This Week in the CHA: Oct. 23, 2003

Another week, another dramatic upset for a CHA squad.

It was Air Force’s turn to move to the forefront, flying up to Alaska to defeat Miami, 2-0, in the consolation round of the Nye Frontier Classic. Senior Mike Polidor continues to impress between the pipes for the Falcons, notching his first shutout and the first win for his team against a member of the Big Four since 1999. The win comes on the heels of Findlay’s upset of Michigan State the previous week.

After crisscrossing the country, Air Force gets some well deserved home cooking against American International.

“Just goes to show you that this conference has gotten to the point where on any night, anyone can beat anyone,” said Alabama-Huntsville coach Doug Ross.

Ross’ cliché will get the most severe of tests this weekend. Niagara makes the short trek to Buffalo to play Massachusetts-Lowell and the newly-dubbed No. 1 team in the nation, New Hampshire, in the College Hockey Showcase.

This is a landmark CHA weekend for this season. Alabama-Huntsville opens its season, so for the first time, all six teams will be in action. Findlay-Wayne State renew a burgeoning rivalry. And the Purple Eagles have a chance to upset the early balance of power in college hockey.

“Our guys are obviously excited,” said Niagara coach Dave Burkholder. “In our short history as a Division I program, we’ve never had the opportunity to play the number-one team in the nation, and so now we get a real test.”

Niagara catches an added break because eight Wildcat players were suspended in the aftermath of the New York Yankees’ ridiculous Game 7 victory over the Boston Red Sox (take Pedro out, Grady). If ever a team was poised for defeat, it would be this weekend.

“You look at the teams from Hockey East, and they will play half of their division schedule against teams in the top-10,” Burkholder said. “We get at most eight games against college hockey’s best, and you have to make them count.”

As alluring as the game against the top team in the nation may be, the seniors may be more focused on Friday’s game. This will be their first chance to play Lowell and its coach, Blaise MacDonald.

MacDonald started the Niagara program from scratch in 1995, and remained its pilot until 1999-2000, leaving after taking the Purple Eagles into the NCAA tournament in 2000. Niagara’s seniors are his last recruiting class there, and they have not hid their emotions on wanting to impress their former coach.

“This will be a big night for the seniors,” Burkholder said. “Blaise has been gone a while, but the seniors remember him and what he did for the program. It’s going to be a special night for everyone involved.”

The weekend may be important emotionally for the seniors, but Niagara will need the help of a freshman if it hopes to win. Over the first couple games of the season, the Purple Eagles’ best player has been rookie power forward Jeremy Hall.

He scored one of the Purple Eagles’ two goals in its opening loss to Union and netted the only tally in their 1-0 exhibition win over Brock. Niagara’s big guns have taken a couple of games to get their skating legs, but Hall has been solid.

“Hall has been everything we’ve hoped for when we brought him in here,” Burkholder said. “I’ve only had two games to evaluate players, but he’s doing what we recruited him for — scoring goals.”

Of course, Niagara has some big time goal scorers, including Joe Tallari. Tallari struggled a little in the first two games with an injury, but he’s fully recovered and looks to make an impression on the national stage.

“It sometimes takes the veterans a couple of games to get rolling,” Burkholder said. “Everyone played against Brock to get their conditioning and their legs. This will be the first time we’ve had a normal college hockey week, with a game on the weekend and four days of practice.”

“Our seniors have great leadership, ” he added. “I’m interested in seeing how much we’ve improved and this weekend will tell us where we are at.”

Clash of the Titans?

Nobody can yet confuse Findlay-Wayne State with Yankees-Red Sox (I’m begging you to take Pedro out, Grady), but one of these teams may need Don Zimmer’s services by the end of the season.

The two teams, just an hour and a half apart, played the first of six contests last Thursday with the Warriors defending home ice in a 3-2 win. On Friday, Findlay gets to try and hold serve in its first home game of the year.

“Anytime you play a team the number of times we will, a rivalry will naturally start to develop,” said Findlay coach Pat Ford. “Things have started to get snarly already.”

The penalty box did not lack company last week. The game was decided largely on special teams. Wayne State cashed in on two of its seven power plays, while Findlay came up empty on its six — including a five-on-three advantage

“We are so close to each other, that not only will a rivalry develop on the ice, but our fans can travel to the other building to see the games,” said Wayne State coach Bill Wilkinson. “This thing will develop the old-fashioned way, by playing each other six times in one year. We will really know each other well by the end of the season.”

