Goaltending stands to be a big factor as CCHA heads down the stretch

Could this last season of CCHA hockey come down to goaltending? Is there such parity in the league that the difference between games in a weekend, between staying home and traveling in the first round of the playoffs, between a regular season title and second place — perhaps one point behind first — will be this one single position?

Ten CCHA teams played five two-game series last weekend, and 10 times teams were held to one goal or less, including Notre Dame’s 1-0 win over Michigan State Friday night. If you count games from Tuesday, Jan. 8, you can add two more instances when a team was held to one goal.

With the scores being what they’ve been and the goaltending numbers what they are, it’s difficult to determine whether it’s offense or goaltending or a combination of both. Four CCHA players are among the top 10 goaltenders in the nation for goals against average, and four are among the top for save percentage. Ohio State’s Brady Hjelle (1.44 GAA, .952 save percentage) is tops in the first category, second in the latter. For goals against, Notre Dame’s Steven Summerhays (1.61) is fourth, Western Michigan’s Frank Slubowski (1.78) is sixth and Michigan State’s Jake Hildebrand (1.81) is eighth.

Hildebrand is fourth nationally for save percentage (.943). Lake Superior State’s Kevin Murdock (.941) is sixth and Summerhays (.935) is 10th.

Coming into this season, goaltending was a question for the Fighting Irish, much as it was last year when Summerhays, then a sophomore, shared duties with senior Mike Johnson. Summerhays was 10-8 in 2011-12 with a 2.43 goals against average and .910 save percentage.

This year, ND coach Jeff Jackson is pleased with the steady play of the junior.

“Like I’ve said all along, consistency is the key for a goaltender,” Jackson said after the Irish beat the Spartans 1-0 last Friday. “He had to be the difference tonight. It was a 1-0 game, and obviously your goaltender is a huge part of that. He’s been solid for us all year long.”

In their last four games including Tuesday’s 4-2 loss to Bowling Green, the Irish have scored five goals. If Notre Dame intends to remain atop the CCHA standings and becomes a little snake-bitten, Summerhays will have to redefine consistency.

Even under-the-radar goalies can give a team the confidence it needs to accomplish something it’s never done before. When Alaska beat Michigan twice in Yost Ice Arena last weekend, the Nanooks redefined victory. Alaska had never swept Michigan, and the Nanooks had won just three of 26 previous contests between the squads played in Ann Arbor.

It was a big weekend for the Nanooks, and a big part of that weekend was the play of freshman John Keeney (2.41, .914). Keeney stopped 19 shots in the 5-4 Friday win — an OK performance — but 30 in Saturday’s 4-1 win, a game in which the Nanooks were killing penalties for nearly the entire second period. Keeney was tested repeatedly in that contest, at one point snatching from midair a puck intended for Alex Guptill in the crease, forcing Guptill to swing and miss and wind up on his keister. The beauty of that play may have been lost on the home crowd.

Alaska coach Dallas Ferguson is in complete agreement with Jackson about the value of a steady presence in net.

“I think for [Keeney], he’s got a consistent demeanor about him,” Ferguson said. “He’s pretty predictable in what you’re going to get out of his personality, and I think that’s an important quality in a goaltender. He’s certainly earned the start in the second half based on his performance in the first half. There’s not a lot of talking to him. He knows what his job is and he comes to work every day.

“Having that even keel is important for any athlete, but especially the goaltender.”

Outside of the Wolverines, there isn’t a team in the league that doesn’t have at least one guy in net who can perform on any given night; Miami and Lake Superior State each have two go-to guys.

And if one of those Michigan goaltenders can find the confidence he needs — with help from some overall team defense in front of him — the last six weeks of CCHA regulation play will be memorable for more than that they’re the last six weeks of CCHA regulation play.

They’re Nanooks, and they may be in your backyard

As we are approaching the end of the CCHA, I am reminded of so many great stories that this league has told, stories that fans rarely hear. I have to share this one.

It was the league’s media day in 1999, back when the league held such a thing, when all the coaches would gather at Joe Louis Arena and any member of the media who could be present was present to hear what was said and ask what needed to be asked.

That was Guy Gadowsky’s first year as the head coach of Alaska, and there was a question that one reporter who I shall not name really needed to ask. Really.

“Have you seen any polar bears in your backyard?” That was the question. Really.

Gadowsky had just moved to Fairbanks from Fresno, Calif., so he hadn’t been in Alaska very long. And Fairbanks is like, you know, a city. The first-year head coach looked a bit confused and very graciously told the reporter that, no, he hadn’t yet seen any polar bears where he resided in Alaska.

(No, smarties, I didn’t ask the question.)

This week, the Nanooks may be in your backyard, if you live in Michigan or Indiana. As the University of Alaska-Fairbanks is on break, the Nanooks with which CCHA fans are most familiar are making their annual extended journey to the Lower 48.

