Thoughts on the Conference
I’ve been lucky enough to see each of the six CHA member schools play at least once this season. With that, my thoughts on each of the teams are presented below. It’s certainly not comprehensive, as I’ve seen each team at different points in their season.
Alabama-Huntsville: This is a team on a mission. Sure, it has some weaknesses in its game–namely a commitment to total team defense that wanes at times and a propensity to get in the penalty box at the drop of a hat–but it is clearly a solid club. The Chargers picked up wins over each CHA team so far this season, losing only to Wayne State and tying only Niagara. They get scoring from each of the top three lines, and Jeremy Schreiber and Ryan Leasa provide some punch from the blue line.
It’s pretty clear in my mind that the Chargers are the team to beat. But with trips to Bemidji State, Niagara, and Air Force still on the schedule, they cannot coast at this point.
Bemidji State: It’s pretty clear upon seeing the Beavers play how they win: they frustrate you to death and take that frustration and use it to destroy your concentration. When your concentration’s gone, solid passing allows them to find the open man and BAM!–the red light’s on. I haven’t seen a college hockey team this year that forechecks as well with three forwards all up to disrupt the flow.
What is concerning is that the BSU forecheck doesn’t turn a lot of those scoring opportunities into goals. However, with Travis Barnes [knee] just back into the lineup and Marty Goulet [ankle] out of it, the offense has missed some key veteran contributors. Coach Tom Serratore is fond of saying, “Well, what can you do? We play with who we have.” He’s right. If this team can hone their scoring touch, watch out. They are extremely tough to score upon.
Niagara: What to make of these guys? At this point, I think I’m beyond figuring it out. The Purple Eagles were really toughened up by their non-conference schedule, which was almost as hard as Alabama-Huntsville’s, but the beating laid on them by Ferris State a few weeks back had me thinking that Niagara was in trouble.
Then Niagara comes out and wins four straight conference games. The key to that has been a team-wide offensive resurgence, as it’s no longer Tallari-Ehgoetz-Williamson and pray for goals. Hannu Karru, Chris Welch, Chris Sebastian, Paul Muniz, Ryan Gale, Justin Cross, Bernie Sigrist, Ryan Wiggins, and Brian Hartman have all tallied goals in the last two weekends.
Something tells me that Dave Burkholder is smiling again. He has to be with Rob Bonk coming in, stemming the flow against Findlay last Friday and picking up the win, and then coming out and tossing a shutout the next night. Is Rob Bonk back? Let’s wait and see–each of the three Purple Eagle netminders has had moments of glory and moments of agony this season, and a sustained effort is going to be the only thing that really allows one of those three to stake a claim to the job.
Wayne State: Some people would call the Warriors’ performance to date a disappointment. However, the race isn’t over yet. Consider that, to date, Bill Wilkinson’s squad has played: 1) a Bemidji team with a white-hot Grady Hunt in net; 2) an Alabama-Huntsville team that was smarting from their 0-6-0 start and looking to make a statement; and 3) an Air Force team on the road, where the Warriors have struggled. If you think the Warriors are out of it, think again.
In the next fourteen games, though, the Warriors do have to overcome one concern: depth on the blue line. The Warriors are often suiting up a 13th forward and playing just five defensemen. It hasn’t helped the offense a whole lot, but the expectations were perhaps impossibly high for the Green and Gold coming into the season. Consider that two of their longest road trips are behind them, and that they have five of their next six conference opponents at home. Wins in this stretch would vault them back towards the top of the standings.
Findlay: These guys are scary. You can’t let up when you’re on the power-play against them–they can pick up a short-handed goal at any time. When the Oilers offense is going, they’re a force to be reckoned with. They’ve got two solid netminders in Jamie VandeSpyker and Kevin Fines, and coach Craig Barnett seems to be willing to play the hot hand.
The next three weekends are crucial for the Oilers: a home-and home against Wayne State will be a good test; they then travel to Bemidji State, which will be a matchup of two teams who try an offense’s patience; then back home to host a Niagara team which took the measure of them last weekend. If the Oilers play .500 hockey in those six games, they will have sent the most important message–that they can hang with the CHA–to themselves.
Air Force: Would you want to recruit for Air Force? Not only is Frank Serratore limited to mostly American products, but he also has to find kids who want to be cadets first and hockey players on the side. It is a testament to the elder Serratore’s coaching ability that he finds solid hockey players and motivates them to find the best in themselves. One might scoff that they’re not a threat, but CHA teams did that last year only at their own peril–remember, the Falcons went 6-0-2 in their last eight conference games in 2001-02.
