Rare series sweeps offer big boosts to Miami, Ferris State

A sweep is such a rare thing this season in the CCHA and college hockey in general. Two league teams took two consecutive games from opponents last weekend. For one team, that meant six points and a big climb up the ladder of league standings. For the other, it was a matter of league pride and a big boost of confidence.

The difference one weekend can make

Watch enough Michigan State hockey this season and you’re bound to come away impressed with the way in which the Spartans have improved every weekend of play. They play like a single unit with every player seemingly playing up to his potential.

That’s why it was such a surprise that Miami swept the Spartans in East Lansing last weekend. Friday’s game was fascinating; the Spartans played completely in synch and the RedHawks did not — and yet Miami is clearly the more talented team and managed to scruff out the 2-1 overtime win when freshman Jimmy Mullin scored at 1:24.

That the game winner in Saturday’s 4-0 shutout came in the second period on a five-on-three power-play goal by Reilly Smith carries with it no small sense of irony. It was because everybody was watching Smith that Mullin was wide open for the winning goal Friday night, and Miami was the team defending five-on-three a night before.

After Friday’s game, senior Will Weber — who was in the box for a second-period two-man Miami disadvantage — talked about how penalties seem to be impacting the RedHawks’ game.

“We took a lot of penalties again,” said Weber. “That’s something we talked about before break, was just try to limit the penalties we had because we were the most penalized team in the country for a while there.

“We did cut down on the penalties [in the first half]. I think our penalty kill has been pretty good all year; it’s just that we’ve been taking so many that it’s been tough to kill that many. If we can limit the amount of the penalties we take we’ll be a lot better on the kill and our percentage on the penalty kill will be a lot higher.”

The RedHawks are the sixth-most penalized team in the country, averaging 18 minutes per game. (It should be noted that two other CCHA teams, Northern Michigan and Ferris State, are also top-10 penalty minute offenders.) Miami’s penalty kill is 11th in the nation, having killed off 104 of 122 opponent power plays for a success rate of 85.2 percent. In spite of their desire to take fewer penalties Saturday, the RedHawks followed their 16 minutes Friday night with 22 Saturday — seven penalties in the first period alone.

And in spite of taking the penalties, the RedHawks came out ahead in a big way last weekend, killing all 13 of MSU’s power plays and gaining six points to leap from ninth place to a tie with Northern Michigan for fifth place, just 10 points behind league-leading Ohio State.

Weber said that “it’s tough to say” why the RedHawks had such a disappointing first half, but penalties certainly had something to do with it.

“I think it’s a lot of little things,” Weber said. “Like I said, the penalties are a big thing — and that’s a learning curve, too. We have a lot of young guys. I know when we first came my freshman year I was the most penalized guy on the team. It’s a learning curve, knowing what you can and can’t do when guys come from juniors. Other than that, it’s just the little things. There are games when we’ve tightened up and we’ve won games, and there are others when we haven’t. Hopefully we can be more consistent.”

Consistency in every facet of the game is something that Miami is striving for, but if consistency in net is achieved, the RedHawks will have a chance in the second half to climb even further up in the standings. Senior goaltender Connor Knapp had the two wins against MSU, and his improved play of late has his save percentage at .917 for the season after it was mired below .900 for quite a long time in the first half.

Miami coach Enrico Blasi said that when Knapp uses his size — Knapp is 6-foot-6 — to his advantage, good things happen. “He’s a big boy so when he’s playing in control, it’s tough to see the net,” said Blasi. “In our system, I think we play pretty good team defense. We’re not giving teams many [second] chances. If we’re getting good rebound control, then usually that’s a good sign for us.”

After Friday’s game, Blasi sounded cautiously optimistic about the RedHawks’ second-half chances. “This team is starting to come. I don’t know how long it’s going to take us to keep going this way, but we play hard,” he said. “The bottom line is that if our guys continue to play hard, our young guys are coming along, our older guys are playing solid right now, if we can just continue to give ourselves a chance to win every night, that’s all we can ask for.”

As for Weber, his philosophy for the rest of the season is pretty simple: “You can’t play not to lose.”

