The stage is set for a Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) showdown between the league-leading Miami University men’s hockey team and rival Western Michigan University (WMU)
Miami, No. 3 in the country according to the USCHO.com and USA Today national polls, recently jumped to the top spot in the CCHA standings with 44 points after a sweeping the University of Alaska Fairbanks Nanooks on home ice this past weekend. The No. 6 Broncos are hot on the RedHawks’ heels, however, and are sitting just a single point back in second place.
Though the Red and White (17-6-5, 12-4-4-4 CCHA) are winners of five straight, sweeping their last two series in the process, their opponent boasts similar numbers. Western Michigan (17-6-5, 13-4-3-1 CCHA) has only lost one game in regulation since the start of 2013, going 6-1-3 in that span. The Broncos also possess the best special teams numbers in the league, converting 23 percent their 96 power plays, in addition to successfully killing off 88 percent of penalty kill situations this year, resulting in a special teams net of +13 – all three stats are tops in the CCHA.
With the upcoming Hockey City Classic and playoffs just around the corner, it would be easy for Miami to look farther down the schedule, even in the face of a challenging opponent such as WMU. But the Miami coaching staff has made sure that the RedHawks focus on the game in front of them – and nothing else – for the entire season; not an easy task for any team, especially one so young. Head Coach Enrico Blasi maintains that it’s a mentality that is now fully engrained in his players.
“You don’t want to live in the past or the future,” Blasi said. “Why? If you live in the future, you put pressure on yourself and you’re thinking of things that are out of your control. If you’re living in the past, you’re living with guilt. If you’re focused on the present, you’re just here, today, getting better. It’s in your control. If you’re in the moment, you’re at what I call ‘optimal performance.’ We just remind the guys to continue to do that.”
Sophomore forward Austin Czarnik is familiar with his team’s in-conference foe. The RedHawks took two of the three games in which they squared off last year, the loss coming in the CCHA semifinals. If anything, Miami has a healthy respect for Western Michigan, who is favored by some heading into the weekend.
“They’re a really good team, we give everything to them,” Czarnik said. “Their power play has been red hot lately, and their penalty kill has been right up there. A lot of people aren’t believing in us right now to beat them at their barn. So you know what? We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing.”
Indeed, Lawson Arena is not an easy place to play for visiting teams. It seats 3,667 spectators, and is home to one of the rowdiest student sections in the country, affectionately known as the “Lawson Lunatics.”
“It’s great,” Blasi said of the opponents’ facility. “It’s loud, the student body is crazy. They call them the ‘Lawson Lunatics’ and they’ll be swearing obscenities at you, so it’s fun – It’s a college atmosphere.”
But the building isn’t as much of a worry to Miami as the opposing team. Western is one of the hottest squads in the country, and this weekend’s matchup could very well help to define the CCHA standings with just a month of play remaining.
“It’s a big series, and I think they are the best team in the league to this point,” Blasi said. “It should be a lot of fun. There’s a lot of hockey to be played still, but this is obviously an important weekend, and we’re trying to prepare our best to play our best on Friday night.”
The two game series will be held at Western Michigan University, Feb. 8-9. The puck drops at 7:05 p.m. on both Friday and Saturday.