This is the league that produced Jeff Lerg, Ryan Miller and Marty Turco, the conference that spawned Dan Ellis, Glenn Healy, Blaine Lacher and Bob Essensa, a circuit that was accurately described as "a land of goalies as far as you can see" by former Inside College Hockey scribe James Jahnke a few years back. Even lesser-known goaltenders, from Tuomas Tarkki to David Brown and Jordan Sigalet to Jeff Jakaitis, have built up a wealth of experience and backstopped some unforgettable upsets and magical playoff runs.
It is this history that makes one wonder who is ready to separate himself in a league with so many promising goaltending prospects who have shown flashes of brilliance, led by Northern Michigan sure bet Brian Stewart.
Miami's Cody Reichard made a name for himself with an NCAA tournament performance beyond his years, but can he rebound from the disappointment of a bad-luck bounce in overtime of the national championship game? How will his counterpart, Connor Knapp, who was stellar throughout the regular season, figure into the RedHawks' plans?
Can Brad Phillips make Notre Dame fans forget the loss of Jordan Pearce just as Pearce softened the blow of David Brown's departure? Will Bryan Hogan continue his strong regular-season play but add in the element of tournament success that Michigan has lacked the past few years?
Scott Greenham is in for Chad Johnson in Alaska, Ohio State's Dustin Carlson aims to repeat his consistent performance from last season and Drew Palmisano looks to fill the physically tiny but intangibly giant pads of Jeff Lerg at Michigan State. The questions and possibilities are endless.
One thing is certain: From Phillips' magic in an upset bid that fell just short on the road at Yost Ice Arena while playing for USA Hockey's National Team Development Program three years ago, to Reichard's reportedly positive response to his heartbreaking end of the season, to Hogan's stability in the regular season last year, to Carlson's rescue of what appeared to be a bleak goaltending situation at Ohio State, the talent is there.
Now we wait and see who will emerge from the young, but encouraging, pack.
With just three seniors and two juniors on the roster last season, Ohio State took some people by surprise when then-freshman Zac Dalpe and a trio of sophomores -- John Albert, Peter Boyd and Hunter Bishop -- helped departed senior Corey Elkins orchestrate the second-most-prolific offense in the CCHA.
Although that might have been considered the Buckeyes' breakout season, this should be the year Ohio State plays itself into the previously impenetrable top four. (Alaska squeaked past OSU into that spot last season.) The freshmen and sophomores who accounted for 82.6 percent of Ohio State's offense have an extra year of experience, and Dustin Carlson has the potential to be among the league's top netminders, giving the Buckeyes all the tools to compete with Miami, Notre Dame and Michigan. Add in free student tickets that could help fill Value City Arena and create an imposing home-ice advantage, and the Buckeyes should be a tough team to beat.
Primed for a Fall
The Alaska Nanooks were the darlings of the CCHA last season, taking advantage of an unexpected opening in the league's top four to earn a first-round bye in the CCHA playoffs before losing to Michigan in the semifinals at Joe Louis Arena. Don't expect the Nanooks to implode and fall to the bottom of the conference, as Dallas Ferguson proved himself as a capable leader and rightfully earned a five-year contract extension to bring some stability to a program that had been through coaching changes each of the two previous summers.
It may, however, be tough for the Nanooks to compete if Scott Greenham doesn't put up numbers similar to Chad Johnson's last season, as Alaska likely still will be starved offensively. Again, don't expect a precipitous drop, but don't be surprised if teams such as Ohio State, Northern Michigan and Nebraska-Omaha finish ahead of them.
Pressure to Perform
It was only one bad season that may prove to be an anomaly, but Michigan State desperately needs to bounce back from its worst finish since joining the CCHA in 1981. Defenseman Jeff Petry and forward Daultan Leveille are likely future NHLers and will lead the charge, but there are a number of question marks beyond those two.
Goaltender Drew Palmisano looked strong in some of his brief spells of action last season, but it's hard to imagine that he can immediately become the team's on-the-ice and emotional leader a la Jeff Lerg. Coach Rick Comley received a vote of confidence in the form of a contract extension this past summer, but continued struggles will have fans up in arms as the program's 2007 national title fades further back in memory.
