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After a ‘foundation’ year, UAH eyes Atlantic for the future

The Chargers got the season in. This spring will determine if there will be more.

Ten months after the UAH hockey program was canceled and subsequently saved, the Chargers finished the 2020-21 season. They had only three wins, but the fact they played 22 games was a victory in itself.

“It was important for us to get through the season any way we could to play,” UAH head coach Lance West said. “We made so many road trips. We went to states with schools who wouldn’t travel here. Our university did everything it could to play the games, one, because we wanted to, and two, because of all the work that so many had put in and contributions so many people made to keep this program going. It’s about rebuilding the foundation of our program and I think our guys started to do that.”

UAH had a 2-5-1 start before being unable to play for about a month while having to deal with COVID-19, including a 10-day pause in activities. The Chargers, which had 14 freshmen on the roster, lost 13 of their last 14 games, but West said the pause was not the reason.

“Most of the teams we played finished in the top 20,” West said. “The level went up. We hung in there, but in most of those games we didn’t make the plays we needed to make.

“We were so young, but I was proud of the guys. They never quit in any game. Did we want more wins? Yes. Do we wish it finished differently? Yes. But they did a whole lot of great things and built the foundation and helped us at least move forward.”

The Chargers had some bright spots, such as goaltender David Fessenden becoming “Big Save Dave” to keep the team in games and Tyrone Bronte making the WCHA all-rookie team by leading UAH in scoring as a freshman. They also rewarded the UAH faithful with two thrilling wins over Ferris State in their first series back at the VBC.

UAH athletics director Cade Smith said he kept telling the athletics department, “Every time we got a chance to play, it was a win.”

“If you had told me back in October that our winter sports, including basketball, indoor track, and hockey, that they would make it all the way through the way that they did, I would have said, ‘I’ll take it.’,” Smith said. “I’m really proud of everything that we were able to get done as a department and each individual athletic team. Our training staff has been invaluable and unbelievable in what they have been able to do to get us through. We already knew that we had good people, and I think that was magnified through everything we had to go through.”

UAH had seven home games in Propst Arena at the Von Braun Center, limited to 30 percent capacity, and continued to work with the Huntsville Havoc on providing an engaging in-game experience.

“The Havoc were good, like last year, and took a huge burden off of us trying to get things done, because a lot of those people we would have had to hire independently,” Smith said.

Now the program turns to another uncertain offseason. With the WCHA era over, UAH is still working on securing a conference home so the program can secure that long-term stability. If UAH fails to join a conference, the hockey program will fold for good, as there are no plans to compete as an independent in the long term.

The new incarnation of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, which will comprise of seven other WCHA schools and St. Thomas starting this fall, has told UAH it will not be considered. The only feasible option for the Chargers is the Atlantic Hockey Association.

As part of its pitch to join the Atlantic Hockey, UAH is offering $25,000 per series for each team that travels down to Huntsville over 10 years.

Atlantic Hockey will discuss expansion at its June meetings. If the conference votes to expand, seven of the 11 members would have to agree on inviting an institution as a member. Should UAH be accepted, it could be up to two years before the Chargers can begin conference play.

Long Island University, which just finished its first season of men’s varsity hockey with a scheduling agreement with the Atlantic Hockey, is also looking to become a full-time member.

On the broadcast of the conference’s championship game on Saturday, Atlantic Hockey commissioner Robert DeGregorio Jr. said expansion “is on the agenda for the directors meeting in the spring. We also have a third school that we’re talking with. We’ll see what progress is going to be made. The directors have to look at a lot of things, not just the candidates.”

The third school DeGregorio referred to could be Navy, which has been rumored to upgrade hockey to varsity status soon and would join fellow service academies and rivals Army and Air Force.

DeGregorio said Atlantic Hockey would like to get back to 12 teams, but 14 teams is on the table for discussion. “They have a lot of things to talk about regards to expansion, nothing that’s been predetermined,” he said.

“I sent letters out to two of the schools, letting them know that it will be on the agenda for the directors in the spring. We’ve got to update our protocols for what we use for membership, which I’m in the process of doing for the executive committee as well as the rest of the directors. Hopefully, everything is going to be reviewed favorably and the discussions will determine the direction we go.”

Smith said he received the letter from DeGregorio last week. UAH hopes to have an answer on joining Atlantic Hockey as soon as possible, so that the program and the student-athletes can prepare for either result.

We could know by the end of spring whether the Chargers can truly build upon their new foundation.

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Chargers’ season ends with playoff loss at Lake State

The Chargers’ WCHA era came to a end in frustrating fashion on Saturday, as UAH lost 4-1 at Lake Superior State.

