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Bye, Bye Season

When viewed in a certain light, the new format for the CCHA playoffs is a complete success. All four teams with first-round byes advanced, although each had to work to get to Joe Louis Arena this weekend.

“We know these four teams worked very hard during the season to get that bye,” said Miami head coach Enrico Blasi. “We didn’t know how it would work. The top four teams made it to the Joe and that’s good for our league.”

How is that good for the league? Well, theoretically, the teams that finished first through fourth in the league have the highest PWR, and therefore the best chances of advancement to the NCAA tournament. Of course, Nebraska-Omaha is still high in the PWR (but may have played itself out of an invitation) and Northern Michigan isn’t guaranteed an invitation, but in theory, the new format worked.

Aside from protecting the top four teams, the new playoff format built some suspense and generated more interest — if you believed at all from the start that anyone but the top four seeds would advance.

In the past, said Michigan head coach Red Berenson, when Michigan finished first or second the Wolverines faced No. 12 or No. 11 in the first round, and that wasn’t all that interesting. “That first playoff round was against a team that was low. It didn’t seem to have that challenge as the games did this year.”

With the middle four facing the bottom four in the first round, said Berenson, and then the survivors facing the top four, “The teams were a closer match and so there was more of a chance for an upset. I think both series on campus were better series than they were in the past.”

Then why does it seem so underwhelming? Maybe because the same teams keep advancing, year after year.

This is no knock on the success of this year’s field. These teams earned the right to be there, bye or no bye. These four coaches are obviously extraordinary, and each has built a successful program.

Look at Michigan. The Wolverines are making their 17th consecutive appearance in the CCHA championship tournament. There have only been 25 of them, running. And Michigan owns seven titles.

Look at Michigan State. Friday marks the Spartans’ record 21st CCHA semifinal game, and MSU is 19-4 as the second seed in the tournament.

Look at Northern Michigan. This is Walt Kyle’s fourth year as head coach, and the fourth consecutive year that he’s brought the Wildcats to Detroit.

And look at Miami. Enrico Blasi sandwiched a season severely hampered by injuries and illnesses with trips to JLA. The RedHawks are coming into the weekend as the regular-season champs, and were this close to accomplishing that two years ago as well.

“It’s a great accomplishment to be here,” said Kyle. “I’m much happier to be here this year under the new playoff format than I have been in the past. I really like this new format.

“These four coaches really like it, and the other eight aren’t as happy with it.”

Kyle was quipping, to be sure, but I’m not sure he’s right. I think it’s an uneasy truce in an ongoing battle. And I think MSU head coach Rick Comley agrees with me. Comley doesn’t think every team should make the playoffs just by virtue of suiting up, and regular readers of this column know I’m with him.

“I still believe in missing the playoffs. I think what we’re doing is much better than what we did, and the only real solution for the number of teams we have in the league.”

I think that perhaps when the same teams participate, year in and out, it almost feels like going through the motions. I know it doesn’t feel that way for the players and the coaches, certainly. They give it everything they have, and the players come and go.

I do think that with the same teams participating, in the past there has been a danger of overlooking this tournament to get to the bigger dance of the NCAA tourney, but I don’t think that’s the case this year. Only Miami held steady throughout the season, and the RedHawks did so after a singularly, poignantly disappointing season last year.

Michigan State had to overcome early injuries and illness, find its way between the pipes, and climb from near the bottom of the standings to the top.

The Wolverines came out of the gate fast and faltered, and this is the first time they’ve finished lower than second place in well over a decade.

And even Kyle, a coach who talks about the NCAA tourney from the start of the season to finish, has to appreciate how hard it was to get here this year. And his Wildcats, bridesmaids three years running, must be very hungry for that bouquet.

So maybe this season the pared-down championship tournament will feel like a destination rather than a stop. And it should. Since every team, every player, every coach had to work so hard to get here, let’s hope they all enjoy it and make the Mason Cup something worth winning.

Linda Greene’s Youngest Son

Congratulations, Andy Greene, for becoming the first player in CCHA history to win both the Offensive and Defensive Defenseman of the Year Awards. That is quite an accomplishment.

Now, Linda, aren’t you glad you didn’t have that daughter?

Getting Down to It

This may be the hardest CCHA tournament to call in recent history, Ohio State’s improbable run two years ago notwithstanding. Here’s a look at each team in the field.

No. 1 Miami

One of these things is not like the other.

