This Week in the CHA: Dec. 16, 2004

Heavyweight Bout Leaves Niagara Down, But Not Out

Last weekend’s return bout between CHA heavyweights Bemidji and Niagara figured to be an important matchup before the season started. And the Beavers could have landed a knockout punch by sweeping the underachieving Eagles on home ice.

Bemidji held a 3-0 advantage in games after Friday’s 8-3 drubbing of Niagara, a contest that was clearly dominated by Andrew Murray from the get-go.

“Friday was a pace that I haven’t seen in a long time. The place was alive and Bemidji was absolutely dominating, outhit us, outskated us,” said Niagara head coach Dave Burkholder. “The first night Andrew Murray was a man against boys. We had nothing to answer.”

Murray scored twice in the first 11 minutes of play, and assisted on three more goals by the 11:34 mark of the second period to help BSU to a commanding 7-2 advantage. He and linemates Luke Erickson and Brendan Cook combined for 14 points (5-9) on the evening in one of the most impressive performances of the season.

“They’ve got good chemistry. They’re three really good hockey players. Cook and Erickson are natural goal-scorers; they’ve scored at every level they’ve ever played at,” said Bemidji head coach Tom Serratore. “Andrew Murray might be the most well-rounded player in our league from a standpoint of how physical he is, how he makes plays, scoring, special teams. He’s just a well-rounded player.

“They’re really playing well right now. They were on their A-game on Friday, there’s no question about it. Those were big-time goals too, on big-time plays.”

Murray did his best to land the knockout punch Saturday, but his first shorthanded goal of the season only allowed the Beavers to hang around. Barret Ehgoetz notched four points on the night to lead the Eagles to a 6-2 win, allowing Niagara to avoid the sweep in the season series.

“We go 0-4 against Bemidji and I don’t know what would happen to our season,” said Burkholder. “So it was a very courageous comeback win.

“I thought we turned the table on them Saturday and responded with one of our better efforts.”

The win allowed Niagara to take four of eight points during a grueling pair of trips to Alabama-Huntsville and Bemidji. The Eagles dropped the opener in both series, but came back with wins the past two Saturdays.

“It was very important,” Burkholder said. “When we got our league schedule and had these six games in a row … I would definitely like to have had them spread out. I would have rather played Bemidji once in the first semester and once at the end of the year. But we receive our CHA schedule [from the league]. To get through it 2-2 on the road is a good year. You look at our history, we’ve never swept at Bemidji or Huntsville, so those were very, very, very important splits.”

They’ll need to keep up that kind of play if Niagara is to make a return trip to the NCAA tournament. The Eagles currently sit in fifth place in the CHA standings with a 2-4-0 record, six points behind Alabama-Huntsville for the top spot and four points behind Bemidji.

“When we do show up as a unit of 20 and commit to working for 60 minutes, we’re a very hard team to play against,” Burkholder said. “I just think our confidence at different segments [during the first half] was down. I thought maybe mentally we were a little beat up, then add to that the bumps and bruises. It maybe prohibited us from going on a run.”

The good news for Burkholder is 10 of the team’s final 17 games — including eight of 14 within the conference — will be played on home ice.

“The first semester we were 12 of 17 on the road, including at Huntsville and at Bemidji,” he said. “We’re certainly in a position now to have a great successful second semester, and take a shot at the league title. I still think that’s up for grabs, especially with our home schedule.”

As for the Beavers, Serratore is generally pleased with his team’s performance during the first half of the 2004-05 campaign.

“There’s a game or two I wish we could have back. We haven’t played with the consistency we’d like at time, but I guess everybody could probably say that too,” he stated. “We’ve been flat at certain stages of the first half, but overall I’m pretty happy. I’d like to have another win or two, but that’s the way it goes, that’s the way the puck bounces.”

Serratore’s team is also the only club that has any action left on the 2004 docket. But he doesn’t see any advantage to other CHA clubs having longer layoffs than his.

“I don’t think there’s any validity to that,” he said. “When your guys get back they’ve got to be ready to play and compete no matter how long they’re off. That’s the biggest thing, your mindset.”

