look like the betting type, so I've got a proposition for
you. I'll give you Michigan and Michigan State as the CCHA
playoff winner, and I'll take the field. Loser buys the
winner lunch at the Anchor Bar. Deal?
long ago, that was a fairly safe wager. After all, it seemed
as if those two teams took turns winning the Mason Cup while
everyone else stood around and watched.
this is not your father's CCHA. Heck, this isn't even your
slightly older brother's CCHA. The races the Wolverines
and Spartans once ruled are now open wider than Jose Canseco's
wallet at GNC.
that? You say Michigan won the regular season title by gathering
the most league points since the CCHA switched to a 28-game
conference schedule? True, but Ohio State nipped at their
heels the entire way. And what of the jockeying for a first-round
home playoff series that continued until the regular seasons'
final night? The only teams out of the mix in late February
were the Rochester Amerks and Kenora Thistles.
the CCHA is as balanced as the Wallenda family reunion is
a good thing, you know. The hunch is that this year's league
playoffs will be as wide-open and unpredictable as any in
the conference's 33-year history. Wanna bet?
Fact: Over the last five seasons, Notre Dame
has made four trips to the Super Six. Only Michigan
and Michigan State have advanced to the Joe all five
times during that span. Wolverine Fact: By sweeping Bowling
Green last weekend, Michigan finished the regular
season with 48 points in the CCHA. It’s the
most points in CCHA play since the conference adopted
a 28-game league schedule six years ago.
Notre Dame Wins:
By getting two out-of-this-world games from goaltender
Morgan Cey and hope that Michigan netminder Al Montoya
turns in consecutive soft performances like his 11-save
effort in a 6-3 win against the Irish last month or
his 13-save showing in a 4-1 loss to Northern Michigan
in January. How Michigan Wins: In four regular-season
meetings, the Wolverines outscored the Irish in the
first period by a 10-1 margin. Notre Dame will play
hard for 60 minutes, but if Michigan can get out to
big leads early, they’ll likely demoralize Dave
Poulin’s struggling club.
11 Ferris State at No. 2 Ohio State FSU: 12-20-4, 7-17-4 CCHA OSU: 24-8-4, 21-5-2 CCHA Season Series: OSU won, 3-1-0
Fact: Five of FSU’s seven league wins
have come on the road, including a 3-2 overtime triumph
against OSU in Columbus Jan. 8. Buckeye Fact: OSU’s second-place
finish is the team’s best showing in the CCHA
standings since 1983-84 when the Buckeyes and Michigan
State tied for second, four points behind Bowling
Ferris State Wins:
Even though the Bulldogs kill opponent power plays
at a respectable 82.4 percent clip, they can’t
afford to take too many penalties against an OSU team
that has clicked for 60 PPGs this season. When FSU
beat the Buckeyes earlier this season, they played
five-on-five for the vast majority of the game. How Ohio State Wins: While FSU would
like to keep special teams play to a minimum, OSU
wants to draw penalties in order to get their league-leading
power play on the ice. They accomplish that by playing
an aggressive, physical style which draws opponents
into taking bad penalties. Even if it results in the
Buckeyes getting whistled for an extra penalty or
two, so be it – they’ve got the CCHA’s
top penalty kill, too.
10 Western Michigan at
No. 3 Northern Michigan
WMU: 13-19-2, 8-18-2 CCHA
NMU: 20-9-7, 17-7-4 CCHA
Season Series: NMU won, 1-0-1
Fact: As we’ve noted in this space
in each of the two previous years, WMU hasn’t
advanced to Joe Louis Arena since 1994, the longest
current drought in the CCHA. Wildcat Fact: If it’s an odd
year, it must be Western. For the third time in five
seasons, NMU opens postseason play against the league’s
other directional Michigan school. The two teams also
squared off in 2001 and 2003.
Western Michigan Wins: OK, so the Broncos
like to score. They’re going to have to play
some defense if they want to advance to the Joe. In
16 games since Jan. 1, the Broncos have given up four
or more goals 10 times. WMU is 4-11-1 over that stretch. How Northern Michigan Wins: Hope
the same ol’ offense-first WMU team shows up
in Marquette. In its last 14 games, NMU has scored
three or more goals 12 times including a current streak
of eight straight games. As good a year as Tuomas
Tarkki is having, he’s that much better when
he’s getting offensive support.
9 Lake Superior State at
No. 4 Nebraska-Omaha
LSSU: 9-20-7, 8-14-6 CCHA UNO: 17-15-4, 13-11-4 CCHA Season Series: UNO won, 2-1-1
Fact: Three is a magic number – LSSU
is 1-18-5 this season when scoring two or fewer goals. Maverick Fact: UNO jumped eight spots
in the CCHA standings after finishing 12th in the
league last season. You’d think such a feat
would be uncommon, but Ferris State did the same thing
two years ago when they vaulted from ninth in 2001-02
to first the following year.
