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Love Those RedHawks

Congratulations to the 2006 CCHA regular-season champions, the Miami RedHawks!

With a 6-3 home win over Ohio State Tuesday night — Valentine’s Day — Miami captured its first regular-season title since 1992-1993.

Enrico Blasi, Miami’s sometimes stoic head coach with a very dry wit, said, “For the last 11 seconds, I actually enjoyed myself.”

His sports information director, Jess Bechard, quipped after the game, “Hey, I think I got a picture of Rico smiling.”

And why not? The RedHawks have been close to that title in the last decade — as close as one point in 2003-2004 — but have found it elusive, as have most teams in the league. In fact, in the last 15 years not counting this one, only two teams other than Michigan and Michigan State have grabbed the top spot, Ferris State (2002-2003) and Lake Superior State (1995-1996).

For the past two decades, the league has been dominated by the Wolverines and Spartans, who have combined for 13 of the last 20 titles. FSU owns the one, Miami the two, and LSSU three, and you have to go all the way back to 1986-1987 to find a regular-season champion that does not hail from the state of Michigan. That team was Bowling Green, an hour south of the border … but an important hour.

And you have to go back a ways for a regular-season championship decided at least a couple of weeks before the season ended. Michigan State finished 10 points ahead of the field in 2000-2001, but it’s been a pretty tight race in recent years.

“To win a regular-season championship in the CCHA is tough to do,” said Blasi. “It’s a season-long battle, it’s on the road, it’s at home, it’s adversity after adversity, and you have to really be a team and stick together. In terms of that, I’m really proud of our guys. They’ve been able to focus one day at a time and not get ahead of themselves and not think of what happened in the past.”

Just two years ago, the RedHawks fell one point short of the regular-season title, at the last possible minute — almost literally. Playing Ohio State in Columbus, the RedHawks knew that the Wolverines, who were one point ahead of them in the standings, had lost 1-0 to Michigan State before Miami’s contest with OSU had ended. The score was tied 4-4 until OSU’s Lee Spector netted the game winner with 1:11 left in regulation, denying the RedHawks the point they needed to at least share Michigan’s title.

The Buckeyes would go on to eliminate the RedHawks in overtime in the CCHA tournament en route to the Mason Cup.

The irony of winning the title against Ohio State in the last-ever, regular-season match between the RedHawks and Buckeyes in Goggin Arena was not lost on Blasi.

“I’m a big believer in fate,” said Blasi. “I actually thought about it last night. Two years ago we went to Ohio State, needed that point, and we lost in the last minute, then they took it to us in overtime at The Joe, and so who knows? I think maybe it was meant to be.”

The game started well for the RedHawks, with Nathan Davis scoring just 16 seconds in. The teams exchanged goals and tied 2-2 at the end of the first, but the RedHawks scored three unanswered — with more than a little help from a completely undisciplined Buckeye team — and went on to what OSU head coach John Markell called a “well-deserved title.”

“We were opportunistic on our chances, and we got some bounces, but again you’ve got to work for those things,” said Blasi, “and we feel like when we’re playing good team defense things like that will happen.”

“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” said Davis. “I don’t think it’s really set in yet. It’s unbelievable, especially being the last year and the crowd the way it’s been all year.”

Davis admitted that the RedHawks were watching the scores last weekend, when they were themselves idle, that it was difficult “not to focus on how many points we needed.”

But, he added, “We wanted to do it at home, and no better team to do it against than our rivals.”

The Look of Love

Now that the RedHawks have captured the regular-season title, every other team in the CCHA is working to finish as high as possible. As you know, the teams that finish the season in the top four spots have a first-round bye in the CCHA’s new playoff format. Teams 5-8 will host teams 9-12 for best-of-three series, with the last-place team traveling to play No. 5, and so on.

The teams that survive the first round are then reseeded and travel to face teams 1-4 for another best-of-three weekend.

The ultimate survivors finally win a trip to Detroit, where there is more reseeding (if necessary), with No. 1 playing No. 4, and No. 2 playing No. 3 in semifinal action.

The whole thing is designed to give everyone a chance to play and to protect the teams with the highest PairWise Rankings (PWR). Personally, I think the top eight teams in the league should make the playoffs with the bottom four sitting it out, but I digress.

The top spot may have been decided, but little else has. No. 2 Michigan is one tiny little point ahead of No. 3 Michigan State, and each of those squads has a tough two weeks ahead: the Wolverines travel to Omaha this weekend and finish the regular season with a home-and-home against Ferris State, while the Spartans host Miami this weekend and head to Lake Superior next week.

UNO and LSSU are currently tied at No. 4, each with 26 points. That’s three points behind Michigan, two behind MSU.

FSU, in sole possession of sixth place with 23 points, travels to Columbus this weekend to take on the Buckeyes, who are tied for seventh — barely hanging on to first-round home ice — with Northern Michigan. OSU and NMU each have 22 points.

