What is your favorite hockey move of all time: Slap Shot or Miracle?
In the CHA playoffs this year, you can take your pick. On Friday in Kearney, Wayne St and Alabama Huntsville will faceoff and one team may have to dress the Hanson brothers and in the other contest Findlay will play Air Force and Oiler coach Pat Ford will try and do the best Herb Brooks impression this side of Kurt Russell.
That’s before Niagara and regular season champ Bemidji State get a crack at the winners all with a trip to the NCAA Tournament on the line.
While the two teams with automatic bids may have the best shot at joining hockey’s frozen dance, with the Chargers possessing one of the league’s best players in Jared Ross, and the Oilers having so much pride on the line, the Warriors playing their best hockey of the season right now, and the Falcons as pesky as ever, nothing is guaranteed.
After all, this columnist had been preaching for weeks about last week’s supposedly dramatic final series between the Purple Eagles and the Beavers only to have the Oilers spoil those predictions. So let’s take a look at the tournament, starting with the first round.
No. 4 Findlay vs. No. 5 Air Force
With all due respect to Air Force and the valiant job that coach Frank Serratore does with that program under enormous handicaps, the sentimental favorite for this tournament is Findlay.
The next Oilers loss will be the last in program history. Findlay played its final home games ever last week-to crowds of 153 and 358 on Friday and Saturday-but ever since the school announced in January that this would be the team’s coup de grace the season has been only about one thing-the Findlay players and their resourceful coach.
“I told my team when this all went down that we could either fall apart or come together as a team,” Ford said. “This is something that we will never forget.”
The Oilers have certainly coalesced at the right time. The team is 5-2-1 in its last eight games, including a stunning sweep at Niagara two weeks ago that cost the Purple Eagles a chance at the CHA championship.
In that weekend against the Purple Eagles, the Oilers displayed an offensive ability that it had not before, scoring 14 goals. The team was able to rotate its lines and steamroll Niagara. The fearsome Barrett Ehgoetz line was held without a point. The defensemen are reinforced by two top-flight goaltenders in Jon Horrell and Will Hooper that have straight platooned all year.
In other words, Findlay is primed to upset someone.
“Nobody remembers what you do in November, December and January,” Ford said. “We played a very tough non-conference schedule. Look at how many members of the top-15 we played. That has put us in position for the playoffs.”
Air Force, however, won’t roll over so Ford can forestall his program’s demise. The Falcons emphatically snapped a four-game losing streak this past weekend at Wayne State. Co-captains Shane Saum and Spanky Leonard will not end their own college careers without giving their opponent a helluva fight.
Saum had two goals against the Warriors over the weekend and looks to get Leonard going. It’s tough to see Air Force pulling off a series of upsets this weekend, however. The team had a chance to be spoiler, playing Niagara and Bemidji on consecutive weekends in February and did not win a game.
However, the Falcons have had success against Findlay, going 2-1-1 this year. The final Air Force win, a 2-1 victory on Feb. 7 particularly stung the Oilers because they were winning with five minutes to go and Air Force’s Brian Gineo scored twice in the span of a minute to give his team the victory.
Findlay has tried to use that defeat as motivation before the weekend, but Ford also has a more well-known source of inspiration.
“If we do manage to somehow win it all, it would be our own version of a Miracle on Ice,” he said. “It would be a made-for-Hollywood script, the story of the Oilers. You never know.”
No. 3 Alabama-Huntsville vs. No. 6 Wayne State
The teaser lead-in at the top of the column compared this series to Slapshot, but actually you only need to look at the recent Philadelphia Flyers-Ottawa Senators matchup for a potential blueprint of this game.
When these two teams last met on Feb. 27, a 4-1 victory for the Warriors, the game features 187 penalty minutes, several major penalties and a game disqualification. Tempers flared and both teams took some liberties with each other.
More than any competition on the ice, the question is have tensions cooled?
“I would think that you won’t see what you saw in the last game because of the stakes involved,” said Wayne State coach Bill Wilkinson. “This is the playoffs and there just isn’t any room for it.”
Wayne State likes to play a physical game and last time the Chargers retaliated. The hitting should be fierce for this one game, but odds are that Wilkinson is right because no player wants to commit the fatal penalty that sends his team packing.
The only fear is that if the score gets out of hand, that’s when somebody may seek retribution. (Lest we forget, Todd Bertuzzi’s abomination occurred when his team was losing 8-2).
If this game is not marred by penalties than the match-up is fairly simple, UAH’s offense versus Wayne State’s defense and goaltending.
