Joe Gieringer, Senior Staff Writer

After being named No. 1 in NCAA by the most recent USCHO.com poll, the Miami hockey RedHawks start National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) play Friday against No. 6 University of North Dakota (UND).

The RedHawks (2-0-0) will be taking on UND (1-0-1) for the first time since Nov. 28, 2009, a series that North Dakota leads 2-0-1 all-time. The two teams hold the distinction of being the first teams to play a conference game in NCHC history, and as an added bonus for the RedHawks, this series happens to fall on their homecoming weekend.

“Everybody’s pretty excited about it,” junior captain and forward Austin Czarnik said. “It’s the inaugural game for the league and everyone’s getting fired up for it. All the fans are exciting and they always cheer for us, so I think it’s huge for us. If we need some confidence they’re there to pick us up in those situations.”

The RedHawks have gotten off to a hot start, in large part to the play of their top line that features sophomore forward Riley Barber and reigning Hobey Baker Finalist Czarnik. Barber leads the nation with seven points, boosted by a four-goal effort last Saturday against The Ohio State University. Czarnik is third in the NCAA with five points. Dave Starman, CBS Sports Network’s college hockey analyst, has followed Barber since his days in junior hockey and said he’s a game-changer in multiple aspects of the game.

“He’s an impact player, a momentum changer,” Starman said. “He’s got a great ability to make things happen quickly because of he’s speed. He’s got an NHL shot, he’s got a quick release, and he’s really smart … Riley Barber can change the complexion of a game if you give him two feet to work with.”

The weekend pits two head coaches against each other who are two of the best in the business: Miami’s Enrico Blasi and North Dakota’s Dave Hakstol. Hakstol is entering his tenth season with UND, and is the only active Division-I coach with a winning season every year of ahis career. He’s a six-time finalist for the Spencer Penrose National Coach of the Year Award, has guided North Dakota to five Frozen Fours, and NCAA tournament appearances in each of his nine seasons at the helm. Blasi enters his 15th year with the RedHawks, and has established the Brotherhood as a perennial contender. Starman said it makes for an intriguing matchup behind the benches.

“Dave [Hakstol], being an ex-pro, was a hard, gritty defenseman who would throw his face in front of a shot and run through a wall for you, and I think he’s been able to develop that kind of mentality in his players,” Starman said. “They play with an edge and they play up tempo and they don’t back down; there’s no fear when you put on that North Dakota jersey.

“When it comes to Rico [Blasi], he motivates his players with the approach of ‘play like I did.’ He was one of those kids who had talent, but wasn’t the most talented player on the ice. That never stopped him from being a contributor. And that’s the kind of coach Rico is – don’t back down, don’t give an inch, play for today and don’t worry about tomorrow. And I think his players have responded.”

All eyes in the college hockey world will be on Oxford Friday night, and it’s a weekend that will leave a footprint on both teams’ records moving forward into the young season. The NCHC is a conference full of talent, as it boasts a combined 17 NCAA Championships, 50 Frozen Four berths, 12 Hobey Baker Award winners and a total of 295 players that went on to play in the NHL. Starman describes these teams as “sitting in the first couple rows of the plane,” denoting that they’re first-class programs.

“This team is more focused on winning its next game than a national title,” Starman said of Miami. “This team talks about becoming a better team, and sweeping weekends and going through the process and living in the moment and just becoming a better group. I think when you take that kind of approach … you become a much better team much faster. I think this group is built for a long run.”

The series opens Friday night at 7 and will be televised on CBS Sports Network. Saturday’s puck drop is set for 8 p.m. Admission is free for all Miami students with a current Miami ID.

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