It’s another quiet week around the league. Air Force and Alabama-Huntsville are taking the week off before the Falcons travel to Alabama to play the Chargers next weekend. Bemidji State heads down to Findlay for the only conference matchup of the week, while Niagara (Michigan State) and Wayne State (Ferris State) visit CCHA foes this week before conference play starts gaining traction.
With a quiet ranch around the CHA Beat, it’s probably worth taking a step back and looking at what can be learned from the early part of the season. The CHA has had a range of nonconference schedules, with varying results, so it makes sense to not only rate the results but the difficulty of the scheduling.
Air Force has proven that it can play with MAAC schools, but so has the rest of the conference. The Falcons probably want to forget that the Lefty McFadden Invitational ever happened, and frankly, they’ve played like it since then. Andy Berg has established himself as a force on the Falcons’ power play, and the rest of the team is starting to firm up.
Air Force, as always, will get stronger as the season progresses. Right now, the Falcons seem to struggle with consistency, and the only team that they have outshot so far is perennial MAAC doormat Bentley.
There’s little to be said about the Chargers’ schedule that hasn’t been said already, other than the fact that the league’s southernmost team has been involved in Homecoming once [Wisconsin] and banner raisings twice [Denver’s WCHA championship and Minnesota’s national championship]. Those three trips, back-to-back-to-back, would test the mettle of any team in Division I.
The results have been mixed for the Chargers. They played decently against Wisconsin and perhaps should have won one of those games. The Denver series was forgettable, as UAH seemed lethargic on the ice. The nadir of the season had to be the 12-1 spanking by Minnesota, which could have broken the Chargers’ back. They fought back the next night, though, taking the Gophers to a draw for two periods before finally losing.
The question for the rest of the season for the Chargers has to be which team will show up: the one that looked outclassed against Denver and Minnesota, or the one that scrapped and fought against Minnesota and Wisconsin? For that, the players will probably have to look inside themselves.
Bemidji’s winless streak stands at 14 going back to last season. Sure, injuries have hurt the Beavers, but one begins to wonder if the team remembers how to win. No one can doubt that they’ve played hard, though; five overtime games in six contests is proof enough that the Beavers will come out and give a full effort.
One thing to remember is that the Beavers started practice just four days before their first exhibition, later than many of the other CHA teams. With the loss of Clay Simmons and the absence of Jamie Mattie, combined with the injuries to Kurt Knott, Travis Barnes, and Grady Hunt, coach Tom Serratore has been playing a lot of guys and seeing what he has. He seems happy with the talent level he has, and now they just need to snap their winless streak and start turning the frustration into happier results.
The Oilers manhandled Canisius, and then played back-to-back nonconference games against Bowling Green and Colgate, losing each by a single goal. Findlay coach Craig Barnett is happy with his team’s overall effort, especially with the play of senior goaltender Jamie VandeSpyker, who anchors a defense that’s giving up just two goals a game, eighth in the country.
Unlike some of their CHA brethren, the Oilers have sprinkled their fall semester with doses of conference and nonconference games. The mix will probably be good for a young Oilers team still trying to find its identity and gain some momentum after last season, which they’d like to forget. They won’t forget, though, that they started well last year, only to falter. This weekend’s series against Bemidji will be a good gut-check for the Orange and Black.
Looking up and down the Niagara schedule, it’s tough to find a game where the Purple Eagles haven’t been in it. Their season-opening loss to Bowling Green had the Falcons pull away with two goals in the last five minutes; they hung tough with Michigan and outshot Union; they even kept it close with North Dakota despite being outshot 69-30 on the weekend.
The story for the Eagles is Joe Tallari, who leads all of Division I with 11 goals in his first six games. Linemates Barret Ehgoetz and Jason Williamson have been feeding the puck on over to Tallari, who gets “eight to 10” chances a game, according to coach Dave Burkholder. The question for Niagara is in net, where junior Rob Bonk [2-4-0, 3.20, .881] is getting challenged by freshman Jeff VanNyatten [1-3-0, 4.36, .855]. Says Burkholder, “There’s no clear number one” between the two, who have split playing time nearly down the middle so far.
Many around the conference expected Wayne State to do well against Vermont and Dartmouth last weekend, and the Warriors didn’t. The Warriors had their nation’s-best 14-game winning streak broken by a team that hadn’t strung together two wins together in two years, and then they were beaten the next night by the Big Green power play, which netted four goals on nine chances.
The Warriors have to be missing co-captain Jason Durbin. The senior forward is out until Thanksgiving with a knee injury, and with him missing, the defending champs don’t seem like the same team. The two most important changes the Warriors can make, though, are to limit penalties and tighten up the penalty kill. The Warriors may have their toughest nonconference tilts yet to come, with this weekend’s games against Ferris State and back-to-back trips to Michigan Tech and Alaska-Fairbanks later this semester.
Resetting the First Conference Tilt
Air Force zoomed into Niagara last weekend with five consecutive wins at the Dwyer Arena tucked into their epaulets. The Falcons left their avian tiff with the homestanding Eagles with their streak snapped but with a tie in the early conference standings.
“We had a great weekend with Air Force,” said Burkholder. “It shows you how tough the CHA is going to be when we all get in conference play. It was a very even series. They were the better team on Friday night, and we were the better team on Saturday night.”
The biggest surprise of the weekend may have been that Air Force’s Andy Berg was held to just two assists, but Burkholder is probably right: no CHA team has really shown itself to be head-and-shoulders above the rest of their brethren, and the conference race is going to be one heck of a dogfight until the teams sort themselves into some sort of pecking order.
Let’s go with a brash prediction: this year’s conference winner won’t finish above 30 points.
Into the Crystal Ball
Looking into this weekend’s games promises — more of the same. Bemidji has played every opponent close, and in the words of Findlay’s Barnett, “When I think of Bemidji State, I think of a lot of team speed and a team that competes for a solid 60 minutes. They’re 0-2-4, but they could easily be 6-0.” That sums it up pretty well for me.
Bemidji coach Tom Serratore noted last week that he was holding out goaltender Grady Hunt for this weekend. This should put it as the battle of two tough goaltenders, as VandeSpyker will match Hunt save for save. Bemidji is 3-3 in CHA season-opening series, and I see no reason to break that splitting trend. Look for the Beavers to rally around having Hunt back on Friday and break through for a win, and then expect the Oilers to bear down and pull through on Saturday. Anyone know where the good hotels are in Findlay?
Niagara will go off on yet another quixotic nonconference tilt. One of these games, the Eagles are bound to knock off a big-name school. Niagara hasn’t seen an opponent like the Spartans, though, who presently have three defensemen (Brad Fast, Duncan Keith, and John-Michael Liles) leading the team in scoring. It’s tempting to think that Joe Tallari and one of the Eagles’ goaltenders will get hot on the same night, but the Eagles have been routinely outshot by better competition. They will have to play a bit tighter to come away with a win.
Wayne State travels cross-state to go into Big Rapids and face the Bulldogs of Ferris State. The Warriors’ penalty kill has to be a concern, and they’re facing a team that’s converted on one of every four power plays so far. With Chris Kunitz (10-10–20) powering the Bulldogs’ offense and sophomore goaltender Mike [nl]Brown holding opponents to a 1.38 GAA, the Warriors, unused to playing in raucous environments, will have their work cut out for them.