It seems like just yesterday that Bemidji State ran through Notre Dame and Cornell in the 2009 NCAA Midwest Regional on its way to the Frozen Four in Washington, D.C.
Now heading into the terminal season of College Hockey America, the Beavers lost top goaltender Matt Dalton to the pros and standout defenseman Cody Bostock and four of their top six forwards (Tyler Scofield, Matt Francis, Brandon Marino and Travis Winter) to graduation. But winning breeds winning -- at least according to the league's preseason coaches' poll that tabbed the Beavs to repeat as conference champions.
BSU's goalie questions can also be transferred to last season's second-place team, Niagara, as well. Junior Adam Avramenko takes the reins from three-year starter Juliano Pagilero, who is playing professionally in Italy.
The uncertainty extends to Robert Morris, which thinks it found a starter in net with the late run by freshman Brooks Ostergard. Alabama-Huntsville has the only returning full-season starting goalie in Cameron Talbot. Despite having just three career victories, he was named to the preseason All-CHA team.
Simply put, any of the four teams could finish anywhere from first to fourth. All go about one line deep for certain up front, with Bemidji State and Niagara maybe a touch more experienced on the blue line.
Of course, this all pales next to the questions surrounding the future of UAH, who a mere seven months from now will be without a chair -- or conference -- when the CHA music stops in the spring.
Just four seasons ago, Alabama-Huntsville rallied around Doug Ross, its soon-to-be retiring coach, to sweep through the CHA playoffs and advance to the NCAA tourney. Now in its swan song season in CHA and stunned (or is it shunned?) by the CCHA no-vote, UAH will be out to prove that the powers-that-be were mistaken.
Losing only four primary seniors, the Chargers return 10 of their top 13 scorers, including 2009 CHA All-Rookie selection Cody Campbell, junior Andrew Coburn and senior defenseman Brandon Roshko. If they can find more consistent scoring, they could match the total number of wins (11) in head coach Danton Cole's first two seasons combined.
As if they needed another challenge, the Chargers play just six of their final 20 games at home. Included is a two-month, 10-game stretch on the road encompassing November, December and January.
Primed for a Fall
Bemidji State was picked by the league's coaches to repeat as champion, and there is something to be said about the younger players learning how to win during their postseason run last spring. But a team whose three goaltenders have never played a college game, and has lost 48 percent of its goal scoring and 38 percent of its offense is more than unpredictable.
All-CHA first-team selections Matt Read and Brad Hunt are back, but the next-best returning scorer had all of 15 points last season. The good news is that all but one of the defensive core that helped launch the Beavers into the Frozen Four returns and will help whoever wins the goalie sweepstakes tremendously.
Pressure to Perform
Prior to Valentine's Day last season, Niagara was in contention for the conference crown. It was hardly a Hallmark moment, however, as the Purps managed just one win over their final nine games encompassing the regular season and playoffs.
The core of the team has changed, but remains solid with Chris Moran and Egor Mironov up front and senior defenseman Tyler Gotto and Ryan Annesley anchoring the blue line.
The main training camp questions are whether Brian Haczyk or David Ross centers the top line, and who steps into the wings on the second line.
Toughest Act to Follow
Robert Morris was in a dogfight with UAH trying to stay out of last place as late as the first week of February. Then the Brooks Ostergard show began, and the Colonials rode him to a 4-1-3 finish and the CHA title game.
With all-time leading scorer Chris Margott departed, the spotlight focuses on junior Nathan Longpre and junior defenseman Denny Urban to carry the load. Key will be whether second- or third-liners from last season -- such as Chris Kushneriuk and Scott Kobialko -- can step into higher-profile roles.
Bemidji State's Matt Read had 15 goals and 40 points last season; RMU's Nathan Longpre tallied 12 goals and 41 points … so, you flip the coin.
Both play in all situations and very rarely take a shift off. If you had to split hairs, Read is probably the better faceoff man. An extended injury to either would be devastating to his respective team.
He is listed as a sophomore on the roster, but Beavers goaltender Dan Bakala did not play a single minute in NCAA games last season. He did, however, appear in three exhibition games, allowing a total of three goals. The Calgary native will likely get first shot at filling the shoes of Matt Dalton, who backstopped the team past several powerhouses last season. Bakala will benefit from the collective experience of his defense, which lost just one starter to graduation.
Robert Morris junior defenseman Brock Meadows doesn't put up a lot of points -- just 15 in 63 games -- but he is on the ice quite often against the other team's top line.
Playing his first season for the Colonials after seeing 30 games in the final season of the Wayne State program, the Mission, British Columbia, product and his defensive partner typically played against the other team's top unit to free up offensive defenseman Denny Urban on the next shift.
He was on the starting pair for the final 11 games of the season.
1. Which team's goaltender will emerge to be the difference-maker and take his team to the final CHA regular-season crown?
2. Will another freshman defenseman emerge in the conference to have the same impact Bemidji State's Brad Hunt had on the Beavers last season?
3. Where will Alabama-Huntsville find itself in 2010-11 and beyond?
Mark It Down
Four things you can take to the bank in the CHA this season.
1. Robert Morris will not fly under the radar this season at the season-opening Brice Alaska Goal Rush in Fairbanks. Two years ago, the Colonials upset Boston University in Anchorage en route to the Nye Frontier Classic title.
2. Alabama-Huntsville will view 193 movies during the course of the season. The Chargers' sleeper bus visits Notre Dame, Vermont and Clarkson this season in addition to the usual conference trips.
3. Niagara may have one of the toughest opening schedules in the nation. The Purps' slate includes road games at Clarkson, St. Lawrence, Michigan, Cornell, Colgate and UMass … all of which immediately follow the season's lid-lifter at Dwyer Arena against Colgate.
4. There will be energy in the air for Bemidji State's final regular-season home games. It is more than fitting that the final games at Glas Fieldhouse prior to moving the city's new events center next season are Feb. 19-20 against longtime conference rival Niagara.