Right now, the coaches are just trying to know what they have on their roster. Wilkinson has a prized talent in sophomore forward Derek MacKay, who had a goal and an assist on Thursday, but aside from him it is difficult to evaluate anybody. Wayne State is besieged by injuries.

Assistant captain Steve Kovalchik — hand in a cast after suffering a wrist injury — will be out two-to-six weeks. Junior center Bill Collins has an arm injury and freshman Jason Baclig is recovering from a shoulder injury and may return to the lineup on Friday.

“We’re really banged up right now,” Wilkinson said. “I guess it is better to be injured early in the season than late.”

The injuries have focused Wayne State on team concepts.

“We need to improve our system play and our coverage in the defensive zone,” Wilkinson said. “I’m not so concerned about our offense.”

Through the season, Findlay will try and make Wilkinson worry about his offense, because about the only thing that Ford has concluded from his team’s early games is that sophomore Jon Horrell is his top goaltender.

On Friday, however, Ford is likely to start freshman goaltender Will Hooper.

“We’ve figured out that Horrell can play at this level,” Ford said. “When he started this season he was practically a freshman. I might start Hooper this weekend to give him some experience before the conference schedule begins. I’ve liked what I’ve seen from him too so far.”

The Oilers must improve special teams if they hope to reverse their fortunes from last week. Ford worked this week at finalizing his two power-play units. Forwards Rigel Shaw and Chris Weller are the keys up front to making the man advantage work, and as a bonus, Findlay gets back freshman defenseman Kenny McCauley to quarterback everything. McCauley suffered a hip pointer against Boston College, but will be back in the lineup on Friday.

“Part of the reason that we’ve struggled is that we haven’t had real consistent power play units,” Ford said. “We’ve given everyone opportunities to play on special teams and now we’ve solidified two units. It’s still a work in progress.”

With the game on home ice, Findlay has to make the most of the opportunity to play in comforting environs. It will be back on the road next week.

“Even though the season is young, it seems that we’ve been on the road for a long time,” Ford said. “Of course it’s tough to convince a Colorado College or Denver to come here and play.”

“This is a critical three-week stretch for us,” he added. “We’re off to Clarkson and Colgate next week before the start of our conference schedule. We need to make the most of the home ice.”

Welcome Back, Chargers

Last seen losing an overtime classic to Bemidji in the CHA semifinals, Alabama-Huntsville kicks off its season against Connecticut. Coach Doug Ross did not sound so much concerned with the Huskies as grateful for the respite from weeks of practice, and for the chance to evaluate his team.

“We’ve been waiting a long while to play a game,” he said. “It’s time to get onto the ice and drop the puck. I want to see what our new players can do.”

With nine freshmen on the roster, Ross has his evaluative work cut out for him.

“Last year we played our first six games on the road, going to Wisconsin, Denver and Minnesota,” Ross said. “We have a young team this year, so it will be a welcome change to have our first four games at home.”

Prediction Challenge

Last week, I beckoned to all you CHA prognosticators to send in picks. I received a grand total of one entry. I didn’t think I intimidated that many of you.

These selections are courtesy of Chris Brown of Huntsville. Thanks, good luck and send your picks to [email protected].

Friday night

Niagara 3, UMass-Lowell 1. Lowell will still be smarting from the trip to Alaska, and a healthy Joe Tallari will put Niagara on top.

Wayne State 4, Findlay 3. The Michigan State win was a happy surprise, but a young Wayne State team will be looking to prove itself.

Air Force 3, AIU 2. The cadets have confidence after the Miami win, and they’ll get it done on home ice.

Bemidji 2, Mankato 2. Bemidji will repeat some of last year’s low-scoring affairs and walk away with a tie.

UAH 2, UConn 1. UAH will suffer from a very young team and a very late start to the season, but it won’t be enough for the Huskies to win in Huntsville.

Saturday night

New Hampshire 5, Niagara 2. Niagara won’t be able to keep up with the talent of last year’s runner-up.

Air Force 4, AIU 1. Air Force comes out strong to get the sweep on home ice.

Minnesota State 3, Bemidji State 1. Minnesota State comes back looking for a big in-state win, and they get it at the Fieldhouse.

UAH 5, UConn 1. UAH will get it together after a sloppy Friday night game and win the way it should over UConn.

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