

The second team included forwards Chase Balisy (Western Michigan), Tyler Gron (Northern Michigan) and David Wohlberg (Michigan), defensemen Chris Wideman and Will Weber (both Miami), and goaltender Scott Greenham (Alaska).

Look at the confidence that everyone had in Miami’s defense, which has been a near non-factor this season. On that first team, Tynan, Lee and Krug were excellent calls (remember, we’re looking only at league statistics here), and Gron’s inclusion in the second team was particularly prescient.

I’m not second-guessing the coaches, as they made great picks with available data. Who would have guessed that Merrill would miss the whole first half of the season with Michigan (but play for Team USA in the World Junior Championship, but that’s another story)? Who could have predicted that Greenham would have struggled in the first half?

And, looking ahead, who could have predicted that by the end of the season, perhaps OSU’s Cal Heeter would be a first-team player?

Here’s how I think the all-conference teams may look at the end of the year:

First team

Chris Crane (F, Ohio State)
T.J. Tynan (F, Notre Dame)
Dane Walters (F, Western Michigan)
Sean Duddy (D, Ohio State)
Torey Krug (D, Michigan State)
Cal Heeter (G, Ohio State)

Second team

Tyler Gron (F, Northern Michigan)
Anders Lee (F, Notre Dame)
Dominic Monardo (F, Lake Superior)
Chad Billins (D, Ferris State)
Zach Trotman (D, Lake Superior)
Shawn Hunwick (G, Michigan)

Don’t jump all over me here. I’m just predicting how others are going to vote. The assumptions behind the predictions, of course, are that OSU finishes no lower than second, that ND and WMU are very high in the standings at the end of the season and that LSSU doesn’t fall too far.

We shall see.

It comes down to goaltending

Last year seemed like a down year for goaltending in the CCHA, a league known for its embarrassment of riches when it comes to the position. This season, even with a few goalies struggling, the league as a whole has rebounded between the pipes (if you’ll pardon the mixed and unintentional metaphor). Perhaps that’s the reason for the parity itself; perhaps that’s what it will come down to in the end.

Heeter, aptly named

“We’re expecting him to try and take some of the pressure off himself, first and foremost.” That’s how OSU coach Mark Osiecki described senior Cal Heeter (9-2-1, 2.17 goals against average, .914 save percentage) at the start of the season, and it appears that Heeter has done just that. Tall, mobile, and smart, Heeter is following a breakout junior season with a stellar senior campaign. Osiecki was worried that Heeter had been given too much responsibility all at once last year; this season, Heeter’s proven that he’s up to the task.

Notre Dame’s weakest link

At the start of the season, Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said that he expected senior Mike Johnson to “start the season … as the No. 1 guy,” but also said that he expected sophomore Steven Summerhays to play. Jackson was also a little apprehensive about ND’s defense, saying repeatedly that he thought his team’s reputation as a defensive one was unearned.

Midway through the season, Johnson’s still the No. 1 guy, but neither he (5-2-3, 2.38, .896) nor Summerhays (3-1-0, 2.13, .908) has provided the stability necessary for the Irish to sustain any run at first place. Should goaltending and defense remain as they are and the Irish somehow make an NCAA appearance, ND will bow out quickly.

The new guy in Kalamazoo

No, I’m not talking about coach Andy Murray, but rather freshman goaltender Frank Slubowski (5-2-3, 2.06, .904) who has been a nice addition to the Broncos’ roster. “Obviously, losing Jerry Kuhn from last year’s team, he had a tremendous season for Western Michigan, certainly one of the reasons why they advanced,” Murray said in preseason, when he and everyone else thought that junior Nick Pisellini (2-2-0, 2.54, .902) would be the starter. At midseason, the Broncos have to be happy that they have two goalies that look as though they can take them through the end of the year.

On the radar, absolutely

“He’s not going to surprise anyone in our league right now,” LSSU coach Jim Roque said of sophomore Kevin Kapalka at the start of the season. While that may be true — Kapalka was a CCHA All-Rookie pick in 2010-11 — he’s up to the task of being a known quantity, and he’s a big part of why the Lakers will not fall off the radar, either, in the second half.

Kapalka (7-5-1, 2.61, .914) has overall numbers that are good but not spectacular, but he’s practically unflappable in net, and the rest of the Lakers understand that he’s there if they need him — giving the Lakers confidence at all other times.

Under the radar, completely

At the start of this season, I never would have guessed that the best goaltending tandem in the league would call Big Rapids, Mich. — and not Oxford, Ohio — home. Seriously, who knew?

Well, if Ferris State coach Bob Daniels did, he was mighty understated about it. “We feel pretty comfortable in net and [Taylor Nelson] is going to be pushed by C.J. Motte as well, a freshman. I always like to see competition in net.”

Indeed. The senior Nelson (5-3-0, 2.13, .929) and Motte (2-3-1, 2.14, .925) are second and third (behind Slubowski) in goals against average in league play, and each is among the top 10 in overall goaltending statistics nationally; in fact Motte (1.73, .935 overall) is statistically the fourth-best goaltender in the nation.

It helps that they’re splitting time, especially as it gives Motte confidence. It helps, too, that FSU has a defensive corps that is one of the best in the country. If the Bulldogs could score, there’s no doubt in my mind who’d win the conference title.

Another serviceable — if not dynamic — duo

Part of the reason Michigan State has remained in the mix while transitioning playing styles is because of the play of senior Drew Palmisano (2-2-1, 2.18, .925) and sophomore Will Yanakeff (4-3-0, 2.59, .914). “We expect that to be a strength of the team,” first-year coach Tom Anastos said in preseason. In the first few weeks, it looked to be MSU’s only consistent strength; now goaltending is what’s giving the Spartans confidence to play a more wide-open game.

