Four goals, one perfect penalty kill and stellar goaltending was all it took for Miami hockey to win a game – at least on paper. But it is impossible to quantify the energy from a populated student section or the desperation the players felt during the stretch of 15 winless games and nine straight losses.
There was a tangible feeling of relief on Saturday night when the RedHawks surrounded their goaltender to celebrate a 4-2 win over the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO).
Senior co-captains Josh Melnick and Grant Hutton hugged to commemorate snapping the winless streak that had plagued them for 85 days and the losing streak that had lasted for 38.
“It feels really good,” Melnick said. “I think you could see it in our reaction after the final buzzer there. It feels awesome.”
The last time Miami felt that close to awesome was Nov. 17, 2018, after a 3-2 win over Colorado College in Colorado Springs. That day, the ’Hawks scored two goals in the opening 20 minutes, the penalty kill went 5-for-6 and junior goaltender Ryan Larkin made 34 saves.
Saturday’s win looked much the same.
For the first time in 13 games, the RedHawks scored the first goal, and they added another before the first period horn sounded. The ’Hawks are now 9-2 when they score first, and 1-14-4 when they don’t.
“Scoring the first goal is a big part of any game, but in our conference it’s a big deal because you’re playing on your toes and you’re playing confident,” head coach Enrico Blasi said. “For us, it was a big first period — a big boost for us.”
A boost that led to a four-goal performance from Miami. The offensive explosion came after the RedHawks were outscored 56-25 during their 15-game winless streak and 36-10 during the nine-game losing streak.
One-third (19-of-56, 33.9 percent) of the ’Hawks’ goals against came on the penalty kill during the winless stretch. The man-disadvantage was only 67.2 percent successful through the 15 winless games, and it was 73.7 percent successful through the nine losses.
Miami was no better on the power play, going 8-for-54 (14.8 percent) during the winless streak and 3-for-31 (9.7 percent) amidst the nine straight losses.
On Saturday, against UNO’s ninth-ranked power play, the RedHawks only took one penalty and successfully killed it off.
“That was another thing we touched on before this weekend series, was just stay out of the [penalty] box,” Melnick said. “They have a good power play, and you have to sacrifice for the guys and know, if you do something stupid, it’s going to be bad for the rest of the team.”
One of the best on the ice on Saturday was Larkin, who stopped 33 of the 35 shots he faced.
Before the losing streak, Larkin’s save percentage checked in at .941 with a 1.67 goals against average (GAA).
During the 15 winless games, Larkin’s save percentage checked in at .875 and his GAA was 4.43. Within the winless stretch, his stats suffered further, and his save percentage was .847 with a 5.13 GAA during the nine-game losing streak. Larkin’s statlines now boast a .915 save percentage and 2.66 GAA.
Senior goaltender Jordan Uhelski was called upon to relieve Larkin twice and start four times during the nine-game stretch. Uhelski fared slightly better than Larkin in his six appearances during the streak, with a .905 save percentage and a 2.81 GAA.
Uhelski suffered an undisclosed injury against St. Cloud State on Feb. 1 and wasn’t listed on the roster during the series against UNO, thrusting Larkin back into the starting position.
On Friday, Larkin stopped 18 of the 20 shots he faced and performed even better on Saturday en route to victory.
“Everybody starts playing on their toes because we know, even if they [UNO] make one or two good plays against us, we know Larkin’s going to be there,” Blasi said. “It’s a big deal for our team. Any good team starts with their goaltender, through their defense, up the middle.”
Of course, the game of hockey is more nuanced than scoring the first goal, killing penalties and a goaltender standing on his head. But, on Saturday night, statlines and all the intangibles converged for a much-needed victory for Miami hockey.
“I said this earlier: Our team is the same team we had in the first half,” Blasi said. “We kind of lost our way a little bit. I think we have to build from that now. I think there’s a sense of… I’m trying to find the word to say… but a sense of confidence now that we can do this.”