Cyclone Hockey (12-9-1) will travel to Pelham, Alabama, to face the University of Alabama Crimson Tide (3-14-1) this weekend.
This marks the third time ever that these two will meet for a series. This is the first series for the Cyclones and Crimson Tide in 2020.
“It’s always kind of back to basics after a break like this, but also, guys are refreshed and ready to go again,” said Cyclone defenseman Max Olson. “I think guys are excited to be here, so that’s the biggest thing.”
The Alabama hockey program started in 2005 and became a Division I American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) member in 2015.
Alabama is one of eight schools in ACHA Division I that classifies as independent and does not have a conference.
The two previous series occurred in the 2016-17 season and 2018-19 season. Cyclone Hockey swept Alabama in both series, outscoring the Crimson Tide 19-5.
The games in the 2018-19 season were closer, 4-3 and 4-2, compared to the 2016-17 season, 7-0 and 4-0.
Olson is excited about the nonconference matchup and facing a team the Cyclones rarely see.
“Nonconference is always fun just [because] we play the same teams over and over again,” Olson said. “It’s good to mix it up and see some different competition, see who’s going to be at nationals. I think it kind of refreshes the game a little bit, makes it exciting to play.”
Cyclone forward Dylan Goggin echoed Olson’s thoughts.
“It’s almost refreshing. We see all of our conference teams — like the CSCHL teams — every year, and it’s good to come in and not be judgmental about a team and play our game,” Goggin said.
This series marks games number 23 and 24 of 38 for the Cyclones this season. The regular season ends on Feb. 28 and 29, leaving seven series left after this weekend.
The Cyclones are ready for the final push. Coach Jason Fairman credits this to the tough schedule the Cyclones play year in and year out.
“Playing in the best conference in the nation prepares us every year for the tournament,” Fairman said. “I think that’s why most of our teams, I don’t know how far it goes back, every year that I’ve been here — so I know for at least seven years — there’s been one of our conference members in the championship game, so I think the beating up of each other during the course of the season prepares us for the national tournament.”
The Cyclones play in the Central States Collegiate Hockey League (CSCHL). The league has had at least one member in the championship game in 10 of the past 12 seasons. The current five team format — Illinois, Iowa State, Ohio, Lindenwood, Robert Morris Illinois — has been the same since the 2014-15 season.
These five teams have qualified for the national tournament every year dating back to this season — and further, but the CSCHL contained more teams prior to 2014-15.
The final stretch to the national tournament in March begins with the trip to Alabama.
The Crimson Tide recently ended a 12-game losing streak (11 regulation and one overtime) with a sweep of Illinois State, beating the Redbirds 7-4 and 4-2. In the stretch before Illinois State, Alabama was outscored 70-34.
The Cyclones also squared off against the Redbirds this season on Oct. 4 and 5. The teams split the series, with Cyclone Hockey winning the first game 1-0 and Illinois State winning the second 3-1.
The Crimson Tide and Cyclones have one other common opponent so far this year: the Missouri State Bears.
Cyclone Hockey faced Missouri State on Sept. 27 and 28. The teams split the series. The Cyclones picked up a 3-2 win the first night while the Bears responded the next night with a 2-0 win.
The Bears swept the Crimson Tide on the first weekend of November by a score of 9-3 and 4-2.
In the first game, Alabama racked up a total of 52 penalty minutes, with 48 of those coming from Marc Demers, Jacob Nau and Quinn Fahey. Demers recorded a holding minor, a boarding major and a 10-minute unsportsmanlike conduct misconduct penalty.
Nau added two minors, a head contact major and 10-minute head contact game misconduct, and Fahey recorded one 10-minute unsportsmanlike conduct misconduct penalty.
In game two, the Crimson Tide only had eight penalty minutes but could not come out with the win.
Alabama has recorded six unsportsmanlike conduct misconducts, a head conduct game misconduct, a boarding major, a fighting game disqualification major and a 10-minute fighting game disqualification this season.
