Dear dedicated CHA readers,
Due to scheduling problems on my end in which I’m sure you have no interest, I’ve been a little lacking on my coverage of Alabama-Huntsville this season. So with what is, arguably, the biggest series of the season taking place on UAH’s home ice this weekend, I’m trying to make up for lost time with this week’s column. Here’s a chance to catch up on the Chargers.
Bemidji State against Alabama-Huntsville. First place against second. A combined 6-0-2 record in the 2005 calendar year. Four of the league’s top five scorers on the ice.
Does it get any better than this?
The two hottest teams in the CHA will battle it out down south this weekend, as both clubs try to stake their claims to the top of the conference standings. Bemidji, which bypassed UAH for the top spot after a sweep of Robert Morris last weekend, comes into the series with an 8-2-0 mark in the CHA. The Chargers posted a win and tie against Lake Superior last Friday and Saturday, and have a 6-1-1 mark in the conference.
A pair of victories this weekend could go a long way towards securing the CHA regular-season championship. But while bragging rights come along with that distinction, its not necessarily an indication of postseason success.
Only twice in the league’s five-year history has the regular-season champ also gone on to win the CHA tournament, and earn a spot in the NCAA tournament (Niagara in 1999-00, Wayne State in 2001-02). That’s a fact with which Alabama-Huntsville assistant coach Lance West is all too familiar.
“This is a team that’s won the conference twice and hasn’t had success in the tournament,” said West, whose Chargers won regular-season championships in 2000-01 and 2002-03, but failed to capture the CHA tournament on both occasions. “Our number-one goal is the tournament. Being the number-one seed is nice, and it also helps you in the tournament, but the number-two seed is quality.”
That’s not to say that West and UAH are taking this weekend’s series against the defending regular-season champs lightly.
“We’re counting on these as big games,” he said. “We have to play our last three series on the road in the CHA, so home games are important to us right now. You can’t put everything into this series. We count on it as big. If we want first place, we’re probably going to have to do well this weekend.
“These are the biggest games of the year so far. Bemidji’s the defending regular-season champion, and they’re the number-one team right now. And until we knock them off, we have to go through them. We’ve had really good days of practice this week. I think it’s going to be up-tempo and going to be good hockey. We’re putting a lot into it, but not everything into it.”
The Chargers, who completed the non-conference portion of their schedule last weekend, won’t have an easy row to hoe from here on out. They’ll face Bemidji four times in the next month, and play eight of their final 12 regular-season games — including the last six — away from the Von Braun Center.
As if that weren’t enough, UAH hasn’t exactly torn up the league over the final weeks of play in the last two seasons. The Chargers were just 2-6-1 in the final nine games last season, and just 4-5-0 in the same span the previous season. Both UAH campaigns came to an end in the Chargers’ first tournament contests.
But West and head coach Doug Ross have been stressing a strong finish all season.
“We’re ready to roll. We’re playing with a lot of confidence,” said West. “Last weekend was good for us, so we hope to carry that over and stay on a high.”
Not surprisingly, one member of the Chargers who has been on a high for almost the entire year is Jared Ross. The senior forward has appeared in 17 of the team’s 18 contests, and has at least one point in 15 of those games. Ross posted his third career hat trick last Saturday against the Lakers, and carries a six-game point streak (7-3-10) into this weekend.
“He’s playing with a lot of confidence,” West said of Ross, who once again leads the NCAA in points per game at 1.71. “He’s really learned, and I think it showed in the second game against Lake State, how to play in traffic with bigger guys (Ross is listed at 5-9, 165 pounds). They can’t get a hold of him and tie him up as much as they used to.
“He’s really developed his game when teams try to be physical on him. I think he’s a better player when teams try to be physical. It gets him into the game a little more, and every time I’ve seen a team be real, real physical with him, he always comes back to hurt them. That’s been a big part of the progress.”
Ross now has 16 goals on the season — just four short of his career-high 20 set in 2002-03. But what may be most surprising is that none of his team-high tallies has gone down as a game-winner. But that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t scored a few big goals on the season.
During the past two weekends, Ross posted game-tying goals in 3-3 deadlocks against Wayne State and Lake Superior, pulling out a point for his squad twice in the third period.
“It’s just a matter that any time he’s on the ice, he’s pretty dangerous. He’s so gifted offensively,” said West. “I think the team almost expects that he’s able to [score the big goal], and then he starts to believe it. It’s a confidence factor. He knows that any time he goes on the ice now in those key situations, he has a chance to be successful and to do the job for us.”
