For a while, it appeared that the landscape
of the conference was changing. But even with the tightest
race in the conference’s eight-season history —
only eight points separated the league's first- and fifth-place
teams — the only differences between the CHA's final
standings and the preseason coaches poll (as well as INCH’s)
were Niagara finishing first ahead of Bemidji State and
Wayne State placing fourth instead of fifth.
None of this is meant to belittle the accomplishments
of Niagara, which won its second consecutive regular-season
title and the third in program history, or Robert Morris,
which rose to the highest finish (third place) in its brief
three-year history, or Wayne State, which finished the season
on a seven-game unbeaten streak.
The tightness of the final standings combined
with the performances of the upper- and lower-tier teams
over the last weeks of the season should make for an interesting
tournament this weekend.
It's being played in Des Moines, but perhaps
Las Vegas would be a better venue, because it looks like
Despite the recent 1-5-2 skid, it's still
Niagara. The Purple Eagles feature the CHA's top three scorers
and five of the league's top ten in points, though they've
scored three or more goals in just three of their last eight
games. When they're playing on the same line, forwards Ted
Cook, Sean Bentivoglio, and Les Reaney are as dangerous
as any trio in the nation.
It's not just about the offense, however.
Goaltender Juliano Pagliero led the league in save percentage,
and Niagara boasted the conference's top-ranked power play
and the second-ranked penalty-killing unit.
Bemidji State has beaten Niagara in the conference
championship game two years in a row and during the regular
season, three of the four games between the two teams ended
in ties. If they should meet again in the league final Sunday,
expect the Zamboni to extra duty.
THE GATE CRASHER
Wayne State, which is playing its best hockey
since winning the College Hockey America championship and
advancing to the NCAA Tournament in 2003. The Warriors started
a seven-game unbeaten streak by beating Alabama-Huntsville
at home February 10 and haven't lost since. Included in
that run were back-to-back three-point weekends against
the league's first- and second-place teams. Having 11 seniors
in the lineup — three of whom see regular duty on
defense — certainly doesn’t hurt at playoff
4 Wayne State vs. No. 5 Alabama-Huntsville
WSU: 8-10-2 (12-20-2 overall)
UAH: 7-11-2 (10-19-3 overall)
Season series: Tied, 2-2 Warrior fact: Senior forward Nate
Higgins netted four of his team's 15 goals it scored
against Alabama-Huntsville this season. Charger fact: The last loss the Warriors
suffered was at the hands of UAH back on February
9, and the Chargers won last season’s conference
first-round match, 3-1. How WSU wins: Don’t make your
goalie face 59 shots, like freshman Brett Bothwell
did against the Chargers back in October. How UAH wins: Fall behind. Both Charger
victories over Wayne State this season came when the
Warriors scored first.
2 Bemidji State vs. No. 3 Robert Morris
BSU: 9-6-5 (14-13-5 overall) RMU: 9-10-1 (13-18-2 overall) Season series: RMU won, 3-1 Beaver fact: Bemidji State
managed to score more than two goals once in four
games against against the Colonials this season —
a 3-0 BSU win. Colonial fact: Eight different Robert
Morris skaters accounted for 11 goals the team scored
in the season series against Beavers this season. How BSU wins: Get ahead early. In
four regular-season games against the Colonials, the
Beavers scored first once and failed to register a
first-period goal. How RMU wins: Find its defensive
rhythm. During last month's five-game winning streak,
the Colonials allowed no more than two goals per game.
In the six games since, they’ve given up an
average of more than five scores per contest.
1 Niagara vs. Wayne State/Alabama-Huntsville winner
NU: 9-5-6 (18-12-6 overall)
WSU: 8-10-2 (12-20-2 overall)
UAH: 7-11-2 (10-19-3 overall)
Season series: NU won 4-1-1 vs. WSU; NU won
2-1-1 vs. UAH Purple Eagle fact: One win
and two ties over their last eight games isn’t
exactly the kind of momentum a team seeks going into
the playoffs. How NU wins: Take advantage of the
man advantage. The Purps converted 25 percent of their
power-play opportunities against UAH and 32 percent
against WSU this season. How WSU wins: Start strong. The Warriors
jumped out to a 3-0 lead and limited the Purps to
just three shots in the opening stanza of their only
series win. How UAH wins: Stay out of the box.
Niagara had just two power play chances in the Chargers'
only series win on the next-to-last day of the regular
INCH’s ALL-CONFERENCE TEAM
G – Matt Climie, Bemidji State:
The junior stepped to the fore after senior Layne Sedevie
was hurt, shattering his previous high for minutes played
and appearing in each of the Beavers' 20 conference games.
He led the league with a 2.88 goals against average and
two shutouts, and ranked second with a .903 save percentage.
D – Dan Iliakis, Wayne State:
Four goals and 16 assists in 31 games doesn’t
begin to quantify the senior's value to the Warriors. Maybe
this does — when he missed three games in November
and December with an injury, Wayne State went 0-3, was shut
out twice, and was outscored during that stretch by a 7-2
D – Mike Salekin, Alabama Huntsville:
Salekin ranked second in the league in goals among
defensemen with five, and the senior also led all CHA rearguards
in points per game (0.67 ppg) en route to the best season
of his career.
F – Ted Cook, Niagara:
Ranks among the best natural goal scorers the league has
ever seen and, with two seasons of eligibility remaining,
will only get better. He scored an NCAA-best 32 goals in
36 games and also led the country with 21 power play goals
— a great career for some players.
F – Sean Bentivoglio, Niagara:
The Purple Eagles' senior captain put up the first 40-point
season of his career with 16 goals and 30 assists, and also
played an important role on the conference’s second-ranked
F – Ryan Cruthers, Robert Morris:
The transfer from Army scored 14 goals, surpassing
his output from his two seasons with the Black Knights.
He also more than doubled his power-play goal totals, helping
the Colonials to a third-place league finish in the program's
third year of existence.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Bill Wilkinson, Wayne State:
Coaches from teams finishing in fourth place in a five-team
league don’t usually win this award. But the Warriors
— picked by CHA coaches to finish last in the league's
preseason poll, but ended up just one point out of third
place — jumped from three conference wins last season
to eight this year while doubling their overall wins from
six to 12.
Maybe the veteran coach was sandbagging the
first half and timed his team’s seven-game unbeaten
streak to launch them into the playoffs. As if it were that
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Ted Cook, Niagara: The sophomore
from Hogansburg, New York, entered the postseason leading
the country in both goals (32) and power play goals (21).
He shattered the conference records in those categories.
The league's previous high for goals was 26, shared by ex-Niagara
standouts Kyle Martin and Joe Tallari, while Andy Berg of
Air Force held the circuits prior mark for power-play goals
FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR
Chris Moran, Niagara: From
manning the point on the power play to finishing fourth
in the country in assists (32), the rookie winger registered
40 points in 36 games to help the Purple Eagles return to
the top of the CHA standings.
Travis Winter, Bemidji State: One
season removed from scoring one goal and four assists in
16 games, the sophomore exploded to share the team lead
in scoring with 27 points, including 10 goals.
A variety of sources were utilized in
the compilation of this report. Warren Kozireski can be
reached at email@example.com.