Barret In The Books

Lost in the importance of the win was Ehgoetz’s record-setting performance. After climbing to the top of the CHA assist list with one helper on Friday night, the Niagara senior took over first place on the league’s all-time points list with his four-point outing on Saturday. His four points (1-3) gave him 145 for his career, three better than former Air Force forward Andy Berg’s 142.

But there was little fanfare for Ehgoetz after the victory — no special presentation was made, and no game puck handed over.

“I think we’re going to wait ’til the end of the season. I keep kidding that when he takes his jersey off for the last time, it’s going right up in the rafters,” said Burkholder, who would rather concentrate on Ehgoetz’s contributions to the team than on the CHA annals. “He’s been frustrated to his own admission. His last two weekends, 10 points on the road against two of the top teams, it was great for us. We kind of go as Barrett goes. He kind of stepped up and got it done when you needed it the most.”

Ehgoetz was third in Division I with 25 points (7-18) as the Purple Eagles headed into the holiday break.

Bobcats Bow To Colonials

While last year’s top teams were battling it out, newcomer Robert Morris was in the midst of its best weekend to date, as the Colonials posted a 1-0-1 record against Quinnipiac on the road for their first series victory.

“It started in practice all leading up to the weekend. We had an excellent week of practice here,” said head coach Derek Schooley. “Guys weren’t looking past the weekend toward Christmas break. We came out and we played very well. We worked extremely hard and were a very determined hockey team on the weekend.”

Robert Morris overcame an early 2-0 deficit in the opener, and used goals by Doug Conley and Joe Federoff to pull out the 2-2 tie. The Colonials kept up the pressure the following night, jumping out to a 3-0 lead and holding on for a 5-2 win, establishing a new team record for goals scored in a game.

“We worked extremely hard. Our power play started clicking,” said Schooley, whose team picked up three goals with the man advantage. “We had a lot of things go in our favor, and it just was a matter of some guys that had been snakebitten, like Joe Federoff, finally coming through. We got some production from some guys that hadn’t been scoring goals, and that was a big lift.”

Federoff’s goal was the first of his collegiate career, but he was hardly alone in going through a dry spell in the goal column. Sean Berkstresser also netted his first NCAA goal, while Jeff Gilbert scored for the first time in 10 games.

The win was Robert Morris’ second in a matter of five games, during which time the team is 2-2-1. And while Schooley is happy his team has finally gotten on a mini-roll, he’s also glad to have a break.

“We’re 2-3-1 in our last six, and finally starting how to figure out how to play Division I hockey,” he said. “But everyone needs a break about now. It’s been a long grind, especially for freshmen with school and academics. It’s a great time for a break, but obviously with the kind of streak we’ve put together, we maybe would like to have played another weekend.”

Atlantic Advantage

All of the Colonials success so far has come against teams from Atlantic Hockey, with the team posting a 4-3-1 against the rival conference. It’s a fact that’s not lost on Schooley.

“We’ve beat Sacred Heart and Canisius, who I think are one-two in the league right now, and Quinnipiac, who has always been a power in that league,” he said. “We’ve done a good job of competing well against them.

“We’ve been gaining some respect in college hockey. A first-year program has a winning program against Atlantic Hockey.”

The win Saturday also gave the CHA another win in the newly introduced Commissioner’s Cup Series. The league currently has a 3-2-0 record in the series, with wins coming from Alabama-Huntsville (3-2 vs. Holy Cross, Oct. 23), Air Force (3-2 in OT vs. Sacred Heart, Nov. 26) and Robert Morris.

“We mention it as kind of a sidebar. But it wasn’t something that we focused on, that we had to do this for the league,” said Schooley. “We wanted to win the games for ourselves.”

The CHA is currently second in the standings, two points behind the ECACHL, which has four wins and eight points.

Airing It Out In The Opener

Air Force netminder Peter Foster posted a 4-0 win against American International at the Q-Cup back on Oct. 16, but a bruised knee suffered in practice forced him to start last Friday’s return match on the bench . But when Ian Harper was knocked out of the game with a concussion in the first period, Foster was pressed into action.

