Miami hockey heads down the stretch this weekend against No. 3/4 St. Cloud State University in its fourth final series of the season. After a 1-4-1 January stretch and splitting last weekend’s series against No. 15 Western Michigan, the RedHawks look to avoid minutes of offensive droughts and defensive lapses to put their team in a better position to win.
“We go through stretches where we’re pretty good through periods and then something happens, something clicks, where we just let off the gas and we’re not paying attention to detail,” head coach Enrico Blasi said at his weekly press conference.
Miami’s inconsistency has led it to sit ninth in the nine-team National Collegiate Hockey Conference. The RedHawks (10-13-3, 5-9-2 NCHC) have split series with five top-20 nationally ranked teams this season, but look for its first NCHC sweep this weekend against the Huskies (17-6-3, 11-4-1 NCHC).
“We know what we need to do,” Blasi said. “It’s not a matter of what we’re doing in practice, it’s more of just a focus and a detail and a confidence and really an attitude, for that matter.”
St. Cloud brings to Oxford a three-game winning streak that has propelled it to second in the NCHC rankings. It’s most recent victories have been against the University of Nebraska-Omaha, where the Huskies scored 11 goals over the course of the weekend.
Focus, detail and discipline will be the keys to limiting St. Cloud’s chances this weekend and have been the focus of the ’Hawks in practice this week — the RedHawks skated hard on Monday, but then took the next couple of days to regroup and work on transitions in and out of the zone.
Miami has been known to utilize its transition speed to catch teams behind the play, but that speed will need to be sustained over the entire weekend. The RedHawks are 8-5 on Friday nights, but are only 2-8-3 on Saturday nights.
“For us, it’s one game at a time, one practice at a time,” Blasi said. “Right now, we’re focused on what we need to do tomorrow and then we need to focus on what we’re going to do the next day and get ready for St. Cloud Friday night.”
Expect to see a lot of shots between the two teams, as St. Cloud ranks eighth nationally in shots per game with 33.81 and Miami outshot Western Michigan 56-38 last weekend.
The Huskies average 3.81 goals per game, ranking second nationally, as their shots find the back of the net more often than the ’Hawks. On the other end of the ice, St. Cloud limits its opponents to only scoring 2.54 goals per game. Statistically inferior to the Huskies, the RedHawks will have to work hard to get bodies to the net for second chances.
“We’ve got to do a good job of defending and do a good job of making plays with the puck when we’re coming up the ice but also getting pucks on net when we’re in those positions,” Blasi said.
Being disciplined without the puck is an area where the RedHawks seek improvement. The ’Hawks rank 10th in penalty minutes per game, averaging 14.6 and the Huskies rank ninth with their power play — converting on the man-advantage 23.3 percent of the time.
But, Miami ranks third in the country on the power play with 27 percent and its power play unit has been key to generating offense when its five-one-five offense has gone cold.
Even if the RedHawks have offensive dry spells, the ’Hawks’ game of quick, short passes and smart positioning will need to stay the same. Last Saturday night, Miami looked tentative throughout the second period and fell off its game, ultimately leading to three unanswered goals in the middle frame.
“It’s important for us to stay the course and continue doing things we’ve been doing all year and, as coaches, continue to send the message of process and make sure our details are good,” Blasi said.
A strong presence at both ends of the ice, senior defenseman Louie Belpedio starts this weekend as the reigning NCHC defensemen of the week — it was the third time he’s earned this award this season. Belpedio has 26 points (9g, 17a) in 26 games and ranks second nationally among defensemen with 1.00 points per game.
For St. Cloud, expect junior forwards Robby Jackson and Mikey Eyssimont to have big weekends. They have 29 and 28 points on the season, respectively. Thirteen other Huskies have logged double-digit point totals this season.
Sophomore goaltender Ryan Larkin will likely start in net for Miami, with his 3.08 goals against average and .884 save percentage. St. Cloud freshman David Hrenak with 2.12 GAA and .922 save percentage, or junior Jeff Smith with 2.51 GAA and .913 save percentage would be formidable in net for the Huskies.
“We have to make sure we’re playing together and playing to the strengths of our team and continuing to do those things shift after shift,” Blasi said. “If we can do that, we’ll give ourselves an opportunity to be in games, and then its about executing the plays around the net and at both ends of the rink.”
Tonight, the RedHawks and Huskies face off at 8 p.m. and the game will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network. Puck drop tomorrow night is scheduled for 7:05 p.m. and can be watched on Fox College Sports network and NCHC.tv.