And another dynamic duo

In Marquette, senior Reid Ellingson (2-5-2, 2.52, .921) and sophomore Jared Coreau (3-1-1, 2.20, .923) have put up impressive numbers giving Northern Michigan that proverbial every-night opportunity. At the start of the season, coach Walt Kyle had a moment of psychic insight: “We feel that position has the potential to be a strength for us.”

Kyle also said that he’d play both until a frontrunner emerged, but neither really has become top man — and through no fault of his own, either. Sometimes it’s a matter of how teams perform in front of given goaltenders. Coreau played the last three games of the first half.

A one-man show

At the start of the year, Michigan coach Red Berenson said that fifth-year senior Shawn Hunwick (5-5-3, 2.40, .921) was the man … and, as it turns out, he’s often the only man putting up numbers that indicate that he’s playing at the level he was a year ago. Everyone is eager to examine goals against averages these days, but a glance at Hunwick’s save percentage tells the real story. He plays with passion and can get rattled, but he brings it every game.

From the way the Wolverines played in the first half, that can’t be said for every member of this year’s UM squad — which is in real danger of halting the program’s streak of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances at 21.

Two less than they were

“They are a huge part of our program. They have won a lot of games back there. Nothing has really changed at this point.”

That is what Miami coach Enrico Blasi said in preseason about seniors Connor Knapp (1-3-0, 3.08, .877) and Cody Reichard (4-4-2, 2.39, .905). Something, clearly, has changed — but your guess is as good as mine as to what that is. These goaltenders are not producing as they have in years past, but neither is the entire Miami squad.

Man up

Alaska senior Greenham is a fighter — not in the drop-the-gloves sense, but someone who does not give up easily. With a save percentage below .900 for much of the first half of the season, Greenham (4-7-2, 2.29, .911) has returned to form, and that can make a huge difference for the Nanooks in the second half of the season.

In preseason, coach Dallas Ferguson said of Greenham that “he’s not content with what our team has done over the past couple of years,” and that “there’s more to do and more to give from his part, as far as he is concerned.” Sounds like motivation to me.

The blue-collar guy

“His strengths are his everyday approach. He’s a very mature young guy and he takes that approach on a daily basis.” That’s how Bowling Green coach Chris Bergeron described Andrew Hammond in preseason, and it’s how Hammond is. A workaday junior goaltender, Hammond (1-10-2, 3.47, .879), plays without much support on a regular basis. His numbers are down slightly at midseason from the end of 2010-11, but I expect them to improve — and for Hammond to keep working. I wonder if Hammond will return for his senior year.

If it’s outdoors, it must be Michigan or Ohio State — or both

I don’t know who wrote the rules of outdoor hockey involving CCHA teams, but apparently there’s a clause that specifies that Michigan and/or Ohio State must play.

Michigan and Michigan State began this trend in 2001 with The Cold War game, and it was fun and novel and interesting — and came when we needed such a diversion, to feel normal again, just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. It was a great game in Spartan Stadium, a 3-3 overtime tie, and it set a world record for hockey attendance (74,544) that stood until 2010.

Then there was the Frozen Tundra Hockey Classic at Lambeau Field, Feb. 11, 2006, a game that OSU lost to Wisconsin 4-2.

Then there was the Camp Randall Hockey Classic, Feb. 6, 2010, a game in which Wisconsin beat Michigan 3-2.

Then there was last season’s Big Chill at the Big House, Michigan’s 5-0 win over Michigan State Dec. 11, 2010. That event featured one of the cheesiest promotions I’ve ever witnessed, a tie-in to the movie “The Big Chill” — as if anyone in the stadium cared. The game shattered hockey attendance records (104,173). It was impossible to get decent parking.

Now the Buckeyes will host the Wolverines in Cleveland — because that makes sense — in the Frozen Diamond Faceoff in Progressive Field, home of baseball’s Cleveland Indians, Jan. 15, 2012. The game is part of the Indians Snow Days, which began Nov. 25 and runs through Jan. 16.

At least the ice will be tested before UM and OSU play a game that counts in league standings, as Cleveland-area high school teams will play games in the outdoor rink in the weeks leading up to the main event.

As you can probably tell by my tone, I’m not a fan of these gimmicky outdoor hockey games. In fact, I’m not a fan of games played in venues that are not dedicated to hockey. This one, especially, seems wacky to me, as it’s 143 miles from the host team’s hometown, 25 fewer miles than it is from Ann Arbor.

I know that players enjoy them and fans like these games and — sadly — we won’t be seeing the end of them any time soon, but they don’t appear to do anything for the sport. We’re not attracting huge numbers of new fans with outdoor games or even excellent indoor Frozen Four contests.

In the greater scheme of things, as much as we love our sport, hockey isn’t very popular, and college hockey even less so.

And if you don’t believe me …

… perhaps you’ll take the word of the Big Sports Authority in the U.S., a.k.a. “SportsCenter.” My colleague Chris Lerch alerted me to Greg Wyshynski’s blog, Puck Daddy, which this week draws attention to the fact that ESPN’s look back at sports figures who died in 2011 includes no hockey players, including Derek Boogaard and the 36 people lost when the plane carrying Lokomotiv Yaroslavl went down in September.

To the sports powers that be, an entire plane full of hockey people can go down and not be worth a mention at the end of the year.

In the days leading up to 2012, a year that will feature the first half of the last season of CCHA play, I cannot think of a more fitting sign of the end of the world as we know it.

I wish I were talking only about hockey here.