The race for the top of the CHA standings is turning into a two-horse — well, one horse and one beaver — race after a pair of weekend sweeps left Bemidji State and Alabama-Huntsville with comfortable leads over the conference competition.
Bemidji stymied the Wayne State offense on Friday night, holding the Warriors to just 13 shots on goal in a 2-0 victory. Freshman Matt Climie stopped every puck he saw on the evening to post his second shutout of the season — making him the first netminder in school history to blank the opposition twice in his rookie campaign.
It appeared as if Saturday’s contest would be a reversal after Jason Bloomingburg and John May gave the visitors a two-goal cushion early in the second period. But BSU struck five times during the final 30 minutes to post the come-from-behind victory. The victories stretched the Beavers’ home winning streak to seven games, with their last defeat coming against Western Michigan in overtime, 4-3, on Dec. 17.
“We’re playing well at home. If you play well at home, obviously it puts you in a pretty good position,” said head coach Tom Serratore. “That’s where we’re at right now. In the league, we’re 7-1 at home right now. That puts us in pretty good shape.”
Special teams played a big part in Bemidji’s successful stand, as BSU scored four times on the power play in Saturday night’s victory, and held the Warriors scoreless on all 17 man-advantage chances on the weekend.
But more impressive was the shot differential. The Beavers put 79 shots on Matt Kelly during the two games, while limiting the opposition to just 33 attempts.
“We try to play a puck-possession game; I think that helps in the defensive end,” Serratore said. “Obviously the more time you’re spending in the offensive zone, the less time you’re spending in the defensive zone. We’ve had that luxury a few times this year, and we had that luxury this weekend. Especially at home we’ve been a lot better with our puck possession game than on the road.”
That’s obvious. Bemidji hasn’t been outshot on home ice since Dec. 7, 2002, when Minnesota-Duluth held the advantage, 36-30. That’s a string of 36 contests.
While Bemidji was burning up the home ice once again, Alabama-Huntsville was doing something it had never accomplished during its CHA tenure — sweeping Niagara on the road.
The Chargers kept pace with the first-place Beavers by posting a pair of 4-2 wins in New York. That doubled the total number of wins UAH had claimed in Dwyer Arena during the past six seasons.
“We’ve played some close games and never been able to be successful at Niagara. It’s something we’ve talked about, being able to be successful on the road because of our stretch of games here,” said assistant coach Lance West, noting that the Chargers will play their final six regular-season contests away from home. “So this is kind of a good confidence builder for us. We’re getting a little bit more contribution from some other guys now, chipping in here and there, that’s helped quite a bit.”
That was the case on Friday, when Tyler Hilbert and Jeff Winchester both notched their first goals of the season, and Steve Canter picked up three assists. Brett McConnachie slipped one behind Jeff Van Nynatten during the second period as well.
Jared Ross picked up his requisite point on the night with an empty-net tally, but the triple threat of Ross-Bruce Mulherin-Craig Bushey was held down.
“There’s going to be a game where the goaltender shuts them down, or one of their lines shuts them down,” West said. “When you’ve got a dynamic line like that, they’re going to win you some games. But I think for us to have a chance to win the tournament championship, you’re going to have to have other guys contributing. No one can often win with just one line scoring. To win consistently and on the road, we’re going to have to get contributions from those guys. It’s a real positive thing for us to see.”
The second night was a different situation, as Mulherin continued to torture the opposition, netting his second hat trick in three games to lead the way for the visiting Chargers.
Kris Wiebe gave the Purple Eagles a 1-0 lead at the end of the first frame, but Mulherin scored twice in the second and assisted on Ross’ 18th goal of the season, which turned out to be the game-winner. Mulherin, who leads the nation with a 1.00 goals-per-game average and is second with 1.64 points per game, scored into the empty net to complete the win.
“He’s right now as good as anybody I’ve seen in the country,” West said of the junior forward. “Even [Niagara coach] Dave Burkholder said he thought he was the best player in the conference right now. That’s hard for us to say, because we think we have two of them right there.
“I think earlier in the year teams focused a little bit more on Jared and gave Bruce the opportunity to show what he had. That confidence has grown. I’m telling you, he’s playing with an absolute ton of confidence. He believes he can do those things. He’s dangerous now.”
Defensively, the Chargers were superb as well, with goalie Scott Munroe stopping 69 of 73 shots during the sweep. That helped to bump his season save percentage to a league-best .923.
