This Week in the CHA: Feb. 20, 2003

Turnover In Findlay

As head coach Craig Barnett says, “It’s been a long couple weeks.”

Six Oilers were “suspended indefinitely” and are de facto off the team. They are (with class, position and 2002-03 statistics):

Kevin Fines, Jr. G: 4-6-0, 2.61 GAA, .920 SV%
Dan Francis, Fr. C: 0-0–0, 3 GP
Brandon Harker, Fr. C: 1-4–5, 23 GP
Lance Holmes, Jr. D: 0-1–1, 22 GP
David Sell, Jr. D: 0-0–0, 1 GP
Nick Udovicic, Jr. C: 10-16–26, 26 GP

The biggest losses, contribution-wise, are Fines and Udovicic. According to Barnett, “They broke some team and university rules and had to be disciplined. … Unfortunately, Kevin was one of the ones we had to let go, as was Nick Udovicic, who was our captain and leading scorer.”

The suspensions happened prior to last week’s games against Niagara, which shut out the Oilers 6-0, but the home team came back the next night to tie up the Purple Eagles 1-1.

“We went into the Niagara game a little shorthanded,” said Barnett. “We came back Saturday and played our butts off, and I was so proud of our guys.”

The offensive woes were in place before Udovicic was kicked off the team, but it’s a team-wide problem. “We just can’t score right now,” said Barnett. “We’ve scored three goals in three games and have tied two of them. We’re 0-1-2 in February, and we look at that as a positive.”

The change has been a positive one, according to Barnett. “It’s an unfortunate situation, but we have to move on. The guys that we have left impressed us last weekend. It’s rallied the guys and allowed some other guys to step up. We could have won (last weekend), and we’ll settle for the tie.”

Barnett is always optimistic about his club’s chances, and recent events haven’t dimmed that.

“If we come out and play physical, I think we’ll have an opportunity to win against Air Force,” he said. “We feel like we’re at our best when we take the game to the other team and play a physical game, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Chargers Have Inside Track

Many things were expected out of last weekend’s Alabama-Huntsville vs. Wayne State matchup. Did many expect the Chargers to shut out the Warriors 4-0 and then bully them 8-2? Certainly not.

Fresh off his first collegiate shutout, freshman goaltender Scott Munroe said, “To get my first shutout is big, but to get it against Wayne State, with the way they’ve been playing right now, is pretty unbelievable. They’ve been doing all the right things, but our guys came out there tonight and took it to them.”

Munroe saved all 31 shots in the win, picking up his second assist of the season in the process.

The next night was an even more spectacular display of Charger dominance. Said senior defenseman Ryan Leasa, “I knew we were capable of efforts like this, but to see it was amazing.”

The Chargers netted two shorthanded markers on the evening, and three all told on the weekend, including one by senior right wing Joel Bresciani.

“Guerrera came out just a bit too far behind the net, and Jason (Hawes) just picked his pocket and got it to me. I think that one did it for us,” said Bresciani.

The Chargers now lead the nation with 11 SHG, but they also take more penalty minutes (21.93) per game than any other team.

One of the Wayne State coaching staff was heard saying, “We’ll just have to go get Niagara in New York.” I certainly don’t think the Chargers have it won just yet — this weekend’s matchup at Bemidji State is crucial — but they certainly have the inside track and a couple strides on the rest of the field.

Indeed, Barnett wasn’t too excited about the prospect of playing the Chargers.

“I’m certainly not looking forward to traveling down to Huntsville next weekend,” said Barnett. “Those guys are really on a roll right now. I talked with [Wayne State head coach] Bill Wilkinson, and he said that the Chargers completely dominated his guys and just beat them up.”

That’s a fair assessment. However, the Chargers know that with every solid performance they’ve had this season, they’ve also had some games where they’ve played down to the ability of their opponents or not given a full effort and had another team outwork them. Will the Chargers believe the hype?

Stretch Run

There are six games left for each CHA squad. The Chargers, as stated, have the inside track courtesy of a six-point lead with six games left. Niagara has the toughest schedule of any team wishing to get a bye for the conference tournament, hosting Wayne State, traveling to Bemidji, and hosting Huntsville. Going 3-3 in this stretch is probably a reasonable goal, and it would give the Purple Eagles 24 points — which might be enough to beat out the Warriors and Beavers.

