Back from Break and Flying High
The Air Force locker room is patrolled by its two co-captains, forwards Shane Saum and Spanky Leonard. Guess which of the pair is the disciplinarian.
“Spanky is the good cop and Shane is definitely the bad cop,” said Air Force coach Frank Serratore. “Shane will get on the guy, while Spanky will come in as pals and pat the guy on the back.”
Air Force revolves around the play of the duo, who are both classmates and linemates. Leonard is a flashier offensive player, as creative as exists on the Falcon squad, which complements the more stolid play of Saum, who brings a level of intensity and demanding character that has rubbed off the rest of the team.
Leonard leads his team in scoring, with six goals and eight assists, averaging a point per game. Saum has a more modest nine points — not a lot for a team’s top veterans. But their chief worth comes off the ice.
The coach has taken notice.
“Spanky plays off Shane very well,” Serratore said. “This is not as much my team as it is Saum and Leonard’s team. Everything revolves around them.”
“They’ve done such a good job getting the team ready to play,” Serratore added. “When it comes time to make a point, the coaches go to them. If they say it’s time to be more physical, then the team will go out and start finishing their checks.”
While the tag-team approach has yet to produce a conference win for the Falcons, they have elevated their play beyond most expectations. Coming into the weekend, Air Force stands at 6-8-0 overall, almost as many wins (10) as a more talented squad had last year.
That constitutes improvement for the consensus pick to finish dead last in the conference.
“The year has gone better than a lot of people expected,” Serratore said. “We have not won many games, but we’ve competed very well, and I think that we’ve played everyone very difficult. Before the season, we were rated something like 57th out of the 58 Division I teams and we’re 6-8.”
The year hit its pinnacle thus far on Oct. 18, when the Falcons upset Miami, 2-0 at the Nye Frontier Classic. Exhibiting an intelligent style of hockey with good team play, Air Force maximized its talent and the glow from that victory has not faded over a month later.
“The Miami win was a big shock,” Serratore said. “With a better team last year on paper, we went there and they beat us 12-1, and we came back this year to win 2-0. How does that happen?”
Air Force has hit harder times since then. The Falcons are mired in a four-game losing streak, in which they haven’t scored more than two goals in a game. Special teams are a real concern for the Falcons. The team has converted just 12 of its 89 power plays (13.5%), the worst in the conference.
After getting swept by Niagara, Air Force came up empty at Colorado College and against Denver. Though the team has made progress, in the state of Colorado the program will only receive credit when it rattles the cages of its nationally ranked intrastate rivals.
Air Force’s power play was really exposed against the No. 8 Pioneers. In a 4-1 loss, the Falcons gave up two goals while shorthanded, and failed on 10 man advantage opportunities of their own.
Serratore understands the reality of the situation.
“CC and Denver are the benchmark that we are measured against,” he said. “We could be having a great year, but if got stomped by them, the perception is that we are not good or our schedule is easy. If we compete with them, suddenly the local people take notice of us.”
As the Falcons head into conference play this weekend at Findlay, the objective is to find some lessons in its recent defeats and find some offense. The Oilers, after faring worse last weekend at CC and Denver than the Falcons — losing both games 4-0 — will have similar objectives.
“We’ve got to find some way to get more goals,” Serratore said. “If we don’t get more goals all of our hard work will never result in wins. We’ve been especially working hard on our power play, banging bodies around to get to the net.
“I’m really rooting for this team to succeed,” he added. “They’ve done everything right. I have not been able to get mad at them once this year. In fact, you feel bad because you want the team to be rewarded for their effort.”
No Go Joe
Not surprisingly, Niagara has the top three scorers in the CHA. What is a surprise is none of those three is named Joe Tallari.
Atop the leaderboard are captain Barret Ehgoetz, freshman Jeremy Hall and Chris Welch. Tallari, after scoring 55 points a year ago, has just six through 12 games and only one goal. Injured early in the year, the sniper has not recovered his game, which figured to be the linchpin to the Purple Eagle attack.
“There was immense pressure on him to perform, and he’s just not gotten on track,” said Niagara coach Dave Burkholder. “We see progress in the weight room and on the practice ice. He gives it his all.”
