Everyone has something for which to give thanks. Me, I’ve got plenty: reasonable health, an understanding boss, the fact that I still have my mother after her stroke (and hoping we still have her after this recent bout with breast cancer), and a half-million other things.
We all have these things.
But what do the six College Hockey America schools have to give thanks for? I’d say it’s the following:
Air Force: Frank Serratore has to be thankful for the scoring prowess of Andy Berg, whose 12 goals are second in Division I and are keeping the team in the thick of things while the defense solidifies. The Falcons also should be thankful for the development of sophomore defensemen Ross Miller and Steve Mead.
Alabama-Huntsville: The snide columnist in me says, “That there are no more WCHA teams on the schedule!” But truly, Doug Ross and the Chargers have to be thankful for the play of the freshmen, for the resurgence of the Joel Bresciani-Jason Hawes-Steve Charlebois line, and for the fact that the team didn’t quit when faced with long odds.
Bemidji State: All the forwards have to be thankful that Grady Hunt and the defense are playing so well, because the Beaver offense is just now getting to the net. Tom Serratore’s thankful that Hunt is Division I’s top goaltender (4-0-2, 0.96 GAA, 0.970 SV%) as the team sits down to eat a pile of turkey. Hunt himself has to be thankful that his groin injury hasn’t caused him any problems.
Findlay: Craig Barnett and the Oilers can give thanks for Jamie VandeSpyker’s resurgence in net, and for an offense that has seen 13 players score at least one goal and six players net at least three. They also have to be thankful for a newfound team unity that’s getting them out of the CHA cellar.
Niagara: Dave Burkholder is certain to be thankful that Joe Tallari is on his team, as the junior leads the nation in goals. The Purple Eagles also have their confidence, which has helped them go into tough venues and play a variety of big-name schools very well.
Wayne State: Bill Wilkinson and the Warriors can give thanks for the opportunity to play all across Detroit, as their fan base just won’t make the cross-city drive out to Fraser to see the team play. The Warriors are also certainly thankful that Jason Durbin’s knee injury is healed and doesn’t seem to be affecting his play.
Into the Weekend
The lone conference tilt happens in Huntsville, where Dave Burkholder’s Purple Eagles will swoop into town and hope to repeat past performances. Going back to the 1998-99 season, Niagara is 4-3-1 in Huntsville; the Eagles are the only CHA opponent against which the Chargers have a losing record.
“Really?” said Burkholder of Niagara’s success. “I look at it as that it’s as tough a place to play as North Dakota. I don’t see any weakness in the Huntsville team. It’s been a great rivalry and been filled with a lot of tough weekends.”
The biggest concern going into the weekend isn’t either team — it’s the condition of the ice at the Von Braun Center. This writer has been known to remark that the Chargers don’t have a home-ice advantage — rather, it’s a home-slush advantage.
Perhaps that’s overstating it a bit, but the ice is a bit different in Huntsville than anywhere else in Division I, due to geography and climate.
While it did get below freezing in Huntsville on Wednesday night for the first time all fall, two items will cause the ice to be even slushier than normal: a Kenny Rogers concert on Friday night and an NBDL basketball game on Saturday night.
Those facts, combined with the fact that the City of Huntsville has yet to replace the ice-making equipment in the arena — the replacement is scheduled for February, which forces the Chargers to host Wayne State in the Benton H. Wilcoxon Ice Complex — should make for a fun time.
Burkholder, though, takes it all in stride. “[Ice condition] varies from rink to rink,” he said. “It’s not a huge factor. We have problems with our ice, which stays up all year, just because it gets so much use.”
Burkholder is happy with his offense right now. “Joe still has a hot hand, and he’s still getting his chances. The good news for us is that our second line [Bernie Sigrist, Ryan Gale, and Justin Cross] has really stepped up their game. At times, they dominated against Western Michigan but couldn’t get anything on the scoreboard.”
Such is the story for Niagara this season: plenty of opportunities, but few good breaks.
The goaltender situation is a concern, especially after Rob Bonk was pulled against Western Michigan. “He had a tough start to the game and a tough second period,” said Burkholder. “It was valuable experience for [Ryan] MacNeil. Considering the time that he’s had off, he fared pretty well.”
MacNeil suffered a concussion last season, and has spent much of this season as the third goaltender behind Bonk and freshman Jeff VanNynatten. VanNynatten, however, has been injured.
“We don’t yet know who we’ll be bringing down to Huntsville,” said Burkholder. “We’ll decide that after Thursday’s practice.”
The Chargers are fired up about their start. In a postgame interview after the team’s 5-2 win over Wayne State last Saturday, Jason Hawes said that the team’s solid conference start “gives us a lot of confidence going into next weekend’s games against Niagara.” The Chargers have to hope that they can maintain the pattern of sweeps at home and splits on the road, but Niagara will have its say about that.
The biggest surprise has been a pleasant one for the Chargers — the outstanding play of freshman goaltender Scott Munroe, this week’s conference Rookie of the Week. Munroe is the second-best goaltender in conference play behind Hunt with a 2-0-0 record, a 2.00 GAA, and a 0.945 SV%. There’s not a goaltender controversy, but Munroe has clearly passed junior Adam MacLean, a solid goalie in his own right, on the Chargers’ depth chart.
“Scott had another great game [last weekend],” said Hawes.
The matchup should be an exciting one: two teams with solid offenses and improving defenses playing on an ice surface that will clearly slow both teams down significantly. It’s tempting to figure that the conditions are going to favor the home squad, but Niagara has always played well in Huntsville. A split gets the Chargers to first place in the conference standings, and it’s reasonable to think that they’ll garner that.
Around the rest of the conference, Air Force plays local powers Colorado College and Denver. Last year, the Falcons held Denver close in a game when the Pioneers were the top-ranked team in the country. However, it’s still early in the season for a team still finding its identity and its defense. That’s a recipe for a pair of losses.
Wayne State will travel to Da U.P. to face Michigan Tech in Houghton. The conference traditionally doesn’t fare well against WCHA foes, and Tech is a solid program. While Jason Durbin is back for the Warriors, Nick Stodgell suffered a hairline fracture in his foot after a Tyler Butler slapshot hit his boot. Lest the reader not believe it was a solid shot, the puck caromed into the rafters at the Great Lakes Sports City Arena and then into the tenth row of fans.
Stodgell was seen on crutches on Saturday night, and his absence weakens an already-thin defensive corps, as the Warriors dressed only five defensemen for each game. Look for the Warriors to be able to pull out a split against Tech; a sweep would be asking too much of a team that’s struggling just a bit right now.
Findlay hosts MAAC foe Holy Cross for a pair of games in the weekend’s final nonconference matchup. While the Oilers have played solid games against most opponents, they are just 3-6-1. Holy Cross and Air Force split a series earlier this season, and the Oilers and Falcons did so as well last weekend. Something tells me that will continue.