As the post-season approaches and after a disappointing series against No. 3/4 St. Cloud State University last weekend, Miami hockey is on the road to take on the No. 11/12 University of Minnesota-Duluth this weekend to try to gain momentum.
“All games are about momentum and keeping that momentum,” head coach Enrico Blasi said at his weekly press conference. “For us, it’s that consistency and that effort and commitment to playing the right way — whether that’s managing the puck, or playing hard.”
This is Miami and Minnesota-Duluth’s third to last series before the National Collegiate Hockey Conference playoffs. The RedHawks (10-15-3, 5-11-2 NCHC) are winless in their last three and are 2-7-1 since the New Year. The Bulldogs (14-13-3, 8-10-0) are also winless in their last three, but are 5-4 since the New Year.
Miami is currently ninth in the nine-team NCHC, and UMD will also be playing for momentum into the post-season as the Bulldogs rank fifth in the conference. Six of the nine NCHC teams occupy a spot in the NCAA national rankings — Minnesota-Duluth included — and Miami is accustomed to playing against high-caliber competition.
“Duluth is a really good hockey team — they’ve got deep forwards, a D-core that’s as good as any in the country,” Blasi said. “They come at you in waves, so you have to play really good hockey in all three zones.”
The ’Hawks are still struggling to find success even when playing good hockey in all three zones. Last weekend, even when out-playing St. Cloud and managing the puck well, Miami couldn’t score goals and struggled to avoid lapses of defensive play — costing them crucial goals and the series.
With last weekend’s losses, Miami has yet to sweep an NCHC opponent, and UMD is 13-4-2 all time against the RedHawks. In November, the teams split in Oxford. The Bulldogs have historically won against the RedHawks in Duluth and are 7-5-2 at home this season.
At practice, the ’Hawks routine hasn’t changed, as they practice transitions from both the offensive and defensive blue lines, winning one-on-one battles and crashing the net to capitalize on second-chance opportunities.
“I don’t know if you have to start doing things differently,” Blasi said. “I think you have to start executing at a higher level and be more consistent.”
Execution should come in the form of power play success this weekend. Entering last weekend, the RedHawks ranked third nationally on the power play, but the St. Cloud Huskies blanked the ’Hawks, as they went 0-for-8 on the man-advantage.
Miami’s power play is still ranked fifth nationally with a 25.4 percent success rate. The RedHawks will have to see more success from its penalty kill units, however, as Duluth ranks 10th nationally on the man-advantage with a 23.2 percent success rate.
The RedHawks and the Bulldogs also allow the ninth and the 11th most shots per game, respectively. After his first start of the season, Miami’s sophomore goaltender Chase Munroe was formidable in net last Saturday night after Miami’s number one, sophomore Ryan Larkin, fell ill. Either RedHawk goalie will likely see lots of shots against UMD and will be crucial to their team’s success.
For all of the game’s predictability, film break down and practice, Blasi is looking for his team to take advantage of its unpredictability and to be quicker to capitalize on chances.
“For the most part, you know what teams are going to do, but you have to go out and execute,” Blasi said. “That’s where mistakes are made from everybody, and you have to be able to take advantage of those mistakes and stay with it. Then, there’s times when you have to play situation hockey.”
Last Friday night, that situation was digging out of a 3-0 hole after 10 minutes of play. On Saturday night, it was playing against a hot goaltender who would shut out the RedHawks.
Up front, expect sophomore forward Gordie Green to lead his team in playing situational hockey. Green leads the RedHawks with 28 points (12g, 16a) and had a goal last Friday night.
The forward line of junior Kiefer Sherwood and freshmen Phil Knies and Ben Lown combine for the most points in the RedHawks’ lineup entering this weekend, though junior Josh Melnick and sophomores Carson Meyer and Karch Bachman have had chemistry as of late.
UMD’s freshman defenseman Scott Perunovich will likely limit these RedHawks, but is also dangerous offensively as he leads the Bulldogs with 25 points (7g, 18a). Sophomore Riley Tufte is Duluth’s top forward with 21 points, leading his team with 13 goals.
Going down the stretch, the RedHawks look to snap an eight-game winless streak against the Bulldogs.
“I told our team on Saturday night and I told them again today, ‘I don’t know why we don’t get rewarded. I just know we have to play the right way all the time,’” Blasi said.
Puck drop is at 8:07 p.m. tonight and tomorrow night. Both games will be broadcast on NCHC.tv.