Miami hockey took an early lead and topped No. 4/5 Denver 4-3 at home on Friday, before falling behind early and losing 4-1 on Saturday. Now 2-6-2 on the second night of two-game series, the RedHawks have yet to find a way to sustain Friday night momentum into Saturday night.
“I thought our details, especially right off the bat hurt us tonight,” head coach Enrico Blasi said at Saturday night’s press conference. “Especially the first goal and a couple guys making poor judgements when coming off the ice.”
Sophomore goaltender Ryan Larkin stopped 44 of the 47 shots he saw on Friday and the RedHawks went a perfect 5-for-5 on the penalty kill and 2-for-4 on the power play to power past the Denver Pioneers.
The defending national champions would not be outdone and capitalized on two first period goals on Saturday to squash the ’Hawks’ chances for generating any offensive momentum. A third period surge proved too little too late, as Miami split the series with the National Collegiate Hockey Conference opponent.
“Our compete is good. I like our team. Our team is a good team,” Blasi said on Saturday. “There’s nothing wrong with our compete level, our battle level, our care level in the locker room. It’s now we have to take the step and work on the details. Against a really good team, you really got to focus on the details and you can’t give them easy opportunities.”
The RedHawks (9-9-2, 4-5-1-0 NCHC) move up one spot in the NCHC standings after the split and sit fifth in the nine-team conference. The Pioneers (12-6-4, 6-4-2-1 NCHC) are third.
Miami started the weekend on time and, off an early chip into the offensive zone, senior forward Conor Lemirande shot at Pioneer senior goaltender Tanner Jaillet whose rebound control put the puck on freshman forward Casey Gilling’s stick. Gilling caught Jaillet on the right side of the net and backhanded the puck in from the left side.
Gilling’s fourth goal of the season came only 1:10 into the game. Sophomore forward Carson Meyer also tallied an assist.
The game settled into a fast rhythm, as both teams fought for the edge. Denver and Miami went back and forth blocking shots and breaking up passes. The Pioneers clogged the neutral zone which gave Miami trouble, though the ’Hawks battled along the boards to come up with loose pucks.
A penalty kill with six minutes left in the period forced the special teams into work. Larkin saw through screens to make crucial saves and Miami effectively killed the penalty with timely clears.
Even after the man-disadvantage ended, Larkin fended off Denver’s pressure and made his biggest save of the night on a point-blank, rebound opportunity from freshman forward Jake Durflinger.
The first period ended with Denver dominating in shots 16-6, but Miami up 1-0 where it counted.
“I thought we came out hard,” Blasi said on Friday. “Obviously, the first goal is a huge part of the game and I thought we competed hard tonight. Larkin was great tonight in net.”
The second period started with 58 seconds of a carry-over, Miami power play. Junior forward Kiefer Sherwood skated the puck into the zone on the left side before freshman Alec Mahalak moved the puck along the blue line to junior defenseman Grant Hutton. Hutton shot through traffic, but Jaillet made the save.
Another Denver power play put Miami back on defense 1:16 into the second, but blocked shots and good sticks let Miami escape unscathed.
The Pioneers’ fast, defensive game was unwavering in the middle frame though freshman forward Phil Knies won a battle along the blue line in Denver’s zone. The puck was collected by Sherwood whose shot came to the trailing freshman defenseman Rourke Russell. Russell banged it in at 4:12 of the second, good for his first collegiate goal.
Two more penalty kills tested Miami, but the period raced along and the RedHawks kept their two-goal lead past the halfway point of the game.
The Pioneers were relentless with their shots and Dylan Gambrell cut the RedHawks’ lead in half to make it 2-1 at 14:33 of the period. Denver put bodies in front of the net and the puck found its way through traffic and past Larkin.
The goal gave the Pioneers jump and the RedHawks fell off their game for a couple minutes, becoming more puck focused and allowing Denver to take easier shots. A holding penalty gave Miami another late-period power play to get back on the offensive side of the game.
Though the Red and White grinded a cycle and took several shots, the goal horn sounded to send the Miami to its locker room up 2-1 after two periods.
“I think we did exactly what we were supposed to. They came at us really hard at times and we held off the storm for a while,” Gilling said on Friday. “Everyone did the small things right and it paid off.”
Again, the game was marked by penalties and the teams traded man-advantages in the early going of the third period. Miami transitioned from the penalty kill to the power play only four minutes into the period and, this time, the unit found the back of the net.
Sophomore forward Gordie Green took the puck from the middle of the blue line and floated it to junior forward Josh Melnick on the left. Melnick passed to Gilling, who stood behind the right faceoff circle. Knies served as a screen and Gilling’s wrister beat Jaillet on the high left side.
Gilling’s second goal of the night gave the RedHawks the 3-1 lead and offensive momentum at 15:35 of the third. The ’Hawks had stretches of stifling Denver’s opportunities for a comeback and keeping the Pioneers’ leading scorers — sophomore forward Henrik Borgstrom and USA Olympian, junior forward Troy Terry — from doing any damage.
Nearly halfway through the period, however, Borgstrom effectively split Miami’s defense and skated in on Larkin with speed. Borgstrom shot top, left corner from the slot to make it a 3-2 game.
Almost 30 seconds later, Miami was sent back on the power play. Off a faceoff win by Gilling, Melnick found senior defenseman Louie Belpedio at the middle of the blue line for a one timer. Belpedio’s blast beat Jaillet and the RedHawks’ fans taunted Jaillet with 9:43 left to play in the game.
