A View From the Bottom
As a season heads into its final stretch, it is natural to get excited when teams jockey for first place and playoff positioning. The CHA adheres to that rule through some brilliant schedule-making. The first- and second-place teams, Bemidji State and Niagara, will meet for a pair of games in the final weekend.
While that anticipation will swell regardless of this week’s outcomes, the person with perhaps the toughest job this weekend is Wayne State coach Bill Wilkinson. He has to find a way to inspire his team to keep playing hard as the playoffs come around.
The Warriors are in last place with little chance to escape the basement, and the season has been miserable. By earning a tie with Findlay on Saturday night, Wayne State snapped a nine-game losing streak — the Oilers had beaten WSU 5-0 the night before. The Warriors’ last win came on Jan. 10 at Air Force, which itself ended a four-game losing streak.
Wayne State is a team in desperate need of a spark.
“People have to realize every time they are on the ice, it could be the difference in a game,” Wilkinson said. “It doesn’t matter what shift it is, it could be the critical one of the game.”
Normally a team playing at this abysmal level would be discarded at this stretch of the season. However, since all six CHA teams play in the tournament in Kearney, Neb., everyone remains relevant until formally eliminated. Besides, this is only the penultimate weekend, and there will be plenty of time to hype the big boys next week.
Wilkinson still holds out hope that some magic can happen.
“It’s not something that you can really hang your hat on [a playoff upset],” he said. “You can’t go into the playoffs wishing it could happen, but if you do win, you’ll have the chance to play another one. You have to look at winning one game.”
In truth, Wilkinson has to focus on winning one game of any format. As Wayne State heads down to Alabama-Huntsville, it seems hard to recall that a couple of years ago, this was the marquee CHA matchup. They met in the CHA finals in both 2001 and 2002.
Now, the Chargers are almost fixed in third place and the Warriors are last. Wilkinson has to focus his team on fundamentals.
“We are playing against Alabama-Huntsville; we better be ready to play,” he said. “We have to get ready to play playoff-style hockey, block shots and take hits in order to make plays.”
While Wayne State has always had a defensive style of hockey, Wilkinson will try to tighten the ship further to contain Jared Ross and company. During the long losing streak, WSU gave up over 35 shots on goal per game, while scoring just over one goal per game. About the only hope the team has is in the basics, especially for a team that has played almost half of the year without one of its best offensive talents, sophomore Derek MacKay.
For that reason, maybe Saturday’s 1-1 tie against the fifth-place Oilers may be more than a mere respite from the struggles.
“We played a very strong game,” Wilkinson said. “We blocked shots and we had the lead with four minutes to go … The intensity level was there.”
But no matter what happens with Wayne State for the rest of the year, it almost certainly won’t be pretty.
“We have to get pucks to the net and our forwards have to take every opportunity,” Wilkinson said. “Sometimes it has to be ugly hockey. We can’t play the tic-tac-toe style and create chances.”
As long as the possibility exists for a playoff miracle, the work will endure.
Last week clarified the CHA playoff picture somewhat. Niagara did exactly what it wanted in sweeping Air Force at home, while Bemidji faltered just a bit, taking only three of four points from the Chargers.
Those results left the Beavers just one point ahead of the Purple Eagles in the standings with the first-place squad having to fly into Colorado this week to get its crack at the Falcons. Once again pitting brother versus brother, Air Force coach Frank Serratore has a chance to play spoiler against his younger sibling, Bemidji coach Tom Serratore.
Frank Serratore was unable to assist his brother last week by taking points from Niagara. Now his job is knock Tom out of first place, though BSU has already clinched a top-two finish.
Bemidji is after more than just first place this weekend. With a sweep, the Beavers will record the most CHA wins of any team in a season. It would also extend Tom’s mastery of Frank. Since Tom Serratore took over Bemidji’s program in 2001-02, the Beavers have never lost to the Falcons. One more victory would boost Serratore to second place on Bemidji’s all-time coaches win list.
But The Bottom Line is Niagara
Pure and simple, unless the Oilers sweep the Purple Eagles in Niagara this weekend, and the Beavers do the same in the Rocky Mountains, next weekend’s Bemidji-Niagara matchup will be for first place in the conference.
The Purple Eagles have hit their stride, losing just one of their last nine games, and have two lines producing. They are looking to hold serve at home and hope that Air Force steals the same point that UAH did last week from the Beavers. That would leave the two squads tied for first place.
Meanwhile, Niagara needs either a win or a Charger loss to clinch at least a second-place finish in the standings, which would give it a bye for the first round of the playoffs. All Alabama-Huntsville can do to get the bye is hope that it wins its remaining games and that the Purple Eagles lose them all.
Stranger things have happened.