Alaska-Fairbanks and Notre Dame are tied with 21 points, and given that UAF hosts Western Michigan this weekend and finishes against Notre Dame, the Nanooks have a chance to host. As do the Irish, who are playing very strong hockey, having just become a Team Under Consideration with a sweep of FSU last weekend.

At the bottom of the standings are the Falcons with 17 points and the Broncos with 15. It is highly unlikely that WMU will win out and it would be difficult but not impossible for BGSU to host.

And all of this weirdness, this genuine parity combined with interesting schedules, has made for some interesting NCAA speculation. For the next two weeks, the Buckeyes are going to be huge fans of the Fighting Irish, while Wildcats, Lakers, and Spartans will be pulling for the Bulldogs.

And anyone with any sense of league loyalty will be rooting for the Mavericks. Because of who they’ve played and who they’ve beaten, the Mavs are a potential No. 1 seed in NCAA post-season play. Really.

The key matches to watch this week are Michigan at Nebaska-Omaha and Ferris State at Ohio State. As my good friend and colleague Jason Moy wrote, “If there was ever a time Ohio State needed to win, it’s now.” Ferris State will have as much to say about that as the Buckeyes.

For more detailed explanations of all the post-season shenanigans, check out Jayson Moy’s take on the brackets and Scott Brown’s explanation of this week’s PWR.

Where Is the Love?

Damn those wrestlers.

Okay, so they’re probably all nice kids, but do they have to meet where our teams normally play hockey?

This weekend when Michigan comes to town, the UNO Mavericks are not playing in the 14,700-seat Qwest Center because the Nebraska state high school wrestling championship has the venue booked. Instead, the Mavs return to the very friendly but smaller Civic Auditorium.

And should the Buckeyes manage to pull off home ice in the first round of the CCHA playoffs, OSU won’t be playing in the Schottenstein Center, which will be hosting — drum roll, please — the Ohio state high school wrestling championship.

This happened once before, oddly enough when the Buckeyes hosted the Mavericks for the first round of the CCHA playoffs in 2002-2003, but did so at Nationwide Arena, home of the NHL Columbus Blue Jackets.

Nationwide would seem like the logical choice for an alternative to the Schott should OSU host this year — by no means a done deal — except that Nationwide is also booked the first weekend of March, for the Arnold Fitness Classic.

Which might leave the State Fairgrounds Coliseum, where OSU played some games before the Schott was built, except that it too is unavailable.

This isn’t poor planning on the part of OSU, but rather the result of the change in the CCHA playoff format, which was decided upon after the league had finalized this year’s schedule.

So where might the Buckeyes play should they be so lucky to stay at home in the first round of the CCHA playoffs? OSU hasn’t released anything official yet, but the only available ice with seating that weekend may be the old Ice Rink, now known as the Ice Arena, home of the women’s ice hockey team.

It has room for 1,200.

All out of Love

Of course, Ohio State is playing like a team determined to go home early this year. Just a few weeks ago, the Buckeyes were struggling offensively yet playing respectable hockey.

Tuesday night in their 6-3 loss to Miami, the Bucks did everything they could to throw respectability out the window.

Penalties? Oh, you bet. OSU had 13 for 26 minutes, including senior goaltender Dave Caruso’s overlapping slashing calls late in the second period. Caruso took exception to the RedHawks crowding his crease — they were masters of his domain all night long — and slashed the legs of a RedHawk (maybe it was Ryan Jones, I couldn’t see or find out) at 18:25.

Referee Mark Wilkins made the call and warned Caruso. Caruso, however, was blind to everything but the crowding, and slashed another player at 18:49, this time a really vicious hit that earned the senior netminder a double minor. Caruso also threw his stick when Wilkins made the call.

Caruso was lucky. Wilkins easily could have given him a misconduct, which he would have had to serve himself.

It was a bizarre scene. After Caruso’s second penalty, OSU called a time out and it looked as though Caruso would be pulled in favor of Phil Lauderdale, OSU’s third goalie. Caruso’s back-up, Ian Keserich, is out with a groin injury.

In fact, Lauderdale put on his helmet and skated halfway out to the Buckeye cage, but was called back before the face off, and Caruso resumed his customary spot.

“I had to settle him down” said OSU head coach John Markell. “I don’t have another goalie right now. He’s a fifth-year senior. He lost it for the first time I’ve ever seen him lose it. It’s out of frustration built up. He’s an emotional kid bleeding scarlet and gray. He just vented the wrong way.”

Before Caruso lost control, Miami led 4-2. However, the RedHawks capitalized on both resulting power plays, with Mitch Ganzak scoring five-on-three at 19:00 in the second, and Jones scoring five-on-four at 2:43in the third.

OSU is now riding a four-game losing streak, and in their last three games, the Buckeye have given up goals within the first three minutes of play; in their last two losses, OSU have given up goals within the first 25 seconds of play.

And in their 3-2 loss to Michigan Feb. 4, leading 2-1 at the start of the third, the Buckeyes allowed the game-tying goal 12 seconds into the last stanza, and the game winner at 2:20 in the third.

