It’s a windy night in Michigan and I’m writing my last Valentine’s Day CCHA column for USCHO. Ever. The gusts outside the house whistle around its corners and occasionally a stronger burst descends the chimney and moans, a lonesome sound that reminds me and six cats that this is my last Valentine’s Day CCHA column for USCHO.
I once read a quote that said, “February is merely as long as is needed to pass the time until March.” In previous winters, I would have agreed. I’ve always looked forward to the end of February, this short month with little sunshine. March always delivers on its promise of daffodils and longer days and playoff hockey. What’s not to like about March?
This year, though, I want to savor every February day, even Valentine’s Day, a Hallmark holiday that mocks me perennially. This year, this week, I’m reminded that the CCHA is breaking up — not just with me, but with college hockey.
Or rather, college hockey is breaking up with the CCHA. Yes, that’s it. Take it from a bitter, middle-aged reporter who sits in a drafty house alone with her six cats writing about college hockey. I know dumped when I see it. The approaching end of the CCHA feels like the kind of bad breakup that you don’t initiate yourself. You know what I’m talking about. The it’s-not-you-it’s-me, I-need-to-find-myself, let’s-see-other-leagues kind of breakup.
Perhaps this is a fitting end for a league that so often feels like the refuge of the unrequited. Sure, Michigan has won more NCAA championships than any other school (nine) and the state of Michigan itself has more NCAA titles than any other with 19, 16 of them by current CCHA members. (Don’t quibble with me about league affiliation at the time those teams earned their titles. I’m a woman in pain.) The CCHA has won only two NCAA championships in the past 15 years, four in the past 20, and four different CCHA teams have been national runners-up — bridesmaids — in the past five seasons.
This is the league that was once home to hockey programs from Kent State (1992-94), Ohio (1971-73), St. Louis (1971-79) and Illinois-Chicago (1982-96). You can’t get much more unrequited than defunct.
This end to the CCHA seems fitting to those who criticized the conference for not giving a home to a most unrequited team, Alabama-Huntsville. In rejecting the Chargers’ application for league membership in 2009, the CCHA was cast in the role of the ultimate cad. I’d argue that the CCHA was then misunderstood. Very few people outside of the Michigan-Ohio-Indiana slice of the Midwest understood how dire the economy was in Michigan before UAH’s application, nor did many people understand how troubled Bowling Green was and how much more skittish the recession made Michigan, a state that had already test-marketed the economic downswing for the rest of the country.
It didn’t help that the league was overshadowed by its charming brother, the WCHA, the league cast in the role of the white knight then and now. Yes, the WCHA rescued Bemidji State in 2009, a team already situated within its geographic footprint. Nice of that handsome league to take Nebraska-Omaha off the hands of the CCHA. It is good that the WCHA has given UAH a home now. Note that it did not offer the Chargers a home before now, before realignment.
But I digress.
In the here and now, with three weekends of regular season hockey left to be played, perhaps the most quintessential CCHA team — the team that typifies not just the league but its misunderstood nature, its very unrequitedness — is Lake Superior State.
Since the Lakers captured the regular season league championship in 1995-96, LSSU has placed above a tie for sixth place in conference standings just twice — a fourth-place finish in 1996-97 and a third-place finish in 1999-2000. That’s 14 years of finishing tied for sixth or below since the last time the Lakers went out on top.
That’s a lot of unrequitedness. This year feels about the same.
“Up until the last couple of weeks,” coach Jim Roque said, “we were doing pretty good.”
Four games on the road against Ohio teams — Ohio State and Bowling Green — have resulted in four straight losses, a streak that the Lakers hope to snap this weekend against Alaska. LSSU followed up a 3-2 home win over Michigan on Jan. 19 with a 3-2 road loss to OSU before losing to the Buckeyes 6-1 the next night.
The following weekend, Feb. 1-2, the Lakers repeated that pattern: They lost to the Falcons 4-1 on Friday before losing 7-3 the following night, allowing four of those BGSU goals in the final period.
Last weekend — mercifully — the Lakers were idle.
“Obviously at Ohio State and Bowling Green, we didn’t play well,” Roque said. “It’s a whole team thing, from the net out. We lost 3-2 at Ohio State and the next night was tough for the goalies. At Bowling Green, we did execute a little better. I thought our goaltending was OK, good.
“We’re not going to win with just good goaltending.”
The Lakers are one of those CCHA teams geographically on the edge of the league, competing for recruits with bigger programs downstate who have higher profiles and more resources. Under Roque, the Lakers play hard every night. Roque said that he’s never disappointed in the team’s effort, nor is he disappointed with their conduct off the ice and in the classroom.
LSSU is one of those programs that is almost there, always a player or two away from finishing a few spots higher in the CCHA. For the first half of the season, junior goaltender Kevin Kapalka was injured, giving his classmate Kevin Murdock a chance to develop and shine. Then the two played well in rotation. Then they didn’t play as well, in part because they had such little offensive support in front of them — in part because of injuries, like the one keeping junior forward Colin Campbell out of the lineup.