The Chargers feature a potent attack led by co-CHA Player of the Year Jared Ross. The Warriors counter with goaltender Matt Kelly, who made 80 saves two weeks ago when his team executed the sweep down in Huntsville.
This was the ideal first round for Wayne State because it’s sweep of UAH broke a 10 game winless streak and it followed that weekend by getting swept by Air Force. The Chargers could use the extra energy jolt as well, breaking a five game winless streak of its own by defeating the Oilers on the last game of the season.
UAH brings the most talent to the series, but Wayne State has one intangible factor-playoff tradition. To the extent that any CHA team has a track record, the Warriors have one, winning the last three CHA championships.
While few people on this present roster have actually hoisted the Bruce McLeod Trophy, the coaching staff, at the very least, is seasoned at Kearney.
“I think that our past record doesn’t help up so much as it just shows that its doable,” Wilkinson said. “We would like to win at least one playoff game.”
Hopefully, whichever team wins, they will have enough players left for the second round.
The Big Picture
Regardless of first round results, this tournament should belong to the two teams with the automatic bids. While a one-game upset is certainly possible for anybody, it is very difficult to win three straight games. All season long, the Purple Eagles and the Beavers have been the best two teams in the conference. They have the most offensive depth and quality goaltending. While Ross could get hot or Findlay’s goaltenders, the finals will and really ought to be Niagara vs. Bemidji, sentiment for the Oilers aside.
If the Beavers make the CHA finals, they will win the championship. This season has been about the maturation and ultimate reward of their magnificent senior class. Niagara fans should take some solace, their captain and co-CHA Player of the Year, Barrett Ehgoetz will return next year, all the more hungry for a championship.
Findlay def. Air Force. The Oilers are playing the better hockey and will get the better goaltending.
Alabama-Huntsville def. Wayne State WSU will certainly make it tough, but the Chargers have too much offensive ability to not at least advance one more round.
Bemidji def. Findlay Here’s hoping that the CHA fans at Kearney all give the Oilers the ovation they deserve as they skate of the ice for the final time. Would’ve give the Oilers more of a shot of an upset if they played the Purple Eagles, because Niagara is not as consistent as Bemidji. But this is BSU’s year.
Niagara def. Alabama-Huntsville. Battle of the co-Player of the Year winners, Ross and Ehgoetz. Ehgoetz has the bigger supporting cast.
Bemidji def. Niagara Last Saturday, Bemidji destroyed the Purple Eagles, 5-0 to salvage a weekend split. Score won’t be as lopsided but the results remain the same.
On Thursday, March 11, the CHA announced their end-of-the-year awards. Congratulations to the winners:
F-Brendan Cook, Jr., Bemidji State
F-Barret Ehgoetz, Jr., Niagara
F-Jared Ross, Jr., Ala.-Huntsville
D-Bryce Methven, Sr., Bemidji State
D-Jeremy Schreiber, So., Ala.-Huntsville
G-Jeff VanNynatten, So., Niagara
F-Riley Riddell, Jr., Bemidji State
F-Joe Tallari, Sr., Niagara
F-Kris Wiebe, Jr., Findlay
D-Peter Jonsson, Jr., Bemidji State
D-Andrew Lackner, So., Niagara
G-Grady Hunt, Sr., Bemidji State
First Team, All-Rookie
F-Mike Batovanja, Fr., Findlay
F-Luke Erickson, Fr., Bemidji State
F-Nate Higgins, Fr., Wayne State
D-Kenny Macaulay, Fr., Findlay
D-Pat Oliveto, Fr., Niagara
G-Will Hooper, Fr., Findlay
CHA Co-Players of the Year-Barret Ehgoetz, Jr., C, Niagara; Jared Ross, Jr., C, Alabama-Huntsville
CHA Rookie of the Year-Luke Erickson, Fr., RW, Bemidji State
CHA Student-Athlete of the Year-Mike Polidor, Sr., G, Air Force
CHA Coach of the Year-Tom Serratore, Bemidji State
I would be remiss if I didn’t extend my best wishes to Steve Moore for a speedy recovery. We were in the same class year at Harvard and so his injury particularly hit home. Moore was always a pleasure to cover and was an asset to the Crimson program and college hockey in general. The whole Moore clan, older brother Mark and younger brother Dom were all class acts. It was neat to watch Steve develop at the NHL-level and find a role amidst all the stars in Colorado. His game earlier this year against the New York Rangers where he squared off against his brother Dominic felt like the harbinger of good tidings for a deserving family.
I greatly look forward to the day when he dons an NHL uniform again, and I fervently hope that Bertuzzi doesn’t get to do so before Moore does.