Mid-term evaluations for the West
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
HAPPENED TO …
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
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.
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.
CCHA First Half
Brown, Ferris State
Nielsen, Notre Dame
Kunitz, Ferris State
Gobert, Northern Michigan
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
CHA First Half
Hunt, Bemidji State
Berg, Air Force
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.
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.
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.
Ferris State-Michigan (Jan. 31-Feb. 1). It's the
only two meetings between these teams this season...at 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.
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.
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
WCHA First Half
McIlhenney, Colorado Coll.
Preissing, Colorado College
Sejna, Colorado College
Parise, North Dakota
Stevenson, MSU, Mankato
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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"?
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
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.
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.