December 14, 2002
Mid-term evaluations for the West

By Mike Eidelbes

 West Notebook

Michigan freshman goaltender Al Montoya leads the CCHA in goals against average (photo courtesy University of Michigan).

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CCHA: Ferris State. In our preseason preview we picked the Bulldogs – who currently enjoy a four-point cushion atop the CCHA standings – to finish eighth. Who do you think we are, Kreskin? Besides, the league's media and coaches tabbed Ferris State for a ninth-place finish. Seriously, two question marks loomed heading into the season. First, how would forward Chris Kunitz fare without the departed Rob Collins setting him up? Just fine, thank you very much, as he's second in the CCHA in scoring with 27 points and linemates Jeff Legue (20 points) and Derek Nesbitt (19 points) have filled in nicely. Second, could Mike Brown go from solid goaltender as a freshman to difference maker as a sophomore? Well, let's see...he leads the league in wins and save percentage, ranks second in goals against average and has been named CCHA Defensive Player of the Week five times in 10 weeks. That would be a yes, too.

CHA: Findlay. The Oilers have compiled a 7-6-1 overall record, just four wins shy of last year's total. They've feasted off MAAC foes – a 6-0 record against Canisius, Holy Cross and Bentley – but were six minutes away from beating Bowling Green and dropped an overtime decision to nationally-ranked Miami in Oxford. Findlay is league's highest scoring team, averaging four goals per game. Forward Rigel Shaw, who scored 18 goals as a freshman last season, has just three goals and 10 points in 14 outings this year. Offsetting that dropoff are junior Nick Udovicic (20 points) and senior Jason Maxwell (17 points), both of whom have surpassed their scoring totals from one year ago.

WCHA: Colorado College. One could also make a strong case for North Dakota in this category, but we'll give the Tigers the nod thanks to their 14-game unbeaten streak. Given its experienced blueline corps, it's not a shock that Colorado College has allowed the fewest goals in the WCHA, and forwards Peter Sejna and Noah Clarke have produced results consistent with previous years. But sophomore goaltender Curtis McIlhenney (2.27 GAA, .917 sv%) has ably repaced the departed Jeff Sanger. Generating offense figured to be the Tigers' Achilles heel, but senior defenseman Tom Preissing, always solid in his own zone, has an NCAA-best 10 power play goals. Fireplug forward Brett Sterling has 10 goals, more than any other WCHA freshman not named Parise or Vanek. And instead of one or two players stepping up to fill the scoring void, Colorado College has taken a communal approach – 19 of the team's 22 skaters have scored at least one goal and all but one forward or defenseman has at least one point. Not to be outdone, all three Tiger goaltenders have at least one win this season.


CCHA: Al Montoya, Michigan. At a time when most 17-year-olds are thinking about ways to get their parents to extend their curfews, Montoya has been concerned with being the No. 1 goaltender at one of the nation's college hockey powers. Prior to the season, Red Berenson seemed to be the only one who didn't see the team's situation between the pipes as a question mark. Guess we should've trusted the coach. Despite enduring back-to-back losses at Northern Michigan last weekend, Montoya has been incredibly steady for the Wolverines. He owns the conference's best goals against average (2.01), is one of three netminders to share the league lead with two shutouts and ranks second in save percentage (.924). He's the leader at the turn for the CCHA Rookie of the Year award, and he and FSU's Brown will battle for first-team all-conference honors.

CHA: Grady Hunt, Bemidji State. How can a 2002 second-team all-CHA selection be the league's biggest surprise? Well, Hunt has put up ridiculous numbers in goal for a team that would undoubtedly be in big trouble without him. The Beavers are 5-4-5 overall, a remarkable feat for a team that that ranks tied for 52nd among Division I schools in scoring offense. In fact, BSU has scored three or more goals four times and is 1-2-1 in those games. Hunt, a junior from Vernon, B.C., currently leads the NCAA in saves percentage (.948) and is fourth nationally in goals against average (1.67).

WCHA: Tom Preissing, Colorado College. It would be easy to plug a goalie like McIlhenney or UMD's Isaac Reichmuth into this spot, but Preissing's accomplishments so far this season are nothing short of mind-boggling. The Rosemount, Minn., native has 12 goals this season – he came into the year with 16 goals for his career. He leads the nation in power-play goals and, along with Minnesota's Paul Martin, paces NCAA blueliners in points. Preissing's versatility is a big reason the Tigers are first nationally in scoring offense, third in scoring defense, tied for first in power-play success and third in penalty killing. If there is any justice, he should merit serious consideration for WCHA MVP and Hobey Baker honors. He's been that good.


CCHA: Brian Maloney, Michigan State. At the outset of the season, many wondered whether Maloney, who missed all but one of the team's 2002 postseason games after breaking two ribs and bruising his kidney, would return to the form that allowed him to rack up 102 points, 244 penalty minutes and a +45 plus-minus rating during his first three years in East Lansing. He hasn't. The senior wing has one goal and six points to go along with a -1 plus-minus rating in 15 games this season. Granted, the entire Spartan forward corps has silent offensively so far, but has been invisible not only on the score sheet but also as a physical presence. Had he stayed healthy, Maloney probably would've left MSU, signed with an NHL club as a free agent and started the 2002-03 season in the American Hockey League. Unless he picks up the pace, he's likely to and up in the East Coast Hockey League.

