Between the Lines: Feb. 4, 2005
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Cornell coach Mike Schafer recently hauled off on this year's officiating directive, not so much on the theory, but the practice.
Schafer told the Ithaca Journal: "The whole game, the way it has changed has been ridiculous. I'll state it publicly. They are rewarding players, college players, for turning their back when they are going to get hit. They reward college players to dive when there is no contact. And making the referees' job really hard. So what do they do? They choose to call the easiest, [when] a guy goes down whenever there is contact. ...
"There are two ways to play in this game. One is to play with respect and stay on your feet and be strong, and the other way is to dive all over the place and to try to draw penalties."
In theory, there is every reason to fully support this year's officiating directive. But there's been a growing sense that officials are not concentrating on the right thing. Though Schafer states the point perhaps more strenuously than I would, it's a real problem that the "weak" are rewarded. In fact, that is not a new problem — it has always been a problem, and it's a point Schafer would make in the past, even before the new directive came into play. In fact, this obstruction crackdown was supposed to address the very problem he talks about — that by calling obstruction away from the play, regardless of whether a player goes down, it helps a team like his that is strong on their skates.
Schafer puts a premium emphasis on strength and conditioning, and teaches his guys to stay on their feet and fight through the nonsense. Other teams will just dive and try to take a call. Theoretically then, the initiative should help Cornell because by calling obstruction even when guys aren't going down, it should draw calls anyway.
Problem is, the officials seem to be falling back, too often, into calling more of the stuff where guys go down — knee-jerking that it's obstruction when, in fact, it might not have been. And likewise, not calling enough of the stuff that's obstruction but the guy stays on his feet.
Obstruction and going down are not necessarily connected. You can be obstructed and still be on your feet. And you can be knocked over without having been fouled. In an attempt to make it seem like they are cracking down, some officials are reverting back to making the lazy call.
Overall, I still think the initiative has been a good thing, but this is something that everyone needs to keep an eye on.
The interesting thing, though, is that Cornell's special teams is so good, this is practically to Cornell's benefit anyway. Schafer would prefer to play 5-on-5 all day long, but he's also proven to be a tremendous special teams coach.
Michigan Tech came back down to Earth last weekend, losing a pair of home games to Colorado College. There's certainly no shame in that, however, especially when you consider the Huskies won four of the previous fives games against the likes of Minnesota and Denver.
The Gophers may have hit a rather large hiccup lately, losing five of six home games on the heels of winning 20 straight there. But for a team like Tech, which recently concluded a 13-game winless streak, the weekend road sweep of Minnesota was priceless. For the Huskies, that sweep was fresh off a non-league win over Notre Dame, and a split with Denver, also on the road.
After sweeping Minnesota, head coach Jamie Russell's phone did not stop ringing all week. He was getting words of congratulations for all sorts of alumni and fellow coaches. But there's never an easy moment in the WCHA, and it's right back on the road this weekend for a pair at Minnesota-Duluth.
Michigan Tech may be one of those programs at a school that is not a traditional all-sports powerhouse that may have trouble ever getting to that old level again. Like Lake Superior or Clarkson, Tech used to be in Frozen Fours, and sometimes win them. That kind of success will be difficult to ever get back to, and it's something alumni will have to get used to.
But there's no reason Tech can't again become at least a factor in the standings. Right now, its defense is young and inexperienced, and next year is uncertain after the graduation of standout goalie Cam Ellsworth. The offense has been better, but 41-point man Colin Murphy will graduate.
Tech will continue to have its ups and downs, but if a one-win team is still playing hard enough to then go out and beat Denver and Minnesota on the road, something is going right there.
You can hardly attribute Minnesota's recent meltdown to one guy, but clearly the play of goaltender Kellen Briggs fell off dramatically last month. Whether he can get back into early-season form is the key to the Gophers' postseason chances.
Of course, is going 3-6 in the last nine games a meltdown? I guess it is if you're Minnesota.
Despite the e-mails pouring in about jinxes and jumping the gun, I stand by the assertion that Minnesota is practically a lock for the Frozen Four. Despite their hiccup, the Gophers are still in line for a No. 1 seed at a regional in their own building. Does losing those five home games make them vulnerable at home? Perhaps, but to who? They are unlikely to be facing Colorado College or Wisconsin there during the NCAA tournament.
Minnesota is tinkering with line changes to offset a scoring lapse the last four games. The dynamic top line of Danny Irmen, Ryan Potulny and Kris Chucko was lights out most of the season, but has just three points in that span. The Gophers are toying with switching out Chucko for fellow freshman Ben Gordon.
The Gophers have gotten into a rut where they have stopped doing the little things as forwards that lead to open scoring chances.
This weekend's series with Wisconsin will be fascinating for any number of reasons, most of which are obvious. Two top teams, long-time cross-border heated rivals, and each is trying to set itself up for a big stretch run.
Wisconsin has won six in a row, and its record is a stellar 19-6-1. But the Badgers have not really played anyone of consequence inside the league since a sweep of North Dakota in November. And while that's pretty good, prior to that were the pair of losses to the Gophers (two good games) and a loss to Denver.
