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Hockey: Top of the heap

Sam Werner | Thursday, January 22, 2009

With only a third of the season remaining in CCHA play, the conference standings are beginning to take shape.

The important cutoffs are between fourth and fifth place and eighth and ninth place.

The top four teams receive a first-round bye and host a second-round series in the CCHA playoffs, and the next four seeds host a first-round conference playoff series.

The CCHA tournament’s first round is set for the weekend of March 6-8, and the second round follows the next weekend. Each of the first two rounds consists of a best-of-three series.

The final four teams will travel to Detroit, where the semifinals will be held on March 20 at Joe Louis Arena – home of the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings. The CCHA tournament championship game will be played the next night.

Notre Dame (32 pts, 19-3-3, 13-2-3-3)

What more can you say? The Irish are pretty good.

Riding a school-record 20-game unbeaten streak, Notre Dame is clearly the team to beat in the CCHA. Senior Christian Hanson and sophomore Calle Ridderwall are the top two in the conference in points scored, and senior netminder Jordan Pearce is second in goals-against average.

The only quality wins during the 20-game run, however, have been a Nov. 7 win at Boston College and a home sweep of Alaska on Jan. 9-10. Jeff Jackson’s squad will be tested over the next two weeks, with a home-and-home against rival Michigan and a series at fourth-place Ohio State.

Miami (Ohio) (25 pts, 13-8-3, 11-5-2-1)

Despite Notre Dame’s 20-game run, the RedHawks have given the Irish little room to breath atop the standings.

Sophomore Carter Camper leads the squad with 14 goals and 30 points, and the freshman goaltending duo of Connor Knapp and Cody Reichard have provided a solid backing to the RedHawk defense that leads the CCHA in killing penalties.

Despite their hot start, Miami has struggled recently, going 1-5-0 over their last six games, with a Jan. 17 win over Michigan State as the lone bright spot. The road doesn’t get any easier going forward, with a road series against fifth-place Nebraska-Omaha this weekend.

Alaska (25 pts, 11-8-5, 9-7-4-3)

Picked to finish 11th in the conference by both the coaches and the media, the Nanooks have been the surprise of the CCHA so far. Alaska has played two more games than both teams ahead of them, but could still find itself in contention for a top-four spot, with two road games at Ohio State the only real test remaining on the schedule.

First year coach Dallas Ferguson’s squad has gotten the job done with an air-tight defense that leads the CCHA, giving up only 1.55 goals per game, and goalie Chad Johnson leads the league in both GAA and save percentage.

A top-four spot would be especially advantageous for the Nanooks, as it would require their second-round CCHA playoff opponent to travel all the way to Fairbanks for their series.

Ohio State (22 pts, 16-6-2, 9-5-2-2)

The Buckeyes have also surprised the league this season, after finishing last year in 11th place.

Riding a 10-game unbeaten streak, Ohio State is second in the CCHA in scoring offense, netting 3.31 goals per game.

Having played at least two fewer games than all three teams above them, the only question is whether a Buckeye team with only four upperclassmen can withstand the pressures of late-season conference games.

The road isn’t easy either, with two games each against Notre Dame, Miami, Michigan, and Alaska.

Nebraska-Omaha (22 pts, 13-8-4, 8-6-4-2)

The Mavericks have also taken advantage of a relatively easy early-season schedule to propel to the top of the conference.

Without a win against a top-four team this season, Nebraska-Omaha will be tested in upcoming matchups against Miami, Michigan, and Notre Dame.

Michigan (20 pts, 16-8-0, 10-6-0-0)

Casual college hockey fans may be surprised to see the Wolverines this low in the standings, but after losing some key players from last year’s Frozen Four team, Red Berenson’s team has undergone some understandable growing pains. However, after back-to-back wins against Miami on Jan. 10 and 11, the Maize and Blue appear ready to make a late season push. Games against Notre Dame, Nebraska-Omaha, and Ohio State stand out as potential roadblocks to Michigan’s quest for a second consecutive CCHA title.

Ferris State (17 pts, 10-11-5, 7-8-3-0)

With a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way, the Bulldogs seem poised to make a run towards a top-four spot. Only a final-weekend series against Michigan could pose a problem. With their defensive trapping style of play, Ferris State has the potential to take down any team in the CCHA playoffs.

Lake Superior State (13 pts, 6-10-8, 3-7-6-1); Michigan State (12 pts, 7-14-3, 4-10-2-2)

The Lakers and disappointing Spartans, picked to finish fifth in the CCHA by the coaches, are fighting for the eighth seed and the right to host a first-round CCHA playoff series.

Bowling Green (11 pts, 8-13-3, 5-10-1-0); Northern Michigan (11 pts, 6-13-3, 3-10-3-2); Western Michigan (11 pts, 6-13-5, 3-9-4-1)

While anything can happen in the conference tournament, the Falcons, Wildcats, and Broncos appear to pose little threat to any of the top teams. The season has been especially disappointing for Northern Michigan, who was picked to finish fourth in the CCHA after a third-place showing in last year’s tournament.

***For more on Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s athletics, check out The Observer’s sports blog, The Casual Observer, at observersportsblog.wordpress.com.