Miami hockey returns to regular season action tonight against defending national champions the University of Denver after a month-long hiatus. The RedHawks look to break over .500 this weekend against the nationally ranked No. 4/5 Pioneers.
“We’re playing a team that has a lot of skill up front, a lot of skill in the D-core, a proven goalie and they’re very well coached,” head coach Enrico Blasi said in his weekly press conference. “We’ve got some things we need to work on, but it should be a fun environment, a fun weekend.”
The ’Hawks finished 8-8-2 halfway through the season, after splitting a two-game series against Western Michigan on Dec. 9. The 5-2 Friday night win and the 4-3 overtime loss on Saturday moved the ’Hawks to 3-4-1 in National Collegiate Hockey Conference play.
Last weekend, the ’Hawks played against Windsor and handily defeated the Lancers 8-2. This exhibition game was the final non-conference game of the season, as Miami gears up for a two month stretch of NCHC play.
“The way our conference is set up, there’s very few weekends where teams get out on top and take advantage of a two-game set,” Blasi said. “For us, with the exception of one weekend, we played consistent and got better as the season went along. I thought, at the end there, against Western Michigan before exams, we were playing some pretty good hockey.”
Miami ranks sixth in the nine-team NCHC, whereas the Denver Pioneers (11-5-4, 5-3-2-1 NCHC) rank third. The Pioneers are coming off a non-conference, 6-0 win against the Air Force Academy last weekend and haven’t lost to a conference opponent since mid-November.
The RedHawks have played nationally ranked, top-15 teams five times already this season and are 3-6-1 against the those teams. The ’Hawks’ process play and detail-oriented game has shown improvement as they have gone 3-2-1 since Thanksgiving.
“Everybody’s saying, ‘You’ve played some pretty good competition,’ but we’re pretty good too,” Blasi said. “We have to continue to play that way, so we can consider ourselves to be pretty good — you have to play a 60-minute game, you have to compete, you have to pay attention to detail.”
Miami will hope to start on time with its transition speed, as it competes against Denver’s defense which allows only 2.4 goals a game on average. The RedHawks are 7-2-1 when scoring three or more goals and 1-7-1 when scoring two goals or fewer.
Look for sophomore forward Gordie Green to drive the net and junior forward Josh Melnick to complete clutch passes and beat the Pioneers in their own zone. Green leads the ’Hawks with nine goals and 11 assists on the season, and had two assists against Windsor last weekend. Melnick has seven goals and 10 assists and had four points last weekend (2g, 2a).
Sophomore forward Karch Bachman will look to use his speed to generate time and space in front of the net, as his shots are finding the back of the net more often since the beginning of the season. Bachman ranks fifth on the RedHawks stat sheet with nine points at this halfway mark.
“For me and for our staff and for our team, it’s always been about the process and how we execute the process from day-to-day and we don’t really focus too much on results,” Blasi said. “We know that if the process is good, then the results will start to come and that’ll continue to be our focus.”
The RedHawks will have to balance a process that will compete to score goals and one that plays defensively to prevent Denver from jumping to the lead — the Pioneers average 3.55 goals a game.
Defensemen Louie Belpedio and Grant Hutton are used to contributing offensively from the blue line, as Belpedio has tallied 17 points on the season and Hutton, 13. As leaders of Miami’s defensive unit, they’ll have to strike a balance between forechecking to generate offense, all while being wary of Denver’s offensive breakouts.
Sophomore goaltender Ryan Larkin played a period in the Windsor exhibition and only faced four shots, saving all of them. This two-game series against Denver is likely to be marked by board battles and bodies in front of Larkin — Miami allows only 25 shots per game on average against a Denver team that likes to take 36 shots a game on average.
Denver’s forwards sophomore Henrik Borgström and junior Troy Terry will be playing to add to their 26 and 25 respective season point totals.
“Back at practice now, we’re gearing up our intensity level, our pace of play and making sure our battle level is where it needs to be,” Blasi said.
The RedHawks saw improvement from the beginning of the year to the mid-season mark, and now continue to look to improve against their competitive conference. Now, taking each series at a time becomes even more important.
“We’re moving in the right direction but we have to continue to stay focused and continue to be where our feet are and continue to be present,” Blasi said.
Puck drop is at 7:35 p.m. tonight and 7:05 p.m. tomorrow night, as the RedHawks play in the Steve ‘Coach’ Cady arena for the only time in the month of January.