CHA: David Guerrera, Wayne State. The conference's player of the year in 2001 and 2002, the Guerrera will have to get extremely hot down the stretch to even have a remote chance to be considered for the honor this season. Of the eight CHA goaltenders eligible to be included in the league's statistical report, Guerrera ranks fourth in saves percentage (.880) and is sixth in winning percentage (.364) and goals against average (3.92). Consider some of his outings this season, all losses – eight goals allowed against Vermont, five allowed in 40 minutes of work against Michigan Tech and six against Alaska-Fairbanks.

WCHA: Denver. This may be a little bit of a reach, and St. Cloud State could be considered for this spot, but injuries plagued the Huskies early so they get the benefit of the doubt. For now. Certainly, the Pioneers have a respectable record (12-4-2 heading into the weekend series vs. St. Cloud State) and they rank second in the league in scoring defense and fourth in the conference in scoring offense. But they've been maddingly inconsistent over the five weeks. Their 5-3-2 record during that span includes losses to Minnesota-Duluth and a sweep vs. Colorado College. They've also tied WCHA cellar dwellers Michigan Tech and Alaska Anchorage. There's no doubt Denver will make the NCAA Tournament and are primed to defend their WCHA playoff championship. But that's not good enough – given last year's success, the returning talent and the freshman class they brought in, the Pioneers should be the front-runner for the MacNaughton Cup and a serious national championship contender. There's still time.

INCH's CCHA First Half
All-League Team
G Mike Brown, Ferris State
D Greg Zanon, Nebraska-Omaha
D Evan Nielsen, Notre Dame
F Chris Kunitz, Ferris State
F Greg Hogeboom, Miami
F Chris Gobert, Northern Michigan


CCHA: Notre Dame over Michigan, 4-2, Nov. 23. The Fighting Irish aren't a bad team and the Wolverines aren't as dominant as they've been in years past. But when you haven't won in a building since the Reagan Administration, it's a little bit of a shock.

CHA: Niagara over Michigan State, 2-1, Nov. 8. The Purple Eagles nearly pulled off the most surprising sweep of the season. One night after edging the Spartans in East Lansing, Niagara took MSU to overtime before falling by a 5-4 score.

WCHA: Minnesota State, Mankato over Minnesota, 3-2, Nov. 8. Yeah, we know the Gophers were injury-riddled. And during this game, Riddle was injured. But the Mavericks limped into this series with a 1-3-2 record. They've been pretty steady since.


CCHA: Alaska Fairbanks. Give coach Guy Gadowsky and his team credit for posting a 7-7-2 record during the season's first half. The Nanooks' slate so far has consisted of series against nationally-ranked foes Ohio State, Michigan, Ferris State and Miami and two against in-state rival Alaska Anchorage. They've earned the right to face Bowling Green, Michigan State, Lake Superior State and Western Michigan to start the first half of the season.

CHA: Alabama-Huntsville. In case you haven't heard, the Chargers opened the season with three road series against WCHA opposition – Wisconsin, Denver and Minnesota. They got to face the Gophers on the night the team raised the 2002 championship banner at Mariucci Arena. Home team wasn't too pumped up that night. To their credit, however, Alabama-Huntsville has put up a 5-1-2 mark since completing the WCHA tour.

WCHA: Michigan Tech. Just pencil the Huskies into this spot every year. Of the seven opponents Tech has seen this season, five – Northern Michigan, Minnesota, Colorado College and Denver – were nationally-ranked when they placed the Huskies. How about this grueling four-week stretch – home against Minnesota, at Colorado College, home against Denver and at Minnesota? After the holiday break, the Huskies get back to action against Michigan at the Great Lakes Invitational, and will also take on either Boston University or Michigan State.

INCH's CHA First Half
All-League Team
G Grady Hunt, Bemidji State
D Steve Traver, Findlay
D Jeremy Schreiber, Ala.-Huntsville
F Joe Tallari, Niagara
F Andy Berg, Air Force
F Nick Udovicic, Findlay


CCHA: Lake Superior State. The Lakers managed 20 goals in your first 16 games en route to a 3-13 start. They'll be lucky to double the goal and win totals given the schedule over the next 10 weeks, which includes series with Michigan State, at Alaska Fairbanks (always an easy trip to make, especially in mid-January when there's roughly 45 minutes of daylight), Michigan, Ferris State, Northern Michigan, Notre Dame and Miami.

CHA: Findlay. The Oilers, mentioned previously as the CHA's surprise team, have their work cut out for them in the second half of the season. They've got four games left with Wayne State and Alabama-Huntsville, two against Bemidji State, non-conference tilts against Western Michigan and Ohio State and a potential meeting with Ferris State.

