Hoof Beats: Finally home, UAH looks to ‘finish’ games, secure playoffs

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Jan 182018
Mike Corbett

The Chargers get their last eight regular season home games at home. (UAH Athletics)

John Denver sang, “Hey, it’s good to be back home again.” For the Chargers, the Von Braun Center probably does feel like a long lost friend.

The Chargers have completed a stretch of six road series over seven weeks, including a three-week continuous trip from Bemidji, Minnesota, to Fairbanks, Alaska, to Anchorage, Alaska.

UAH finished the grueling 12-game swing with 3-8-1 record, which isn’t great. UAH did finish with wins in the last two series in Alaska, coming out of it in sixth place in the WCHA standings.

The Chargers came home Sunday and took three days off to rest, resuming normal practice on Thursday. This is a bye week before an eight-game home stand to finish the regular season.

The home stand starts Friday, Jan. 26, against Bemidji State.

The bye week is surely welcome, as the Chargers were fighting the injury bug near the end of the trip. Freshman winger Andrew Dodson was out most of the road trip, and sophomore forward Brandon Salerno missed the series at Anchorage.

“We got banged up along the way,” Corbett said. “Physically, we were pretty good towards the end of the road trip, for the guys who were able to play. I think it’s more mental health than anything. We need to get away from each other for a little bit.”

Sophomore winger Jordan Larson returned to action last Friday at Anchorage after missing the first 24 games of the season due to an ankle injury. But he left the second game Saturday with a concussion.

“It was unfortunate for Jordan, because he wasn’t 100 percent by any means conditioning wise, but his ankle felt very good and we were down a forward,” Corbett said. “He was comfortable enough to be able to go out there and play and he had some dynamite scoring chances.”

Then it seemed everyone got sick. Tyler Poulsen missed a couple of games in Alaska. Connor Merkley left after the first period on Saturday in Anchorage.

“I like the resolve of our group because we were able to do that,” Corbett said. “We finished one game with roughly two lines and an extra Saturday against Fairbanks (a 3-1 win), and we were able to get points in that game. We had literally seven forwards to play with in Anchorage on Friday (a 4-2 win).

“I was impressed by our conditioning. I was impressed by our actual energy levels physically coming down the stretch in that last week of the road trip.”

So the Chargers will get a chance to heal, and they may get an extra boost when they take the ice against Bemidji with the return of senior captain Max McHugh. McHugh also hasn’t suited up this season because of an injury, but he was scheduled to join the optional skate on Wednesday. Corbett is optimistic that he’ll be able to help down the stretch.

While the Chargers do get the rest of the regular season at home with four series in five weeks, it won’t be easy.  All four opponents are in the top four of the WCHA standings: Bemidji State (4th), Northern Michigan (2nd), Minnesota State (1st), and Bowling Green (3rd). The Chargers faced those four opponents on the road before going to Alaska, going 1-6-1.

“The goal is to get as many guys as healthy as possible,” Corbett said. “These are going to be well-earned points. These are teams that have come into our building and done well, so we have to be as prepared as we can. We don’t want to have it come down to that last weekend against Bowling Green.

“We played well in our past stretch at home (3-2-1 back in November), so we’d like to feel we’re coming into our friendly confines, and what better challenge is there than to play the top teams in the league to be able to solidify your playoff position.”

Goaltending has been solid for UAH, even when the scoring has been inconsistent. Jordan Uhelski has been in goal for all eight wins this season, but freshman backup Mark Sinclair has been making strides even if his statistics don’t bear it out.

“As much as Mark’s record and his numbers don’t look great, he’s played well,” Corbett said. “He deserved a better fate on Friday in Fairbanks (3-2 loss).”

“I have no qualms with our goaltending. Obviously, Jordan’s our go-to guy right now. Jordan has kept us in games and he’s given us a chance to win every night, and that’s all we can ask. Some nights we’re scoring, and some night’s we’re not.

“Our biggest thing right now is we’ve got to finish. In Fairbanks, we don’t finish on Friday, and we do on Saturday. We played a better game on Friday than we did on Saturday, but we finished on Saturday.”

