Editor’s note: technical difficulties delayed this week’s CHA column. USCHO.com apologizes for any inconvenience.
Only two teams remain in the race for the CHA regular season crown. That makes this weekend’s meeting between first place Bemidji State and second place Alabama-Huntsville the biggest series of the season.
The Beavers lead UAH by five points in the standings, but have also played two more games than the Chargers. A home sweep this weekend would give Bemidji its second consecutive CHA crown, and the team holding its destiny in its own hands is something coach Tom Serratore is thankful to have.
“You obviously want that. We’ve been very fortunate,” said Serratore, whose team has won three overtime contests since the middle of January. “We’ve been pretty puck lucky. That helps, so we’re fortunate.
“You’ve got to keep playing, you can’t get too concerned about everything else.”
Alabama-Huntsville seems to be following the same train of thought. The Chargers, who can clinch a first round bye in the CHA tournament by picking up just one point this weekend, aren’t looking any further down the road than the Bemidji series.
“The Bemidji games the last four or five years have been the best hockey games we’ve had,” said UAH assistant coach Lance West. “They’re real competitive. It’s great hockey.”
The teams’ first meetings of the season certainly proved that — with two of the biggest names in the CHA putting on outstanding individual performances. Bemidji State outshot the host club, 42-29, en route to a 3-1 win on Jan. 21, with Andrew Murray picking up three points (1-2) for Bemidji.
The following evening, Bruce Mulherin netted his first hat trick of the season, as Huntsville put 50 shots on Layne Sedevie and posted a 5-1 victory.
“When they came down here, it was just two opposites,” West stated. “They played a great game Friday and made us look bad. And then Saturday we played one of our best games and didn’t make them look very good. We’re looking forward to some games where both teams show up, and it should be some great hockey.”
The Chargers would appear to have the cards stacked against them in the race for first place. Not only will they be playing their final six regular season contests on the road, they’ll start the journey against a team with extreme depth and talent.
“I don’t know if I can tag one thing on them,” West said. “Say you shut down Murray’s line, but they’re second and third lines always make contributions. They’re talented lines.
“We have to be just really consistent, you have to get an effort from everybody. Against Bemidji, your goaltender has to be good, give you a chance to win. And you have to make that solid defensive effort, because they have a lot of guys that can put the puck in the net. For us it’s just a matter of working hard enough in that rink to give us a chance to win.”
The Chargers have a little talent of their own, though, in the likes of Mulherin. Even though he was shut out last weekend against Air Force, the junior forward still ranks second among league scorers with 36 points in 24 games, and is third in Division I with 22 goals.
“Last year he began to play on the first line he had some decent stats. And then he got injured,” said West when asked about Mulherin’s jump in the scoring standings this season. “It’s a matter of more ice time, power play time, confidence. Obviously playing on the first line with Jared [Ross] and Craig [Bushey], it just snowballs on you. It’s part that, but it’s also part him. We knew he had the skills. In his mind now, he knows he’s able to do those things.”
More Standings Shuffles?
Another team high on the confidence meter right now is Air Force, which split its series with UAH last weekend. The Falcons’ 3-2 win on Saturday also gave them their first victory in Huntsville since 1989 — snapping a string of 14 losses at the Von Braun center in the process.
“That’s a big monkey off our back, and a big confidence builder, especially with some of the losses that we’ve had,” said head coach Frank Serratore. “You know, we’re four points out of third place. You look at the overtime loss to Robert Morris, the overtime loss to Bemidji, the loss that we had to Wayne State when we had the lead going into the third period, the loss to Niagara on a shorthanded goal. I mean we’ve had so many near misses. We have so many could have beens in our closet, it’s just nice to have a game like that go our way.”
The Falcons also did something no other team has been able to do — shut down Mulherin for an entire weekend. Up until that point, the UAH leading scorer had not been held without a point in an full series this season.
In fact, the top-scoring trio of Mulherin, Ross and Bushey was held to just three points in the series. Serratore said the Falcons didn’t necessarily concentrate on shutting down the high-flying first line, but put a full team effort into the game.
“We didn’t focus on them at all, other than we kept our fourth line away from them,” he said. “We played all six defensemen and our top three lines against that line. If you look at our team, we’ve played pretty good defensively all year.
“We have good balance and depth, and there’s not a lot of difference between our first set of D and our third set. And both of our goalies have proven they can win. We pressure the puck in every zone, and we’re a pretty good three-zone team, especially defensively.”
Next up for the Falcons is Niagara, a team Air Force has not defeated since Nov. 1, 2002, going 0-9-0 since then. A pair of wins against the Purple Eagles would vault Serratore’s squad into third place in the CHA and give them some much needed momentum headed into the final weeks of the campaign.
“In order for us to be true believers when we get into the playoffs, we need to have gotten a piece of everybody in the league,” Serratore said. “We’ve gotten a piece of Robert Morris, Huntsville and Wayne State, but we haven’t had any success against Bemidji or Niagara. That’s what we need to have coming down the stretch right now.”
Falcons Flying The Coop?
The other big news coming out of Colorado Springs last week was the team’s application to join Atlantic Hockey. Serratore was reluctant to talk specifics on the issue, but did say a move to the conference would depend on terms still being discussed between the school’s administration and Atlantic Hockey.
Athletic Directors from the rival conference reportedly have agreed to accept the Falcons into the fold if the school agreed to a schedule which featured an imbalanced number of home and road games. The cost of travel to what would become the westernmost school in the conference apparently is a concern for Atlantic Hockey, which will have nine teams located in Massachusetts (3), New York (3), Connecticut (2) and Pennsylvania (1) next season.
Serratore also declined to discuss the future of the CHA should his team leave, but did put forth some thoughts on the alignment of college hockey conferences in general.
“All I’ve said for the last four years is that there needs to be some restructuring in college hockey. And the restructuring needs to be done in my opinion primarily between Atlantic Hockey and the CHA,” he stated. “If that doesn’t happen, then any time you have a league that only has six teams, you’re always in danger and always in a fragile state. You’re in danger of losing one team for whatever the reason may be, whether they change conferences or fold their program. You’re operating right on the cusp of going below six and losing your automatic bid.”
Reaction to the possible loss of another league member (Findlay folded its program at the conclusion of the 2003-04 season) was predictable.
“Air Force has been a good member of this league, and obviously helped start the league. But I believe Air Force wants to be in a conference with Army, possibly Navy down the road. That’s their preference,” said Robert Morris head coach Derek Schooley, himself a former assistant coach at the academy. “Everybody’s got to look out for their own best interests. Niagara applied to the ECAC, and there have been rumors about us and Atlantic Hockey. You have to look out for what’s in your best interest, but you don’t want to jeopardize a full conference.
“Hopefully college hockey will take care of the CHA. We have the automatic bid, and hopefully they’ll be some restructuring and we’ll get a sixth team. We do have a year I believe or two years of being able to keep our bid with only five teams. But somebody will have to step up, whether it’s the commissioners or another team. College hockey can’t afford to lose this automatic bid. It’s going to be a disappointment to lose Air Force. They are a Division I institution, a big name.
Alabama-Huntsville’s West echoed some of Schooley’s statements.
“It’s disappointing for us. That’s one of the teams that sat down initially and really got our league going,” West said. “I think a lot of teams in our league have stepped up and shown how good they can be and compete on the national scene in just four or five years there. It’s grown tremendously in the talent that some of these teams have.”