Ross also continues to make his mark in the CHA record books. His first goal last Saturday came just eight seconds into the middle frame, establishing a league record for fastest goal at the start of a period. It was also the 65th goal of Ross’ career, bypassing former Air Force Falcon Andy Berg for the top spot all-time in the CHA.
“I know we read it all the time on the updates, but we don’t post those in the locker room,” West said of the goal mark. “Obviously in the back of his head, I’m sure he thinks it would be nice to have. But really that’s nothing that’s been discussed or even thought about.”
Only Slightly Outdone
Niagara forward Barret Ehgoetz — who recently set CHA marks for points and assists in a career — began the weekend one goal behind Ross in the race for the league’s all-time goal scoring title, but saw that margin extended to two despite posting three goals of his own. He scored once in a 4-3 loss to Wayne State on Friday night, and twice more in a 4-2 victory the following evening. That brought his total to 65 goals, one better than Berg.
Beating Around The Bushey
Another name popped up on the CHA’s all-time point and assists lists last weekend, that being UAH forward and Ross linemate Craig Bushey.
Bushey assisted on Ross’ tying goal on Friday, and added a helper on his first tally Saturday, giving him 100 points and 60 assists for his career.
“Craig’s kind of the guy people may not talk about right now because of the numbers, but he brings a lot of other things,” West noted. “He’s a little bit of a rat, stirs the pot, gets other teams thinking about him a little bit more than they need to sometimes. He can make the plays, he works in the corner, gets the puck. Then he has the skill to finish offensively. He brings a little bit different element to the game and to that line. He’s a pest that has skills and can do the job.”
Bushey became just the third Alabama-Huntsville player in the Division I era to reach 100 points, joining Ross and former Charger Karlis Zirnis, who finished his career with 119 points (46-73) in 133 games.
Munroe Makes Strides, Saves
While UAH is known as a more offensive-minded team, goaltender Scott Munroe is having quite the comeback season. The junior netminder stopped 36 shots on Saturday to record the shutout, the second of his career and the first by a UAH puckstopper since his first back on Feb. 15, 2003.
Munroe posted an impressive 11-6-1 mark in his freshman season, but saw his record fall to 5-9-1 — and his goals against average grow to 3.16 — last year. But he’s improved to 8-5-4 with a 2.56 GAA and a conference-best .917 save percentage so far in 2004-05.
“This year he’s settled down and has played extremely well,” said West. “We’re going to need that. We’ve always said we want him to know there’s going to be a point where he has to win us a couple games this year. And I think he’s come close to that. The 5-0 game in Lake State, if he hadn’t played well early it could have been a 3-2 or 2-1 game, and then things just rolled in our favor because of the way he played. We couldn’t be happier with what he’s doing.”
West also said that having a steady force in the back helps the offense go as well.
“I think that gives our team a little more confidence to play a little more offensively, to let us take a few more chances because they know they’ve got him back there,” he said. “When a team has that much confidence in their goaltender, it’s a real good thing.”
• Bemidji State’s Andrew Murray extended his scoring streak to 11 games (9-14-23) by posting back-to-back two-assist efforts against Robert Morris last weekend. The senior forward has 29 points (11-18) on the season, and leads all CHA players with 17 points (7-10) in conference play.
• Ehgoetz appeared in his 100th consecutive game Saturday against Wayne State.
• Robert Morris goaltender Joe Tuset made his collegiate debut in relief of Christian Boucher during Friday’s 5-0 loss at Bemidji. Tuset transferred to Robert Morris from Northern Michigan last January.
• Mike Knaeble returned to the Air Force lineup Saturday after missing 12 games with a broken leg, suffered Nov. 19 at Robert Morris.
• Wayne State’s overtime record against Niagara on Friday gave the Warriors their first OT win of the season, and raised their record in the extra frame to 4-0-5 in their last nine OT contests. The last Wayne State loss in overtime came on Feb. 21, 2003 at Niagara by a 3-2 count.
• Wayne State and Bemidji State are tied for the NCAA lead with seven shorthanded goals each.
• Alabama-Huntsville’s Bruce Mulherin leads NCAA individual scorers with four shorthanded goals. His most recent SH tally came in Saturday’s 5-0 win.