Foster inherited a 1-0 deficit, and saw the AIC lead grow to 2-0 in the second period. But a string of five straight Air Force goals in a 15-minute span allowed Foster to pull out a 5-4, come-from-behind win.

“On Friday night, our team won a game for our goalies. And that has to happen every once in a while,” said head coach Frank Serratore. “That Friday game was not a Van Gogh. But we found a way to win.”

Not typical at all for a team that has relied on defense almost exclusively this season. Air Force allowed 45 shots on goal in the win, while taking 52 itself, both highs for the year.

“We fell behind the first night, 2-0, so we took a few more chances,” Serratore said. “We played a little more aggressive offensively because we were behind early in the game. Our goalies were dinged up and Steve Mead got hurt toward the end of the game. AIC seemed to have a lot more energy on Friday than on Saturday.”

But there was a little electricity in the Air Force sticks as well, as five different skaters netted goals, tying the team’s season high for offensive output.

“I told the guys before the game on Saturday that it was an ugly win on Friday, but a win’s a win,” Serratore said. “Peter Foster has won a lot of games for us this year, shutting people out, holding them to one and zero goals. And I said one thing I felt good about was last night you guys went out and scored five goals and won one for Peter.

“He didn’t play great on Friday. He let in three goals that he probably wouldn’t have let in. But his knee was banged up, and he’s a small goalie to start off with. And if he has to stay back in the net, that’s even worse. He wasn’t able to gap up, and that’s how they got to him on Friday.”

It was more of the form Falcons’ fans have come to expect on Saturday, as AIC was limited to just 17 shots, and Foster posted a 2-0 win for his NCAA-best fifth shutout of the season. The win gave Air Force a 7-1-2 record on the road this season, one victory fewer than the team’s record of eight set last season.

“If you aspire to be a championship team you’d better have two things — the ability to come from behind and the ability to win on the road. We did both of those things Friday night,” said Serratore. “We’ve gotten some good bounces, we’ve played well defensively and we got some great goaltending. That’s resulted in having a pretty good road record.”

Welcome To Rochester

The news of the Rochester Institute of Technology’s move to Division I had some extra added importance to Niagara’s Burkholder, who suited up between the Tigers’ pipes during the early 1980s.

“I think it’s been a long time coming,” Burkholder said of the team’s decision to join Atlantic Hockey in 2006-07. “It’s a great hockey town, it’s a campus that has supported the hockey team since back in the 80s. I think with their history at the Division II level and then most recently at the Division III level, I think it’s a perfect fit for Division I. And it’s going to be a program that is going to have a chance to compete at the top national level.

“It’s funny, back when we were there in the early ’80s, that’s all they talked about [moving to Division I]. We won the national championship in ’83 and everyone thought it might happen in ’84, but it didn’t. I think they have the facility, the location and the resources as a school to build a great program.”

RIT’s advancement means Robert Morris will have to relinquish the title of “Newest Addition to Division I” after only one year. But the fact that the two clubs will be competing on the same level is the only thing tying the two together, according to Schooley.

“They’ve got a full team, so I don’t see comparing RIT to Robert Morris,” said the Colonials coach, noting that RMU was built from scratch this season. “They have an excellent team. Heck, they beat Air Force about three years ago. They’re in the top 10 in the nation in Division III, so I don’t think their transition to Division I will be as tough as ours, because they will have older, bigger, stronger players.

“They’ve got a major history of Division III championships. If you look at our situation and compare them, you’re comparing apples to bananas.”

Bemidji’s Tom Serratore hopes the news will rub off on a few other programs, as well.

“I’d love to see the St. Norberts and other teams do the same thing,” he stated. “We have to increase the membership of Division I college hockey, and if it’s not going to be from existing schools that already have intercollegiate hockey, it sure would be nice to see some schools add it that are already at the Division I level. But it’s great that RIT’s doing that, and hats off to them. Hopefully more will follow soon.”

Happy Holidays

The players aren’t the only ones taking a break during the holidays. We’re closing up shop on the weekly roundups for two weeks as well. But be sure to check back around the first of the year, when league play should really start to heat up. Until then, happy holidays.