The long, bitter winter chill has finally broken at my stoop back East. Cracking a balmy 40 degrees, it was so warm I actually stopped at Carvel’s for some vanilla soft serve. This can only mean that we have entered the stretch drive of the college hockey season.
With Bemidji State and Wayne State bowing out to No. 8 St. Cloud and Northern Michigan, respectively, nonconference play has finally concluded and the boys can firmly set their sights on maximizing their seeding at Kearney. The big prizes are a pair of byes into the semifinals at the Tri-City Arena, awarded to the top two teams in the conference.
Only three teams right now can earn the easiest path to the McLeod Trophy and an NCAA autobid — Bemidji, Niagara, and Alabama-Huntsville. And the Chargers may have squandered their best chance last Thursday.
Trailing the Purple Eagles by four points in the standings, UAH had them in their building for a pair of games, and came out Thursday night and tanked. Niagara swarmed Huntsville, bombing 38 shots on goal and finding twine eight times. Such domination came as a shock because the Chargers had just completed a four-game stretch in which they picked up a couple of impressive ties at Northern Michigan and at No. 3 Maine.
“We just had one of those perfect games on Thursday,” said Niagara coach Dave Burkholder. “We scored some pretty goals, and every break in the game was in our favor.”
While UAH did have a fatigue excuse after not coming home until late Sunday from playing the Black Bears, Niagara had to make the long trip to Alabama on Wednesday. Neither team had their usual preparation week, but Niagara was able to prevail nonetheless.
Alabama-Huntsville kept its chances alive by coming back on Saturday and salvaging a split, 4-2. However having to play at a Bemidji team looking to keep its hold on first place this weekend, the path to second place becomes exceedingly difficult
Niagara knows that it did what it needed to do to at least remain in second place.
“Alabama-Huntsville is a very difficult team to sweep,” Burkholder said. “Northern Michigan couldn’t do it. Maine couldn’t do it. … There was just so much riding on the weekend and we did all right.”
While the Purple Eagles may have tightened their grip on second, the split damaged their chances to eclipse the Beavers and claim the regular-season crown. Niagara had two games in hand over Bemidji and trailed the Beavers by four points entering last weekend. A sweep would have brought the teams into a first-place tie.
“At the beginning of the year, if someone was to offer a 3-1 record against Alabama-Huntsville, I would have said that’s pretty good,” Burkholder said. “However, we needed all eight points to make up the ground against Bemidji. Hopefully it will work out.”
Instead, the one loss puts tremendous pressure on the Purple Eagles to win over the next two weekends, when they will host Air Force and the Oilers. While both guests have proven pesky opponents this year, a team that wants to finish in first place cannot falter in home games against the bottom half of the division, and Burkholder is not taking anything for granted.
In fact, the Falcons are a huge wild card. They can alter the CHA balance of power over the next two weekends as they will play Niagara and Bemidji. The team has shown that it can beat anybody. It topped No. 10 Miami early in the season and last Saturday it knocked off Holy Cross, the first-place team in Atlantic Hockey, with a convincing four-goal third period to triumph, 5-2.
“Air Force’s speed up front is a concern,” he said. “Although we won both games out in Colorado, they outshot us both nights. It’s going to be a great series. It’s as big as it gets for us.”
A four-game sweep by Niagara would guarantee that the team would be no worse than one game behind Bemidji entering the last week of the season, when it has a pair of games in Minnesota for what sure would be a CHA fan’s delight. Moreover, if Niagara wins out, the pressure very well may be on the home team in that showdown.
Bemidji has a more difficult end-of-the-year schedule, hosting Alabama-Huntsville, a team that it has already lost to once, and having to play at Air Force. One or two additional losses are not out of the question, especially because Bemidji has just completed a brutal stretch at No. 7 Minnesota and then against the Huskies. While Bemidji impressed, it could not pull off an upset in any of the four games, despite outplaying St. Cloud last Saturday in a 3-2 defeat. One has to wonder how that will bear on the squad’s psyche.
The team will have to refocus now for the CHA stretch run, but coach Tom Serratore ought to have his troops ready to maintain their grip on first place. Regardless of what happens, odds are you can circle March 5 and March 6 for a dramatic finish to a stellar regular season.
“We told our guys at the start of practice this week that you can turn off the computers,” Burkholder said. “We don’t need help on the out-of-town scoreboard. We can’t afford a bump in the road, but if we take care of this homestand than we will be right where we want to be.”
A View From the Bottom
The good news is that everybody in the CHA makes the playoffs, so even as the losses mount for the bottom programs, there is always something to play for.
No team has more to play for than the Oilers, who are concluding their final season and would like nothing more than to make some noise in Kearney on their way out.
Their record belies the team’s ability to execute an upset. Since defeating Niagara on Jan. 16 in their first post-announcement home game, the Oilers have gone 1-5-2. Before that win, the team had been 0-8-3 in its previous 11. While wins have been few and far between, the Oilers’ biggest ray of hope comes from sophomore goaltender Jon Horrell.
Though he has been inconsistent this year, never snatching the clear starting job from freshman Wil Hooper, Horrell has had a couple of magnificent performances. He twice earned the USCHO.com Defensive Player of the Week Award, most recently for stopping 49 Ferris State shots in a 0-0 tie.
Horrell has demonstrated that he has the ability to get hot and stonewall a team on any given night — making the Oilers a threat to eliminate anyone in a single-game playoff format.
No such praise can be heaped on the current CHA cellar-dwellers, Wayne State. Last year’s tournament champion is on an eight-game losing streak, and has not been able to slow down any offenses lately, while generating almost none of its own.
If the Chargers can’t find a way to sneak out of third place, drawing the Warriors in the first round would not be a bad consolation prize.
This is a significant weekend for both WSU and Findlay as the two play a home-and-home against each other, offering a welcome respite for someone from their recent struggles.
If the Oilers manage a sweep, it will build a modicum of momentum. The team did win one from Air Force last week and lost the other game, 2-1.
Anyways, the best either team can hope for is fourth place. Findlay only trails Air Force by a game, and can take solace in the difficult schedule the Falcons have over the next two weekends.
The Kearney countdown is on.
Faceoff for the Chargers’ homecoming game against Wayne State has been moved up from 4 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the Von Braun Center on Saturday, February 28. The reason for the change is to accommodate a special promotion that will follow the game.