The Lakers swept the WCHA quarterfinal series in two games, ending UAH’s season at 3-18-1.

LSSU (17-6-3) killed the Chargers on the power play, converting 3-of-8 opportunities. UAH committed a season-high nine penalties, and could have gotten more as the officials kept whistles mostly quiet in the first period.

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David Fessenden came up big numerous times to keep the game scoreless through one period. He made 13 of his 31 saves in the frame, denying former Charger Jack Jeffers taking a centering pass in the slot, stopping Benito Posa from the same spot, and sliding from post to post to steal a backhander from Brandon Puricelli.

Fessenden needed to make those saves as the Lakers took the possession battle in the first, helped by winning 17 of 23 faceoffs.

Meanwhile, UAH got only five shots on Laker goalie Seth Eisele, who was making only his second start of the season instead of their No. 1, Mareks Mitens. Eisele finished with 16 saves in the game.

Dayne Finnson was given a highly questionable boarding penalty in the last minute of the first, and Lake Superior took advantage 18 seconds into the second. An unchecked Louis Boudon tipped in a centering pass from Jeffers.

Boudon later went flying on Connor Wood’s hip check, and had to crawl back to the Laker bench. Wood was likely fortunate to get only two minutes for the hit, but Lake Superior capitalized anyway as they were already on the power play.

Puricelli’s blast on Fessenden left a big rebound for Will Riedell, who scored on the ensuing open net to give LSSU a 2-0 lead at the 7:15 mark.

Three minutes later, the Lakers scored yet another power-play goal after a UAH too many men on the ice penalty. Hampus Eriksson’s deflection in the slot made it 3-0.

Puricelli scored with 6:40 to go for the Lakers’ fourth goal.

Mick Heneghan prevented the shutout with a power-play goal with 2:12 remaining in the game. His blast up the middle, his first college goal, was assisted by Brian Scoville and Connor Merkley.

UAH now enters an uncertain offseason as it looks for a new conference to call home. UAH is courting Atlantic Hockey and the CCHA, which will have seven members of the disbanding WCHA.

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Lakers roll over UAH in game 1

Lake Superior State pulled away in the second period to defeat UAH 6-1 on Friday night in Game 1 of the WCHA quarterfinals series in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

UAH (3-17-1) faces elimination heading into Saturday’s Game 2, which starts at 4:07 p.m. Central Time.

The Lakers (16-6-3) struck first at the 3:14 on a goal by Pete Veillette, who is too dangerous to be left alone. Veillette was unmarked as he took a pass from behind the net in front and quickly beat David Fessenden for his 12th goal of the season.

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Lake Superior took a 2-0 lead eight minutes later on a power-play goal. Fessenden never saw the puck as it slipped between him and the post after flying through a screen off the stick of Brandon Puricelli in the right circle.

After a penalties on the Lakers at the end of the first period and 24 seconds into the second, UAH had a prime opportunity to come back. But despite having over a minute and a half of two-man advantage and scoring a goal, the Chargers found themselves no closer.

Lucas Bahn, dragging the puck to make a Laker defenseman commit, snapped the puck past Mitens for his second goal of the season to cut LSSU’s lead to 2-1.

The Lakers regained their two-goal lead with a short-handed goal just six seconds later. Veillette stole the puck in the UAH zone and quickly scored his second goal of the game.

LSSU then scored three goals in a span of 4:50 to pull away, starting with a Lukas Kaelble’s blast from the blue line to make it 4-1.

Fessenden’s night of tough breaks ended with 3:40 left in the second, when Alexandro Ambrosio’s shot, deflected by Jacob Nordqvist, hit his pad, went up in the air, and somehow fell in the net for a 5-1 Laker lead.

Derek Krall came in, and soon allowed a Miroslav Mucha goal that made it 6-1 at the second intermission. There was no scoring in the third period.

The Lakers outshot the Chargers 27-14.

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UAH returns to Lake State for WCHA quarterfinals

UAH (3-16-1) vs. Lake Superior State (15-6-3)
WCHA Quarterfinals (best-of-3)
WHERE: Taffy Abel Arena, Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.
WHEN: Game 1, Friday, 6:07 p.m.; Game 2, Saturday, 4:07 p.m.; Game 3 (if necessary), Sunday, 4:07 p.m.
WATCH: FloHockey.tv (subscription)
TEAM STATS: UAH | Lake Superior State

The Chargers have seen a lot of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan this season.

In early December, they played Lake Superior State there in a non-conference series. Last month, UAH went back for a WCHA series with the Lakers.

This weekend, the Chargers head to the Soo for a third time this season, this time for the postseason. UAH and Lake State face off in the best-of-3 WCHA quarterfinals starting Friday night.

