Sweeps week means standings shake-up in CCHA

Sweeps are tough to come by in the CCHA. For only the second time this season, three teams swept opponents in league play last weekend and each of the victors — Alaska, Ferris State and Northern Michigan — reaped big benefits in the standings.

The Nanooks capped a four-game road trip with a two-game sweep of first-place Notre Dame. Those six points, added to the six captured from Michigan the week before, took Alaska from seventh place to fifth.

Last week, Alaska coach Dallas Ferguson told me that the team had cut its annual January two-weekend swing through the Lower 48 to 12 days from the usual 19 or so. The strategy paid off.

“It’s a long trip and it’s an important part of your schedule,” Ferguson told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner earlier this week. “You want to try to at least get a .500 record on the road. Our kids did a nice job of preparing for the road.”

For Ferris State, the six points earned in a sweep of Michigan State was made even more meaningful by Northern Michigan’s two wins over Ohio State. Heading into the weekend, the Bulldogs and Buckeyes were tied for fourth place with 25 points; now FSU is there all alone with 31 points — two off the pace of first-place Notre Dame and Western Michigan.

With their two wins, the Wildcats are undefeated in their last six games (5-0-1). NMU also benefited from Ferris State’s sweeps. The Wildcats were in 10th place heading into the weekend with 14 points, two behind Michigan and Michigan State; NMU is now in sole possession of eighth place.

After Saturday’s win, Northern Michigan coach Walt Kyle told UpperMichigansSource.com that his team has faith in itself.

“I still don’t think we are where we are capable of being,” Kyle said, “and we’ll continue to get better. What’s behind us is behind us. We need to move ahead and keep winning with 11 regular season games left.”

Ferris State is the only team of these three with any real chance of challenging for the last-ever CCHA regular season title, but each of the three teams ahead of the Bulldogs — Notre Dame, Western Michigan and Miami — has two games in hand on FSU. Ferris State, Alaska, Lake Superior State and Ohio State are all in the mix for first-round byes, as the top five teams in the league get a pass in quarterfinal action. With 20 points — five behind OSU — the Wildcats may be as well.

The only other time this season when at least three CCHA teams swept conference opponents in a single weekend series was Nov. 30-Dec. 1, when Miami, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Western Michigan did so.

RedHawks’ offense not so red-hot

While the Nanooks, Bulldogs and Wildcats were tallying up the conference points and rearranging the CCHA standings, Western Michigan split a pair of games with Bowling Green and took advantage of Alaska’s sweep of Notre Dame to slip into a two-way tie at the top with the Fighting Irish.

Heading into last weekend, Miami was in second place … where it remains this week after splitting a pair of nonconference games against Wisconsin. The Badgers were unranked last week in spite of their 10-game unbeaten streak entering last weekend’s play, a streak halted at 11 with Miami’s 2-1 win in Madison Saturday night.

“It’s a tough team to play and obviously a tough place to play,” Miami coach Enrico Blasi said.

The RedHawks lost to the Badgers 1-0 Friday night, giving Miami two total goals for the weekend. Those goals were scored by sophomore Austin Czarnik (9-17–26) and senior Curtis McKenzie (7-8–15), two of the RedHawks’ usual suspects.

Czarnik leads the team in scoring and is one goal shy of the 10 he scored last season in 40 games. McKenzie’s seven goals in 22 games already equals his peak from his sophomore season, when he netted seven in 37.

Those are respectable numbers, but the RedHawks — like many CCHA teams — would like to put more in the net with more consistency.

“Our team has played fairly well the last month that we played,” Blasi said. “Probably the record is not what we want it to be.”

Since the start of the second half, beginning with the Three Rivers Classic in Pittsburgh Dec. 28-29, Miami has gone 2-3-1, averaging 1.17 goals per game in those six contests and having been shut out in two of them.

Blasi, however, is not worried. “It’s not from lack of effort or even chances,” he said. “Over the course of the year it’s something we and a lot of teams go through.”

One reason for this scoring slump, Blasi said, is that “everybody has good goaltending.”

Two weeks ago, the RedHawks lost 2-1 to Northern Michigan on the road before tying the Wildcats the next night. “Coreau is playing as good as anybody,” said Blasi, who is correct. Goaltender Jared Coreau’s save percentage is .922.

