This Week in the CHA: Jan. 9, 2003

Goalies, Goalies, Goalies

Maybe it’s because I was a soccer goalie as a kid. Maybe it’s because the goalies on most hockey teams are the quiet ones. Maybe it’s because what brought me to hockey in the first place was the thought of a guy willingly strapping on a bunch of padding and getting in the way of rubber pucks flung at highway speed.

Whatever it is, the stories of goalies always interest me.

The CHA has always had good goaltending play. The league’s Player of the Year award might as well be Goaltender of the Year (Skaters Need Not Apply), as Greg Gardner (Niagara ’99-00), Marc Kielkucki (Air Force ’00-01), and David Guerrera (Wayne State ’01-02) are the three men to take home the award.

I’ve discussed goaltending situations in this space before: the revolving door at Niagara and the stellar play in Bemidji’s nets. But the real stories right now are all ones of who should have more playing time. All three coaches involved have been mum on the subject or have given encouragement to the incumbent.

Alabama-Huntsville

It seemed like a great situation in nets for the Chargers this year: senior Mark Byrne is the team’s career shutout leader, even after breaking both wrists last year and picking up just one shutout after an impressive six in his sophomore campaign. The Chargers also returned backup Adam MacLean, a junior, and had a newcomer to the pipes in Scott Munroe.

The team’s first six games saw all three goalies get some game action. Byrne got the most time, but it was Munroe who was most impressive, stopping 52-of-56 Minnesota shots in a 4-2 loss after a debacle the previous night. After that point, Byrne would get every Friday start and Munroe would come in on Saturday. MacLean was to stay in the rotation, but then he injured himself in practice and missed a few series.

All signs seemed to point to Byrne still being the favorite until the UConn Classic, when the rotation flip-flopped: Munroe picked up the first-night starts, and Byrne followed on the second night.

“The team seems to play better in front of Scott,” Charger coach Doug Ross noted in his explanation of the shift. Ross’ statement was true, as the team has done significantly better with Munroe in net.

Byrne has stepped up his play of late, however. “Sure, it’s a great competition,” he said after winning the ultimate game of the UConn Classic. “Scott’s been putting on some great performances. It’s been forcing me to step up my game, because I certainly want as much time as I can get, as I know that he does.”

In the last four games, it’s fair to say that the senior has stepped back up.

The rotation isn’t likely to last until tournament time.

“Coach will have to choose at some point,” says Charger assistant Lance West. “I have no idea what he’ll choose.”

Findlay

If you’ve read the CHA Beat for a while, you know my thoughts on the subject. What’s clear is this: the competition in Findlay’s nets has been just as fruitful as it has been for Huntsville. Both Jamie VandeSpyker and Kevin Fines have played brilliantly at times this season, and coach Craig Barnett knows that he’s got two stellar options. “They’ve both played wonderfully. It’s a tough choice.”

Consider this: both goalies have spent time at or near the top of the Division I goaltender rankings for GAA and SV%. Since VandeSpyker’s hot start cooled a bit with tough weekends against Miami and Air Force, Fines has grabbed about 60% of the starts.

VandeSpyker’s confidence may be down a little bit after being pulled in Saturday’s game against Western Michigan, but we at the CHA Beat have this to say on the subject: Both young men have excellent skills and are equally deserving of playing time. Knowing Barnett, he’ll play whoever’s got the hotter glove-and-blocker combination at the time.

To be judged by on-ice performance is all that any player can ask, isn’t it?

Wayne State

Wayne State is the one school that shouldn’t have expected to have any question about who served as the last line of defense. Guerrera was the first CHA Player of the Year to have an opportunity to defend his title, and the coaches recognized him as the Preseason Player of the Year.

And yet … Guerrera has struggled at times this season. His save percentage (.884) is the lowest of his career, and his goals against average (3.66) is, for the time being, a career high. An eight-goal rout at Vermont, five goals in just 40 minutes against then-one-win Michigan Tech, and a six-goal outing at Alaska-Fairbanks haven’t helped his stats any. Guerrera has held just seven opponents to three goals or fewer through 15 games, compared to 20 times in his 34 starts last season.

