The CHA has figured out how to maximize its conference tournament’s impact.
First of all, as a one-bid league, the only way to get to the NCAAs is through the conference playoffs. No finishing third with a reasonably successful nonconference schedule and moving onto nationals with an at-large berth. No, the CHA’s representative comes from this weekend’s play, for better or for worse.
And when we say this weekend, that’s exactly what we mean. The CHA is unique among the six Division I conferences in that its conference tourney takes up three blistering days, and no more. Single elimination, to the winner go the spoils and the opportunity to take on a No. 1 seed, a national powerhouse, two weeks from now in the NCAA regionals.
The opportunity for a bottom-feeder is exhilarating. Robert Morris, a team in its first year as a varsity entity, just needs to win three games to make the NCAAs.
Conversely, if you’re a top team in the regular season, the finality is maddening. Win the regular season, as Bemidji State did this year? Congratulations. Lose in the finals Sunday? See you next year — as Bemidji experienced just a year ago.
Of course, the shock waves from an upset of the magnitude of a RMU title just might send California sliding into the ocean, but it’s not as if the CHA isn’t familiar with playoff upsets.
In 2003-04, regular-season champion Bemidji paraded into the tournament with a 20-13-3 overall record and a gaudy 16-3-1 conference slate — and went down to Niagara, 4-3 in overtime, in the CHA tournament final. Joe Tallari’s goal was the winner, sending the Purple Eagles into delirium and the Beavers into shock.
“What a game,” Niagara head coach Dave Burkholder said at the time. “Sixty minutes just wasn’t enough to decide this game.”
But one game, nonetheless, was enough. And that about sums up the hopes of the league’s six members this season as well.
A similar scenario could play out this year. With Bemidji and Alabama-Huntsville, the top two seeds, earning byes, the Beavers and Chargers will lie in wait during Friday’s first round, which will see Robert Morris take on Niagara and Air Force against Wayne State. The winners of those two games advance to the semifinals Saturday, with the autobid-determining championship game Sunday.
After a two-year stint in Kearney, Neb., the geographically far-flung league’s tournament moves to the IRA Civic Center in Grand Rapids, Minn.
CHA First Round
Robert Morris vs. Niagara
Friday, March 11, 3:35 p.m. CT
Expectations for Robert Morris were understandably low this season, the Colonials’ first — not just in Division I, but in varsity hockey at all. And if anything, RMU exceeded those expectations despite an overall regular-season record of 8-20-4 and a 4-14-2 last-place finish in CHA play.
Nonconference wins over Atlantic Hockey contenders Quinnipiac, Canisius and Sacred Heart dotted the schedule, and in CHA play, the Colonials went 2-1-1 against their first-round playoff opponent, Niagara (14-18-2, 9-9-2 CHA).
That record included a series split against the Purple Eagles just last weekend, so Niagara’s first task in getting back to the NCAAs for a second straight season will be to solve its inconsistencies against the CHA’s last-place team.
Niagara goaltender Jeff Van Nynatten — whose difficult season was lowlighted by getting lit up for four goals on 18 Robert Morris shots in two periods of play during a 6-0 loss on Jan. 29 — is part of that formula. Van Nynatten has picked it up lately, allowing more than three goals only once in his last seven starts — and that game was against “Big Four” opponent Massachusetts.
Van Nynatten, of course, will need help from Niagara’s offense, led by last season’s co-Player of the Year, Barret Ehgoetz (15-30–45) and surging Ryan Gale (23-14–37), who led the team in goals this year.
CHA First Round
Air Force vs. Wayne State
Friday, March 11, 7:35 p.m. CT
For the most part, the buzz around Air Force this season hasn’t centered on the Falcons’ play on the ice, where they compiled a 13-18-3 record overall and a CHA mark of 5-14-1, edging Robert Morris for fifth place by just one point over the 20-game conference schedule.
No, the mystery surrounding AFA has been the matter of its CHA membership — or looming lack thereof. Air Force has courted Atlantic Hockey this season, including a recent official visit to the campus by AHA bigwigs. Reports indicate that Air Force’s AHA membership may hinge on agreeing to an unbalanced home-road schedule to lessen the financial impact of air travel for the league’s remaining squads, none of which is less than half a continent away from the Falcons’ Colorado environs.