One thing is clear: the race to Kearney is on, and only a fool would think that he could predict the order of finish now.
The Weekend Slate
Findlay and Wayne State play one of their two home-and-home series this weekend, in Detroit on Friday and in Findlay on Saturday. As someone who follows this conference, I’m more than a little envious of this arrangement–no one else in the conference can pull that off without horrible hockey games being played as a result of the travel.
The Oilers are on a wretched nine-game losing streak, one that finds them in a spot that I didn’t expect them to be–at the bottom of the conference, looking up. The Oilers are a vastly-improved team, but right now, they’re just on a horrible streak of luck and have lost their scoring touch. Other than a five-goal outburst against Niagara last weekend, their last output of more than two goals against a non-MAAC opponent came back in November with a 6-5 win over Air Force. Ouch, babe.
The Warriors just haven’t played many conference games so far, and while they’ve struggled at times this season, one has to look back to their trip to Alaska-Fairbanks to find a game that the Warriors weren’t capable of winning. Anyone underestimating this team is making a mistake.
KRACH says that Wayne State should take three of four games from Findlay. I have to think that the Oilers’ luck breaks once this weekend, so call it a split, with a win for each home team.
Air Force at Bemidji State:
The biggest “easy-pickings” story continues in CHA play this weekend when Frank takes his boys to visit his younger brother Tom. It’s a study in contrasts: Bemidji doesn’t score often, but doesn’t allow many goals; Air Force scores often, but also gives up many goals. Throw that in a blender along with Tom’s 2-0-1 record, add in a little KRACH [86.3% BSU], and the numbers say “Bemidji sweep”.
But … something says to me that the Falcons have one up their sleeves this weekend. The Beavers faced the conference’s other scoring power last weekend, and Alabama-Huntsville was able to crack them for seven goals. Something in the back of my mind–or maybe down in my gut–says that the Falcons hold on for at least a tie at some point.
And hey, it’s not like the Beavers, with 11 overtime contests in their 19 games so far, ever go into overtime.
Alabama-Huntsville at Northern Michigan:
The southernmost team in Division I hockey goes to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. They do this in the last weekend of January.
Are you chuckling with me yet?
But this is a different stampede of Chargers than the team that began the season. They have an aura of confidence about them, a swagger that says, “Yes, you’re CCHA. Yes, we respect you. Let’s play.” This is the same easy, assured look that the team carried into the UConn Classic, picking up an overtime win over Ferris State.
Some will say that the Chargers’ 13-game unbeaten and nine-game winning streaks come against inferior competition. Yes, it has been CHA and MAAC competition save that game against the CCHA’s Bulldogs. However, such streaks should be taken seriously, no matter who the competition is.
UAH’s KRACH rating has increased by 50% since KRACH was released here on USCHO. A road split would add to that. Call me crazy, but I see that happening.
Niagara at Canisius:
The Purple Eagles play a Thursday/Saturday home-and-home with their cross-town rivals. These two schools play host to this year’s Frozen Four, but only Niagara has a realistic shot at it, and then only through the CHA’s automatic qualifier. Make no mistake–the Purple Eagles have a strong shot at that if they can keep it going.
The key to this series will be to see if Niagara can keep their consistency. They might be coalescing, or they could have just had a good streak all at once. CHA eyes should watch this non-conference series to see if the recent trendline remains the same or if Niagara returns to a 2002-stock-market trend.
On a personal note: We all like to celebrate. Some of us choose to celebrate with the consumption of adult beverages. While I partake of such myself, please remember one thing: drinking and driving don’t mix.
I thankfully escaped severe injuries at the hand of a drunk driver who cut me off while passing my truck last Friday night, after I’d spent the last two nights watching some of the greatest hockey I’ve seen all season–a two-game tussle between Bemidji State and Alabama-Huntsville that saw the Chargers victorious twice in overtime by the skins of their teeth.
And you know, as much fun as I had at the end of last week, and even though I was blessed enough not to be hurt [nor have my truck damaged] despite ending up in a four-foot deep culvert and narrowly missing a power-line pole, the whole episode just completely took the edge off of all that excitement.
Just remember that the next time you think, “Hey, I’m okay to drive.”
Many thanks to Todd Watts, the tune-spinning DJ at the Von Braun Center, for coming out past midnight and pulling this columnist and his truck out of the culvert. I’d probably still be there if not for him.