The Beavers continue to sit atop the CHA standings with an 11-3-0 mark, good for 22 points headed into this weekend’s series with Robert Morris. Picking up a pair of points on the weekend would assure Bemidji of a top-two finish and a bye in the first round of the CHA tourney.
Meanwhile, UAH is just three points behind the Beavers with a 9-2-1 mark and two games in hand as it prepares to host Air Force. Those will be the final home contests for the Chargers this campaign.
“We have to get those home wins this year,” said West. “We have those games in hand on Bemidji, but if you don’t win them it doesn’t mean anything.”
Huntsville will be looking to stretch its current winning streak to four games when the Falcons fly into town on Friday, but the Chargers will have to do it without the services of Ross, who was suspended for the first game of the series after taking a five-minute spearing penalty last Saturday.
Bobby Mo On A Roll
While Bemidji and Alabama-Huntsville continue to pace the league, the hottest team in the CHA just might be the Robert Morris Colonials, who have put together a 3-1-1 mark in their past five contests. The only loss in that string of games came in the opener last week in Colorado Springs.
“On Friday night we came out very flat. We were out-shot 20-4, and were down 2-0,” said Robert Morris head coach Derek Schooley, whose team was coming off a 6-0 win against Niagara. “Maybe we forgot how hard we have to work after a successful weekend the weekend before.
“I was very disappointed with our first period, very happy with how we responded in the second and third.”
The Colonials battled back to tie the score at 2-2 on goals by Logan Bittle and Jeff Gilbert. Matt Bader’s goal midway through the second gave the Falcons the lead for good, and Brandon Merkosky added some insurance with a power-play tally. Christian Boucher did his best to help Robert Morris, stopping a career-best 45 shots in the loss.
“Any time you spot a good team like Air Force a two-goal lead, it’s tough to come back,” Schooley said. “We couldn’t finish the job, and Air Force was opportunistic.”
The Colonials came close to not finishing the job on the second night as well. Robert Morris carried a 1-0 lead into the final minutes of play, only to see Josh Print tie the score with 67 ticks left on the regulation clock.
“We started to run out of gas towards the end, we had a couple injuries, we were a little banged up, and we were protecting the lead instead of going after it,” said Schooley.
The first-year squad could have gone into the tank after allowing the late goal. Instead, RMU battled back and picked up its second OT victory of the season on Sean Berkstresser’s tally at 2:53.
“We’ve played in eight overtime games this year, so we’re no stranger to that,” said Schooley. “I’m very proud of how our guys responded. It was a very good learning experience for our team to put something bad behind us, go onto the next shift and see what happens.”
Comparing The Colonials
Bemidji’s Serratore is well aware of the Colonials’ ability as his team skates into the Island Sports Center for the first time this weekend. After Bemidji skated to an easy 5-1 victory on Jan. 14, Robert Morris threw a scare into the Beavers by taking the perennial powerhouse to overtime, only to fall on a Brendan Cook goal in the extra frame.
“They’re a team that works extremely hard, they get up and down the ice sheet. They’ve got some skill, and a lot of confidence,” Serratore said. “They’ve been playing great hockey the last month and a half.
“Derek’s done an outstanding job with that club, and it’s a weekend that we’re not looking forward to. What they’ve done the last couple weeks to Niagara and Wayne State, we notice that. They’re not a team you can take lightly. They should have beat us at Bemidji, but we got a little lucky and were able to tie it up and get it done in overtime.”
Serratore knows the challenges of icing a first-year Division I team, having been at the helm when the Beavers made the move up the college ladder several years back. As such, he’s qualified to judge Robert Morris on its early strides.
“They’re better than we were when we started five years ago,” he said. “They might be as good if not better than Wayne State when they started their program, and Wayne State won three championships in a row after [its first season]. To put those guys in the same category as Wayne State is a compliment, and I think Derek has those guys headed that way.”
Familiar Faces Return
A pair of players missing in action returned to the CHA fold over the weekend. Theo Zacour, who missed the first 24 games of the season due to an Academy suspension, returned to the Air Force lineup on Saturday. His stay was short, though, as he received a game misconduct for checking from behind in the 2-1 overtime loss against Robert Morris.
A. J. Bozoian made his Wayne State debut in Friday’s loss at Bemidji. The junior defender suited up for Niagara during the 2001-02 season, before playing for Compuware in 2002-03.