The first leg of this year’s trip, that two-game sweep in Ann Arbor, was a big success. It had been five weeks since the Nanooks last played and Ferguson said that he thought that his players “willed [their] way to a win” Friday night before finding a better rhythm as Saturday’s game progressed.

The six points Alaska earned puts the Nanooks in seventh place with 22 points, a point behind sixth-place Lake Superior and three points out of fourth place, a spot currently shared by Ferris State and Ohio State.

In the past, these January sojourns lasted as long as three weeks, but Ferguson wanted to see how shortening the trip would affect the team.

“Something a little bit different is that this year we had the team fly back to Alaska,” Ferguson said. “Last year we met in Green Bay and we were on the road the whole week before game week. We shortened the trip up a little bit this year where we came home [to Fairbanks] and came down here [to Michigan] on a Tuesday, turned it into a 12-day trip rather than a 19-, 20-day trip.”

After the series in Ann Arbor, the Nanooks took it easy on Sunday before heading to Grand Rapids, Mich., to practice Monday and Tuesday. They head to South Bend on Wednesday.

The long road trip always provides an opportunity for the team to bond and experience a few new things. “On Wednesday, we went to the Henry Ford Museum,” Ferguson said. The Henry Ford Museum is located in Dearborn, Mich., just west of Detroit and about 40 miles east of Ann Arbor.

“We’ve done different things,” Ferguson said. “We try to do some fun things. We also try to culture them a little bit. It’s not just about being on vacation.”

Ferguson said that typically the team does a little community service on its Lower 48 extended stay. In the past, the team has skated with youth hockey and played board games with the elderly in retirement homes. He’s not sure what kind of community service the Nanooks have scheduled for their swing through Michigan and Indiana, but he does have a list of the less service-minded activities.

“On this trip right now,” Ferguson said, “I think we’re going paint-balling and on one of the nights we may end up having our annual karaoke night.”

I’d pay money to witness the karaoke night. Perhaps that’s why Ferguson declined to tell me exactly which night that’s scheduled.

Many parents and family members traveled to meet the Nanooks on this trip, too. There was a large — by this team’s traveling standards — cheering section behind the team’s bench in Yost Arena. Ferguson said that the parents came up with this scheme to travel in October, when they gathered for the university’s Parents Weekend in Fairbanks.

“There are about 13 players’ parents here,” Ferguson said. “They all met up here, but some of them are taking off from here and going wherever. Some of them are going to Florida, some are staying in the area and tooling around. Some are going to Chicago. For some reason, they all wanted to come down for this trip.”

The Nanooks’ contingent was as loud as 50 or fewer people can be when Cody Kunyk scored at 9:00 in the third period Saturday night, giving Alaska a 3-1 lead. Everyone in the building then knew what was coming, that first-ever sweep of the Wolverines, a team that had owned the Nanooks repeatedly through the years.

Ferguson, thinking that friends and families of his players may have brought the team some luck, said, “I hope they’re all coming over to Notre Dame.”

This isn’t your father’s Wolverines team

It’s clear to anyone who’s seen Michigan play this season that this year’s team may go down in history as the team that halted the Wolverines’ spectacular NCAA run.

In a three-way tie for eighth place with Michigan State and Bowling Green, Michigan is missing pieces of every part of its puzzle. The blue line has great talent but is beaten up. There are forwards who can score but only one player — senior A.J. Treais — who has netted 10 goals this season.

And in net? Well, three goalies have played and their collective team save percentage is .875.

After the Nanooks swept the Wolverines last Saturday night, coach Red Berenson said that his team is trying and wants to win, and Michigan did show more heart than it had as a team in a few games.

[youtube_sc url=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9qFYavcmjI width=500]

How do you remedy overall team fragility?

Players of the week

It’s the second time this season for one Nanooks player.

Rookie of the week: Western Michigan defenseman Kenney Morrison, who had three assists as the Broncos tied and defeated Lake Superior State.

Offensive player of the week: Alaska junior forward Cody Kunyk, who had two goals and an assist in the Nanooks’ road sweep of Michigan. Kunyk has six goals in 20 games this season; he had 15 in 36 last year.

Defenseman of the week: Alaska junior Michael Quinn, who had a goal and three assists versus the Wolverines.

Goaltender of the week: Michigan State freshman Jake Hildebrand, who made 65 saves in a two-game split against Notre Dame, including 32 in Friday’s 1-0 loss.

And I would like to add without any disrespect intended to any of these four fine players that their head shots would have been at home, completely, in my 1979 high school yearbook. (Here, here, here and here.) Of course, Quinn would have been the honors program kid.

My ballot

1. Minnesota
2. Boston College
3. New Hampshire
4. Notre Dame
5. Denver
6. Miami
7. Boston University
8. North Dakota
9. Quinnipiac
10. Nebraska-Omaha
11. Western Michigan
12. Dartmouth
13. Minnesota State
14. St. Cloud State
15. Union
16. Ferris State
17. Robert Morris
18. Cornell
19. Niagara
20. Ohio State

Lots of splits and divided points. This ballot didn’t change much from last week’s.