Remember that old game from Sesame Street, the one in which four objects were compared to teach children how to recognize sameness and difference? Well, in these days of political correctness, Sesame Street has dropped the exercise but those of us old enough to remember can’t help but think of it this week.

Northern Michigan. Michigan State. Michigan. Miami. Hmm.

Geography isn’t the only thing that separates the RedHawks of southern Ohio from the three teams in that state that lost Toledo in a border dispute. Miami sprinted at the beginning of the season and never looked back, taking the regular-season title a couple of weeks before the end of the regular season, a rarity by CCHA standards.

Miami sophomores Ryan Jones and Nathan Davis both said that the team is focused on winning a championship, and not on the hype that the other teams in the field are getting. Jones did concede that the RedHawks think that everyone else thinks of them as underdogs going into the weekend.

That outsider mentality is understandable. The RedHawks, playing some of the best hockey in the country all season, could barely attract the attention of the local media, the closest big city being Cincinnati.

But, said Jones, “This team isn’t about fancy things like that. We’re not worried about how much press we get or who votes for us [in weekly polls]. We’re about the 30 guys in the program.”

It’s a tribute to head coach Enrico Blasi that Jones speaks this way. Blasi always preaches the slow-and-steady approach to everything — hockey, school, life. For one so young, he’s able to keep things in perspective. It’s how he brought his squad through a season of rotten luck last year and motivated them to stay focused on this year’s prize. It’s why he’s this year’s CCHA Coach of the Year.

The RedHawks needed overtime last weekend to beat Western Michigan, the team that finished in last place during the regular season and stunned the Lake Superior State Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. “We had an exciting, hard-fought series against Western Michigan,” said Blasi. “They played hard, they played aggressive.”

This weekend, the RedHawks face Northern Michigan in the first semifinal game, a team that split with them in Goggin Arena this season.

“Both teams have goaltending, both teams have defensemen who log a lot of ice time,” said Blasi. “Both teams have forwards who will hurt you if you’re not paying a lot of attention. I think it’s going to be an exciting semifinal game, one that will come down to the wire.”

Here’s a look at Miami’s overall numbers. The numbers following the slashes are ranks among CCHA teams.

• Record: 25-7-4, 20-6-2 CCHA
• Goals per game: 3.22/4th
• Goals allowed per game: 1.94/1st
• Power play: .156/11th
• Penalty kill: .878/2nd
• Top scorer: Nathan Davis (19-20–39)
• Top goal scorer: Ryan Jones (20-13–33)
• Top goaltender: Charlie Effinger (1.74 GAA, .935 SV%), Jeff Zatkoff ( 2.02 GAA, .928 SV%)

The line of Jones, Davis, and Nino Musitelli has combined for 39 points in the last 13 games; Miami’s offense is as deep as any in the league. Miami’s defense is strong, led by Andy Greene and Mitch Ganzak, and the RedHawks have the luxury of two starting goaltenders, another rarity in this or any college league.

“The University of Denver won two national championships going one night with one guy [in net] and the other night with the other,” said Blasi. “We are not exactly sure what we’ll do this weekend.”

Given that Denver is coached by Blasi’s mentor, George Gwozdecky, there’s little doubt what the RedHawks will do.

To get past Northern Michigan, the RedHawks need to do what they do best, which is to say that they have to do everything and do it well. Scoring early and often is their best bet against a team that knows it can beat them.

No. 2 Michigan State

“Ferris was tough. God, they were a good hockey team. That goaltender was 6’11” and about four feet wide.”

You’d expect that from Michigan head coach Red Berenson, whose Wolverines beat the Ferris State Bulldogs twice last weekend to advance to Detroit. But that was what Rick Comley said at the CCHA championship tournament press conference. He was speaking about the league’s overall season, and how much fun it was to watch.

“I enjoyed this season within the league and the playoffs and watching it was much as I had in a long time,” said Comley. His enthusiasm was palpable, even through a long-distance phone wire, and that may be why Michigan State persevered through a difficult first half and came out flying at the start of 2006.

The Spartans are 14-3-3 since Jan. 1, and have developed a timely knack of bouncing back from a loss with a punishing win. Last weekend, after losing their opening game at home to the Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks, the Spartans won two straight by a collective score of 13-5.

Part of MSU’s second-half success is because of the team’s overall health, something lacking in the first half. Part is due to freshman Jeff Lerg’s emergence as a rock-steady goaltender.