Wayne State is just two points behind the Purple Eagles, and probably has the easiest road, hosting Air Force and finishing with a home-and-home with Findlay. Bemidji, on the other hand, hosts Alabama-Huntsville and Niagara before heading out to Air Force.

The Falcons and Oilers can play the role of spoilers, but both are destined to play on the first day of the conference tournament. The Falcons are coming on strong, and given their comeback effort last weekend, all teams should be wary of the Black and Orange.

Peering into my crystal ball, I see it shaping up as follows:

1. Alabama-Huntsville
2. Wayne State (wins tiebreaker)
3. Niagara
4. Bemidji State
5. Air Force
6. Findlay

The head-to-head between Niagara and Wayne State figures to go to the Warriors, who have a win and a tie already. For the Purple Eagles to lock up that second spot, they need a sweep this weekend.

Weekend Slate

Wayne State @ Niagara

The battle lines are clearly drawn: a Niagara sweep puts it in the driver’s seat for a first-round bye, while a split or better gives Wayne State a leg up.

Having watched Wayne State last weekend, I figure the guys from Detroit are going to come out with the eye of the tiger and be ready to rock and roll in the Dwyer Arena. Niagara faltered as well last weekend, though, so motivation is not going to be lacking on either side.

The difference between the two squads will be in net, as the Warriors seem solidly behind David Guerrera, no matter what. Yes, he was pulled against the Chargers, and he was mightily upset at that, but the senior is the plowhorse for the Warrior defense.

While one has to have the utmost respect for Dave Burkholder’s handling of his goaltending situation — they did give up just one goal all weekend, even if it was when facing a struggling Oiler offense — inconsistency has been the name of the game for the Niagara goalies.

It comes down to the fact that I can’t confidently predict a home sweep for the Purple Eagles, as much as I have to like the play of Bonk and VanNynnatten in net and the scoring on each of Niagara’s top three lines. Niagara has only swept two conference foes this season: Findlay and Air Force.

To expect the Warriors to be swept in two consecutive CHA weekends is just too much — they’ve only lost four games in a row once all season, and it’s been two years since the squad lost four conference games in a row. KRACH figures that Wayne State (53.2) will defeat Niagara (30.3) 64% of the time, and a split puts them right at that mark.

Alabama-Huntsville @ Bemidji State

Control of the CHA lead is the Chargers’ to have, and if there’s any opponent they probably wouldn’t want to face on the road this week, it’s Bemidji State. The last time these two teams faced off, the series ended in two overtime affairs that saw the Chargers win both times. Change venues, and are things any different?

Yes and no.

The Beavers feel the pressure, as these are must-win games if they’re to have any hope of vaulting past the Purple Eagles and Warriors into second place. The Beavers’ swarming defensive style is the one that’s held the Chargers in check: 3.50 goals per game is tied with Air Force for season limits on the Boys in Blue.

All the things that were said about this matchup a month ago are applicable now — tight defense, solid goaltending, and special teams ruling the day. Those Chargers are taking plenty of penalties, but in conference play, they’re killing 94% of them, and the Beavers’ power play has only netted nine markers on the season.

These will be tight, tough, physical games. The home-crowd and -ice advantage should give the Beavers an edge, but the Chargers are 5-1-0 at the John Glas Fieldhouse since the CHA started play. KRACH figures Alabama-Huntsville (84.81) beats Bemidji State (34.82) 71% of the time. Since the Chargers never sweep when I pick them to do so, and because these are road contests, I’m going to call another split.

Air Force @ Findlay

We already know that Barnett figures his guys can play a solid, physical contest. So can the Falcons. They may have only won two of their last 10 games, but only one of those losses was by more than one goal, and there are two ties in that sequence.

This is a weekend of pride for both clubs: the Falcons want to finish their season strong, and the Oilers want to keep building a new focus after losing nearly a quarter of the roster. The Oilers have 20 young men to dress in the Orange and Black from here on out, and knowing that your number’s going to be called every night must demand that each player dig deep within himself for everything he can give.

So what if these are the two cellar-dweller CHA teams? It should still be a good series anyway. KRACH says that Findlay (12.66) should beat Air Force (8.855) 59% of the time. It was a split in Colorado, and it’ll be a split in Ohio.