A difference of a different kind

Two weeks ago, Ferris State traveled to Vermont for the Catamount Cup and returned home with nothing but two goals and a little experience to show for it. The Bulldogs were shut out by Rochester Institute of Technology — the team that also beat Lake Superior to take the tourney — and lost to Vermont 4-2 the following night.

Last weekend, the Bulldogs beat visiting Colgate 4-3 and 3-1, which gave FSU a much-needed dose of confidence, said coach Bob Daniels.

“We had just gone on a 1-6-1 skid — I don’t know, whatever it was — and so winning those games was really important to us before returning to league play,” he said.

In fact, the Bulldogs’ skid began Dec. 2 against Western Michigan and lasted through the Catamount Cup, a span in which FSU went 1-5-0. Of course, Daniels could have been thinking about the weekend before his team dropped that home-and-home series with WMU, when the Bulldogs split with Alaska in Fairbanks.

As Daniels said, whatever. Although the Bulldogs had four sweeps to their credit this season before their games against Colgate — two nonconference series and two in-house — sweeps have been increasingly more difficult to come by in Division I hockey this season, and Daniels knows it.

“I think it’s representative of college hockey,” said Daniels. “I think every weekend is like this. If you’re at home it helps and if you’re getting good special teams it helps.”

Daniels thinks that two teams — Ohio State and Minnesota-Duluth — seem to be above the turmoil, but he said, “I think every team’s going to hit the rocks. For our team, I think it’ll be a season where nothing’s going to be easy.”

During that skid, said Daniels, both the coaches and players were a little too tightly wound, something that becomes counterproductive the more it continues.

“In the beginning of the year, we were getting about a goal and a quarter per game on the power play and we were giving up a goal about one in five games on the penalty kill,” said Daniels. “We went from a really good power play and a great penalty kill to a below average power play and below average penalty kill. We don’t have enough five-on-five offense to absorb a bad power play.”

When the special teams started to falter, that’s when everything else — except for goaltending, which has been outstanding for FSU this year — began to wobble a little.

“There was nothing fluid about practices,” said Daniels. “Kids don’t play to their talents because they’re over-coached. Then the worst thing that happens is that you have a five-on-three and they score and you’re in the tank.

“We were just packing it in and getting passive and losing confidence. That’s a recipe for taking wins and putting them into L’s. We know we can win, we know the recipe, we know we can straighten out. Part of our dilemma as coaches is that we’re worried about who to play, getting good guys in the lineup, because there are so many guys that are deserving.”

Daniels admits that he’s gone through this before, nearly every season. Something falls down, and in the process of trying to pick it up again, the Bulldogs grip their sticks too tightly, grit their teeth too much, forget how to play hockey.

Then everyone relaxes and things return to normal. This time around, it was a matter of trying to redeem some conference pride and get a little momentum before returning to league play, said Daniels.

“When we went to the Christmas tournament, even though we didn’t win there, I brought that up, how important is to play well out of conference,” said Daniels. “Then I brought that up last week, that when we come back we want to bring a positive RPI back to our league and league play.”

Daniels is keenly aware of how nonconference play can affect the rest of the league’s postseason NCAA chances. He thinks the CCHA is very strong this season and thinks that the hard work he and other league teams have done against non-league foes will help as CCHA teams beat up on each other throughout the second half — and that will only make the league’s PairWise Rankings stronger, said Daniels: “I think it’s going to reverberate within the conference from now until the end of the season.”

With 22 points, Ferris State is in eighth place and 12 points behind first-place Ohio State. Given that each game is worth three points and the Bulldogs have two games in hand on several opponents ahead of them, FSU may be able to finish far higher than where the Bulldogs are now.

For that to happen, two things must occur. First, FSU’s defense — and its stellar goaltending — must continue to perform. The Bulldogs have the fifth-best defense in the country, allowing 2.09 goals per game. There’s a talented group of blueliners in front of the cage, but it’s the performance between the pipes that is fueling the defense.

Freshman C.J. Motte (1.99 goals-against average, .925 save percentage) and senior Taylor Nelson (2.01, .927) have been more than just solid. Nelson has seen more of the action after backing up Pat Nagle last season.