Kestner for Hobey: For the second straight year, Josh Kestner is on the initial list of Hobey Baker Award nominees. Fan voting has begun on Facebook.

Kestner is 13th in Division I in goals per game (0.62). He is tied for 10th in power play goals with six. Overall, he has 16 goals this season, already the most by a Charger in 11 years. Fourteen have come in WCHA play, tops in the league.

“Josh has taken steps every year,” Corbett said. “As much as people see, what they have to understand is Josh has taken off more off the ice, physically in the weight room and things like that. He’s matured that way off the ice and it’s shown on the ice.

“He’s at the top of everybody’s scouting report, the guy that people are trying to stop. The biggest key for an offensive player and a guy like Josh who is a shooter is to be able to find ways to get open, to put himself in position where he’s going to get a shot off and put the puck where he wants to put it. He’s learned to move well without the puck.”

“He has to have a good stretch, not only for himself, but for our team. He’s a guy we’re going to rely on, but we’re also going to need some other guys to chip in from an offensive standpoint.”

Overtime talks: The Wisconsin State Journal last week reported that a standard overtime format across all conference is being debated. However, there is no consensus.

Currently, all NCAA games have a 5-on-5 sudden death overtime period if it is tied after regulation. If neither team scores, the result is a tie.

In the western leagues (WCHA, Big Ten, NCHC), games continue to determine which team gets an extra point in the league standings, even though the game is still officially a tie. The WCHA and NCHC play five minutes of 3-on-3 and, if needed, a sudden-death shootout. The Big Ten uses a three-round shootout only.

The eastern leagues (Hockey East, ECAC, Atlantic Hockey) do nothing: When 5-on-5 overtime ends, they go home.

Corbett, who is on the Division I championships committee, said overtime was a topic of discussion over the summer. The NCAA tournament field is based on the Pairwise rankings. A component of the Pairwise is the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), which basically “shuts off” once the 5-on-5 overtime period is over.

Corbett said there is concern among college coaches should the NCAA adopt the NHL system, which uses a 3-on-3 overtime right after regulation. “I think college coaches are afraid that then all of a sudden they’re going to turn the RPI back on on the five minutes of 3-on-3. And they don’t want RPI points being given from a gimmick.”

This is the second year the WCHA adopted the three-point conference game system with an additional 3-on-3 overtime and shootout, and Corbett says it is good.

“It’s a little bit about the fan experience when it comes with 3-on-3 and the shootout. I like it. You know you’re getting points, it’s a little strategic and makes you work harder as a coach, thinking a bit more about who you’re putting out there. And you’re going to see that it’s going to make a difference at the end of the year.”

This week in the WCHA: All times are Central. Games featuring WCHA teams at home can be seen on WCHA.tv.

Friday, Jan. 19
* Bemidji State at Ferris State, 6:07 p.m.
* Alaska at Michigan Tech, 6:07 p.m.
* Lake Superior State at Northern Michigan, 6:07 p.m.
* Alaska Anchorage at #17 Bowling Green, 6:37 p.m.

Saturday, Jan. 20
* Bemidji State at Ferris State, 6:07 p.m.
* Alaska at Michigan Tech, 6:07 p.m.
* Lake Superior State at Northern Michigan, 6:07 p.m.
* Alaska Anchorage at #17 Bowling Green, 6:07 p.m.
#9 Minnesota State at #3 St. Cloud State, 5:07 p.m.

Tuesday, Jan. 23
#14 Minnesota Duluth at #9 Minnesota State, 7:07 p.m.

Hoof Beats: Super far off odyssey awaits for Chargers

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Dec 202017
Jordan Uhelski and Cam Knight

Jordan Uhelski made 36 saves against Minnesota State on Friday, raising his save percentage to .906 on the season. (Photo by Todd Thompson/RiverCat Photography)

Next up is a trip unprecedented, but also not.

The Chargers visit Bemidji State for their next series on Dec. 29-30. After that, they fly directly from Bemidji, Minnesota, to Alaska, where they have a series at Fairbanks on Jan. 5-6. Then they will bus down to Anchorage to face the Seawolves on Jan. 12-13. Then they can finally return to Huntsville.

