2018-19 NCAA Preview: CHA

Predictions, who to watch, and what to watch this season in the CHA

Last Season

The CHA, home to teams from Pennsylvania, New York, and Missouri, is a lopsided conference, and it showed in last year’s standings. While Robert Morris University and Mercyhurst University both posted excellent seasons – each beating difficult opponents and posting strong averages — the rest of the conference performed below .500 out-of-conference and only Syracuse joined RMU and Mercyhurst as averaging above .500 in conference.

Robert Morris topped the conference with 31 points, followed closely by Mercyhurst with 29, leading to the drop off, where Syracuse, Penn State, Lindenwood, and Rochester Institute of Technology posted 23, 17, 16, and 2 points, respectively. RMU lost to Mercyhurst in postseason, and Mercyhurst went on to drop a tough overtime loss, 2-1 to eventual champions Clarkson in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament.

Mercyhurst and Robert Morris have teams with grit and talent – they both posted impressive results against stronger opponents and jockeyed for the #10 spot on the USCHO national rankings all season long. Last season demonstrated steady improvement that lends to the idea that they are almost ready to play with the big guns.

Top Team

Robert Morris University should take home the regular season championship. While Mercyhurst has set the gold standard in the CHA, claiming twelve regular season championships and twelve conference tournament championships, the last couple of years have gone in favor of the Colonials — they won the CHA tournament in 2017 and topped the regular season standings in 2018.

While the departure of longtime standouts Brittany Howard (Toronto, 8th overall) and Elijah Milne-Price (Markham, 36th overall) may shake the Colonials early, there is a plethora of young talent still on the roster.

The USCHO picked RMU to finish second in the conference, but the Colonials are a team full of veterans who play extremely well together  — with players like Jaycee Gebhard, Emily Curlett, and Amber Rennie leading the way. Chemistry on the ice isn’t everything, but it’s a lot of things, and it could be what gets them ahead of Mercyhurst this year.

Dark Horse

Syracuse, if they are exceptional. As the only team that even came close to holding a candle to the firepower of RMU and Mercyhurst last year, Syracuse could look to build on a solid season. Their 2018 team saw two players go in the CWHL draft, and this summer defender Allie Munroe was called up to Hockey Canada’s development team. Julie Knerr, an alumna of the program, has returned to fill the head coaching position. The team advanced to the CHA tournament finals twice during her time at Syracuse from 2011-2015. She could bring fresh insight to a team on the cusp of success.

There is a lot of potential in this young, ambitious team, and they are pushing their limits with out-of-conference play against Boston College, Clarkson, and Wisconsin over the course of the season. After disappointing results in their series against RMU and Mercyhurst last season, this year presents an opportunity for improvement and a chance to shake up a consistently lopsided conference.

5 Players to Watch

Jaycee Gebhard, junior, Robert Morris

Gebhard, entering her third year as a Colonial, has been a fixture on RMU’s top lines since she stepped on the ice for her first game. After winning the Rookie of the Year award in 2017, the first-ever for RMU, she picked up right where she left off for her sophomore season. Last year she put up 13-25—38, which puts her second all-time in single-season assists for the Colonials. She finished last season on a five-game point streak, and scored nine times in her last ten games. Her caliber of play with Brittany Howard and Amber Rennie got the attention of Hockey Canada, which invited her to development camp this past summer.

Kirsten Welsh, senior, Robert Morris

Also present at Hockey Canada’s annual development camp was RMU defender Kirsten Welsh. The Blackstock, Ontario native is a powerful two-way defender whose standout junior season put her second amongst NCAA defenders with almost a point per game. Like former Colonial Brittany Howard, she broke the record during her junior year, meaning she still has another season to add to her record. She’s shattered several single-season records over the last three years, and will no doubt be looking for more in the year to come.

Allie Munroe, senior, Syracuse

After a quiet season last year, Allie Munroe received an invitation to Hockey Canada’s fall festival. Another two-way defender, Munroe won the CHA Best Defenseman Award in 2017 for her sophomore effort. She finished the 2017 season with a +12 rating, and took home all-conference honors. It will be interesting to see if she can replicate and improve upon her stellar sophomore season following a disappointing junior year last season.

Kennedy Blair, redshirt sophomore, Mercyhurst

Finally, a stand-out American in the CHA. A redshirt sophomore with the Mercyhurst Lakers, Blair has the potential to build on an excellent year of goaltending. After a rough start in 2017 against eventual Frozen Four teams Wisconsin and Colgate, Blair evened out, finishing the season with a .934 save percentage, a 1.57 GAA overall and, most impressively, a 0.94 conference GAA. The Lakers went 11-8-1 with her in net, and she seems like she can only get better from here.

Natalie Heising, sophomore, Penn State University

Heising brought home CHA Rookie of the Year honors last year, and they were well deserved. Her ten power play goals led the NCAA, and her nineteen total goals set a single season record for PSU. Heising led her team in almost every offensive category, including goals, power-play goals, points, and game-winning goals. Her invite to Team USA’s U-22 Select Festival came as no surprise after her contributions to the U-18 team helped bring home 2016 and 2017 IIHF gold medals. All signs point to Heising being a key contributor to a PSU team struggling to break out in the top-heavy conference.

5 Series to Watch

Because the CHA front-loaded their schedule with out-of-conference matchups, October will likely be packed with the most exciting games of the season.

Robert Morris at Clarkson – Oct. 5 - 6

The development and mettle of RMU will be tested when they face off against the defending national champions in Potsdam. The holes left by the departure of Milne-Price and Howard will need to be filled quickly and adequately for the Colonials to have a shot at beating the likes of Elizabeth Giguère and Ohio State graduate transfer Kassidy Sauvé.

Wisconsin at Mercyhurst – Oct. 5 - 6

Overlapping with RMU’s showdown is Mercyhurst’s face-off against a Wisconsin team packed to the gills with talent. After Wisconsin’s slip in the NCAA tournament last year, they will undoubtedly be looking to make a strong start by taking down the Lakers. How well Mercyhurst can answer is yet to be seen.

Robert Morris at Mercyhurst – Oct 19 - 20 & Feb 22 - 23

Bitter division rivalries are always the most fun to watch. Mercyhurst and RMU split the regular season last year, and the Lakers eventually topped RMU in the CHA Championship game 5-3. These teams meet four times during the regular season, both at times when points are crucial. The teams should be focusing on making strong starts when they meet in October and their February series should come at a critical time for securing spots in the NCAA tournament.