As the member schools of College Hockey America finish their staggered season kickoff with Alabama-Huntsville’s sojourn to Wisconsin, everyone from the top to the bottom is excited about the joys that the new season will bring to fans of the CHA.
Let’s start at the top, where Commissioner R.H. “Bob” Peters is worked up about the prospects of an automatic qualifier to the NCAA tournament.
“This campaign is going to be simply marvelous, and we’re ready to explode on the scene. We’ve got the toughest nonconference schedule of any conference,” said Peters. “The CHA nonconference schedule can’t be described as ‘lightweight.'”
No matter their place in the conference — expected to repeat (Wayne State) or hoping to escape the cellar (Findlay) — coaches and fans understand that this year means business.
“We’re happy to be No. 1, but we’ve got to step up and take that pressure. We’re expected to win, and sometimes you play better when you’re not expected to win,” said Warriors coach Bill Wilkinson. “I don’t know which team is going to come out as champion. The tournament in Kearney is going to be a fabulous event, and whoever comes out will play very respectfully in the NCAAs.”
“We obviously were very disappointed with last year,” Findlay coach Craig Barnett said. “Our goal was to win the league, and we missed that. … Anytime you fail you can gain some positives out of it.”
Of the preseason prediction by his peers that the Oilers would bring up the rear in the CHA, Barnett added, “I want to use last year as a motivation for this year.”
The coaches in the middle think that it’s a tussle. Said Bemidji State’s Tom Serratore, “The carrot is out there for us, and I think we’re going to work for it. We could win it, or we could finish sixth. Whoever is sent to the NCAA tournament will be a great representative.”
That sentiment was echoed by Air Force coach Frank Serratore, who said, “I will guarantee you that our champion will not embarrass the league in the tournament.”
The CHA is competitive internally, as the teams are all close enough in talent level to make special teams and goaltender play the keys for winning a short series. But how about outside the league?
So far, the CHA is 0-3-0 against the “Big Four” conferences, but that includes Niagara’s game against Michigan, No. 6 in the latest USCHO.com Division I poll.
Sure, it was a 3-0 loss, but consider this: Dave Burkholder played three freshmen on his blue line, and he also had freshman, Jeff VanNynatten, in goal. If I’m Burkholder, I’m happy with the effort, but he wasn’t.
Said Burkholder, “I’m not happy; we didn’t get it done [Friday]. We had some good chances and our young guys played great, but we could not produce on our power play, and that let us down.”
Yes, the Purple Eagles were 0-8 on the power play, but with a young team. They certainly have proved to me that they’re better than last place in the conference.
Alabama-Huntsville can have another strong showing for the conference this weekend against Wisconsin. Is it too much to expect a CHA team to come out strong against the Badgers in the early going?
History says no: Wayne State went up to Wisconsin this time last year and picked up a split. Of course, last season’s upset came in the Badgers’ first series, and while Wisconsin did fall, 5-1, to Rensselaer in the opening game of the Ice Breaker Cup last weekend, the Badgers won the consolation game against Northern Michigan by a 4-3 score.
“We’ve got one hell of a schedule this year, opening up with Wisconsin, Denver, and Minnesota,” said Charger coach Doug Ross. “Playing those teams will only make you better. Wayne State took it to Wisconsin last year, and we’re hoping to take it to them.
“We’re going to get a lot of good exposure and good experience.”
CHA teams went 38-45-3 against nonconference opponents last season, although that mark was padded by a 25-7-1 record against MAAC foes. The league that rode the CHA the hardest? The WCHA, which sent the young conference packing with a 4-18-0 blemish. Of course, that record was an improvement on the previous two seasons, when the CHA went 0-17-0 [2000-01] and 2-13-1 [1999-2000].
Findlay and Wayne State both treated Wilfrid Laurier to a little CHA home cooking last weekend. The Oilers put up a five-spot in their shutout win on Friday night, and the Warriors did them one better with a 6-0 victory Saturday. The difference? Findlay played goalies Kevin Fines and Jamie VandeSpyker for 30 minutes apiece in their win, while Dave Guerrera bore the entire load for Wayne State.
Consider that an omen of things to come.
Air Force bounced back from a tough opening weekend to drop a 9-1 win on Windsor. The scariest statistic for that game comes in the shots department: Air Force 39, Windsor 4. Sure, one goal allowed on four shots isn’t going to help Mike Polidor in the stats department, but can you blame him? With that kind of domination, most of us would be trying not to fall asleep in the net.
Bad Boys, Bad Boys
I get interesting tidbits from the various sports information directors around the CHA each week. The most interesting one this week comes from Huntsville’s Jamie Gilliam, who notes that the Chargers finished tenth in Division I last season with 17.9 penalty minutes per game. That may not seem shocking, but it turns out to be the school record for the fewest minutes per game in a season. The Chargers also averaged a school-low 7.5 trips to the sin bin last season. Are the Von Braun Bullies losing their edge?
Check back next week for information from the various tilts around the CHA, as member schools play teams from four of the other Division I conferences. Niagara picks up games against Union from the ECAC and UMass-Lowell from Hockey East, while Findlay, Air Force, and Bemidji State all take on MAAC foes.
The game this week with the greatest fun potential has to be Sunday’s NU-UML tilt, as former Niagara coach Blaise MacDonald renews acquaintances with his old school.