Blasi went on to list the other netminders the RedHawks have faced. “Before that we saw Levine.” Robert Morris senior Eric Levine (2.31 goals against average, .940 save percentage) blanked the RedHawks 1-0 in the title game of the Three Rivers Classic. He also helped the Colonials beat the Nittany Lions 6-0 the night before.

“And at Ohio State, Hjelle.” Senior Brady Hjelle (1.61, .945) held the RedHawks to one goal in the opening round of the Three Rivers Classic and did the same thing in one game of a two-game set at the end of the first half of the season in Columbus.

“And before that, we ran into Kevin Murdock.” Lake Superior State junior Murdock (1.96, .942) made 46 saves in a 1-0 shutout over Miami Dec. 8.

When you add it up, it does sound more like reasons than excuses.

The RedHawks themselves have a pair of goaltenders who are more than capable, though. Freshmen Ryan McKay (0.97, .964) and Jay Williams (1.86, .927) have filled the void left by Connor Knapp and Cody Reichard, who came in together in 2008.

“They’re both guys that have come and really bought into our system and bought into the way we approach our everyday work,” said Blasi, who credits assistant coach and former Miami goaltender Nick Petraglia with the progress the newcomers have made.

Blasi was confident, though, that each of the freshmen could play before the two arrived. “Ryan McKay lost and won a USHL title, so it’s not like he’s incapable of playing,” he said. “Jay was raw and a young kid growing into his body, but we knew he’d get there. Jay had to carry the mail early because Ryan got hurt so that gave him a lot of experience.”

Williams has 16 games to McKay’s nine this season.

“Both have done a great job,” Blasi said. “We feel comfortable where our goaltending is.”

Blasi also pointed out that the RedHawks are a young team, with 18 freshmen and sophomores on the roster. That isn’t the reason, though, that Miami is searching for some offensive consistency. “I don’t know if it has anything to do with youth,” Blasi said. “The games are a battle. There’s parity everywhere. At least the ones we’ve tied in our league, anyway, we’ve been able to gain an extra point.

“Our philosophy has always been to take things one game at a time and that’s proven to be helpful this season.”

Another piece of philosophy that Blasi has always clung to is that players need experience to improve, hence the rotation of young goaltenders.

“They can’t get better if they don’t play,” Blasi said.

And perhaps the best Blasi-ism is this one: “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Blasi said he takes nothing for granted. “You look at every weekend as though it’s the season,” he said.

This weekend, Miami’s season continues with two home games against Bowling Green, a team with a 5-2-1 record in the second half.

CCHA all-decade team

On Wednesday, the CCHA is scheduled to announce its final All-Decade Team, which actually spans from 2000 through the conference’s final year. (That’s this year, in case you missed it.)

The league has a first and second team for each decade. Check out USCHO’s news section for all the details once the teams are released.

Super Fan contest — don’t forget!

The CCHA is sponsoring a Super Fan contest that will award one fan from each of the league’s member schools a prize package that includes two tickets to the CCHA championship tournament in Joe Louis Arena, plus accommodations for two, invitations to the league’s big party the weekend of the tournament and assorted other goodies.

You may nominate someone you consider a super fan here. You may not nominate yourself, so be sure to nominate someone worthy — and perhaps someone who would be nice enough to bring you along should he or she win.

The deadline is Thursday, Jan. 31, at 11:59:59 p.m. CT.

Players of the week

Look at these Nanooks players hogging more of the POTW honors — and what is it with the CJs?

Rookie of the week: Alaska forward Tyler Morley, who had a goal and two assists in the Nanooks’ sweep of Notre Dame, including the assist on the winner Friday and the game-winning goal itself Saturday.

Offensive player of the week: Alaska senior Jarret Granberg, who had two goals and three assists versus the Fighting Irish, including Friday night’s game-winning goal. Granberg leads all Nanooks players in points (5-12–17).

Defenseman of the week: Northern Michigan junior CJ Ludwig, who had the assist on the Wildcats’ game-winning goal over Ohio State Friday and the winner itself in Saturday’s contest.

Goaltender of the week: Ferris State sophomore CJ Motte, who stopped 44 total shots in a two-game, home-and-home sweep of Michigan State.

My ballot

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