Toughest Act to Follow
So many of the pieces return that it is tough to bet against the Miami RedHawks this season, but one has to wonder whether anything other than a national title will be a failure for this group.
Coach Enrico Blasi and the RedHawks seem to have their heads in the right places -- focusing on the present and future rather than the heartbreaking past -- but the 2009 NCAA tournament showed just how much a little bit of puck luck and momentum on any given night can boost a team into the next round. Even if the RedHawks can win the league's regular season and/or playoff conference championships, will that be enough to satisfy Blasi, the players and Miami's fan base? How long can the RedHawks go without winning their first national title, and if they fall short, will the frustration affect their program?
It seemed inevitable that Notre Dame defenseman Ian Cole would sign with the St. Louis Blues this past summer. But when the junior decided on a return to South Bend, top-line forwards, defensemen and goaltenders alike shuddered at the thought of facing Cole for at least one more season.
Cole was a very impressive plus-15 last season and added 26 points on the strength of six goals and 20 assists. The junior is dominant defensively, has an imposing physical stature and knows how to get the puck to the net, where the Irish forwards are among the best in the business at cleaning up the trash and scoring ugly goals.
Although the hiring of Dean Blais in Omaha should have a positive effect on the Mavericks' program, interim Bowling Green coach Dennis Williams could have a greater long-term impact on the CCHA's future.
After spending a few months on life support, the Falcons are pleased to be the beneficiaries of a new fundraising campaign that may help save the program, and Williams seems like the ideal choice to lead the program at such a critical crossroads. Williams is a Bowling Green alumnus who describes the coaching gig as his dream job and plans to make some immediate adjustments to the way the Falcons conduct their day-to-day business. It may take some time -- his squad will feature five freshman defensemen and a rookie netminder -- but Williams' enthusiasm for the program and his new position may be the impetus needed to revive Bowling Green hockey.
There may be questions surrounding postseason goaltending in Ann Arbor just as there have been for several years, but Bryan Hogan was a critical part of helping Michigan stay near the top of the CCHA last season and gave the Wolverines a chance against Air Force on an afternoon when their offense was stagnant. With a star-studded team that includes Louie Caporusso, Chris Summers and exciting newcomer Chris Brown among a dozen NHL draft picks, it is sometimes forgotten that Hogan went 24-6-0 and allowed fewer than two goals per game last season.
This season, Hogan will play an even more critical role, as Michigan's backup netminders are extremely inexperienced, leaving Hogan to do a yeoman's work, protecting the net essentially every single night of the season. Michigan was just 5-6-0 in contests that Hogan didn't start last season, leaving one to wonder where the Wolverines might have been without him.
1. Michigan State coach Rick Comley said his team is a bit more talented and his forwards will benefit from the ice time they got last season, but can the Spartans fight their way back to respectability this season?
2. Where will Bowling Green's program stand at this end of this season, and how will that affect the future of the CCHA? If the Falcons continue to struggle mightily on the ice, will that set back the enthusiasm surrounding their renaissance efforts on campus?
3. Can Northern Michigan get off to a strong first-half start and finally make the jump from late-season spoiler to legitimate contender by picking up points in the early stages of the season?
4. How will the changes in the way points are awarded (three points for a win in regulation or overtime, two for a shootout win and one for a shootout loss) affect the race for the regular-season title, home-ice advantage in the playoffs and first-round byes?
Mark It Down
Five Things You Can Take to the Bank in the CCHA This Season
1. When Michigan State forward Corey Tropp returns to Yost Ice Arena on Nov. 13, he will be less than well received by the boisterous student section at Michigan.
2. Ohio State will develop the foundations of a true home-ice advantage with a continuously improving squad and its decision to let students attend home games for free.
3. Cody Reichard will come out of the greatest disappointment he has ever faced as a better goalie for having experienced how cruel fate can be in overtime.
4. Although Brad Phillips hasn't seen a great deal of game action, his numbers from his limited playing time and an all-world defensive corps suggest that he'll keep Notre Dame near the top of the league.
5. Alabama-Huntsville will be as ready as ever -- when it travels to Notre Dame next weekend and host Western Michigan later this month -- to prove it is ready to compete in the CCHA if given the chance.