There is every reason to be confident that Wisconsin is a very good team, but the next four weekends are going to tell use whether Wisconsin is truly an elite team. Two vs. Minnesota, two at Denver, two vs. Colorado College, and two at North Dakota. It hardly gets more daunting than that. Maybe they can throw in a midweek game against Boston College and New Hampshire, just for laughs.
We'll find out a lot more about Boston University tonight against Massachusetts-Lowell. After a great run to climb the Pairwise, BU hit a speed bump in two losses to BC. But that was without Chris Bourque, and BC was getting hot just at that time. Not necessarily a shame there. A tie and loss at Maine — no shame either. But now the winless streak was at four. Last week, they got two one-goal wins against bottom feeders, Merrimack and Providence. Now, goalie John Curry, a revelation this season, is out with a bum shoulder courtesy of a hit from Merrimack's Jeremy Wilson. So, we'll find out a lot tonight about whether BU can be a player down the stretch. Followed of course by the Beanpot. This is usually BU's time to peak.
The BU pedigree is alive and well at Lowell, where coaches Blaise MacDonald and Ken Rausch both were groomed under Jack Parker — Rausch as a player on the 1995 NCAA championship team. But, even better, the River Hawks benefitted from BU when the Terriers passed on goaltender Peter Vetri. Vetri was recently named the AHCA Rookie of the Month. Lowell finally has strong goaltending in place, and it has allowed everyone else to relax. Combine that with the maturation of Ben Walter, and that helps explain Lowell's rise. It was a bizarre start to their season, dominating out of conference, and doing poorly in it. But they have straightened things out and are a fascinating and dangerous team right now.
New Hampshire and Maine go at it Friday, in what should be a telling matchup. New Hampshire had a jeckyl and hyde weekend in losing to Lowell 7-0, then winning 8-3. But, not to make too many excuses for a blowout loss, but the Wildcats were missing two top D-men — Tyson Teplitsky, who has become an indispensible defensive presence, and Robbie Barker. Saturday's bounceback was key for the psyche. Still, they need to be careful, because the defense and goaltending has abandoned them at times. This comes at a time when Maine is trying to make one last run towards the NCAAs. It was an up and down early part of the season, with seemingly too many downs to stay in contention. But just when Maine was about to fall off the cliff, good things started to happen again. And, as is often the case, it starts in net, where Jimmy Howard is righting himself after struggling all season long in net. Between getting mono and battling injuries, Howard has not been in shape all season. A big kid, Howard works out a lot to keep himself in shape. But because of the mono, he was not allowed to rigorously train. He has recently been cleared by doctors to do so, however, so he is rounding back into form. "He couldn't do what he needed to do. He got very frustrated," said Maine coach Tim Whitehead.
Clarkson coach George Roll inherited some problem children when he came in last year, and the Golden Knights continue to have intermittent discipline problems. Roll was quick to act to suspend four players recently for violating team rules — drinking alcohol the night before a game — and remove one from the team for repeat offenses. Then he dealt with on-ice discipline problems, sitting goalie Dustin Traylan and two freshman forwards for bad penalties. We're confident that the off-ice trouble can be weeded out, but here's to hoping the same can be said for the on-ice woes. Clarkson had such a tremendous recruiting class, it's unfortunate if it's tainted by a lack of on-ice discipline. In particular, World Junior upstart Shawn Weller has been prone to taking bad penalties. He has a world of talent and needs to get that in check. He's certainly not displaying the thuggery of Matt Nickerson — an extremely talented defenseman who left after last season because he could not withstand the officiating scrutiny — but it's enough to be worrisome. With the talented class on the horizon for next year, Clarkson has a chance to get back in the thick of the national picture within a couple season, joining its similarly-resurgent ECAC bretheren at Dartmouth, Colgate, St. Lawrence and Harvard (not to mention the perennial poll dwellers Cornell). It would be nice to see these issues straightened up so that path can stay on course.
And I guess we should mention Michigan-Michigan State. It's rare that this game is an afterthought, but when you consider that Cornell-Colgate (1-2 in the ECAC), Dartmouth-Harvard, Maine-New Hampshire and Wisconsin-Minnesota are all playing, the Wolverines-Spartans battle is not as important nationally speaking. That's mainly because Michigan State has underachieved. That doesn't mean it won't be a tense battle anyway between these two rivals, and for them, there's plenty at stake. There just isn't much at stake in the CCHA standings or the Pairwise.
If the NHL lockout does not end, expect to see Barry Melrose, Darren Pang, et al. on ESPN's NCAA tournament coverage this year. FYI.
CSTV colleague Dave Starman believes that his New York Apple Core team might be the only junior program to ever have an alumnus playing for all four Beanpot teams: BU's Jekabs Redlihs and Kevin Schaeffer; BC's Mike Brennan; Northeastern's Steve Birnstill; and Harvard's Jon Pelle. Says Starman, "It's quite an accomplishment for the program considering the diversity needed to have someone at all four schools."