With the CHA’s autobid hanging in the balance — again — attention returns to the games, where the Falcons match up against Wayne State. The Warriors (14-6-4, 7-9-4 CHA) racked up nonconference wins against Big Four opponents Providence, Clarkson, Bowling Green and Merrimack, then settled for a somewhat-disappointing fourth-place finish in the league, courtesy of a below-.500 CHA record.
The Warriors are looking for their fourth CHA tournament title, but just their second NCAA berth: the first two championships came in the era before the league was eligible for an autobid.
Matt Kelly has played the majority of minutes for Wayne State, compiling an impressive .923 save percentage. Air Force counters in net with Peter Foster and Ian Harper, who has relieved Foster in several games this season.
Sophomore Brandon Merkosky leads the Falcons in goals (13), assists (17), and therefore in points (30). Wayne State’s offense is keyed by Stavros Paskaris (11-20–31) and sniper Jason Bloomingburg (20-10–30).
RMU/Niagara vs. Alabama-Huntsville
Saturday, March 12, 3:35 p.m. CT
The Chargers were consistent all year, never losing more than two games in a row (and those against CCHA opponent Western Michigan), going 8-3-0 down the stretch in the league and ending up with a second-place finish, a 14-5-1 CHA record and a 17-9-4 overall mark while contending for the regular-season title right up to the last weekend.
Of course, in the CHA second is very nearly as good as first, guaranteeing as it does a first-round bye and a rest day. UAH is familiar, of course, with both of its potential semifinal opponents — and familiar with winning against each. The Chargers dominated Robert Morris with four wins this season, and compiled a 3-1-0 mark against Niagara, the favorite to advance to meet UAH Saturday.
Jared Ross, last season’s co-Player of the Year and the preseason Player of the Year this time around, hasn’t disappointed despite slipping a bit from 2003-04’s phenomenal scoring pace. The senior leads the Chargers with 40 points (22-18), just a shade ahead of emergent teammate Bruce Mulherin’s 39. Mulherin leads UAH with 24 goals, good for a tie for fourth in the nation. (Ross is tied for eighth.)
In net, the Chargers get consistent contributions as well. Scott Munroe sports a record of 15-9-4 to go with his 2.31 goals against average and sparkling .929 save percentage, fourth in Division I. The result is the CHA’s top statistical offense (3.40 goals per game) and defense (2.46 goals against).
AFA/Wayne State vs. Bemidji State
Saturday, March 12, 7:35 p.m. CT
Bemidji State has been on a mission this year, and despite a 21-12-1 overall record, a 16-4-0 CHA mark and the regular-season championship, the mission isn’t accomplished yet.
The Beavers have ended up on the losing side of the last two CHA title games, last season as the No. 1 seed. This year, the preseason favorites justified the coaches’ confidence in them, losing just four conference games (two of them to potential championship opponent UAH). Nonconference play was no walk in the park either, as the Beavers took on mostly CCHA and WCHA teams.
And without a defining media star like UAH’s Ross or Niagara’s Ehgoetz — though that lack may have been rectified by Andrew Murray’s announcement Thursday as the CHA’s 2004-05 Player of the Year — the Beavers have done it as a team.
Unfortunately for the Beavers, they won’t be able to rely this weekend on Murray (16-22-38), who will miss the remainder of the season after breaking his collarbone in a collision on the ice last Saturday against Air Force.
Fortunately for Bemidji, Murray has had plenty of help all season. The Beavers’ remaining top-scoring forwards, Brendan Cook (18-19–37) and playmaking Luke Erickson (10-26–36), have the numbers to match any duo in the league, and it shows in Bemidji’s 3.26 goals per game average, second only to Alabama-Huntsville.
In net, it’s a team effort as well, where Matt Climie (10-4-1, 1.89 GAA, .905 SV%) has the superior numbers splitting time with Layne Sedevie (11-8-0, 3.08, .886). Climie started both games against Air Force last week after relieving Sedevie in the previous Saturday’s game against Minnesota-Duluth.
In Murray’s absence, the top line is likely to be centered this weekend by Jean-Guy Gervais (12-8–20), which has the domino effect of unsettling the Beavers’ productive third line.
Sunday, March 13, 7:05 p.m. CT
The Beavers have the advantage of playing an hour or so from home — it’s just 70 miles of Minnesota highway travel to Grand Rapids, this season’s tournament site. Will something like home-ice advantage help push the Beavers over the top, or will Alabama-Huntsville, which nipped at the Beavers’ heels all season — make the critical plays?
Or could another upset be brewing in the form of one of the four remaining teams?
We’ll find out.