DES MOINES, Iowa — Yogi Berra wasn’t in Des Moines Saturday afternoon, but if he was, it’s a pretty safe bet he’d be saying “it’s dj vu all over again.”
Down 3-1 in the second period, Alabama-Huntsville erased the deficit, then took the lead on a goal with 10.2 seconds left in the period off the stick of Mike Salekin, from his knees no less.
That lead held up through the final 20 minutes and the Chargers (12-19-3) knocked off top-seeded Niagara, 5-3, in the first of two CHA semifinals. UAH awaits the winner of the Bemidji State-Robert Morris semifinal in Sunday’s CHA final.
UAH was down 3-0 yesterday to Wayne State and rallied to win in overtime, 4-3.
“Josh Murray blocked a shot in the defensive zone and (David) Nimmo skated the puck up ice and I joined the rush in the middle,” said Salekin of his game-winning tally. “I drove the net, the puck came across the crease and I tipped it in with the end of my stick. We said, ‘OK, we’re up one,’ but we kept playing our game and when we got the fifth one, there were no doubts.”
Cale Tanaka’s first collegiate goal at 5:06 of the third period was icing on the cake for UAH, who were last in the league finals in 2005, ultimately losing to Bemidji State. The Chargers have now been in the championship game five of the CHA’s eight years, but have yet to come away with the grand prize.
“It took long enough,” said Tanaka of ending his 24-game scoreless drought. “(Tom) Train and I came in on a 2-on-2. He gave me the puck and I went wide, circled back and got a cycle going. Train muscled back towards the net and (Tyler) Hilbert got me the puck and I had a wide-open cage.”
UAH head coach Doug Ross didn’t sound worried when presented with the topic of Sunday’s potential opponent.
“Both teams we might play tomorrow we’ve beaten and we feel good about that, especially getting a win at Bemidji a couple weeks ago,” Ross said. “Our adrenaline is flowing, so we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Vince Rocco staked NU to an early 1-0 lead at 3:42 of the first period just after a Chargers’ penalty expired, but Salekin’s first goal knotted the game at 6:38 on a UAH man-advantage.
Egor Mironov (7:02, power-play) and Chris Moran (9:02) gave the Purple Eagles (18-13-6) a two-goal cushion in the second period with both goals assisted by Rocco and Matt Caruana. Kevin Morrison made it a one-goal lead 46 seconds after Moran’s tally and Murray tied the game at 12:20 when NU goalie Juliano Pagliero mishandled the puck behind his own net.
Salekin’s goal at 19:49 brought the Chargers all the way back.
“It just wasn’t a very thorough effort on our part,” Niagara head coach Dave Burkholder said. “We caught a couple bad breaks. I don’t think that late goal (in the second) was the backbreaker, but it definitely helped their momentum.”
NU senior captain and CHA MVP Sean Bentivoglio ended his college career with a bang, literally, as he ran Alabama-Huntsville goalie Marc Narduzzi at 18:50, resulting in a game misconduct and a five-minute major.
Pagliero stopped 30 for Niagara and Narduzzi kicked out 35 for UAH, who will need to win their third game in as many days tomorrow if their first CHA crown is in the cards.
“We knew if we finished fifth that we’d need to play three in three,” Ross said. “We went through a lot of conditioning the last few weeks and we feel good right now. All four lines are playing well and even though the Tanaka-Train-Hilbert line is fourth on the sheet, they’re not a No. 4 line. Our depth is showing right now and we’re comfortable knowing we don’t have to rely on one or two lines to carry us.”
“We just need to make sure we’re prepared and stay grounded after this big win today,” said Tanaka. “We keep finding a way to get the job done and hopefully, that continues.”
“We’re coming together at the right time,” added Ross. “Both teams we might play are scary and they’re both tough. But we have the confidence and the adrenaline is going. If we work hard, we’ll send the seniors out on a good note.”
The title match goes Sunday at 2:00 CST.