The Stretch Run Begins
Okay, it’s go time. From here out, it’s CHA schools playing each other, jockeying for position in Kearney. Only two schools have no shot at a first-round bye: Findlay and Air Force should plan on playing on Friday at the tournament.
The other four teams all have their chances, which is certainly preferable, as Alabama-Huntsville is the only first-day team ever to make the CHA tournament final.
Let’s take a quick look at the standings.
It’s important to remember that Findlay and Air Force, while they may seem sure to play the first day, still help control the destinies of the other squads. I don’t see either team laying down, because the most important thing coming into the tournament is to be hot. I think every coach has said it at some point this season — given luck and goaltending, anyone can win.
Key Matchup: Niagara at Wayne State
The Purple Eagles are the only opponent that the Warriors haven’t played at this point, but their four conference wins are against Alabama-Huntsville (one), Air Force (one), and Findlay (two). The Warriors have had the Chargers’ number of late, though, but the rest of the wins aren’t truly impressive.
Niagara comes in as a team that has to have a bit of a chip on its shoulder — everyone seems to doubt the Purple Eagles, myself included, but they keep on producing. Their conference losses are to Alabama-Huntsville on the road and Air Force at home, but the Falcons always tangle up the Eagles at the Dwyer Arena. Niagara is certainly on a roll in conference, having gone 5-0-1 in its last six conference tilts.
Remember one thing: home or away, Purple Eagles have never defeated the Warriors. On home ice — and yes, the Warriors are on their most familiar sheet at the Great Lakes Sports City Arena this weekend — the Warriors would seem primed to hold that lead.
Niagara’s offense and power play are ranked higher than Wayne State’s, and in conference play, Niagara’s defense has played well, giving up just three goals a game. KRACH says that Wayne State (with a rating of 49.48) should defeat Niagara (29.76) around 62% of the time. Niagara is too hot not to call a split, but if there’s a sweep, look for Niagara to be holding the broom in its talons.
Not To Be Forgotten
Findlay at Bemidji State
Findlay and Bemidji meet again, having played the first conference matchup this season.
Oh, what a difference a couple months makes: remember that Grady Hunt and Jamie VandeSpyker, at the time, were so white-hot as to cause the good folks at the Clauss Ice Arena to consider passing out protective eyewear to the fans. Now, Findlay has lost its last nine contests, while Bemidji State is still stuck in close-playing ways.
Expect two close contests, no matter the fact that the Oiler offense is struggling: Bemidji hasn’t had a conference game decided by more than two goals all season long. These are the two lower-scoring offenses in the conference, but the difference is on defense, where Bemidji is tops and Findlay is at the bottom.
KRACH says Bemidji (44.72) should beat Findlay (12.82) about 78% of the time, and with a Beaver win and tie already on the books, plus the home ice advantage of the John Glas Fieldhouse, we’ll call this one a close, hard-fought Beavers sweep.
Alabama-Huntsville at Air Force
I’m sure that the casual observer looks at this series and says, “Chargers sweep, so don’t spend much time talking about it.” Not so fast, my friend. In the last three seasons, the series is even at 3-3, with the Falcons sweeping the Chargers last year. That sweep kicked off the Falcons’ 5-1-0 run down the home stretch of their CHA schedule.
The Chargers are also a banged-up squad, with the third line missing the presence of senior center Gerald Overton, who fractured his leg in practice before the Chargers’ trip to Findlay. Freshman Bruce Mulherin and junior Jason Tinwick have seen time in Overton’s place, but neither has a stranglehold on the job.
(One Charger who does seem to have a stranglehold on his job is freshman goaltender Scott Munroe; more on that later.)
The Falcons come in with coach Frank Serratore willing to change whatever is necessary in his lineup to win a game. He even gave freshman goaltender David Goodley his first start of the season, although a 35-of-40 night probably isn’t what the elder Serratore wanted to see from his rookie.
The key thing to remember is that the Falcons are playing desperate hockey at this point, and will probably do anything to get a win on the home ice. They have to see this series as their biggest challenge left, as they’ve already played their season series with Niagara. KRACH says that the Chargers (74.73) should defeat the Falcons (5.626) 93% of the time. We won’t argue with the numbers, but anyone taking the Falcons lightly is asking for an upset.
Manning the Nets
A couple weeks ago, we looked at the goaltender situations across the CHA. One has been decided without a doubt: Munroe is the man in Huntsville.
In a home sweep of Bemidji State, Munroe won the first game and then relieved senior Mark Byrne with a few minutes gone in the second period. Even after that performance, Charger coach Doug Ross said, “We’ll play whoever’s hot.”
Last weekend at Northern Michigan, Byrne replaced Munroe after the freshman gave up four goals — three on a major power play — to the homestanding Wildcats. Byrne played solidly in relief of Munroe, but the next night, the rookie from Moose Jaw, Sask., was back between the pipes.
Ross said before the Saturday night contest that all three goaltenders — including Adam MacLean, who hasn’t seen the ice since the Chargers’ fourth game of the season — could see time.
“Scott played good for us, and Byrnie’s played good for us over the years,” said Ross. “Byrne let in a couple soft goals early on and then got his confidence. We’ll try Scotty tonight and see if he can do it, and if he can’t go we’ll put Mark in. Maybe Adam’s the answer. I told him to keep his chin up and keep working, because he’s a good goaltender and could be the man for us.”
Ross seems noncommittal, but for me, actions speak louder than words.
Just When You Think You Know …
… then you don’t with Niagara. Rob Bonk and Jeff VanNynnaten both saw time last weekend, and the freshman won. Of course, the weekend before, it was Bonk with a shutout and VanNynatten who struggled.
I’ll say it again — one of these guys will have to step up and play solidly for two or three weeks before Dave Burkholder can have any kind of confidence going into the tournament.
And One More Thing …
I’ve said it before here: hold on to those loved ones. Erik Morgan, a buddy of mine and one of the Charger fans who traveled to the UP last weekend, lost his wife to leukemia this week. Becky had fought the good fight for eight years, but unfortunately she has left this world all too soon. Erik, the hearts and minds of this conference and its fans are with you.