Maybe none of this is a concern if the Warriors are scoring, but they aren’t doing so at a rate approaching last season. They’ve netted 56 goals in 19 games, or half a goal less than last year. Scoring’s down across all the lines, as Jason Durbin and Dusty Kingston combined have just 10 goals, roughly a one-third dropoff from the combined pace they had last season.

There wouldn’t be much to write about but for the stellar play of freshman Matt Kelly, who’s zoomed past Marc Carlson on the depth charts with a couple solid games in his rookie campaign. Bill Wilkinson sounds committed to Guerrera, however: “We’ve been sharing. Mark Carlson’s played two games and David Guerrera has taken the brunt of it and I just wanted to give everybody a chance and see who could come to the second position, because Dave’s our number-one goalie.”

Guerrera should be the starter; he’s done everything to deserve that. But in Kelly, the Warriors know that they have a capable netminder. With Guerrera’s graduation imminent, that fact has to bring smiles to Warrior fans everywhere.

Weekend’s Games

A note: with the unveiling of KRACH here on USCHO, I’ll use it to augment my happy-go-lucky crystal ball, which has been doing pretty well so far this season. That said, let’s look at the slate of games this weekend.

Alabama-Huntsville at Findlay:

Both conference series this weekend highlight teams that have already played each other. Findlay and Alabama-Huntsville met in the UConn Classic final less than two weeks ago, and though neither team was at the top of its game, it was still an enjoyable contest.

As Ross notes, “Last time we played these guys, it was a one-goal game with an empty-netter at the end. Findlay’s undoubtedly the most-improved team in our league this year.”

As noted above, goaltending will be interesting in this series, as each squad has two netminders who could shoulder the load. Alabama-Huntsville’s superior nonconference schedule has toughened it up for a strong run this season, as the Chargers are 9-1-2 since their 0-6-0 WCHA swing.

Findlay has played a much weaker nonconference schedule, though the other Division I teams in Ohio are sprinkled among a spate of MAAC opponents.

In picking a split between these two teams, I’m mindful of two facts: first, the teams have split at Findlay the last two seasons; second, KRACH says that Alabama-Huntsville (a 62.48 rating) should defeat Findlay (19.95) around 76% of the time. With all four conference matchups to be played, it seems most reasonable to pick Findlay to win one of them at home.

Niagara at Air Force:

This series will mark the last time the two avian-mascotted CHA schools face each other in regular-season play. Each of the games has been a high-scoring affair: 7-3 and 6-2 wins for Niagara, and a 5-2 victory for Air Force. The first Niagara win doesn’t count in the league standings, of course, as it was the consolation game of the Lefty McFadden Invitational.

The two teams are very similar: each have stellar scorers and porous defenses. The stats bear out a simple truth: this should be another high-scoring series, as it matches the two teams with the most goals allowed in Division I to date. If you’re a fan of fast-paced, high-octane games, you might start checking travel sites for a last-minute fare into Denver or Colorado Springs.

I’m going to go with a three-point weekend for the Purple Eagles, and that’s mainly due to history. In conference play, Niagara has never lost at the Cadet Ice Arena, going 3-0-1. KRACH says that Niagara (24.68) has about a 70% chance to beat Air Force (10.68), which would indicate a Niagara win and tie given previous results. Seems reasonable to me, so we’ll go with that.

American International at Wayne State:

The Warriors continue their “on the road at home” tour this weekend with two games at the Taylor Sportsplex. Rumors are rampant that the Detroiters might soon start on an on-campus facility, but Bill Wilkinson and Co. saw fit this year to play in a variety of locations around the city in case that didn’t work out and they decided to make a change from the Great Lakes Sports City Arena, which is a good half-hour from the campus.

They’ll face woeful American International from the MAAC. The MAAC, which has the bottom ten teams in KRACH, hasn’t sent a representative to face the Warriors since the 2000-01 season, when Wayne State went 8-2-0 against MAAC foes. KRACH says that Wayne State (49.75) should toast AIC (3.896) 93% of the time. It’s two weeks until the Warriors play in conference again, so there’s little chance of a look-ahead weekend for the Green and Gold. This is an easy sweep call.

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