With four weeks to go in the regular season, it seems that the only constant in the CCHA is change. Last week, Ohio State was still at the top of the standings but watching its lead diminish weekly. At the end of play on Friday night, Western Michigan was No. 1.
That changed Saturday. Now Ferris State holds that position, one point ahead of Miami, OSU and WMU, all in second place — at least until Friday night.
January brought as much jockeying for position in league standings as had the entire first half of the season. The differences from week to week, month to month, are subtle: One team wins a few, another team’s sweep gives it an advantage no one else has, another team drops a game and drops two places.
The January play of the CCHA’s three Ohio teams is a microcosm of the entire league’s whole season thus far. Three weeks ago, we looked at an improving Miami team, a team that finished the month 6-2-0. That’s a team that showed what significant success can bring in a league where even a little success creates a virtual game of musical chairs.
But what of the other two Ohio teams, Bowling Green and Ohio State? The Falcons went .500 in January and are still at the bottom of the standings. The Buckeyes didn’t win a game during the same span and have just now fallen out of first place.
What a season.
For the Falcons, it was all a matter of attitude
It’s no secret that Chris Bergeron has a big job ahead of him in Bowling Green. When he was hired before the start of the 2010-11 season, Bergeron knew that the long-suffering Falcons — who had been at or near the bottom of the CCHA standings since 2007-08 — needed more than just tweaking.
What he didn’t know was how who he is would affect Bowling Green hockey on a day-to-day basis.
“I think what ended up happening in the first half was that we got in our own way,” said Bergeron. “We started worrying about the big picture. It was hard coming into the rink every day.
“I put the onus and the blame for that on me. That starts with me. I needed to handle the adversity better.”
By the end of the first half of the season, the Falcons had won just one conference game, a 1-0 shutout of Lake Superior State way back on Oct. 21, the first league game of the season for BG. They swept Canisius Nov. 11-12 but were winless in their next eight league games (0-6-2) and dropped two to Bemidji State to end December.
Since then, though, the Falcons are 2-2-2 in CCHA play, a record that brought them 10 additional league points, including two extras from back-to-back shootouts against Ohio State Jan. 7-8.
But they’re still in last place.
“We actually have played better, for sure,” said Bergeron. “I think the break came at the perfect time.”
Eighteen of the Falcons’ 25 players are freshmen and sophomores, and they’re from all over the place. Thunder Bay, Ontario. Collegeville, Pa. Bedford, Nova Scotia. Toledo, Ohio. They’re kids who haven’t seen a lot of tangible reward for the hard work that they’ve been doing to help rebuild BGSU hockey.
Bergeron and his assistants, Barry Schutte and Ty Eigner, hadn’t seen much reward, either — but they’re the ones to whom the players look for how to act. It took Bergeron a little bit of time to realize this.
“I wasn’t going sideways,” said Bergeron. “I wasn’t up in arms. I was just for a split second — and that was long enough — not as focused as I should have been.
“I think the most difficult thing is to convince a 20-year-old that you’re making progress when you’re not getting results. We are making progress, we are moving forward. If I’m not positive about coming into the rink, if it’s not clear that I think we’re making progress — if I’m not doing those things, then they’re not doing those things. I thought, ‘Look at these kids. They’re giving everything they have.’
“It’s something I truly take pride in, how much of an impact we have on these kids’ lives. Adversity shows itself in a variety of ways in college, but this is nothing. The experience was becoming contradictory to what we want to be. I was letting it affect me. It took the two people closest to me professionally to point that out.
“I give a lot of credit to Barry and Ty, to the two guys who are around me every day the most, to recognize it and say that we’d better be careful we’re going down a path we don’t want to tread. It’s all part of the experience for the players and we don’t want that experience to be a negative one.”
Whatever Bergeron did to adjust how he was responding to the season worked. The Falcons have equaled their league win total of a year ago and are two away from equaling their overall total from 2010-11. They’re still not scoring a lot of goals, but they did knock Western Michigan out of first place with a win last Saturday night after losing 4-1 Friday, a game that was tied 0-0 after the first.