“I’m ecstatic that he’s having such a good year,” Daniels said of Nelson. “He never complained and he’s taking the opportunity and running with it.”

Daniels said that the competition between Nelson and Motte is good for both of them. “There are incredible parallels between [Motte] and Patrick Nagle — similar styles and very similar in their demeanor,” he said. “It’s weird in practice, like nothing’s changed. I think because of that, it’s allowed the two of them [Motte and Nelson] to become good friends. Taylor’s a little more boisterous and C.J.’s a little more laid back.

“Because Taylor had such a good, healthy competition with Patrick — and it was a healthy competition because they were such close friends — he’s able to use the competition with C.J. in a very healthy way. It’s good for them and it’s good for the team.”

And while Ferris State’s combined special teams — 34th-best in the country — needs significant improvement, as Daniels said, there’s no making up for a sluggish offense so to improve in the standings, FSU must score more goals. The Bulldogs are averaging 2.59 goals per game (41st), but Daniels said there are a few players poised to help out in that department.

Senior Jordie Johnston is having a career year and leading the team in scoring. “He’s at 11 goals right now, so I think 20 is attainable by him,” Daniels said.

Daniels also points to junior Travis Ouellette (8-9–17), who is two goals shy of his total in 2010-11. “I see Kyle Bonis continuing to score,” said Daniels. Bonis (9-3–12), another junior, has two more goals this year than he scored last season.

“Let me pick someone you wouldn’t guess,” said Daniels. “Garrett Thompson. He’s at 10 points right now and I see him getting better and better. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him score more.”

Thompson, a sophomore, has six goals, two more than he had last season. See a trend?

Two other underclassmen may factor into the second-half mix, said Daniels. “Andy Huff. I’ve watched this player grow and get better,” Daniels said. “The light bulb is starting to come and he’s starting to look like a whole different kid out here. If it doesn’t happen for him this season, it will next — hopefully, though, it will this season.”

Huff has three goals in 16 games.

Then there’s freshman defenseman Simon Denis, who missed the first part of the season because he was recovering from surgery. He has three assists in nine games. “I think he’s someone who can add scoring from the back end,” said Daniels.

And Daniels — the most cautiously optimistic coach in the league — may be understating everything.

“I’ve got a feeling,” he said, “that we have what we need to do something in the second half.”

Players of the week

Just a reminder that these are the league’s picks. This week is all about experience — and just two teams that are awakening from long autumn naps.

Rookie of the week: Michigan’s Alex Guptill, who is noticeable every time he’s on the ice — noticeable in a good way. Guptill had a goal and three assists in the Wolverines’ weekend against Lake Superior, which included Friday’s 4-2 win and Saturday’s 2-2 tie.

Offensive player of the week: Michigan’s David Wohlberg and his rocket of a shot. The senior forward had a goal and three assists against the Lakers.

Defenseman of the week: Miami’s Cameron Schilling, a senior who had two assists and three blocked shots in the RedHawks’ 4-0 win over Michigan State Saturday. He was also instrumental in the Miami penalty kill that was perfect (13-for-13) in the weekend sweep.

Goaltender of the week: Miami senior Connor Knapp, who looked exactly as though he’s returned to form against MSU. Knapp had 53 saves in two wins against the Spartans for a .981 save percentage on the weekend. The 4-0 win Saturday was Knapp’s first shutout of the 2011-12 season, the 10th of his career.

My ballot

Just a reminder that there are 50 votes in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll. This week, Minnesota-Duluth was the unanimous pick for No. 1 — and I’m growing tired of hearing how this team or that got shorted in any given poll. The only thing that matters at the end of the season is who the NCAA selection committee picks to go to the proverbial prom.

1. Minnesota-Duluth
2. Ohio State
3. Minnesota
4. Notre Dame
5. Boston College
6. Boston University
7. Merrimack
8. Colorado College
9. Massachusetts-Lowell
10. Western Michigan
11. Lake Superior
12. Northern Michigan
13. Michigan
14. Miami
15. Ferris State
16. Cornell
17. Michigan State
18. Denver
19. Colgate
20. North Dakota

I have to say that when there’s so little consistency in play across the country, voting becomes more interesting — and in a headache-inducing way.