But it’s more than health and goaltending; the Spartans are clicking on all cylinders. Just look at junior Drew Miller, who had a goal and three assists last Saturday and a hat trick Sunday. Tyler Howells is scoring. David Booth is scoring. Bryan Lerg is scoring. Tim Crowder is scoring. And they’re all scoring on the power play.

Here’s a look at MSU’s overall numbers. The numbers following the slashes are ranks among CCHA teams.

• Record: 22-11-8, 14-7-7 CCHA
• Goals per game: 3.10/5th
• Goals allowed per game: 2.34/3rd
• Power play: .192/2nd
• Penalty kill: .833/7th
• Top scorer: Drew Miller (17-24–41)
• Top goal scorer: Miller
• Top goaltender: Jeff Lerg (2.02 GAA, .925 SV%)

What is the key to Michigan State’s success this weekend? “Score the first three goals,” said Comley. “That would be a positive.”

The Spartans face the Wolverines Friday night in a CCHA-home-office-FOX-Detroit dream come true bit of scheduling. MSU won the only game that resulted in a victory between the Wolverines and Spartans this season, a 2-0 win in Munn Jan. 17. The clustermates met three additional times during the regular season, with no one winning; each was an overtime tie.

Comley said that the Spartans and Wolverines are very different teams in style, and because of the hype surrounding all Michigan-MSU sports pairings, “There’s no question about the kids being ready to play each other.”

Comley added, “We work as coaches to prepare our kids, but sometimes it’s not about preparation.” Sometimes, said Comley, it’s a matter of making sure the players are “not too high, not too low.”

If the Spartans play their game, this one goes into triple overtime and MSU advances.

No. 3 Michigan

“We’re more fortunate to be here than maybe the other teams that were on a roll at the end of the year,” said Michigan head coach Red Berenson.

Come on, Red. Who do you think you’re kidding?

So you finished third and not second or first. Big whoop. You’re here, and none of us doubted it for a second. This is Michigan hockey.

No matter who you have in net.

“We’ve been on a bumpy road at the end of the season,” said Berenson, whose Wolverines scored nine goals to Ferris State’s six last weekend in two games at Yost to advance.

“From week to week, it’s been an adventure. We’re not coming in with the momentum of our opponent or [that] the other teams are.”

Okay, so maybe Berenson’s right. It has been bumpy road for the Wolverines, and anyone who’s followed them knows that it’s what happens between the pipes that will determine Michigan’s fate this weekend.

Or not. I mean, when you’ve got the third-best scoring offense in the nation, who cares how many goals you allow?

Of course, Nebraska-Omaha has/had the fourth-best scoring offense in the country, and look what happened to them last weekend.

The Wolverines face the Spartans in the late semifinal game Friday … and the league is grateful. Television ratings and turnstiles aside, Michigan does face the hottest team in the CCHA. MSU has rolled through the second half of the season.

“Michigan State has reversed its situation from last year and is coming in very strong,” said Berenson. “Obviously they’re a little more stable in goal than we are.”

So freshman Billy Sauer (3.04 GAA, .898 SV%) needs a little time to mature. Both he and senior Noah Ruden have shown stretches of consistent, solid play, and it only takes one of them to become stable enough to help these Wolverines advance.

But Berenson won’t lay the blame for this up-and-down season completely on the goaltending. “I think it was like the little Dutch boy when the dam started leaking. As soon as you put a finger in one hole, another opened up. We’ve had our issues with goals against, we’ve had our issues with power play.”

Coach, we should all have such issues with the power play.

Here’s a look at Michigan’s overall numbers. The numbers following the slashes are ranks among CCHA teams.

• Record: 20-13-5, 13-10-5 CCHA
• Goals per game: 3.74/1st
• Goals allowed per game: 3.00/9th
• Power play: .194/1st
• Penalty kill: .836/6th
• Top scorer: T.J. Hensick (16-34–50)
• Top goal scorer: Kevin Porter (17-20–37), Brandon Kaleniecki (17-10–27)
• Top goaltender: Noah Ruden (2.85 GAA, .908 SV%)

“Our young players have worked very hard … but it’s been a combination,” said Berenson. “We’ve been in a lot of close games.” The Wolverines are just a hair under last year’s numbers in scoring offense, a hair over in last year’s stats for goals against.

“That fine line every night has made the difference.”

