Miami hockey’s three-goal second period and ability to play an entire 60-minutes led to a 4-2 victory over National Collegiate Hockey Conference opponent Western Michigan on Friday night. The win was the RedHawks’ first since Jan. 5.
“The first five minutes were a little slow but once we started getting into a rhythm there it seemed like we controlled most of the game,” junior defenseman Grant Hutton said at the post-game press conference.
A No. 1 nationally ranked power play that went 2-for-7 and a 28-22 shot differential allowed the RedHawks (10-12-3, 4-8-2 NCHC) to edge past the No. 15 Broncos (13-13-1, 8-8-0 NCHC). The other half of the ’Hawks’ special teams also kept Miami in the game, as they limited WMU to going 1-for-5 on the power play.
Ultimately, however, it was the RedHawks’ ability to play through a back-and-forth first period, a high scoring second period and a grittier, more physical third period that won the game. The Broncos had a hard time transitioning to its previously successful offensive game.
“Whether we’re up or down, the guys play with a big-time care level,” head coach Enrico Blasi said. “When you have a care level like that, oftentimes you’re going to get rewarded. Sometimes you don’t, but sometimes you get rewarded.”
The RedHawks took the first five minutes to find their legs, falling behind on the shot differential 4-1 only three minutes into the game. Further testing the ’Hawks was an early 5-on-3 penalty kill. Miami’s PK unit caught lucky bounces to clear the zone, but otherwise worked to allow sophomore goaltender Ryan Larkin to see the puck and make the saves.
The game turned the other way, as WMU was whistled for a couple of penalties though nothing came of Miami’s man-advantage.
The remaining 12 minutes of the first was a transition game, and both teams couldn’t gain the offensive zone for any stretch of time. WMU’s freshman goaltender Austin Cain gave up rebounds Miami couldn’t capitalize on. At the other end of the ice, MU escaped harm with fortunate positioning and far-reaching sticks to knock the puck from the Broncos’ tape.
Miami ended the period with an offensive zone cycle. Senior defenseman Louie Belpedio shot from WMU’s blue line through traffic, and the rebound popped up to where it looked like the puck had gone in, but the period would remain scoreless. Miami’s efforts were realized on its 8-7 shot advantage over Western.
The stalemate was broken a minute into the second, as junior forward Kiefer Sherwood capitalized on an defensive zone turnover and shot from the left side boards. Sherwood’s shot went wide, but rebounded to the waiting Ben Lown on the right side. Cain left the right side open and the freshman forward Lown banged the puck into the empty net.
A couple of WMU penalties gave Miami the opportunity to extend their lead, though the RedHawks’ initial shots from the point were missing the necessary redirections and tips to find the back of the net.
Almost five minutes into the period and in the final seconds of a 5-on-4 advantage, Belpedio’s shot from the left side was saved by Cain but the rebound came to sophomore forward Gordie Green. Green banked in the puck on a sharp angle from the left side of the net for his 11th goal of the season. Junior forward Josh Melnick had the secondary assist to put his team up 2-0 with 15:13 left in the period.
Miami controlled much of the second, as Western Michigan wouldn’t take their first shot of the period until eight minutes into the frame. A 5-on-3 advantage for the Broncos proved to be the spark the team needed. After a WMU timeout, junior defenseman Corey Schueneman’s shot from the left point beat Larkin top shelf. The goal at 9:42 cut Miami’s lead to 2-1.
The goal didn’t stop the RedHawks’ offensive pressure as Sherwood forced Cain into a good save, and Melnick and sophomore forward Karch Bachman had their 2-on-1 chance turned away.
Another slew of penalties led to a Miami 5-on-3 advantage and Hutton’s 10th goal of the season. Sherwood picked up his second assist of the night, as he won a battle along the left offensive boards to get the puck to freshman defenseman Alec Mahalak on the right. Mahalak passed the puck to Hutton for a one-timer from the left side to regain a two-goal lead with four minutes left to play in the second.
The period ended with a stretch of play in Miami’s end, though the RedHawks went to the locker room up 3-1 and with a 22-13 shot advantage.
“That was a big key for us tonight — shooting the puck,” Sherwood said. “It kind of creates chaos when we shoot the puck so much. We came out hammering pucks right away and I think [Western Michigan] were a little on the back of their feet.”
Western started the third looking to salvage game one, and would go on to outshoot the RedHawks 9-6 in the period.
The period ticked away, and play was marked with saves from Larkin and bigger hits at both ends of the ice. Miami weathered the storm and adapted their initially quicker game to one that focused on getting pucks out of the zone.
Belpedio added a security tally with under four minutes left to play. After winning a battle behind the net to carry the puck out to the left side, Belpedio wristed a shot from inside the left faceoff circle to beat Cain. Melnick earned his second assist of the night on the goal that put Miami up 4-1.
A goal from WMU’s freshman forward Ethen Frank with 24.6 left in the game didn’t stop the RedHawks from taking Game One 4-2.
“We knew they were going to come hard at the end of the game,” Hutton said. “We kind of had to do the little things — get pucks out, get pucks in. The last couple seconds, you kind of forget about, but we have the momentum and we have to carry that into tomorrow night and get the sweep.”
Belpedio, Hutton and Melnick all logged multi-point games. Larkin stopped 20 of the 22 pucks he saw, and Cain made 24 saves on Miami’s 28 shots.
With both teams entering the weekend desperate, the RedHawks looked more determined than the Broncos. The game that broke Miami’s five-game winless streak extended Western Michigan’s losing streak to four games.
“I think we were opportunistic on our chances. They had some good chances and Larkin had some pretty good saves, but that’s the way the game goes,” Blasi said. “I thought the first team to score tonight was going to be huge, and fortunate for us, we got that.”
The RedHawks have the opportunity to win their first series since Oct. 28 and their first NCHC series. The rematch between the ’Hawks and the Broncos is set for 7:05 p.m. The game can be watched on NCHC.tv or Fox College Sports network.