Lake Superior State Wins:
The Lakers didn’t invent ‘winning ugly’,
but they may have perfected it. They’ll try
to grind the game to a halt by keeping their more
talented opponents from skating freely through the
neutral zone. If they jump out to a lead, the clamps
tighten even more, and Jeff Jakaitis and Matt Violin
are good enough in goal to cover up most mistakes. How Nebraska-Omaha Wins: Two-goal
leads aren’t insurmountable, but the Lakers
are among the nation’s worst offensive teams,
averaging 2.17 goals per game. It’s basically
the flip side to LSSU’s dream scenario –
if UNO takes the early lead, it’ll put the pressure
on an offensively-challenged LSSU club to score and
force them to play a more wide-open brand of hockey.
That’s definitely not their strong suit.
8 Alaska-Fairbanks at No. 5 Bowling Green UAF: 13-15-4, 11-14-3 CCHA BGSU: 16-14-4, 13-12-3 CCHA Season Series: BG won, 2-0-0
Fact: UAF was swept by BGSU during a stretch
that was part of an eight-game winless streak. Since
that swoon, however, the Nanooks are 7-4-3. Falcon Fact: This weekend’s
games vs. UAF marks the first time BGSU has hosted
a first-round playoff series since 1995, when the
Falcons swept Notre Dame to advance to Joe Louis Arena.
Stay out of the penalty box. It hasn’t been
a problem for the Nanooks thus far – they average
17.3 penalty minutes per game. But the penalty kill
is not good (a 79.3 success rate) and BGSU connects
on one of five power play chances. How Bowling Green Wins: The Falcons
have a tendency to try to make an extra move or extra
pass on offense. Very often, the end result is a missed
opportunity. Scoring chances are a premium in the
playoffs. The young BGSU forwards need to recognize
when the extra play isn’t there, and instead
throw the puck at the net or out in front.
7 Miami at No. 6 Michigan State MIA: 15-16-5, 11-13-4 CCHA MSU: 17-15-4, 12-13-3 CCHA Season Series: Split, 1-1-0
Fact: Streaky Miami opened the year with
four wins, then endured a 4-12-4 stretch before posting
a 7-4-1 mark over the last seven weeks of the regular
season. Spartan Fact: With its sweep of Notre
Dame last weekend, MSU avoided opening the playoffs
on the road for just the second time since joining
the CCHA prior to the 1981-82 season.
Miami Wins: The RedHawks boast better offensive
balance than the Spartans, who’ve been led as
of late by the same three or four forwards. If Miami
can neutralize MSU’s top line and keep them
from scoring on the power play, their superior depth
should give them an excellent chance of advancing. How Michigan State Wins: Even though
they’re fairly similar statistically, Dominic
Vicari gives MSU an advantage in goal over Miami’s
Brandon Crawford-West, who can be stellar or sub-par
– in the same period, in fact. Vicari’s
a calming influence for the Spartans, and he can hold
opponents at bay for long stretches until the offense
earned its third CCHA title in four seasons on the strength
of 23 league wins, the most since coach Red Berenson’s
1993-94 squad posted 24 conference victories (at a time
when teams played 30 league games, two more than they do
team in the country boasts better scoring balance –
a dozen players have 20-plus points, led by sophomore T.J.
Hensick’s 48 points. While Hensick has been in a steady
burn all season, a passel of fellow forwards have spontaneously
combusted during the last two months. In the last 16 games,
junior Jeff Tambellini has 25 points, freshman Chad Kolarik
and senior captain Eric Nystrom each have 18 points, and
junior Andrew Ebbett has 16 points.
a solid and versatile defensive corps, Michigan’s
lone question mark appears to be goaltender Al Montoya.
Sure, he led the country with 25 wins, but his woeful .891
save percentage ranks 63rd nationally and he’s not
among the top thirty in goals against average. What’s
more, Montoya hasn’t been able to steal a game for
the Wolverines this season, as evidenced by the team’s
0-7-2 record when scoring fewer than three goals.
As if Michigan State needed more worries, they
draw Miami – the best seventh-place team in the nation
– in the first round of the CCHA playoffs. Unquestionably
the most dangerous of the six CCHA road teams, it wouldn’t
be a shock to see the RedHawks advance to the conference
semifinals in Detroit next week.
regular season was a lot like a donut. Things were pretty
good around the edges, but there was a huge hole in the
middle. Miami won its first four contests of the year, then
went 3-10-3 during a horrific 16-game stretch. Since the
first of the year, however, coach Enrico Blasi’s team
paper, this weekend’s first-round series in East Lansing
appears to favor Miami. They’re more balanced offensively
than the Spartans, get better play from their power play
and penalty-killing units and have a respectable 5-2-2 road
record in league play since Jan. 1.
most importantly, the RedHawks’ best players are playing
their best hockey right now. Sophomore forwards Matt Christie
and Marty Guerin have combined for 31 points in the team’s
last 12 games, junior defenseman Andy Greene has maintained
an All-American level of play the entire season and sophomore
goaltender Brandon Crawford-West has steadied after a dismal
first two-thirds of the season.
– David Caruso, Ohio State Tuomas
Tarkki grabbed the headlines with miniscule numbers and
the backup-to-standout storyline, and everyone is familiar
with Jordan Sigalet, but Caruso’s statistics and importance
to his team cannot be overlooked. The Roswell, Ga., native
has shed the scrambling style he played last season and
is a steady, unflappable influence for a young squad. No
CCHA netminder is quicker when it comes to getting back
on his feet or moving from post to post.