This is the first time since joining the WCHA that UAH will visit both Alaska teams in one trip. Including the visit to Bemidji, the Chargers will be literally out of town for nearly three weeks, which hasn’t happened before.

However, the program has seen this kind of trip before, albeit compressed. Instead of six games in three weeks, UAH twice played five games in one week during its first foray into Division I.

In 1989, UAH went to Wisconsin on Dec. 12, played at Anchorage on Dec. 15-16, and then Fairbanks on Dec. 18-19. The Chargers lost all five games.

In 1990, UAH first went to Minnesota on Dec. 12, then Anchorage on Dec. 14-15, and finally Fairbanks on Dec. 17-18. The Chargers went 1-4 on that trip, beating the Nanooks in the finale 6-3.

While UAH will have more time between games on this trip, it will still be a slog. It will be the last trip the Chargers will have for a while though: They will have an off week upon return to rest, then the last four series of the regular season will be at home.

Bemidji State is tied with UAH for sixth place in the WCHA standings, and the Alaska teams are behind the Chargers. Attaining at least a .500 record on this trip is plausible, and doing so will put UAH in prime position to clinch a spot back in the WCHA playoffs in that final home stand.

Saulnier suspended: The Chargers will start the long journey without Brennan Saulnier in the lineup. The WCHA on Monday issued a two-game suspension to Saulnier for his hit on Minnesota State’s Dallas Gerads in the last minute of Saturday’s 3-0 loss in Mankato.

Saulnier’s elbow made contact to Gerads’s head. Saulnier was given a game misconduct penalty when it occurred, and the league issued the additional punishment after reviewing the video.

This is the third suspension of his UAH career for Saulnier, who has a career-high seven goals this season.

Pro update: Cam Talbot (2007-10) has been strong for the Edmonton Oilers since returning from injury reserve. Talbot, who missed two weeks with an upper-body injury, has stopped 52 of 57 stops against Minnesota and San Jose in his last two starts. He has a 2.96 goals against average and .903 save percentage in 24 starts this season.

Matt Salhany (2013-17) was traded from the Reading Royals to the South Carolina Stingrays in the ECHL on Dec. 5. He has played a combined seven games between the two teams. Carmine Guerriero (2013-17) started the season with the Stingrays, but he was let go after starting one game between the pipes. He stopped 30 of 31 shots against Orlando on Nov. 26.

Cody Dion (2010-11) is in his third season with the Peoria Rivermen of the SPHL. He has 13 points in 16 games, with one of his six goals coming against the Huntsville Havoc on Dec. 9.

Matt Larose (2013-17) and Graeme Strukoff (2011-15) are teammates in Slovakia, playing for HC Detva.

To keep up where former Chargers are playing in the pros, please visit our Chargers in the Pros page.

WCHA standings
Pts Record PAT*
1 Minnesota State 33 11-3-0 0
2 Bowling Green 28 7-2-5 2
Northern Michigan 28 8-4-2 2
Michigan Tech 28 7-6-5 2
5 Ferris State 19 6-7-1 0
6 Bemidji State 18 4-4-4 2
UAH 18 5-7-2 1
8 Alaska 17 5-8-1 1
9 Lake Superior State 12 3-8-3 0
10 Alaska Anchorage 9 1-8-3 3
* Points after ties: Extra points earned in the 3-on-3 overtime or shootout.
Top 8 teams qualify for the WCHA playoffs.

Hoof Beats: Stat pack and recruiting update

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Dec 042017
Josh Kestner

Josh Kestner has been on a goal-scoring pace not seen at UAH in over a decade. (Photo by Todd Thompson/RiverCat Photography)

Some statistical analysis as we hit the halfway point of the season:

• The 6-9-1 overall record may not seem like much, but it is the Chargers’ best 16-game start since the 2005-06 season, when they started 8-7-1.

• UAH is only 1-7-0 on Fridays, with the lone win coming against last-place Alaska Anchorage at home. The Chargers are 5-2-1 on Saturdays, with the two losses coming against non-conference foes Notre Dame and Cornell on the road and both currently ranked in the top six. Five of the eight series this season have been win-loss splits, including the last three weeks.