WCHA: Minnesota. Not that everyone on their schedule isn't already gunning for the Gophers, but the team's schedule is fairly treacherous the rest of the way. Four games with St. Cloud State remain, as do series with North Dakota, Colorado College and Denver. Throw in rivals Minnesota-Duluth and Wisconsin and add Minnesota State, Mankato (which split with the visiting Gophers in November) for good measure. The encouraging news for Minnesota fans – the Gophers should be healthy for the second half of the season.


CCHA: Ferris State-Michigan (Jan. 31-Feb. 1). It's the only two meetings between these teams this least during the regular season, anyway. Two wins for either side likely puts them in the driver's seat for the top seed in the CCHA Tournament.

CHA: Bemidji State at Wayne State (Feb. 7-8). The Warriors were the overwhelming pick to repeat as the league's regular season champions. The Beavers should be well above the .500 if they could get any offense. This series could go a long way in determining which teams are the top two seeds in the CHA Tournament and, more importantly, automatically advance to the playoff semifinals.

WCHA: North Dakota at Colorado College (Jan. 31-Feb. 1). The Tigers and the Sioux square off in Grand Forks to start the new year. When these two meet in Colorado Springs, they'll have memories of that series fresh in their minds and they'll be able to see the regular-season finish line in the distance. A sweep in this series might give CC or UND the last line change in a potential WCHA Final Five championship game tilt.

INCH's WCHA First Half
All-League Team
G Curtis McIlhenney, Colorado Coll.
D Tom Preissing, Colorado College
D Paul Martin, Minnesota
F Peter Sejna, Colorado College
F Zach Parise, North Dakota
F Grant Stevenson, MSU, Mankato


CCHA: John Grahame (Lake Superior State) and Steve Shields (Michigan), Boston Bruins. With apologies to Dallas' Marty Turco, the Bruins' two-headed goaltending monster has been a big reason the team has the most points in the NHL. Their records are almost identical – Shields is 8-4-2, while Grahame is 9-3-1 – and both had stopped 342 shots entering the weekend. Tampa Bay blueliner and Miami alum Dan Boyle, who came into the weekend tied for third among NHL defensemen with 24 points, also deserves a mention.

CHA: Mark Kielkucki (Air Force), Cincinnati Cyclones. The Cyclones have allowed the fewest goals in the East Coast Hockey League this season, and entered the weekend on a seven-game winning streak. Since being acquired in a trade with Dayton, Kielkucki has made six starts with the Cyclones and is 4-2-0 with a 2.26 goals against average and a .917 save percentage.

WCHA: Tyler Arnason (St. Cloud State), Chicago Blackhawks. As gifted a scorer as Arnason is, questions about his work ethic always lingered, especially when he showed up for his first professional training camp in terrible shape. Arnason has been helped make Chicago fans forget about the departed Tony Amonte – well, not entirely, but at least a little bit. He leads NHL rookies in goals and points and is tied for fourth among league newcomers in assists and plus-minus rating. A nod, also, to former North Dakota netminder Ed Belfour, who has managed to avoid a meltdown under the microscope in Toronto.


CCHA: How much did Ryan Miller mean to Michigan State? Let's see. The Spartans are 7-7-1 this season. So we'll say he meant a lot.

CHA: Why pay attention to the regular season, with Wayne State is going to run away with the league? As Lee Corso says, not so fast, my friend. Wayne State has gone through its share of struggles, but the Warriors should rebound. Bemidji State has a stifling defense – and the stifled offense to go with it. Alabama-Huntsville is on a roll. Findlay has been a surprise, hence the designation as surprise team. Niagara beat Michigan State and played North Dakota tough. Air Force's players are trained killers (well, they are). This is wide open, folks.

WCHA: Is Zach Parise that good? He's the best freshman forward since Paul Kariya. He's the nation's leading scorer. The Fighting Sioux have one loss this season. All that's missing is a catchy nickname a la "The Hrkac Circus." And, no, "The Zach Attack" isn't good enough. How about "The Parise Riders"?


CCHA: How many fans will show up for a Ferris State-Ohio State final at the league tournament? It's sometimes problematic when a league pins its entire financial hopes on the success of two teams, especially when one is mediocre and the other is one of the youngest in the nation. Hint: it's not Alaska-Fairbanks and Bowling Green.

CHA: Who's not a contender for the league's automatic bid? Air Force is probably the longest of shots. Niagara and Findlay would be in the middle. No one would be shocked if Wayne State, Bemidji State and Alabama-Huntsville earned the NCAA Tournament berth. The Atlanta Thrashers were mathmatically eliminated in mid-November.

WCHA: Is T.J. Caig a figment of the imagination? The high-scoring forward came to Minnesota-Duluth out of the run-and-gun British Columbia Junior Hockey League. but has been sidelined by the NCAA since enrolling at UMD last December for playing in a Tier I game. That hiatus comes to an end when the Bulldogs host Union at the end of the month. The 'Dogs also welcome freshman Justin Williams, the Alberta Junior Hockey League playoff co-MVP, back to the fold. He was out due to an NCAA Clearinghouse issue - the suits gave him the OK to play, but by that time, he had broken his ankle. Will the duo provide a spark for UMD, one which carries the team to a home-ice berth for the first round of the league playoffs? Stay tuned.

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