Still the slump is a mystery to Burkholder.
“He is one hundred percent healthy,” he said. “Hopefully, he just needs some time to get back in game shape and get his timing back. He’s getting his chances, but it’s not clicking right now. I guess I’d rather have him on his game in March than in November.”
Niagara has won its first four CHA games because Ehgoetz has more than compensated for Tallari’s dropoff. Leading the team with 19 points — good for a tie at eighth in the nation — Ehgoetz has been a model of consistency, scoring in every game except three this year.
“Ehgoetz has been the talk of the team,” Burkholder said. “If the game has been on the line, he’s been the guy for us. He deserves all the attention that he has been getting lately.”
He turned some heads nationwide with his hat trick in Niagara’s upset of then-No.1 New Hampshire, but Burkholder traces his emergence to the previous year.
“I’d have to look back to the second semester last year, playing with Tallari,” he said. “It was clear then that he was going to be a good Division I hockey player.”
If Alabama Huntsville hopes to gain any ground on the CHA leaders, then the Chargers will have to find some way to stop Ehgoetz and the mighty Purple Eagle attack. The contest should prove very entertaining as UAH likes to go up-and-down, and averages 3.67 goals per game, best in the CHA.
The Purple Eagles, on the other hand, look for a nice home weekend after a rigorous road trip at Air Force and Ferris State in which Niagara went 2-1-1. While Niagara loves its home ice, going 9-1-1 there last year, it has had conference success on the road sweeping Air Force and Wayne State previously.
“We were very fortunate to get two road trips out of the way, including winning at Wayne State, which we’ve never done before,” Burkholder said. “These two games against UAH are huge with the offense that the Chargers have and the pressure we have to be prepare for. It’s the biggest weekend of the young season.”
At the center of the action will be Ehgoetz, who leads in the locker room and on the ice.
“With all due respect to our two senior captains, this is Barrett’s team,” Burkholder said. “We have nine seniors on this team and the players voted him assistant captain. It says a lot about his character.”
And Niagara’s success. Joe or no Joe.
It’s a Long Way Back From Connecticut
Connecticut isn’t quite an exotic destination, but Bemidji is sure glad to see the cold confines of Minnesota after a bumpy two-week excursion to the East Coast.
The Beavers went 2-2 in a pair of series against Merrimack and UConn. The team won the first and last games capping the series with a 7-2 drubbing of the Huskies.
“We were hit or miss on the trip,” said Bemidji coach Tom Serratore. “We had some lapses in play and that will happen during road games. Against Merrimack, I thought that we played better in the game we lost, than in the game we won — they just got a couple of power-play goals.”
Serratore was disappointed with not coming up with a third win on the trip, especially in dropping the first game to Connecticut. Bemidji outshot the Huskies, 36-19, but lost anyway, 4-3.
“The UConn loss was tough because they play a very defensive style that frustrated us,” Serratore. “The game was kept close, despite us outshooting them and the longer the game remained close, the more it favored them. We were frustrated because we felt that we deserved better, but give them credit.”
The non-conference sojourn ends this weekend as Bemidji hosts Wayne State, a team that Serratore is fretting over.
“Wayne State is such a difficult team to play because they are very patient and look for the other team to make mistakes,” he said. “We’ve had to do a lot of extra preparation this week to get ready for them. They clog the neutral zone and play things close to the vest.”
“We’ve run our practices almost like a football team as our game work has been to be ready for their system,” he added. “We’ve had a lot of slowdown drills and walkthroughs to prepare.”
The Warriors are riding high lately. It is their first action since splitting a series with Michigan State, results that helped push the Spartans out of the national rankings.
“We have to be playing good hockey,” Serratore said. “It’s great to get back to conference play, and it is nice to be returning home.”
Thank you for your forbearance, gentle reader, as I took a Thanksgiving-week holiday. Over my vacation, I went out to see The Cat in the Hat. Ten minutes into the movie, the theater’s reel broke. In retrospect, I’m glad. The movie opened, and the sun did shine, it wasn’t too wet to play. That should’ve been enough to walk out.