These Michigan seniors have been to the title game of the CCHA tournament all three years of their careers. They’ve won twice, and resented like hell the loss to Ohio State in 2004. It will be that leadership that drives them, along with a little puck luck if they’re to get by Michigan State Friday night.

No. 4 Northern Michigan

“From our perspective, we are just elated to be here.” So said NMU head coach Walt Kyle during this week’s press conference. I don’t think he’s exaggerating.

“We had a real difficult playoff series against Nebraska-Omaha, a very good hockey team. We had to scrap and claw to get through that.”

Last weekend, the Wildcats hosted the Mavericks, a team that beat NMU twice during the season in Marquette by a two-game score of 10-4. In the 3-2 win last Saturday that clinched the series, the Wildcats jumped out to a three-goal lead and had to fend off a late third-period surge to advance to Detroit.

“We had a nice run at the end of the year and caught a break, with Western [Michigan] beating UNO for us to gain home ice. I think that was something that certainly helped it. Home ice has been something that has been important to us over the last several years and we were able to take advantage of that in the series against Omaha.”

NMU faces Miami in the early semifinal game; the Wildcats were one of the few CCHA teams this season to have success against the RedHawks.

“We are going into this healthy and very anxious for the opportunity to play Miami. We had a real difficult series against them right after Christmas. I have nothing but respect for that team and that program. I think they present a lot of problems for us, certainly. They are a really difficult opponent [and] it is a team that we are not relishing the idea of having to play.”

When these teams split in Oxford, the Wildcats won the low-scoring battle, the RedHawks the high-scoring game. That is the key for NMU in this game: keep it close for as long as possible, and rely on its outstanding defense to tough it through.

Here’s a look at NMU’s overall numbers. The numbers following the slashes are ranks among CCHA teams.

• Record: 22-14-2, 14-12-2 CCHA
• Goals per game: 3.00/7th
• Goals allowed per game: 2.53/5th
• Power play: .173/7th
• Penalty kill: .853/3rd
• Top scorer: Darin Olver (14-20–34), Dirk Southern (11-23–34)
• Top goal scorer: Andrew Contois (16-15–31)
• Top goaltender: Bill Zaniboni (2.23 GAA, .918 SV%)

Another important consideration is this senior class, a class that is making its fourth straight trip to JLA without any hardware to show for it. In 2004, NMU lost to Miami in the third-place game of the now-defunct Super Six.

“We have a great group of seniors,” said Kyle. This group, said Kyle — recruited by now-MSU head coach Rick Comley and now-Alaska-Anchorage head coach Dave Shyiak — were instrumental in Kyle’s readjustment to college hockey following his coaching stint at the pro level. “And hopefully we helped them to adjust to college hockey, too.”

These seniors are now household names: Contois, Oystrick, Southern, Milam. If the Wildcats are to advance, it is these gents who will carry the day.

See You at the Hockey Game!

This is probably my last column of the season. I’ll contribute to the regional previews, the coverage of the CCHA tournament and the Frozen Four, and will probably write a few more features. But in all likelihood, this is the last CCHA column of the season.

Please, please. I know why you’re applauding.

This season has been very interesting for all kinds of reasons. I had the good fortune of watching a very good team experience some bad fortune — a rarity in any sport — as Ohio State’s arena reporter. The Buckeyes were very, very good and couldn’t score if the fate of the known universe depended on it.

I saw limited action from other rinks, and that was not by choice. After getting a new car last May, I thought I’d be everywhere in the 2005-06 season. I never even made it to Bowling Green. An accident in November derailed those plans, although if the planets are aligned and gas remains below $5 a gallon, I’ll be on the road next season.

The hockey I did see come through Columbus was amazing. There wasn’t a team in the league that didn’t impress me on some level; what impressed me overall was the improvement in the game itself, top to bottom. The only team that I saw play a consistent game all season was Miami, and consistency is difficult to achieve in collegiate sports, but every team has something about it that made it competitive with everyone else in the league.

If it weren’t for this year’s CCHA championship tournament field, I’d finally be a convert in the Church of Parity.

There are some things about this season that remain with me, and I’m going to share them with you. Of course.

Officiating

It was consistently very good, and more consistent than I’ve seen in a long time. I have no problem with the CCHA’s on-ice officials.

What I really dislike is the difference between the first and the second halves of the year. It either takes everyone half a year to either adjust to this year’s new rules enforcement, or the rules aren’t enforced as strictly the second half of the year.

