Michigan State

It didn’t take long for the 2007 NCAA Champions to prove it might not be the best in the nation this year. In Michigan State’s season opener, North Dakota administered a 6-0 thrashing to eliminate any Spartan hopes of coasting through the season en route to a repeat.

But Michigan State will surpass last year’s fourth-place finish in the CCHA on the strength of their returning talent. Junior goalie and CCHA Player of the Year Jeff Lerg returns between the pipes after boasting a .913 save percentage last season, including a top-five-in-NCAA-history .949 save percentage in the 2007 NCAA Tournament. Senior captain and top goal scorer Bryan Lerg, junior Justin Abdelkader and junior Tim Kennedy will provide comparable or a better-than-last-year offensive force for the Spartans.

Their weakness is on defense. Michigan State lost four defensemen from last year’s championship roster, and having inexperienced defensemen, even in front of an all-star goalie, may explain this season’s rough start.

Miami

These guys are good. Like we-just-built-a-new-arena-that’s-just-missing-a-National-Championship-banner good.

Last season – their first in the Steve Cady Arena – the Redhawks registered their first NCAA Tournament game victory in program history. Now, Miami is No. 2 and widely considered a contender to win a National Championship. That’s no surprise when you realize the Redhawks are averaging more than four goals a game and goalie Jeff Zatkoff has let just four pucks get past him in five games.

Seniors Nathan Davis and Ryan Jones will continue to provide Miami’s offensive firepower.

And it’s not just us – the coaches know Miami has a shot, too. They predicted Miami to finish first in the CCHA.

Notre Dame

Can lightning strike twice?

The Fighting Irish certainly hope so.

Led by senior goalie David Brown, Notre Dame won its first CCHA regular-season and playoff championships seemingly out of nowhere last year. With key offensive players returning, such as Erik Condra, Kevin Deeth and Ryan Thang, the Fighting Irish will remain in the top tier of the conference.

But Brown’s absence will make a title repeat difficult. After all, the 2007 CCHA Player of the Year left some pretty big pads to fill after posting a .931 save percentage and a 1.58 average goals against last season. Junior Jordan Pearce has taken over the starting role during Notre Dame’s 2-2 start.

If Pearce can become a suitable replacement in goal, the Fighting Irish could be an even more dangerous team than expected.

Ohio State

Ohio State hasn’t lived up to expectations the past two seasons. But will Michigan fans get to revel in the Buckeyes’ misery for a third straight year?

Before the season’s start, many thought Ohio State would be a surprise team. And with a tough early-season schedule (Miami and Minnesota in consecutive weekends), prognosticators will have an early idea on where the Buckeyes stand.

Ohio State has surrendered 10 goals in two games to Miami, but the early test may help the team develop – or lose confidence if the slide continues against the Golden Gophers.

Western Michigan

Last year, the Broncos surged in the second half, winning 10 of their last 14 games – and then a first-round fold to Alaska in the CCHA playoffs reasserted their status as a perennially mediocre team.

After losing its two highest-scoring forwards, Western Michigan will look to some new players to make a statement. Freshman Max Campbell, a fifth-round draft pick of the New York Rangers, has stood out with three points in two games. Sophomore Riley Gill has saved 51 of 54 shots so far this season, and junior Jeff LoVecchio is the Broncos’ top returning starter after finishing with 35 points in 37 games last year. If the Broncos can forget about last season’s playoffs and continue the hard-nosed play that helped them finish strong last year, they could surprise the CCHA.

Nebraska-Omaha

The Mavericks lost a lot of artillery from last season. Hobey Baker Award finalist Scott Parse, Alex Nikiforuk and Dan Knapp have moved on to the professional ranks.

Nebraska-Omaha has some experience at forward, but the roster features four freshmen defensemen who will have to adjust to the college game.

A bright spot for the Mavericks should be goaltending. Sophomore Jeremie Dupont is talented enough to keep his team in a lot of games, especially with the help of the home crowd at the Qwest Center.

Northern Michigan

One thing Michigan and Northern Michigan have in common is youth – the Wildcats have 17 freshmen and sophomores on their roster.

But in last weekend’s battle of inexperienced players, Michigan’s freshmen were faster and stronger. Northern Michigan junior Nick Sirota was the Wildcats’ biggest standout, tallying three points in two games, but he scored just 10 goals last season and will need to become more of a scoring threat for Northern Michigan to contend in the CCHA.

Another question mark for the Wildcats is in net. With two sophomore goalies, Brian Stewart and Derek Janzen, the starting position could be undecided well into the season – both played one game against Michigan this weekend, though Janzen was pulled for Stewart in the third period of the second game. The rebuilding process will most likely keep the Wildcats near the bottom of the conference.

Lake Superior State

Lake Superior State had one of the best goalies in the NCAA last season in Jeff Jakaitis. The key word there is “had.” Between the pipes is not the only place where the Lakers lack experience. Just one scholarship senior will don the Lake Superior State sweater this year, and the Lakers have already felt the absence of experience. Earlier this season, they tied Western Ontario, 3-3, in what was supposed to be a warm-up exhibition game.

The young Lakers will have to grow up quickly if they wish to be competitive in the CCHA, especially considering both Michigan and Michigan State are in their cluster.

Bowling Green

Where to begin with the Falcons? Ah, yes, at the bottom of the CCHA – exactly where they ended last season. Bowling Green was last in goals scored per game, goals allowed per game, power-play conversion and penalty killing in conference play last season. It doesn’t look to be much better this year, especially after losing hotshot leading scorer Jonathan Matsumoto.

But at the end of last season, Bowling Green did show slim signs of life, highlighted by a 3-2 win over Michigan and a one-goal loss to conference champion Notre Dame. If the Falcons can muster some of that late-season swagger, they may tally some nice wins, but don’t expect them to make too much noise.

Ferris State

Despite ranking eighth in the CCHA last season in goals scored and losing key forwards Mark Bomersback, Zac Perason and Matt Verdone, the Bulldogs are one of the most physical teams in the league, a trait that could sway some close games in their favor.

If Ferris State can put some semblance of offensive output onto the ice and keep up the tough style of play, it could resemble the 2006-07 Bulldogs, who went 6-2 in February.

Alaska

To call this a rebuilding year would be an understatement for the northernmost college hockey program in America.

Tavis MacMillan resigned as the Nanooks coach following last season, and it took some time before Nebraska-Omaha assistant Doc DelCastillo was named to the top post in Fairbanks.

DelCastillo has to begin his tenure without a number of Alaska’s top weapons, including forwards Kyle Greentree and Curtis Fraser and defenseman Darcy Campbell, who signed pro contracts.

Don’t look for much from the young Nanooks, who have to learn on the job and deal with a four-hour time change every other weekend.

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