– Andy Greene, Miami:
As long as he’s in the CCHA, you’ll find his
name here. There’s not a more complete defenseman
in the nation – Greene scores goals and sets up teammates,
rarely gets beaten in his own end, plays a key role on the
RedHawks’ power play and penalty kill and is the team’s
leader on and off the ice.
– Wes O’Neill, Notre Dame:
Before you folks in Marquette, Ann Arbor and Columbus send
those angry e-mails, hear me out. Admittedly, it’s
highly unorthodox to tab a blueliner with a plus-minus rating
of minus-19 as an all-conference performer, but O’Neill
deserves it. He blossomed into a terrific two-way presence
this season and on many nights was the Fighting Irish’s
lone scoring threat.
– T.J. Hensick, Michigan Hensick
earned his spot on this team with a power play goal in a
see-saw affair against Western Michigan at Yost Ice Arena
in January. The sophomore repeatedly set up teammates for
prime scoring chances, but they couldn’t connect.
Taking matters into his own hands, Hensick regains possession
of the puck, skates to within 20 feet of the cage and unleashes
a hard shot that screams over the goalie’s right shoulder.
The sequence was a microcosm of offensive prowess that makes
him the league’s most dangerous weapon.
– Scott Parse, Nebraska-Omaha:
The catalyst for a UNO team that jumped from last to fourth
in the league standings, Parse scored 47 points this season,
12 more than he amassed during a stellar freshman campaign.
How important is Parse to the Mavs’ success? Even
though he’s in the midst of a career-long, seven-game
goal drought, he’s assisted on eight goals during
F – Jim Slater, Michigan State:
Despite a slow start to his senior year, Slater bounced
back to score 40-plus points for the third straight year.
With nine points in the Spartans’ last six games,
Slater virtually willed the team to home ice for the first
round of the CCHA playoffs. As MSU’s captain, he’s
kept an even keel throughout what has been a turbulent season
in East Lansing.
OF THE YEAR
When Scott Paluch returned in 2002 to assume head coaching
duties his alma mater, Bowling Green, he inherited a program
that was fading fast. The Falcons lacked talent, rarely
functioned as a cohesive unit and effort was lacking. Fans
stayed away from BGSU Ice Arena in droves.
Three years into his tenure, Paluch hasn’t completely
returned the Falcons to their former glory, but he’s
well on his way. Under his guidance, BGSU posted a 16-14-4
overall record and a 13-12-3 mark in league play –
its best showings in nine seasons – and earned the
right to host a CCHA first-round playoff series for the
first time since 1995.
to a masterful job of recruiting, Paluch and his staff have
amassed an impressive stockpile of young talent. Players
such as forwards Alex Foster, Jonathan Matsumoto and James
Unger and defensemen Michael Hodgson and Jonathan Sigalet
have developed nicely, and their energy has infused new
life in holdovers like senior forward Ryan Minnabarriet
and senior goalie Jordan Sigalet.
Hockey fans in northwestern Ohio have noticed – the
Falcons’ average attendance was up more than 500 from
last season. A relentlessly positive influence and one of
the college game’s genuinely good guys, Paluch has
Bowling Green poised for a return to prominence in the years
OF THE YEAR
An absolute no-brainer. Michigan’s T.J. Hensick stands
out because of his offensive prowess – he’s
the CCHA’s leading scorer in conference play with
43 points, and his 48 points ranks second to Western Michigan’s
Brent Walton in the league in overall scoring.
As a freshman, Hensick’s passing prowess caught our
eye. This season, he impressed with his ability to create
scoring opportunities for himself in one-on-one situations,
delving into a bag of moves and dekes that continually expands.
While other Wolverines have yo-yoed from productive to struggling,
Hensick has been steady. Only twice has he gone scoreless
in back-to-back games, and he’s put together point
streaks of six, six and ten games this year.
OF THE YEAR
While Parse and fellow sophomore Chris Holt deserve credit
for the rapid turnaround at Nebraska-Omaha, so to does a
talented crop of freshmen led by forward Bill Thomas. His
18 goals and 42 points are the most among Division I rookies,
and only three first-year players nationally have exceeded
his 24 assists. The Pittsburgh native is both steady (at
least one point in 27 of the Mavericks’ 36 games)
and explosive (he’s had 12 multiple-point outings
this season). With UNO losing just one key contributor (senior
forward Dan Hacker) from this year’s team, expect
Thomas and Co. to continue their ascent toward the top of
When Drew Miller signed a letter of intent to attend Michigan
State, most people assumed it was a birthright for him to
follow in the footsteps of the nine family members –
including his father, Dean, and brother, Ryan – who
had previously donned the green and white. Why else would
the Spartans bring in a willowy forward who was excellent
defensively but displayed marginal offensive skills? Two
years later, Miller has become a two-way dynamo. Not only
is he among the CCHA’s best defensive forwards and
top penalty-killers, but he’s among the conference
leaders in goals (17) and power-play goals (nine) and is
one of MSU’s unquestioned team leaders.