After splitting last weekend’s two-game series with National Collegiate Hockey Conference opponent Colorado College, the Miami hockey enters its second weekend of conference play in search of two wins. The RedHawks will need to play a disciplined, puck-management focused game as they compete against No. 2/4 North Dakota tonight and tomorrow in Grand Forks.
“North Dakota is a fun place to play,” senior defenseman Louie Belpedio said at Monday’s press conference. “It’s fun, it’s a tough atmosphere to be in, but when you play your own game and you take it to them in their building it’s even better. I think that’s the mindset we’re looking to have going into it.”
The ’Hawks (4-4, 1-1 NCHC) take on the Fighting Hawks (6-2-2, 1-1 NCHC) after a strong showing against Colorado College on Friday and an inconsistent game on Saturday. The RedHawks and the Fighting Hawks both have three points in the NCHC because the Fighting Hawks also split their first conference series with CC.
“North Dakota is North Dakota,” head coach Enrico Blasi said. “They play four lines that roll and they’ve got skill and a defense core that is big and strong and can skate, and great goaltending. Combine that with a good coaching staff and you’ve got a pretty good mix there.”
To be fair, the RedHawks bring offensive production and tight defensive play to the ice that has won them games in the past. Sophomore forward Gordie Green is tied for sixth nationally and leads the ’Hawks with 13 points (4g, 9a). Green’s lineman junior forward Josh Melnick has eight points on the season (2g, 6a) and scored the game winner in overtime on Friday night.
From the blue line, junior defenseman Grant Hutton leads the country with five power play goals and ranks 12th among defenseman for his eight points (5g, 3a). Unseen on the score sheet, 6’3” Hutton uses his frame to effectively muscle other players off the puck and create time and space on offensive rushes.
Miami draws strength from its experience and its young team — the RedHawks’ six true freshmen have tallied 16 points (6g, 10a), led by forward Phil Knies (2g, 3a). Keep an eye on forward Ben Lown who often starts for the ’Hawks. His hustle and selfless play earned him two assists against Colorado.
“I think when you go and play a quality opponent and a top opponent like North Dakota, you’re keeping things to your strengths — making sure you’re managing the puck well, playing good team defense and competing hard,” Blasi said.
Colorado matched Miami last weekend scoring chance-for-scoring chance, hit-for-hit but were often quicker in transition. The game skewed to Colorado on Saturday when Miami was caught on their heels in the neutral zone during the second and third period.
“You have to be ready to take punches, you have to be ready to give punches,” Blasi said. “Then when that’s over, you have to be ready to do it again.”
Often, when the RedHawks gave punches, it was in the form of undisciplined physicality resulting in back-to-back penalty kills. This is something the ’Hawks looks to avoid, as a power play goal has been scored against them in five of their last seven games. On the flip-side, Miami was also unable to draw any momentum from a huge 5-on-3 kill in the third period on Saturday.
“Taking smart penalties is the way to go, because if you’re taking penalties out of aggressive play, those are usually the ones that you can kill off because they’re good penalties, if there’s such a thing,” Blasi said. “The penalties that you take out of undiscipline, or reaching, or hooking, or tripping in the offensive zone — undisciplined penalties where somebody does something to you that you don’t like and you retaliate — those are the penalties that hurt you.”
The other half of special teams need to be consistent if Miami wants to compete with North Dakota. The power play was 11-for-21 (52.4 percent) in the four games leading up to the CC series, but when playing Colorado the ’Hawks went 0-for-8 on the man-advantage.
However, Miami has outshot its opponents in six of its eight games while only allowing 23 shots on goal (second in the nation). The team will need to shoot pucks at the net, and put bodies in front as North Dakota only allows 1.7 goals and 23.6 shots per game, ranking fourth in the country in both categories.
To keep his team in the game, sophomore goaltender Ryan Larkin will likely be looked to for big saves. Larkin has started all of Miami’s games, has already recorded a shutout and has 2.71 goals against average.
The UND Fighting Hawks most likely to test Larkin will be junior defenseman Christian Wolanin, who leads his team with nine points (3g, 6a), and freshman forward Grant Mismash who has eight points (3g, 5a).
Last time these two teams met, Miami lost both games at home but earlier last season the ’Hawks split the North Dakota homestand.
“They’re just like us — they’re up and down, they’re fast, they’re hard to play against. Like coach said, it’s going to be a war both nights,” Belpedio said. “I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be fun, it’s going to be a test both nights and hopefully we come out on top.”