“We’re expected to be disciplined on our end, and I wouldn’t suspect that we’ll get caught up in any of that,” Fairman said. “It happens occasionally, but not very often for us.”
Of the Cyclones 70 total penalties this season, 68 are minors, one is a boarding major and the other a 10-minute major for abuse of officials misconduct by Landon Michniak, who is currently listed as an inactive player on the roster.
Alabama averages just under 17 penalty minutes per game to Cyclone Hockey’s 6.86, which is good for best in the nation. Only five of the 70 Division I ACHA teams average single digit penalty minutes per game. Duquesne, Navy, Oakland and Pittsburgh are the remaining four.
Cyclone Hockey has a total of 151 penalty minutes, putting it at second in the nation for fewest minutes behind Pittsburgh (128). Alabama is right in the middle of the pack, tied with Adrian College — the current top-ranked team in the country — for 35th most penalty minutes with 305.
“Our philosophy here has always been that if we’re playing our game, we’re going to be successful, so I don’t worry about other teams too much,” Fairman said.
Leadership can be a key in success and in keeping a game under control. The captain and assistant captain are usually first in line to perform such duties.
Olson serves as the assistant captain for the Cyclones. He is confident in his leadership and the team’s ability to stay out of possible extracurricular activities during the games.
“Our team does pretty well of just staying out of all [that],” Olson said. “The key is just stay out of it just like [Fairman] says over and over again, don’t talk to the refs and play your game.”
Goggin understands his role as the team’s captain and is also confident in his and the team’s ability to handle situations.
“[My responsibility is] just making sure our guys understand the consequences that come from that stuff,” Goggin said. “We’ve got a lot of [the] semester left — obviously [it’s] just the beginning — and we don’t want guys to take anything that’s going to hurt themselves or the team long term so making sure that everybody understands the bigger picture and the ultimate goal that we’re working towards.”
Fairman is confident in his captains, which is why they were appointed to those positions.
“The captains lead by example,” Fairman said. “The captain position is very different in hockey than it is for other sports. It’s a very honored position to be [wearing] the ‘C,’ so they control a lot of the work ethic, what goes in the locker room, and if you don’t have good leadership, usually you don’t have successful teams.”
For the offensive outlook of the matchup, Cyclone Hockey averages 1.86 goals per game to Alabama’s 2.94.
As for the defense, the Crimson Tide give up 5.06 goals per game and the Cyclones average 1.68 goals against. Only Adrian College, Lindenwood and Minot State give up fewer goals per game on average than the Cyclones.
Alabama plays two netminders — Patrick Ostermann and Gunnar Neilsen. Ostermann has a record of 2-7-1 and a save percentage of 88% in 579:21 of play. Neilsen has been in the net a total of 501:29 with a record of 1-7-0 and a save percentage of 84.5%.
Nikita Kozak has been the only Cyclone goalie to take the ice this season. His save percentage of 94.5% is fourth in the nation and goals against of 1.63 is fifth.
The trip to Pelham will be the longest of the season for the Cyclones. The drive is 897 miles from Ames. The second and third longest trips of the season are Athens, Ohio (736 miles), and Minot, North Dakota (713 miles).
“It’s like any other long road trip, first game there is always tough just getting off the bus,” Olson said. “You’ve got to find a way to get yourself in the game, get warmed up for it. I don’t think it’s that much different from any other regular road trip — just a new location.”
Despite the differences in these teams, they have at least one other similarity besides the two common opponents — being named on ESPN Staff Writer Chris Peters’ list of the best club hockey jerseys. Peters ranked the top 15 club hockey jerseys of universities whose football team qualified for a bowl game. Alabama was listed fourth, and the Cyclones were seventh.
The puck will drop at 7 p.m. on Friday and 2 p.m. on Saturday in the Pelham Civic Complex.