If the series goes three, the Chargers will have played as many games at Taffy Abel Arena as they have at Von Braun Center this season (seven).

UAH comes in as the seventh seed with a seven-game losing streak. The Lakers shot up the standings to snag the second seed by winning nine of their last 12 games and getting at least one point in 11 of their last 12.

The Chargers have played the Lakers tough, though, despite an 0-3-1 head-to-head record, all at Lake State.

The first matchup on December 5 saw UAH rally with goals from Adrian Danchenko and Tyrone Bronte to force a 2-2 draw. The Charger fell behind 2-0 again the next day, but scores from Brian Scoville and Frank Vitucci were not enough in a 3-2 loss.

To open the conference series in February, Bennett Stockdale put UAH up 1-0 in the second period, but the Lakers scored twice in the third, including the game-winner with nine seconds left, steal a victory. Quinn Green gave the Chargers the early lead in the second game, but Lake Superior scored four unanswered goals for the sweep.

In all four games, neither team had a solid shots on goal advantage except for the third game, in which LSSU outshot UAH 28-10 but needed that last-minute goal to win.

So an upset is not out of the question, but the Chargers, who have been shut out in three of their last four games, will have to get out of their scoring slump against one of the best goaltenders in the country. Mareks Mitens ranks eighth in Division I in goals against average (1.86) and sixth in save percentage (.934). UAH scored three goals against Mitens in his two complete games between the pipes.

Bronte continues to lead the Chargers in scoring as a freshman with 13 points, and he was named to the WCHA all-rookie team on Wednesday. He leads the conference among freshmen in points per game (0.65).

UAH will need yet another strong goaltending performance of its own. David Fessenden still has solid numbers with a .920 save percentage and 2.62 goals against in 14 starts. He stopped 31 of 33 shots in his last outing at Bemidji State on Saturday.

Lake Superior State’s offense is about average among WCHA teams, scoring 2.7 goals per game, but the Lakers have some dangerous strikers. Juniors Ashton Calder and Pete Veillete lead the team with 12 and 11 goals, respectively. Calder has a goal and Veillete has three assists against UAH this season.

The winners of the four quarterfinal series will meet next weekend at the rink of the highest remining seed for single-elimination semifinals and the WCHA championship game.

WCHA quarterfinal series. All times Central.

#7 UAH at #2 Lake Superior State
Game 1: Friday, 6:07 p.m.
Game 2: Saturday, 4:07 p.m.
Game 3 (if necessary): Sunday, 4:07 p.m.

#8 Ferris State at #1 Minnesota State
Game 1: Friday, 6:07 p.m.
Game 2: Saturday, 4:07 p.m.
Game 3 (if necessary): Sunday, 4:07 p.m.

#6 Northern Michigan at #3 Bowling Green
Game 1: Friday, 6:07 p.m.
Game 2: Saturday, 6:07 p.m.
Game 3 (if necessary): Sunday, 4:07 p.m.

#5 Michigan Tech at #4 Bemidji State
Game 1: Friday, 7:07 p.m.
Game 2: Saturday, 6:07 p.m.
Game 3 (if necessary): Sunday, 5:07 p.m.

Bemidji State shuts out UAH again

If this was the last meeting between longtime rivals UAH and Bemidji State for a while, it will be hardly memorable, especially for the Chargers.

The Chargers was shut out by the Beavers again Sunday, this time by a 4-0 margin at the Sanford Center. UAH lost 2-0 on Saturday.

UAH (3-16-1 overall, 3-11-0 WCHA) ends the regular season losing 11 of the last 12 games. The Chargers’ offense continues to struggle, scoring only six goals during their now seven-game losing streak.

The Chargers now turn to the WCHA playoffs. UAH, the seventh seed, will head to second-seeded Lake Superior State for the best-of-3 WCHA quarterfinals starting Friday.

Bemidji State (13-8-3, 8-5-1), the fourth seed, will host fifth-seeded Michigan Tech.

Derek Krall got the start in net for the Chargers for his first action since Feb. 17. He made 25 saves on 29 BSU shots.

The Beavers wore down the Charger defense on a long shift and took an early lead when Alex Ierullo scored through a crowd in front of the UAH net just 2:11 into the contest.

BSU could have had more. They only had nine shots on goal in the first period because the Chargers blocked 12 attempts.

UAH had three power-play attempts in the second period but could not do much with them.

Bemidji State made it 2-0 by tiring out the Chargers again. Brad Belisle scored on a rebound with 6:08 remaining in the second.

The Beavers got two quick goals early in the third period, both on deflections by Alex Adams.