Miami hockey rounds up the first half of their season and returns to National Collegiate Hockey Conference play against No. 10/11 Western Michigan University. The RedHawks look to balance their response to WMU’s high-scoring style of play and their own offensive production.
“They’re a tough team to play against — they play hard, their compete level is very high, they’re going to finish checks and things like that,” head coach Enrico Blasi said in his weekly press conference.
The Brotherhood (7-7-2, 2-3-1-0 NCHC) looks to beat the Broncos (9-7-1, 5-3-0 NCHC) in tonight and tomorrow, wanting to replicate the compete level and effective positioning that led to a non-conference split with No. 5 Cornell last weekend and a win and tie against Bowling Green the weekend before.
“For us to split with Cornell and play well against Bowling Green, and come out with a good non-conference record here this year was important for us,” Blasi said. “It’s one of the things we wanted to do and we were able to accomplish that — we’re pleased with that.”
MU currently sits sixth in the nine-team NCHC with WMU sitting fourth.
Last year, Western Michigan took the season series 3-1 over Miami, though the RedHawks lead the all-time series 66-61-11. The Broncos finished 22-13-5 (13-11-2) last season — playing in the NCAA Frozen Four before losing to the Air Force Academy in NCAA Regionals.
The RedHawks face a still-potent Bronco offense this season. WMU ranks No. 8 in the nation for goals per game with 3.47. In contrast, Miami only scores 2.81 goals per game, but ranks above WMU with less goals allowed per game. The ’Hawks rank No. 2 in fewest shots allowed per game — this matchup will pit a predominantly offensive team against a classically defensive game.
“That’s something, not only our team, but every team works on — transition from defense to offense,” Blasi said. “Sometimes the puck is going your way and sometimes it’s not. A lot of it has to do with moving away from the puck and supporting it and making sure you’re communicating.”
Junior Grant Hutton and senior Louie Belpedio anchor Miami’s blue line with both physicality and smart positioning, and offensive production. Hutton leads NCAA defenseman with seven goals this season and his six power play goals is second amongst all players. Belpedio ranks fourth among NCAA defenseman with 15 points (5g, 10a) and second among the RedHawks.
The entire Miami roster will have to throw more pucks at the net to beat WMU’s sophomore goaltender Ben Blacker who records 2.69 goals against average and a .906 save percentage. After blocking 20 shots last Friday and winning 2-1, last Saturday, the RedHawks were shut out 4-0 against Cornell blocking 20 shots.
“It’s all about making sure you’re changing the point of attack and making sure your head’s up and you understand where guys are on the ice,” Blasi said about getting pucks to the net. “It’s part of the detail of the game, part of understanding what your opponent is going to do to you. We’re going to face a team this weekend that blocks shots very well.”
Last Saturday, puck-focused play plagued the RedHawks and led to Cornell capitalizing on opportunities resulting from an open man. In practice this week, the ’Hawks played 5-on-5 for stretches at a time and worked on establishing both offensive and defensive cycles.
The ’Hawks also practiced reacting to winning and losing faceoffs, as they have been hot and cold in the circle this season. Part of the importance of practicing post-faceoff play is reacting physically on defense, and then forechecking along the boards to win battles and puck possession.
“Ultimately, the compete level and winning battles is really what it’s all about,” Blasi said. “At the end of the day, you’re going to be faced with some sort of stick battle or physical battle you’re going to have to win. The better you do that, the better your team is going to have puck possession and success in all three zones.”
Success in all three zones will likely come from discipline in all three zones from the RedHawks. The ’Hawks power play sits at 25.4 percent and their penalty kill is successful 83.1 percent of the time. Last Friday, Miami went 2-for-2 on the power play and 4-for-4 on the penalty kill, though faltered on Saturday, going 0-for-3 on the power play and 2-for-4 on the penalty kill.
Western Michigan’s power play is less potent, only recording a 16.5 percent success rate. Its penalty kill will combat Miami’s power play, however, with its 84.5 percent stat.
“You’re going to have to play the game the right way,” Blasi said. “That’s something that we strive to achieve every night.”
As the halfway mark of the season approaches, Miami has seen production from both its upperclassmen and freshmen. Sophomore goaltender Ryan Larkin stands tall in net with 2.66 goals against average and a .889 save percentage. Sophomore forward Gordie Green leads the RedHawks in points with 18 (6g, 12a), Belpedio is second with his 15 and junior forward Josh Melnick is third with 14 points (6g, 8a).
The six true freshmen have recorded 24 points (8g, 16a) with forward Casey Gilling leading the class with three goals and four assists.
“I don’t consider our team a young team anymore, this is half-way through the season,” Blasi said. “Everybody understands what type of compete level you have to bring, what type of detail you have to bring to every game, the focus that you have to bring.”
On the other side of the equation, consider forwards junior Colt Conrad, sophomore Wade Allison, sophomore Dawson DiPietro and sophomore Hugh McGing who all average a point per game or better. Conrad leads his team with 21 points from nine goals and 12 assists, and Allison leads his team with 11 goals.
The Broncos will be a good test for the RedHawks after a hiatus of conference play, and a new year that will bring only NCHC matchups.
“We’ve played Top-10 teams here for what seems like the last couple of months,” Blasi said. “The rest of the way, that’s the way it’s going to be — every team in our league is a top team in the country and we have to be ready to go. I think our guys understand that and I believe our guys are trying to prepare for that every week.”
Puck drop tonight and tomorrow night is 7:05 p.m in Kalamazoo, Michigan at Lawson Arena. Both games can be watched on NCHC.tv.