And they’re down five men. And they’ve played five games against ranked teams in 12 days, in three states.

And they feel shame.

“It’s inexcusable,” said senior forward Dan Knapp, after the loss to Miami. “You saw it tonight. Myself against Wisconsin, I took a bad 10-minute misconduct. The whole season hasn’t been going our way … a bounce here and a bounce there, and now we sit here and tell you guys that we’re not getting the bounces [but] we’re not making the bounces go our way right now.

“Coach said in the locker room: mentally fragile. You hate to think that you are, but we are. We’ve got to face reality here and figure it out or we’ll be watching a lot of hockey come springtime.”

Senior captain Nate Guenin also earned a 10-minute misconduct for mouthing off at the Frozen Tundra Classic.

“With two seniors getting 10-minute misconducts against Wisconsin, they’re just venting the frustration,” said Markell. “We talk about it. That’s the third game in a row. I don’t know what. I play different lines, and everything we talk about we don’t do, and in the first 15 seconds it ends up in our net, and that’s what’s frustrating.

“If you get beaten like that and you can’t take lessons from it as a hockey player, then there’s something wrong with you. Sport builds character. It also reveals it, and we revealed the wrong kind of character tonight. It’s not acceptable at Ohio State. Nobody’s above the team or the program here, and they’re going to have to pay attention to that.”

Nothing Says Love Like …

For the first 20 minutes Tuesday night, I really enjoyed the OSU-Miami game. It was close, spirited, and the Goggin crowd was rocking.

By the way, that’s The Goggin. Honest. There’s a sign outside that says so, and the announcer said so a number of times, and I think there’s a puck commemorating the arena’s last season that says, “The Goggin.”

The student section was enthusiastic and sometimes original. My favorite was this one:

Give me an “S!” Give me an “E!” Give me an “X!” What’s that spell? Score! Score! Score!

And, appropriately, on Valentine’s Day.

The RedHawks have certainly given The Goggin a tremendous send-off season, and the fans have responded by filling the place to fire-code capacity and beyond. There was a small amount of canned music — of which I am not a fan — but some of it was timed to drown out the student section when fans chanted PG-13 rated vulgarities to protest calls and non-calls. Decorum, don’t you know.

It may have been my last trip to The Goggin, and the experience was surreal for several reasons. In addition to the weeknight championship and OSU’s meltdown, there were other oddities.

An usher asked a colleague and me if we were using our spaces at the auxiliary media table behind the student section. When I replied that we were, she said, “I’m an usher so I have a right to ask, and I can kick you out.”

In 11 years of covering hockey, I have never had an usher threaten me. And why she did so is beyond me.

As stunned as I was at the run-in with the usher, I was even more surprised — shocked, even — by the behavior of two off-ice CCHA officials. My colleague and I moved from behind the student section to behind the glass near the penalty boxes, to get a better view of the game. When the RedHawks scored two of their goals in the second period, two off-ice officials cheered. One pumped his fist.

These gentlemen wear the CCHA badge. Cheering for either team when you represent the league shows a complete lack of professionalism.

I’m often animated during games, as anyone who sits near me in the press box will tell you, but it’s all about the play, no matter who’s making it. I love a good breakaway. I love a clean, effective check. I often say, “There it is,” before an imminent goal. I love a good save.

I hear similar appreciative comments and other biased comments in the press box, and sometimes a rookie student reporter needs to be reminded that actively cheering is not allowed, but I have never, in 11 years covering the CCHA, seen an off-ice official actively cheer.

What a mixed bag. So high for the RedHawks, so disappointed in the Buckeyes, so excited about the crowd, so stunned at the unprofessionalism.

Thank goodness it was Valentine’s Day. There was plenty of chocolate, which — as nearly every bitter, middle-aged girl reporter will tell you — never hurts.

That’s What I Like about You

Last week I gave a brief list of former CCHA players representing various countries in the Torino. I also urged you to write in to tell me who I missed.

You never fail to disappoint, and my list was very brief, indeed.

Representing the CCHA on Team USA are goaltender John Grahame (LSSU), defenseman John-Michael Liles (MSU), and forwards Mike Knuble (Michigan), Brian Rolston (LSSU), and Doug Weight (LSSU).

Goaltender Ryan Miller (MSU) is a back-up, ready to go but not staying at the Olympic Village.

Representing the CCHA on Team Canada are goaltender Marty Turco (Michigan) and defenseman Rob Blake (BGSU).

For team Italy, there are five former CCHA players: goaltender Jason Muzzatti (MSU); forward Tony Tuzzolini (MSU); defensemen Bob Nardella (FSU), Andre Signoretti (OSU) and Carter Trevisani (OSU).

Muzzatti, now 36 years old, told Michael Arace of the Columbus Dispatch that the road to Torino was “weird,” adding, “this is as high a level as I’ve ever played. It was really special.”

From Italy, Arace did a nice job on his feature about the Italian team.

My omissions last week were not deliberate, and if I’ve missed anyone else — a distinct possibility — email me and let me know.