It seems like an eternity has passed since neither Michigan nor Michigan State claimed the top spot in the CCHA at the end of the regular season. The Wolverines and Spartans have combined to win the last five conference championships and seven of the last eight.
At this season”s CCHA Media Day, a familiar question was posed: Can this be the year that a new team upsets the balance of power in the conference? Many said it was possible, but the majority didn”t believe it would happen.
But after looking at the standings more than halfway through the conference slate, it is feasible that the Wolverines and Spartans could meet their match this season. Michigan and Michigan State are tied atop the conference with 23 points apiece with a crucial showdown on the horizon this Saturday at Yost Ice Arena.
Drooling for the opportunity to unseat the Wolverines and Spartans are eight teams separated by a miniscule six points. The first of these contenders is Ohio State, which has earned 20 points thus far, placing the Buckeyes on the heels of the top two spots. Ohio State will have its chances to vault to the top of the standings, as the Buckeyes still have two games against Michigan and four against Michigan State.
“It”s going to be a dogfight,” Alaska-Fairbanks coach Guy Gadowsky said. “Looking at the standings now, I don”t think you can extrapolate anything. I think it”s going to come down to the last weekend. In one weekend, you can move up a handful of positions.”
Because of this weekend-to-weekend shuffling in the standings, every single game means that much more and could end up defining a team”s season.
“I don”t think this is something new,” Gadowsky said. “Every game is so tight, like playoff hockey. You can”t ever walk into a building and have a guaranteed two points.”
Michigan State, which dominated the conference race last season by losing just four games, equaled that number with a 2-0 loss to Western Michigan Saturday.
“Last year, we had an upper-class, predictable team every night,” Michigan State coach Ron Mason said. “That”s the kind of team you have to have to runaway and hide (from the competition).”
There are many possible reasons for the parity of the 2001-2002 campaign. One of those is improved defense throughout all of college hockey. A team without as much talent can compete by keeping the score within reach.
“Very few of us have players who get 50 points anymore,” Northern Michigan coach Rick Comley said. “The game has become such a defensive game. You don”t get many of those 7-1 games anymore.”
Another huge factor in the emergence of smaller programs is the lack of scholarships that Michigan and Michigan State can now offer to players. In the past, schools were allowed to offer as many as 22, but that number has been reduced to 18. The Wolverines and Spartans may nab 18 talented players, but the other four are now skating for different teams.
“The talent pool is large,” Western Michigan coach Jim Culhane said. “The difference between that outstanding, top-tier player and that second-tier player isn”t very big.”
But even though the gap is closing between the two perennial powers and the rest of the CCHA, the smaller schools still know that they have more work to do.
“I”m not sure anybody is going to catch those two,” said Comley, whose Wildcats swept Michigan at Yost earlier this season. “I still think it”s an unbelievable battle between eight schools to finish three through 10. The gap has been closed a little bit, but more and more people have to beat them for them to be knocked out of the top.”