CHA Tournament Preview
by Kyle Stefan/CHN Reporter
Through the first half of the season, the CHA was the epitome of a two-horse race.
But now, the rest of the league is back in the mix entering the CHA Tournament Friday-Sunday at 95KGGO Arena in Des Moines, Iowa.
Niagara ultimately held off Bemidji State by a single point for the regular-season title, but surprising many were the second-half runs put together by the league's three other teams.
"We're glad the race is over," Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said, "and the parity at the end was a credit to our whole league. Every game was a battle. You saw rivalries emerge from top to bottom."
Two weeks into January, Bemidji and Niagara were fighting to establish themselves in the national rankings and comfortably atop the conference standings — leading third-place Robert Morris by nine and seven points, respectively.
Even further behind was Alabama-Huntsville, which started 3-7-0 in the league, and Wayne State, which had just one conference victory before a pair of wins over RMU at home Jan. 19-20.
The weekend sweep — WSU's first in conference play since 2004 — triggered a 7-3-2 finish for the Warriors. Wayne State enters the CHA Tournament unbeaten (5-0-2) in its last seven, the nation's longest unbeaten streak that included wins over the Purple Eagles and Beavers.
Robert Morris' second-half highlight was a road upset of No. 2 Notre Dame on Jan. 7, but the Colonials saved their most consistent hockey for a five-game winning streak that included home sweeps of both Niagara and Bemidji, allowing RMU to take conference title hopes into the final weekend.
Alabama-Huntsville became increasingly competitive while finishing conference play 4-4-2 in the second half, ensuring that the gap between the regular-season champion Niagara and the last place Chargers was only eight points when league play concluded.
"The teams that are playing the best hockey right now are playing in the 4-5 game," Robert Morris coach Derek Schooley said. "Wayne State is the hottest team in the country and Alabama-Huntsville is right there. The top teams had a chance to pull away, but Niagara faltered, Bemidji faltered and we faltered. You saw the parity in the CHA really come to the forefront.
"Any team has shown they can win on any given night. The team that wins our conference tournament is going to be playing the best hockey."
Quarterfinal: Friday, 7 p.m.: Wayne State (12-20-2, 8-10-2 CHA) vs. Alabama-Huntsville (10-19-3, 7-11-2 CHA)
After WSU struggled through the season's first half, scoring just 39 goals in 18 games and being shut out a school-record six times, the Warriors both increased their offensive production and shored up on the back line to finish the season on a tear.
"There was no question we had the potential to do it, it was a question of getting it done," Wayne State coach Bill Wilkinson said. "We knew we had a pretty good team. We got our offense and defense playing well together. With 10 seniors, our leadership and experience was slow out of the gate. And we were playing on the road early. But the second half has shown this team's positive side."
Senior Nate Higgins finished as the team leader in goals with 13 and tied with classmate Jason Bloomingburg for the team lead in points with 24. Senior goalie Will Hooper (4-11-1, 3.37 goals against average) elevated his play down the stretch and has split time in net with freshman Brett Bothwell (8-9-1, 3.57).
"There's no question the goaltender is the backbone of the defense," Wilkinson said. "Alabama-Huntsville has a run-and-gun outfit down there. We have to have a solid defensive game scheme and goaltender to stop them. And our special teams have to be outstanding as well."
Grant Selinger finished the season as UAH's top scorer with 15 goals, while David Nimmo led the team in both assists (19) and points (31).
The teams split the four game regular-season series.
Semifinal: Saturday, 2 p.m. Niagara (18-12-6, 9-5-6 CHA) vs. Wayne State/UAH
Waiting for the quarterfinal winner are the regular-season champion Purple Eagles, which possess three of the nation's top scorers in Sean Bentivoglio, Les Reaney and Ted Cook.
"Sean makes us go," Burkholder said. "He's our most dynamic player and he plays in all situations. He leads by example.
"In a tournament like this, you need your best players to be your best players. We're looking for the Reaneys and the Cooks and Bentivoglios to get us through."
Burkholder also hopes for strong play from sophomore netminder Juliano Pagliero, who finished the season with a 3.02 goals against average and .917 save percentage.
"When Wayne State was dominating the league, they had David Guerrera. And when Bemidji was winning, it was a lot of Grady Hunt and Matt Climie. I think Juliano can fill that role for us. He's had an outstanding season. He doesn't act or play like a sophomore. It would not surprise me if he played very well this weekend."
Niagara finished 4-1-1 this year against WSU and 2-1-1 versus UAH.
Semifinal: Saturday, 7 p.m. Bemidji State (14-13-5, 9-6-5 CHA) vs. Robert Morris (13-18-2, 9-10-1 CHA)
The Beavers stumbled over the last eight games of league play, finishing 2-4-2. Bemidji did sweep the U.S. National Team Development Program in a pair of games last weekend, winning 6-2 and 3-2.
Robert Morris finished the season series 3-1-0 against the Beavers, a fact that isn't lost on Schooley.
"We've had great success against them," Schooley said, "and we have confidence against them. We have to play with that confidence and play desperate hockey."
Schooley will stick with junior Christian Boucher in goal after the veteran netminder outplayed Joe Tuset over the season's second half.
Aaron Clarke (32 points) and Ryan Cruthers (30) finished as the team's leading offensive contributors.
"They're our top two scorers," Schooley said, "but we need contributions from everyone. We're very streaky. We know what we're capable of doing. It's a matter of going out and doing it."
Final: Sunday, 2 p.m. (CSTV)