DETROIT – When you have all but two players returning from a team that finished second in its conference last year, the prospects for the new season are exciting. Such is the case for the Ohio State Hockey team, and the voters in the CCHA coaches’ and media preseason polls chose the Buckeyes as the favorites for this year’s conference title accordingly. The announcement came at yesterday’s CCHA Media Day at Joe Louis Arena.
Despite the confidence show by his colleagues, Ohio State coach John Markell knows it will not be an easy run for the Buckeyes.
“These polls I think are great, but I think it’s based on potential,” Markell said. “And there are a lot of teams that have the potential to be where we are. I think they have some ifs, like we do. Some of our ifs are solved this year. Any one of these teams is one if away from having a tremendous year.”
Both the coaches and media chose Michigan as the runner-up, despite the uncertainty that comes with having 11 freshmen on the roster. Michigan coach Red Berenson said that he is excited to see what his young team can do, starting with freshman goaltender Billy Sauer, who will compete with senior Noah Ruden for the starting job.
“The Michigan team will have a different look to it this year with so many new faces,” Berenson said. “We graduated 10 players and lost three underclassmen to the pros during the summer. One of those positions will be goalie, and our freshman goalie Billy Sauer, who is 17, will be tested early.”
Both the coaches and media selected Northern Michigan to finish third and Michigan State fourth.
In addition to their second place billing, the Wolverines found two of their players named to preseason all-conference teams. Junior forward T.J. Hensick – the league’s scoring champion and Michigan’s lone first team All-America honoree last season – was named to the preseason first team. Hensick was a unanimous selection by the committee. Junior defenseman Matt Hunwick was named to the second team.
Along with the preseason polls, CCHA Commissioner Tom Anastos announced changes to the conference’s playoff system. Rather than the Super 6 format that has existed for the past four years, the league will return to a four-team playoff at Joe Louis Arena.
All 12 schools will still participate in the playoffs, with the fourth through eighth seeds meeting the ninth through twelfth seeds in first round, in on-campus match-ups. The winners of those matchups will be re-seeded and meet the top four seeds at the top team’s home arena. Finally, the winners of those matchups will meet at Joe Louis to decide the playoff champion and automatic NCAA tournament bid.
In addition to the playoff changes, Anastos said the league will continue its crackdown on rules enforcement. After implementing this policy last year, coaches found it opened up the game and increased the quality of play.
“With the initiative that Tom Anastos has pushed in our league, the hockey is much improved at the college level,” Berenson said. “It’s more exciting for the fans and more interesting and more challenging for the players. I think, overall, we have a better product than two years ago.”
With more open play and a league with much greater parity of competition then in the past, the coaches are looking forward to starting the season this coming weekend.
“Each and every game is going to be tight,” Michigan State coach Rick Comley said. “It’s a battle. There used to be a day in college hockey where you could look at the schedule and plot how your season was going to go, but those days are long gone right now. I think it’s going to be a great season in the CCHA.”