This Week in the CHA: Dec. 26, 2002

As usual, it wasn’t a White Christmas in Alabama. But it was a good one. Whether or not you observe the religious holiday, this is a time when folks usually have a little time off from work and such things (unless your job is like mine, as my family would tell you). Take time to be with those you love … you never know when they won’t be around any longer.

Before the calendar ticks over to 2003 — and leaves us all wondering where 2002 went in the first place — there are a few games left to play. The game’s the thing, of course, and so the games are the focus.

Bemidji State – Manitoba

Bemidji State gets things started off in the Northern Lights Ice Classic up in Grand Forks, N.D., against Manitoba. This is the same Manitoba squad that the Beavers faced early in the season after just a few days of practice. The Beavers marked that game down as a 4-2 win, and other than a little post-Christmas rustiness, there’s no reason to expect that the Beavers won’t do the same in the second meeting.

Bemidji State – Brown/North Dakota

The Green will face either North Dakota or Brown in their second game. A game against the Bears would be an interesting matchup: two teams with solid goaltenders (Grady Hunt for Bemidji, Yann Denis for Brown) and sluggish offenses (Bemidji with 35 goals for, Brown just 29). This game would come down to special teams, and both schools are in the bottom-third nationally on the power play, while Brown is in the top third on the penalty kill while Bemidji barely makes the top half. I’ll chalk this one down as a Bemidji State win … in overtime.

If Bemidji gets to face North Dakota, it’s a whole ‘nother matter. Bemidji and Grand Forks aren’t far apart, but the results that each team has seen this season are radically different. NoDak is the No. 1 team in the poll, and with the nation’s second-ranked scoring offense, a top-third scoring defense, and a 16-1-1 record, it looks bleak for the Beavers.

That is until you look at one potential Achilles’ heel: penalties. NoDak takes the most penalty minutes per game in the nation, sitting in the sin bin for 23.1 PIM/G. The NoDak penalty kill is nothing to write home about, either, stopping only 77% of opponents’ chances.

If Bemidji can keep it close — and with Hunt in net, there’s always a chance of that — and they can draw some penalties, there’s a chance for an upset. Not much of one, mind you, but it exists. After all, the two teams have two common opponents: Minnesota State, the lone tie on the Sioux’s record and a team which the Beavers played hard in two games when Hunt was injured; and Niagara, which played NoDak tough in two games and from which Tom Serratore’s club took only one of four points on the road. I’ll go with a NoDak win, however.

Wayne State – Princeton

Saturday sees more CHA teams enter the fray. Wayne State gets things started in the first game of the Rensselaer/HSBC Holiday Hockey Tournament in matching up against Princeton. The Tigers have struggled this season, going 1-13-0 and 1-9-0 in ECAC play. The Warriors come into the break a bit flat, losing their last four nonconference contests, but with a solid squad of seniors and the academic pressure off of the team, look for the Green and Gold to pick up a win in the first round.

Air Force – Fairfield

Saturday will also see Air Force begin a nonconference series against MAAC opponent Fairfield, a team that’s had a rough 1-9-1 (1-6-1 MAAC) start to the season. Air Force traditionally feasts on the MAAC, and there’s little reason to expect a change here. Fairfield’s lone win is over perennial MAAC cellar-dweller Bentley, whom the Falcons handled well in a two-game set. Look for a couple easy wins for the Falcons in this one.

Alabama-Huntsville – Ferris State

Sunday’s contests will get kicked off with Alabama-Huntsville’s game against Ferris State in the UConn Classic. The Bulldogs are 12-4-0 and are ranked eighth in the poll, but they split with Wayne State earlier this season, as did the Chargers.

Ferris’s seventh-ranked offense and defense will provide a tough test for UAH, which has already taken on two ranked opponents this season. However, I think Ferris will be too tough for the Chargers, who have struggled on the first night (1-4-2) this season.

Findlay – UConn

The Chargers aren’t the only CHA school headed to Connecticut, as the Findlay Oilers will play the host school. While UConn might think it was scheduling the easiest of the three teams coming into the season — and this is good for them to do, as more fannies will be in seats with the home team playing in the final on the second night — the Oilers are no pushover.

No matter who plays in net for the Oilers, they have a solid all-around team and the third-ranked special teams in the country. UConn, on the other hand, comes in with a 4-9-1 record (3-6-1 in the MAAC) and the fifth-worst scoring defense in Division I. The Oilers should send the home team back to their dorms with a defeat.

Wayne State – RPI/Merrimack

Wayne State’s second game will be against either homestanding RPI or Merrimack. The home team is an up-and-down club, having started its season off with a huge win over Wisconsin but also having been the only notch on Princeton’s belt this season. The Engineers are 4-3-0 on home ice even though they’ve given up one more goal (20) than they’ve scored (19).

If this game comes down to special teams, both are average. The difference will likely lie in which Wayne State teams shows up in Troy. If it’s the one that hustles on every shift — the team that everyone picked to be the best team in the conference in preseason — then the Warriors could come away with a win. If they play without much energy and don’t support David Guerrera in net, it might be wise to invest in Bill Wilkinson’s antacid of choice.

Merrimack presents another interesting challenge for the Warriors. Merrimack’s offense is in the bottom quarter in Division I, but their defense is in the top half. All the other stats leave the two teams pretty even, and the game will likely come down to goaltender play, with Joe Exter and Guerrera being two seniors expected to shoulder the load.

No matter who the Warriors’ second-round opponent is, we’ll go with the conference team and pick a win.

Findlay – Alabama-Huntsville

As a first note: if Findlay and UAH square off in the UConn Classic, the game doesn’t count in the conference standings. Such a meeting would be the second this season, as Air Force and Niagara met up in the Lefty McFadden Invitational to begin the season. It would also be a preview of coming attractions, as the two schools are set to face off two weeks later at Findlay.

No matter how the first-round games go, I’m personally hoping for a second-round matchup of CHA schools. The Oilers are an intriguing club, playing excellent special teams this season. Both teams are getting good play in net, as we’ve come to expect in the CHA.

The game has all the markings of a penalty-filled contest, as the two teams could feel each other out without the game counting in conference standings. Both schools are in the top five nationally in penalties, so the action promises to be fast and more than a little furious.

I’ll give the nod to the Oilers, who have a more consistent offensive output and better special teams, although it’s tough to discount the Chargers, who haven’t lost on the second night of a series since losing their first six games.

Findlay – Ferris State

Findlay’s solid special teams would help in any matchup against Ferris, though the Oilers’ offensive prowess is tempered by the fact that all of their high-scoring outbursts have come against MAAC opponents. Ferris would be the toughest opponent yet for the Oilers, and while they should acquit themselves well, I don’t know that they’re yet ready to take their play to the next level.

Alabama-Huntsville – UConn

As I expect the Oilers to take it to the homestanding Huskies, the only way the Chargers would face the home team is if they lose on the first night. Given how the Chargers seem to get a fire in their eyes after taking a loss, I’d expect form to hold true in the second game.

It should be a fun weekend for all the CHA member schools. Tournament time is a period in which the rust can be knocked off the wheels and gets the momentum an extra little push. The conference should fare well this weekend, and so will the CHA Beat — assuming things go well with flights, I’ll catch Wayne State’s first game and both of Findlay and UAH’s contests. Six games, three days … Merry Christmas to me.