Road-weary Chargers look to establish home presence

The Chargers have completed the first quarter of their season, with all eight games on the road against tough competition.

It started with two losses at No. 8 Notre Dame, which is now ranked No. 6 in this week’s poll. Then a split at then-No. 15 Michigan Tech. Then two losses at Cornell, which has moved up to No. 14. Then a trip across the country last week to Arizona State, where the Chargers forged a split.

Mike Corbett

UAH head coach Mike Corbett (UAH Athletics/Doug Eagan)

Although they only won two of the eight games, UAH head coach Mike Corbett found positives they can build on moving forward.

“I like where we’re at,” Corbett said. “We probably had one stinker game in there where I thought we didn’t compete, but in reality three of the four series were against top 20 teams and I’ll put a paycheck that Cornell will be in the top 10 in two weeks. Obviously, the competition was good.”

It will help that the Chargers will spend the next three weeks at home (finally). UAH hosts Alaska Anchorage this weekend for the home opening series, followed by Lake Superior State and Ferris State the following two weeks.

“Homecoming weekend is to establish a good home presence, get people in the building this first weekend of the year and get them excited about hockey since we’ve been on the road,” Corbett said. “We can also cure our wounds a little bit. We’re a little road weary.”

That home presence has been lacking the past couple of years. Out of the Chargers’ nine wins last season, only two were at the Von Braun Center. UAH was 6-20-6 the last two seasons at home.

“We’re also trying to establish a little bit of home ice advantage for us,” Corbett said. “A lot of times we played well, the only bad thing is the home team lost.

“We’re watching Anchorage and what they’re doing and some of their tendencies, but we’re still establishing our identity as a team right now. We’re playing five or six freshmen up front, and they’re getting more and more comfortable every weekend and we need them to chip in a little bit more. The focus is going to be on us over the course of the next three weekends.”

Defensively, the Chargers have given up 3.5 goals per game so far this season, ninth in the WCHA.

“We’ve all got to be come better defensively,” Corbett said. “We’ve done a good job of minimizing shots on goal for the most part. We’re in that 25 to 32 range, which is similar to most teams in the country.

“Now we need our goaltending to be 90 or 91 percent on a consistent basis. The biggest thing is we need to eliminate some of those bombs that end up in the back of your net. It’s not just our defensemen, it’s our team defense.”

The goaltenders have posted a combined .886 save percentage so far, with senior Jordan Uhelski starting six games and freshman Mark Sinclair starting two. Uhelski was in net for the Chargers’ two wins.

“I think right far as our goaltending is that they’re still neck-and-neck,” Corbett said. “Jordan played very, very well in the two games he’s won, but we need consistency in our net. You got both guys who we like and believe can do the job, and now it’s going to be who wants to step up and grab that job.

“We’d like to ride one goaltender, but not until one of them consistently starts playing at the level we believe they can. To put it nice and simple, just make the saves he needs to make.”

Offensively, UAH has had to deal without playing two top centers, Max McHugh and Jordan Larson, who will both remain out for some time.

Brennan Saulnier

Brennan Saulnier (UAH Athletics/Doug Eagan)

Meanwhile, Brennan Saulnier has four goals already this season, tied with fellow senior Josh Kestner for the team lead. Saulnier has always shown what he can do with the puck, but has also been known to rack up penalty minutes.

“A lot of people criticize him for his play, but we love his fire, ” Corbett said. “We’re re-channeling that fire.

“He’s matured, and he sees that he’s a senior and there’s a leadership position for him on our team. And with Max and Larson out, we need him to be a point producer, focused and dialed in to be an offensive threat every time he’s out on the ice.”

Tyler Poulsen has also started strong with three goals in seven games. Christian Rajic has made an early mark as a freshman with two goals and two assists.

Kurt Gosselin and Cam Knight continue to contribute from the blue line with four and three assists, respectively. Gosselin remains a scoring threat himself with two goals.

The power play is ahead of last year’s pace at 15.4 percent, but it recently had a stretch of 23 straight opportunities without a goal before breaking through in Saturday’s win at Arizona State.

“Against Cornell we hit the post three times,” Corbett said. “Early on against Arizona State, we had a little trouble getting in the zone and set up. But we’re moving the puck pretty well.

“You want to score a goal on the power play, but the biggest thing you want to do is, worst-case scenario, is giving you positive momentum. Even during the 0-for-23 stretch, it was  more frustration because we hit posts, missed some backdoor plays, got pucks flubbing off some guys’ sticks, and not because they’re not ready. We were still getting opportunities and it was continuing to provide momentum for us. It wasn’t demoralizing for our team.

“We’ve made a few tweaks here and there in the zone, putting guys in different situations, so we’re still kind of figuring it out a little bit.”

On the flip side, the penalty kill has been struggling at 73.9 percent. The PK was pivotal in the two wins, however, at 92.4 percent.

“Hans Gorowsky is our only returning penalty killer,” Corbett said. “We had to retrain Madison Dunn, who’s doing a good job and getting it. We didn’t have (Adam) Wilcox in the first weekend to be able to play some additional minutes on the penalty kill, and he’s a quality penalty killer who knows what he’s doing.

“It’s not your standard penalty kill that not a lot of kids coming from juniors are used to. To be able to get them thinking how we need them to think is going to take some time.”

That includes Levi Wunder and Andrew Dodson, two freshmen who are getting minutes on the penalty kill.

“With everything that we’ve had to deal with in the WCHA in the course of my four years is, you have got to distribute minutes. So we’ve got to be able to get some of those freshmen in on the special teams.”

The Chargers will use the time at home to rest up and build some cachet, because the next road trip is even longer and more grinding. Three straight road trips before an off week for Christmas, and then “hell starts”: Three straight weeks on the road, starting at Bemidji, then directly to Fairbanks and Anchorage.

“Once again, it’s about managing our team,” Corbett said. “We want to put ourselves in position for that last stretch of games in the fourth quarter (when UAH plays its last eight games at home), that we’re knocking on the door for the playoffs.

“We’re going to have to take care of our home rank, the old .750 at home and .500 on the road. We started out .500 on the road in the WCHA, so we have a good start and we’ve got games at hand. We’ve got to take care of those games at hand right now, especially at home.”