The feeling-out time is much too long, and I think that comes from — and this is just a personal observation, not empirical evidence — a paranoia among the on-ice officials, which comes from the league office.

I saw a lot of Mark Wilkins, who had an excellent season. In seasons past, Wilkins has taken a lot of criticism for his thankless job. This year, I thought he was the most consistent official I saw — but, then again, I saw him a lot.

Last year, all I saw was Steve Piotrowski. This year, personally I didn’t get to see enough of him, but I did have some fun at his expense at the Ohio Hockey Classic.

Perani Cup

This is one of the biggest scams perpetrated in a long time. I know for a fact that media do not always vote for the Perani Cup three stars in every arena, that sometimes the individual team sports information directors decide without any input from media. This leads to a hand-picked, three-star system, which can easily inflate numbers.

The media is always asked to vote at Value City Arena, so I do not want to imply that Leann Parker, OSU’s SID, conducts business this way.

If the Perani Cup three stars were picked consistently from rink to rink, I wouldn’t have a problem with how they’re picked. But let’s not pretend that these are completely media-determined awards.

CCHA Defenseman of the Week

Okay, so perhaps I shouldn’t complain, as the league now gives out this award, but more often than not, the award goes to the week’s best offensive defensemen. I really feel as though the league ignores nearly one-third of the league’s best players, week in and week out.

Where’s the Commish?

I didn’t get to see Tom Anastos this season. I don’t think he ever came to Columbus. I didn’t travel much, either. Fair enough.

But I know he wasn’t present when Miami beat Ohio State on Tuesday, Feb. 14 to capture the CCHA regular-season championship, and as far as I know he didn’t make one trip to Oxford until the final regular-season game of the year, when he presented the RedHawks with the trophy for that title.

And I know his only visit to Big Rapids was when FOX broadcast the March 3 playoff game between Ohio State and Ferris State. (That this was the first time FSU has hosted a broadcast game in 20 years is another story.)

Granted, I didn’t travel as much as I’d like. But I’m not paid for running and promoting an entire league, either. A large portion of the CCHA fan base — and many people involved in college hockey — thinks that the league promotes two schools only, and you can guess which ones they are. I don’t agree with this entirely, but a stronger presence by the league office throughout the league would certainly go a long way to counter the notion.

Ohio Hockey Classic

This is a potentially great midseason tournament. This year’s overtime, shootout title match between Miami and Ohio State was every bit as thrilling as the inaugural year’s contest between Colorado College and OSU. In fact, they were the two best college hockey games I’ve seen in Columbus during the last two seasons, and that includes last year’s Frozen Four.

Next year, all three Ohio teams will participate. What a treat for local fans. Great Division I college hockey in a superb venue, Nationwide Arena. This can only continue to help build the sport we love and heighten its profile in a very big market.

Fan Mail

This season brought me some wonderful fan mail. I had more interesting email conversations with more fans from all leagues than I ever have. For the most part, fans asked me intelligent questions that often made me think, and nearly every letter enriched the season for me.

This season marked the first time ever that I didn’t cringe every time I opened a fan’s letter. Well, in all honesty, it took about half a season for me to overcome the automatic cringe response, but the letters were great from September onwards.

Thank you, all of you, for that.

USCHO

It may seem gauche to praise the publication for which I work, but I have to say that the quality of work my colleagues provided blew me away, time and again. It’s not just the Division I stuff. Take some time to read the women’s pages and the Division III pages, and you will see excellent, insightful writing provided by dedicated, knowledgeable people.

There isn’t a week that goes by when I don’t say, “Damn, I wish I’d written that!”

And it isn’t limited to the regulars. Have you read Joe Bertagna’s “24”? It’s one thing to be as fabulously good looking, intelligent, and connected as is Joe, but to be able to write like that seems like a crime.

(Yes, I’m angling for scotch in Milwaukee.)

In all seriousness, everyone at USCHO puts his (and very few cases, her) heart into what we do here, and this year more than ever it really showed.

Those guys behind the scenes that you don’t know — Ed Trefzger, Lee Urton, Jayson Moy, and especially Scott Brown — really deserve kudos for their work this year, especially as it pertains to making me look good.

So thanks to all my colleagues and to you, my dear readers, for making this a most rewarding season at USCHO. I look forward to seeing you all in the next few weeks.

And then I look forward to a long day at a spa.

And to all the guys departing for professional careers, I hope you find your dreams, fellas, and thanks for spending time with us.