“I was happy with the way we fought and competed,” said Bergeron, “and I think we were just focused on making something good happen on Saturday in an answer to Friday.”
The answer came in the form of two third-period goals, sophomore Camden Wojtala’s sixth of the season at 6:10 and senior James McIntosh’s second of the year at 13:51. Wojtala has numbers identical to those of freshman Ryan Carpenter (6-10–16) and the two lead the Falcons in points. McIntosh hadn’t played since Jan. 8 against Ohio State, and his only other goal this season came against WMU on Dec. 10.
Beating a ranked opponent was nice, said Bergeron, but last Saturday night is past tense. “Immediately we start to focus on preparing for next weekend,” he said. “The short-term focus is not going to change. We’re not going to look at big picture or the standings because those are negative things. We work extremely hard. We need to learn to execute and work hard at the same time.”
Bergeron is the first to admit that the Falcons haven’t turned any real corners — yet. “We’re making progress,” he said. “Our power play continues to struggle. We haven’t been really, really good on the penalty kill. It’s been what we’ve been. I think it’s been more of the — and I use this term very, very loosely — confidence. We were opportunistic against Alaska the first night. Against Ohio State, we continued to fight. We’ve been more consistent with our effort and our competing. We’re constantly getting better with our executing while we’re doing that.”
As difficult as it may be to keep a young team focused on the real progress it’s making — without the benefit of a few more wins for proof — it’s been a bit easier to keep BG fans interested in a program that still has some way to go.
“I truly believe the people around here deserve success,” said Bergeron. “It’s been a really loyal group.
“Thirty-six months ago, Bowling Green hockey lost a little bit of relevance. I hope we can give it back to them at a high level, whatever that means. They’re taking baby steps also. They’re taking a whole lot of pride in not a lot of results.”
For the Buckeyes, it’s all a matter of potential
Unlike the Falcons, the Buckeyes had a great start to their season, finishing the first half atop the CCHA standings with 32 points, five ahead of the two teams sharing second place. And unlike the Falcons, the Buckeyes didn’t have a break-even January, having won their last game Dec. 10 against Miami.
One thing that the Falcons and Buckeyes have in common, however, is youth. OSU’s roster includes 18 total freshmen and sophomores, and like BG, more of the former than the latter.
So don’t expect second-year coach Mark Osiecki to get down about an 0-4-4 January.
“That’s college hockey,” said Osiecki. “It’s been that way top to bottom for everybody. I don’t know how odd it is. For us and our program, we probably thought we’d have some up-and-down like that, having as many freshmen and sophomores as we do.
“We’ve put ourselves in a decent spot.”
What Osiecki means is that perhaps Ohio State was a little overachieving in the first half of the season. Hot play from senior goaltender Cal Heeter — who’s putting up the best numbers of his career with a 2.18 goals-against average and .927 save percentage — kept OSU in a lot of games in the first half.
“On paper, he’s played well,” said Osiecki. “If you would ask him, there’s a few goals each game that he’d like to have back. Certainly, you can’t point a finger at Cal one bit. He’s a great competitor.”
Keeping the Buckeyes in play for the first half allowed a young team to gain some confidence, and they are confident. The January skid hasn’t hurt the locker room too much, said Osiecki.
“With us right now, with how young we are, it’s almost young and dumb,” said Osiecki. “We want our guys to be enthusiastic and energetic. We’ve played well in January and we haven’t had positive results and that’s the hardest thing. When you play well and don’t have some results, now it’s hard, but we don’t need to change how we play. I’ve talked to a couple of younger guys that we have and told them, ‘Hey, don’t lose your enthusiasm.’ I don’t think they will.”
In fact, said Osiecki, the newer players are learning how to maintain a proper balance between enthusiasm for the game and disappointment over a rough few weeks. According to Osiecki, none of the younger kids wants to risk looking like he’s taking Ohio State hockey too lightly because that would mean disrespect toward the veteran players.