Forwards Buddy Robinson (7-6–13) and Andrew Dommett (2-1–3) as well as defenseman Eric Drapluk (2-9–11) are day to day. Any one player out of the lineup is difficult enough for the Lakers; three or four players out changes things significantly.
“We just can’t find a way to break through,” Roque said. “We think we’re poised to have a great season and then Campbell’s out for a year.
“We’re not real deep to begin with.”
The Lakers are in eighth place with 26 points. The teams that finish in the top five in the final CCHA standings get a first-round playoff bye week. After that, the teams that finish sixth through eighth have home ice in the first round of the CCHA playoffs.
This weekend, LSSU plays sixth-place Alaska, a team 11 points ahead of the Lakers in the standings. After that, the Lakers host first-place Miami and end the regular season with a two-game road series against Northern Michigan, a team in 10th place with 23 points.
“Our goal right now is [that] we just need to play better,” Roque said. “We need to play a little better on the power play and we need to execute better. We can’t control what other teams do. We’ve got to take care of our home ice. Everyone wants to get home ice. We’ve got to play better hockey. That’s the goal.”
To that end, Roque is hoping that his goaltenders rebound from those two weekends in Ohio.
“They’ve also won us games, too,” said Roque. “They’re going back in the net this weekend hopefully rested. They’ll each play a game this weekend.”
Beyond that, though, the Lakers need to score some goals. LSSU is averaging 2.30 goals per game overall, 43rd in the country. In CCHA play, the Lakers are ninth (2.14).
“We need some production,” Roque said. Senior forward Domenic Monardo (13-11–24) is having a career season and leads the Lakers in points. His usually reliable classmate, Nick McParland (6-13–19) has scored one goal in 2013 and is looking to break an eight-game point drought.
“Nick hasn’t scored but he’s just one player,” Roque said. “We have the capability but we have to play up to that. We need a surprise or two along with the guys we depend on.”
A surprise for the unrequited. That’s a valentine even an embittered reporter like me could appreciate.
Is that all there is?
Looking forward to the last-ever CCHA playoff championship weekend, how strange it is to see both Michigan and Michigan State as long shots for appearances in Detroit. These are the teams that the league has depended on year in and out to boost the tournament gate.
A fitting end? Ironic, maybe — if neither makes it there, that is.
I’ve said for as long as I’ve covered this league that I would love to see a CCHA tournament without any of the expected schools participating. How amazing would it be to see the Lakers, the Falcons, the Bulldogs and the Nanooks in Joe Louis Arena in the middle of March?
How great would it be to see any team from the CCHA as the last team standing in Pittsburgh, but especially one of the league’s more unusual suspects?
As the great Peggy Lee sang, “I’m in no hurry for that final disappointment.”
How can we make the next six games feel like forever? Suggestions?
• Alaska junior forward Colton Beck recorded his first career hat trick when the Nanooks beat Ohio State 6-1 Friday.
• Ohio State on Saturday held the Nanooks to one goal, marking the 12th time this season that OSU has limited opponents to one or fewer goals in a game. The Buckeyes have the eighth-best defense in the country (2.23 per game) and third-best (2.00) in the CCHA.
• Yes, that means that three of the country’s top defensive teams are CCHA teams. Allowing 1.50 goals per game, Miami is tops in the nation (1.68 CCHA) and Western Michigan is third in the country (1.83 overall, 1.86 CCHA).
• Northern Michigan junior Jared Coreau made 19 stops in his 3-0 shutout win over Ferris State Saturday night. It was his first shutout of the season and the second of his collegiate career.
• NMU sophomore Mitch Jones netted his first goal of the season — the game-winning goal — in the Wildcats’ 3-0 win over the Bulldogs. Jones began his career as a defenseman but has played forward in his last 11 games.
• Michigan State junior forward and captain Greg Wolfe scored three of MSU’s four goals last weekend. Wolfe has eight points in his last nine games.
Players of the week
It’s a new slate of players this week.
Rookie of the week: Notre Dame forward Thomas DiPauli, who had three assists in ND’s sweep of Michigan, including a helper on Friday’s game-winning goal. Those three points doubled the number of assists that DiPauli (5-6–11) has for the season.
Offensive player of the week: Notre Dame junior forward Jeff Costello, who had a goal and five assists versus the Wolverines. Costello has seven goals and 15 assists for 22 points in 22 games, a career-high total for points.
Defenseman of the week: Alaska senior Kaare Odegard, who had three assists and 10 blocked shots in the Nanooks’ split against Ohio State. Odegard has three goals and five assists in 27 games this season; he had no goals and eight assists in 83 games in his first three seasons with Alaska.
Goaltender of the week: Miami freshman Ryan McKay, who stopped 29 shots in his 4-0 shutout win over Western Michigan Saturday. It was McKay’s third shutout win of the season.
2. Boston College
3. St. Cloud State
4. New Hampshire
6. North Dakota
8. Western Michigan
10. Minnesota State
13. Notre Dame
14. Boston University
18. Ferris State