• The Chargers are scoring 3.30 goals per game in WCHA play, second in the league behind Minnesota State (3.80). UAH is tops in power play efficiency in conference games at 25.0 percent.

• Josh Kestner has 10 goals in 16 games this season, already a career high for him and more than his team-leading nine goals last year. He’s the first Charger to reach double-digit goals at this point of the season since both Jared Ross and Bruce Mulherin did it in the 2004-05 season. Kestner is third in the WCHA in overall goals scored and first in power play goals with five. Nationally, Kestner is 19th in goals per game (0.62) and tied for fourth in power play goals (five).

• Now that Jordan Uhelski has played over 1,500 career minutes at UAH, he qualifies for ranking in the program’s all-time leader boards. His .907 save percentage would be sixth all-time and fourth in the modern Division I era, just behind Cam Talbot (2007-10). His 2.81 goals against average would edge him over Steve Briere (1997-2000) for fourth all-time and second in the modern Division I era (behind Scott Munroe’s 2.76).

• For those of you who still care about goaltender win-loss records, Uhelski already has 12 career victories in two seasons, matching Carmine Guerriero’s four-year total. Uhelski has made 33 starts, while Guerriero made 72. Uhelski is getting more goal support now that the Chargers are scoring about a half goal per game more than last season, and about 1.5 goals per game more than Guerriero’s first season (2013-14).

Recruiting update: Last week, UAH received a commitment from Drew Lennon, a 6-foot-2, 180-pound defenseman playing for the Lone Star Brahmas in the NAHL. Lennon, who is originally from Illinois, has played junior hockey all over the continent these past few years. After starring with Rocky Mountain Roughriders U16 AAA team in 2014-15, he went on to play for the Connecticut Oilers in the EHL in 2015-16, and the Prince George Spruce Kings in the BCHL last season. Drew is known for his strong defensive play and skating ability. His size and reach make him difficult to play against, and he’s yet to reach his offensive ceiling. Through 27 games this season, he has two goals and five assists, but has a goal and three assists in his last eight games, so he’s starting to heat up.

Bauer Neudecker signed his National Letter of Intent with UAH, so he’ll be a member of the 2018-19 freshmen class. He has five points in 17 games for the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL, the same team the produced UAH captain Max McHugh.

Tyr Thompson, another forward expected in the 2018-19 recruiting class, has been playing at a near point-per-game pace this season (31 points in 29 games) for his Whitecourt Wolverines (AJHL) squad. Thompson and Neudecker headline what is shaping up to be another solid recruiting class for Coach Corbert and his staff. — Asher Kitchings

WCHA media poll: The Chargers are currently sixth in the latest WCHA Media Poll, conducted by Tech Hockey Guide. UAH fell a spot from fifth after the Chargers split at Northern Michigan over the weekend.

UAHHockey.com has a vote in the poll, which has a representative covering each WCHA program.

Rajic named WCHA Rookie of the Week

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Nov 202017
Christian Rajic

Christian Rajic (Photo by Todd Thompson/RiverCat Photography)

Charger forward Christian Rajic was named the WCHA Rookie of the Week for his three-goal performance in UAH’s 5-3 win over Lake Superior State on Saturday.

Rajic’s hat trick was the first by a UAH freshman since Jared Ross did it against Bemidji State on March 9, 2002. The Oakville, Ontario native is one of four freshmen to have hat tricks in Division I this season.

Rajic has six goals on the season, tying him for second on the Chargers and sixth in the WCHA. His total of nine points puts him fifth among WCHA freshmen.

In conference games only, Rajic is tied for ninth in scoring with eight points and tied for third in goals with five.

“Blackout” coming Friday: Friday’s series opener at the Von Braun Center against Ferris State will be a “Black Friday Blackout.”

Charger fans are encouraged to wear black at the game. The first 500 fans will receive a free black UAH hockey T-shirt and the next set of UAH hockey trading cards, courtesy of Wells Fargo.

Puck drop for both Friday and Saturday night is 7:07 p.m. Kids 12 and under get free admission to both games, and all home games this season, courtesy of Huntsville International Airport.


Road-weary Chargers look to establish home presence

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Nov 082017

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 USCHO.com 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.”