“I thought our special teams did a really nice job,” Blasi said on Friday. “Anytime you keep them not scoring on the power play when they get five chances and our power play going 2-for-4.”
The clock ticked down, as the RedHawks were better and quicker in transition to keep Denver from sustaining any kind of offensive pressure. The Pioneers were forced to pull Jaillet with three minutes left in the game. Gambrell got his second goal of the night off a pass from Terry with 2:50 left to play to make it a one-goal game once again.
Denver took their timeout to regroup with two minutes to go, but it was Larkin’s night as he stopped the remaining shots he faced and his team in front of him chipped pucks to force Denver out of the offensive zone. The 4-3 score would stand and the RedHawks defeated the defending national champions.
“It was a good game. Denver played good, obviously, but we’re a different team than we were last year,” Larkin said on Friday. “We were able to put up more of a fight and it’s always nice when we score four goals too — that’s good for the team. It was a good game for us and we’ve got another one tomorrow.”
The Pioneers outshot the RedHawks 47-19 but Larkin made 44 saves en route to victory, while Jaillet had 15. Gilling had a career-high, three-point game on his two goals and an assist and Melnick tallied two assists in the third period.
“I think sometimes when the game’s tight like that everyone forgets about the score and just plays the game the way they’re supposed to and doesn’t think about what’s going on,” Blasi said on Friday.
Though the RedHawks showed similar fight on night two as they did on night one, the Pioneers jumped out to an early lead and limited the ’Hawks to five shots through the first two periods.
“Give them credit, they’re the team that they are for a reason,” Blasi said on Saturday. “They play hard, they come in waves and they play the game the right way and once they got up two goals, it’s hard to penetrate.”
A goal from Gambrell to junior forward Jarid Lukosevicius 50 seconds into the game put Denver up 1-0 early. It was apparent from the early going that the game would be characterized with less speed and more man-to-man battles for puck possession.
The early goal’s momentum created a 6-1 shot differential favoring the Pioneers halfway through the period, though there was no clear advantage as both teams took away shooting lanes and inhibited scoring chances.
With just over eight minutes left to play in the first period, the RedHawks were whistled for hooking and 53 seconds later were assessed another hooking minor. The penalty kill unit was effective in winning faceoffs and Larkin blockered down a Terry shot, good for the ’Hawks to return one man to the ice.
The now four-man penalty kill unit couldn’t organize itself in time and Lukosevicius scored a backdoor goal to put the Pioneers up 2-0 with 6:18 remaining in the period. As the period marched on, the RedHawks struggled to generate offense even on a late power play and, after 20 minutes, the score stood at 2-0.
“Pretty much that was the game, those first period goals,” Blasi said on Saturday. “We didn’t generate much in the second period.”
Offensive woes plagued the RedHawks through the first half of the second period, and the ’Hawks’ first shot of the period came around the 10-minute mark. After a media timeout, Miami looked more lively, but only two more shots in the period would not be good enough to break Jaillet’s shutout.
Thirty-five seconds into the third, Larkin found himself outside the net on the right side after making a save and Belpedio found himself playing goalie on the rebound opportunity. Denver would not be deterred and Gambrell banged it past bodies in front to put his team up 3-0.
To generate some kind of offensive momentum, Blasi pulled Larkin with 15:04 left in the period to play 6-on-5. The strategy paid off after the RedHawks camped out in Denver’s end for several minutes. Sherwood ended the scoring drought and made it a 3-1 game with 10 minutes left to play.
“Not to give away any secrets, but the thought was to pull him at some point even down two goals,” Blasi said. “Once we went down three-nothing, we just decided that better sooner than later.”
Larkin resumed his post when the RedHawks earned a power play and the shot margin closed to 32-19 with seven minutes to play.
Denver kept the puck in Miami’s end, preventing it from pulling Larkin again until an icing call with four minutes left to play. The desperation for a night two victory was apparent and the RedHawks stretched to keep pucks on their sticks, completed tape-to-tape passes and played cleanly through the neutral zone to give themselves a chance.
Denver’s Jaillet was the goalie to beat on night two, however. In the waning minutes of the game, he held almost every shot he saw and didn’t allow the RedHawks any rebound opportunities.
Borgstrom collected the puck in the neutral zone and skated to Miami’s empty net to seal the deal with 36.4 seconds left in the game. Miami outshot Denver 20-5 in the final period, but the score would be 4-1 as the ’Hawks fell back to .500 on the season.
“In the third, once we pulled the goalie we started playing the game the right way,” Blasi said on Saturday. “Maybe the guys stopped thinking a little more and the intensity started to show itself. I thought we did some good things 6-on-5. I thought we played well in the third period and hopefully we can carry that into practice this week.”
Denver ultimately outshot Miami 33-25, with Jaillet stopping 24 shots and Larkin stopping 29. Denver’s Gambrell finished with three points on the night, as his team went 1-for-5 on the power play and 3-for-3 on the penalty kill.
Though the outcome was undesirable, the RedHawks were impressive in their play against a nationally ranked top-5 team such as Denver. The ’Hawks’ passion was evident in their resiliency and effort through all 60 minutes on Saturday night.
Just past the halfway point of the season, Miami has won as many games as they did last year all season.
“I like our team. I really like our team,” Blasi said. “Our compete level is as good as it’s ever been in the program, so we’re going to get better, we’re going to continue to get better and we’re going to take that step. Our job is to make sure we come to work on Monday and we’re ready to play next week.”
Miami looks to move over .500 against NCHC opponent University of Nebraska Omaha this weekend. Puck drop is at 8:07 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and both games can be watched on NCHC.tv.