A week after the biggest matchup in College Hockey America this season, the playoff picture is only slightly less cloudy than it was seven days ago.
The clash of CHA titans took place last Friday and Saturday in Bemidji, Minn., as the host Beavers and the well-traveled Alabama-Huntsville Chargers split a pair of tightly-contested games by scores of 3-1 (UAH) and 3-2 (BSU). And the only thing decided at the outcome of the pair of league tilts was that the eventual league champion took part in those games.
Bemidji State had already guaranteed itself a bye in the first round of the 2005 Wells Fargo CHA championship, but could have clinched its second straight Peters Cup with a sweep of the visiting Chargers. As it is, the regular-season championship remains within Huntsville’s reach.
Here’s how things shake down. Bemidji leads UAH by five points in the league standings (28 to 23), but the Beavers have just two CHA contests left on the docket — those coming March 4-5 against Air Force in Colorado Springs. The Chargers, meanwhile, have four conference road contests remaining, with a trip to suburban Pittsburgh to face the Robert Morris Colonials first up this weekend, followed by a trek to Wayne State.
Even if UAH finishes off the season with a perfect 4-0-0 mark, the squad will still need help from the Falcons in order to capture its third-regular season crown in the past five years. All Bemidji needs to do during the final weekend of play is pick up three points to retain its title.
The road becomes a little easier for the Beavers should UAH falter even slightly. If UAH goes 3-0-1 in its final four, Bemidji would only need to collect two points against Air Force to tie the Chargers in the point column. One Huntsville loss during the final two weekends would mean a single point against the Falcons would ensure a second CHA title for BSU.
Of course, the Beavers could make all of this a moot point by sweeping Air Force on its home ice — a feat that looks more likely than not.
During the past four seasons (including this campaign), Bemidji has posted a 12-0-1 mark against the Falcons, including 10 consecutive victories. The last time BSU failed to collect two points against Air Force was Feb. 9, 2002, when the teams skated to a 2-2 tie in Minnesota.
Bemidji has not lost to the Falcons in Colorado since dropping a 3-0 decision on Dec. 3, 2000. Since joining the CHA in 1999-00, the Beavers have posted a 15-3-2 mark against Air Force, which includes a 5-4 overtime win in the consolation game of the 2000 CHA tournament.
But don’t count Huntsville out just yet. While four straight wins in conference play might seem like a big hill to climb, the Chargers have twice posted four-game winning streaks in conference this season, those coming Nov. 5-14 against Robert Morris and Air Force, and from Jan. 22 through Feb. 11, with wins against Bemidji, Niagara (twice) and Air Force.
First And Third — No One’s Out
One team already knows its playoff future, as the Niagara Purple Eagles sewed up third place by recording back-to-back wins against Air Force last weekend.
The Eagles appear to be getting hot at the right time, as they are in the midst of a four-game unbeaten streak (3-0-1), which equals the team’s best string this season. Niagara previously posted three straight wins from Jan. 15-22 before skating to a 4-4 tie with Robert Morris on Jan. 28.
Actually, finishing third in conference play might not be such a bad thing. Only twice in the CHA’s five-year history has the regular-season champion also captured the league’s tournament (Niagara in 1999-00 and Wayne State in 2001-02). That’s the same number of times the third-place club has won the tourney title.
Wayne State finished the 2000-01 campaign with an 8-9-3 league mark, trailing both Niagara and UAH in the standings. The Warriors defeated the Eagles, 3-2, in the opening round of the tournament, then downed Huntsville, 4-1, to claim the crown.
The scenario was eerily familiar in 2002-03, as Wayne State once again finished behind Alabama-Huntsville and Niagara. Coach Bill Wilkinson’s squad then won three straight against Air Force, Niagara and Bemidji State to advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history.
Hunting For The Tourney Title
Following that same story line, Alabama-Huntsville assistant coach Lance West says that winning the league title might be nice, but isn’t an end all-be all for the Chargers.
“It’s not our number-one goal anymore,” said West. “This is a team that’s won the conference twice and hasn’t had success in the tournament. Our number-one goal is the tournament. Being the number-one seed is nice and it helps you in the tournament, but the number-two seed is a quality spot.”
Actually, number two hasn’t been very kind to the Chargers over the years either. The southernmost school in the conference finished behind Niagara in the CHA’s inaugural season, put a pounding on Bemidji in the first round of the tournament, 10-4, then dropped a 3-2 decision in the final.
In fact, UAH reached the tournament championship in each of the conference’s first three years, but failed to bring home the title in successive seasons. The Chargers have been knocked out of the competition in the first round in each of the last two campaigns, despite first- and third-place regular-season finishes.
Niagara’s Justin Cross scored two empty-net goals in the same game last Friday against Air Force, becoming the first player in league history to accomplish such a feat. That contest was also the second in a row in which Cross netted multiple goals, after going 10 straight games without a tally.
Robert Morris has played nine overtime games this season, the second-highest total in Division I. The Colonials are 2-3-4 in those games.
Air Force saw a couple of firsts last weekend, as Blake Turnqvist notched his first career goal and Frank Schiavone picked up his first collegiate point in Saturday’s loss to Niagara.
Bemidji State plays its final nonconference regular-season games of the year this weekend against Minnesota-Duluth, but has already established a new school record for Division I victories against nonconference opponents. The Beavers’ Dec. 18 win against Western Michigan gave coach Tom Serratore’s team five wins outside of the CHA this season, one better than the previous mark of four set in 1999-00 and tied in 2001-02. BSU has not posted a winning mark against nonconference opponents since joining D-I in 1999, but a sweep of UMD would give Bemidji a 7-6-1 mark out of conference.
Bemidji should reach its second-best season attendance mark this weekend, as the club needs just 330 fans through the doors to reach 20,000 for the season. The team record of 25,936 fans was set in 1999-00, while 20,118 watched the home team in 2000-01.