February 14, 2008
'Cats Pause Spartans Title Chase

By James V. Dowd

After sneaking up on Notre Dame with a series split in early January and surprising Michigan with a pair of ties at Yost Ice Arena earlier this month, Northern Michigan was hardly off Michigan State's radar heading into last weekend's series between the two teams in Marquette. But even with the alert sounding in the Spartans' locker room, the Wildcats fed on the energy exuded by their raucous supporters and, to put it crudely, ran the defending national champions out of the building, all but eliminating the Spartan seniors' chance to win their first CCHA title.

CCHA Notebook

Life of Brian: Northern Michigan goaltender Brian Stewart stopped all but one of the 56 shots he faced in the Wildcats' sweep of Michigan State last weekend.

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All year long, the Spartans have been able to rely on all-world goaltender Jeff Lerg to help them win games they might not have otherwise won. But even one of college hockey's top netminders will have an off night when there is a lack of defensive support. And after seeing Lerg give up three goals — all to Northern Michigan's Nick Sirota — Michigan State coach Rick Comley was so frustrated with the lack of defense that he elected to replace Lerg with sophomore Bobby Jarosz, who saved all six shots he faced in the final period of a 3-1 loss.

“It wasn't anything that Jeff did or didn't do," Comley said after the game. “He was kind of out there alone. I did it to try to get something going in front of him. Credit goes to Bobby — whenever he has to come in cold, he is up to the challenge and has responded well."

Though Lerg returned to the front of the cage Saturday, Michigan State still couldn't muster up the offensive support needed to come up with a victory to keep them within striking distance in the title race, falling to the Wildcats by a 3-0 margin.

“It’s not time for excuses,” Comley told The State News. “It’s a time for reality and reacting to it. That’s what it’s all about.

"Everybody’s playing for something right now. We just weren’t very sharp, we were sloppy with the puck and Northern Michigan played extremely well. (The weekend) left a bad taste with everybody. We kind of got what we deserved.”

Heading into this weekend's home-and home series against Western Michigan, the Spartans are in need a strong performance to give them some momentum before facing Michigan one week later.

“One thing we learned from last year is that you never know when you are or are not in the tournament,” MSU defenseman Daniel Vukovic said in an interview last week. “We have to keep winning. A lot of teams are playing really well right now, so we can't lose. If teams win a few and we lose a few games, we won't get in.”


Oxford Comma: While their green-and-white rivals floundered up in Marquette, Michigan rebounded from a pair of disappointing weekends to take three points from Miami in a series which might decide the CCHA regular-season title.

“We know it's going to come down to us, Miami and Michigan State, and there is no way you're going to win the CCHA title if you don't beat the best team in the league,” Michigan goaltender Billy Sauer said prior the series.

With Friday's 4-2 victory and Saturday's 5-5 draw, the Wolverines overcame the one-point deficit in the CCHA standings, and now sit with a one-point lead over the RedHawks..

After building a seemingly insurmountable 4-0 first-period lead against the RedHawks Friday, the Wolverines left fans at Steve Cady Arena and a national television audience in stunned silence. But Michigan almost blew the lead, racking up five minor penalties, a 10-minute misconduct, and a five-minute major penalty for checking from behind that was accompanied by a game misconduct in the third period alone.

And as if totaling 35 penalty minutes in the final frame wasn't enough, the 10-minute misconduct and the checking from behind penalties were assessed to blueliners Mark Mitera and Scooter Vaughan, leaving Michigan with just four defensemen in the final minutes of the game — a shortage exacerbated by the dismissal of Kevin Quick from the team one week prior.

Though the Wolverines now control their own destiny with respect to the league 's regular-season title, the team must cut down on costly mistakes such as the aforementioned penalties and a penalty for too many men on the ice in overtime of Saturday's games to give themselves a chance to win tight games from here on out.

“It was pretty frustrating,” Sauer said of Friday's third period. “Every time there was a whistle I pretty much assumed it was a penalty. When you have to kill that much it's frustrating. Your team can't get anything going.”

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W. Michigan at Michigan St. (Fri)
Michigan St. at W. Michigan (Sat)

This series could have devastating effects on the CCHA standings. A loss or two by the Spartans would officially knock them out of the race for league title. A loss or two by Western Michigan could keep the Broncos in the league basement for good.

And while there is a large gap in recent success of the programs, the teams have proven fairly equal in recent match-ups, particularly at rowdy Lawson Arena in Kalamazoo.

While you're there: One of Kalamazoo's most unique attractions is the Air Zoo, or Kalamazoo Air History Museum. It's is home to dozens of historical aircraft and restoration experts who return retired planes to working order. The museum is also home to the largest indoor mural in the world, a 25,000-square foot tribute to the history of flight.

Stick Salute

Northern Michigan's Nick Sirota earned his first career hat trick last Friday — against Michigan State and goaltender Jeff Lerg, no less.

Bench Minor

Although Michigan earned three of four possible points against Miami in Oxford, bad penalties almost cost them both games. Sometimes a minor penalty is necessary to preserve a victory, but the slew of careless penalties committed by the Wolverines could come back to haunt them if the pattern continues.


• As Michigan showed with its quick start in Friday's game, scoring first has been an important part of the team's success this year. In games when they score first, the Wolverines are 20-0-2, compared to 3-3-1 in games when the opponent draws first blood.

• While Western Michigan fell further into the CCHA basement after gaining just one point against Lake Superior State last weekend, this weekend's series against Michigan State might be a chance for the Broncos to turn it around. WMU is 5-2-1 in the last eight meetings between the teams.

• Ohio State freshman Sergio Somma seemingly began his Buckeye career as a pure goal scorer, notching five of them before he earned his first assist. But in recent weeks, Somma has been setting up teammates, passing his way to assists in five of his last six games, giving him a season line of 7 goals and 8 helpers for 15 points — as balanced a scoring line as you will find.

• Perhaps one key to Alaska's resurgence is the team's experience. After last weekend's series at Bowling Green, nine players on the Nanooks' roster have skated in more than 100 career games, giving coach Doc DelCastillo the most experienced team the program has had since joining the CCHA.

• If one needed a sign of just how important the rabid support of Nebraska-Omaha can be to the performance of the team, take note of Saturday's record crowd, which cheered the Mavericks to a victory over Ohio State, ending UNO's five-game home winless streak. A total of 10,598 people watched the home team defeat the Buckeyes, 5-2.

• Bowling Green couldn't find a way to slide more then one past Alaska netminder Wylie Rogers during Saturday's 4-1 loss to the Nanooks, but it wasn't for a lack of trying. The Falcons put together a whopping 46 shots, scoring only on a clever fake by Derek Whitmore, who notched his 23rd marker of the season.

A variety of sources were utilized in the compilation of this report. James V. Dowd can be reached at james@insidecollegehockey.com.