By Andrew Vitalis, Special to WCHA.com
The past didn't matter. Mike Corbett and his team didn't care about the nine one-goal losses his team had suffered this season, the 12 games lost due to injury for their senior all-everything defenseman Kurt Gosselin or the fact that the Chargers didn't even grab their first win until November 16 – 11 games into their 2018-19 campaign. What mattered was the present. What mattered was the opportunity staring them in the face. What mattered was the heart and determination in the eyes of every one of his players as they stared back at their head coach; ready of battle with a postseason berth on the line. To say that his Charger squad made him proud last Friday night wouldn't do the performance justice.
"We have enough pride in that locker room and we told the boys we want to go through the front door and we want to earn it our way," recalled Corbett, now in his sixth season as Alabama Huntsville men's head hockey coach.
They earned it all right.
Playing on the road against one of the best teams in the WCHA in Bowling Green last Friday, Huntsville faced the simple formula of win and in. They won. Needing three points to secure the eighth and final spot in the conference playoffs and trying to fight off a charging Ferris State squad, the Chargers played their most complete game of the season, rolling to a 4-2 win. Not only did the victory punch their postseason ticket but the performance came against a top-20 team – on the road – in a must-win situation. Oh yes, it was also a comeback win as the Chargers were down 1-0 going into the third period. When you consider that Alabama Huntsville started the season 0-10 and were 3-17 heading into January; just the fact that the playoffs were even an option was a major accomplishment for Corbett's squad. Taking down the Falcons and clawing their way into the "second season" was icing on the cake.
"A lot of times we have gone into a lot of third periods this year with a shot whether we were up a goal, down a goal or even at the time. Besides the Bemidji State game – that was a game we came back in, but besides that game, we haven't had that big of a third period," remarked Corbett. "We knew we could do it. You have a couple guys make a play and then they score and you're like, oh no, it's just like here we go. In the last five minutes we were up 3-2 and for our guys to be able to shut the door and get an empty-netter in the last 10 seconds, it was very rewarding and it was very satisfying."
"It was a huge confidence booster going into the playoffs," continued Hans Gorowsky; Chargers co-captain and leader scorer. "When Ferris State lost we were in but it felt better to earn it rather than just having a team lose out. Beating a top team like Bowling Green and then knowing we were going to be playing another top team, it was just like we can do this – we can steal a few games. Don't count Alabama Huntsville out because we can be a really good team."
And what do they get for that defining moment? Bring on Minnesota State, the conference champs and the fourth ranked team in the country.
"We are undefeated again and so is everyone else," chuckled Corbett, when asked about the daunting task of traveling to Mankato this weekend to take on the Mavericks. "It was a tough first half and we played well in the second half to get to this point. A lot of people probably didn't think we were going to get to this point so it's rewarding that's for sure."
Tough indeed. As stated earlier, the Chargers late-season push has given them a boost of confidence that they cannot describe in words. In an effort to try and explain it you first have to look at the up and down journey Corbett and his crew have taken to get here. Alabama Huntsville started the season by losing their first 10 games, and during that stretch, scored just 10 goals. Then after their first win of the year against Alaska in mid-November, UAH dropped four more. With a record of 1-14 at the time, the Chargers finally picked up their first WCHA win in early December; winning two in a row against Bemidji State and Michigan Tech. Unfortunately the winning streak was short-lived as Huntsville lost their next four putting them at 3-18 going into the second game of a two-game series versus Ferris State in early January. Think about that, through 21 games the Chargers had only been able to muster nine points. They needed to make something happen and they needed to do it fast. Helping the cause was the return of Gosselin who stepped back into the line-up after missing 12 games due to injury.
"A lot of it had to do with just our guys believing in themselves. We had some adversity early even in our non-conference games and it was just a matter of believing. I think everyone comes into the season and everything is great; we are going to do this and we are going to do that. Then when it doesn't happen it kind of hits you between the eyes and our guys weren't ready for that," recalled Corbett. "When you deal with 28 young men, everyone is going to deal with adversity in a different way so you had to get them to understand that things like that are going to happen. It's like a defensive back getting beat, you have to have a short memory and you have to get ready for the next shift and we were able to do that. I would say from a staff standpoint, I don't play. The players need to believe in it and if they believed in themselves as much as I believe in them we wouldn't have any of these problems."
Slowly, they started to believe. First it was a win over Ferris State and then the following weekend, a tie against Lake Superior State. The week after that, UAH swept Alaska Anchorage and scored 12 goals in the two-game series. Up to that point, the most goals the Chargers had scored over the course of a weekend was nine (Ferris State). With each game Alabama Huntsville started to make up for lost time, and in the process, began fighting their way back into postseason contention. The surge came just in time. Thanks to a record of 5-9-2 over their last 16 games of the season, the Chargers did exactly that- extending their 2018-19 journey for at least another week; and maybe more. The reset button has been pushed and now it's time to get back to work.
"We find ourselves pretty proud right now knowing we have a spot in the playoffs. It's tough to explain because it's been such an up and down road. The first 10 games of the year we didn't even have a win and we were still able to find ourselves in the playoffs. We are just proud of digging ourselves out of that hole," explained Gorowsky. "You ask any hockey player, this is their favorite time of the year. If you can't get up for the playoffs you're really not a hockey player. The guys are really excited to go into Minnesota State and redeem ourselves a little bit. We got pushed around a little bit a few weekends ago when we were up there (Mankato swept UAH 6-1, 4-0) so there is a little bit more of a sense of pride going into this series against them."
Pride can be powerful. And if you are in Mankato, it can also be dangerous.
No one will argue that, at least on paper, the Mavericks are in the driver's seat. Anyone who follows the game of hockey also knows that when it comes to the playoffs, the "shoulds" and "wills" don't always hold up to intangibles like confidence and pressure- or lack thereof. As Corbett puts it, according to many his squad was never supposed to be here in the first place so the pressure is squarely on the shoulders of the Mavericks, after all, MSU is 24-0-4 against Huntsville in their last 28 meetings. That does not mean however that UAH isn't skating into the Verizon Center with winning on their minds. Remember, his team is a pretty good hockey team too.
"It's easy to say hey let's just go in there and take our swings and we are going to do that but we can't play nose to nose with Mankato State. We can't play nose to nose with Bowling Green. We have to do a few different things to be able to, for lack of a better term, to rope-a-dope them into making some mistakes and we need to take advantage of it," stated Corbett. "We're not going to be able to outshoot Mankato State I can guarantee you that but we just want to make the most of the opportunities we are going to get. We are going to get them. They are human and they are going to turn pucks over just like we will. We just want to minimize our mistakes and go in with a very good mental mindset; not think about the end result and truly think about your next shift and how you need to prepare for that next shift. When it comes to Mankato it's going to be in the moment. Everything is going to be in the moment for us to stay disciplined, to keep them off of special teams and to try and keep it a five on five game."