“Every kid in our locker room is a great kid, and it’s almost like they’re afraid to show their enthusiasm sometimes,” said Osiecki. “They want to be respectful, 100 percent. It’s a joy for us as coaches to deal with these kids. It’s so easy to come to work.”
When the Buckeyes came back from the mid-season break, they had a hard time scoring goals — and that was a new development. In the first four games of 2012, OSU scored four goals; it was shut out in one of those games. Then the Buckeyes scored three goals in each game they played against Ferris State Jan. 20-21, a loss and a tie. They followed that with a 1-0 loss to Lake Superior State last Friday but followed that up with four goals in a tie with the Lakers the following night.
OSU’s two top scorers, sophomore Chris Crane (14-9–23) and senior Danny Dries (12-9–21) were prolific in the first half but have been shut down — Dries more than Crane — in the second. When the goals began to come in the middle of the month, they came sometimes from unexpected sources. Freshman Tanner Fritz has two goals and four assists in the last four games; he had two in 23 previous contests. In last Saturday’s 4-4 tie, freshman Max McCormick netted his first career hat trick; he’s scored five of his seven goals since the beginning of January.
“Every team, every game, there’s always things you like to shore up,” said Osiecki. “The best thing about it is that when you are scoring, whether or not you’re getting results, you are scoring. It’s hard to manufacture goals.”
This weekend, Ohio State is home against Michigan State. The teams split a series in East Lansing in October. In a league in which one win earns three points, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the young Buckeyes could find themselves contending for first place again. After all, they haven’t won a game since December and they’re only one point out of first.
At this point, that’s the kind of attitude Osiecki and the Buckeyes have. “Right now ours is such a great spot to be in,” Osiecki said. “It’s positive. Like we’ve said to our players, you’ve got to be positive.”
Players of the week
In my picks blog last week, I suggested that most CCHA teams and fans would be rooting for Lake Superior State. Your focused energy, CCHA fans, seems to have worked — and it translated into kudos for two Lakers players.
Rookie of the week: Miami’s Blake Coleman, a forward from Plano, Texas. Coleman had a goal and two assists in the RedHawks’ split with Northern Michigan.
Offensive player of the week: Ferris State senior Derek Graham, who had a goal and three assists — including a helper on Saturday’s winner — in FSU’s sweep of Michigan State. The goal was the second of the season for Graham, who had six total in his first three seasons with FSU.
Defenseman of the week: Lake Superior State junior Zach Trotman, who blocked 11 shots in LSSU’s two games — a win and tie — versus Ohio State. Trotman also had the tying goal in Saturday’s 4-4 decision, his eighth of the season which puts him two ahead of his career-high total of last year.
Goaltender of the week: LSSU senior Kevin Kapalka, who had a 1.92 goals-against average and .949 save percentage in the Lakers’ series against the Buckeyes. His 1-0 shutout Friday was his first of the season, the fifth of his career.
3. Boston College
4. Boston University
8. Ferris State
10. Notre Dame
11. Colorado College
13. Western Michigan
17. Northern Michigan
18. North Dakota
19. Michigan State
20. Rochester Institute of Technology
I want to know who voted Ferris State first in this week’s poll. Those other Bulldogs, the defending national champs, nearly got my vote — I really waffled between the two Minnesota teams — but I hadn’t thought about the Bulldogs in Michigan. Frankly, I’m glad someone did.
There are two points from last week’s story that require clarification.
First, the CCHA reviews every major penalty. The league doesn’t require anyone to send in tape of major penalties for review. It’s an automatic thing.
Second, the league has a right to assess supplementary discipline after it has reviewed infractions, whether those infractions were called on the ice during play or missed by officials in real time. We see suspensions after the fact often enough that this should be apparent. I wasn’t questioning the league’s right to do this. I just didn’t agree with the call.
Thanks to all of you for your spirited, mostly civil discussion of that story — and of the stories and blogs for most of this season.