After playing five of six post-winter break games on the road – including a stint up in the Great White North last weekend – the No. 1 Miami University men’s ice hockey team (13-1-4-2 CCHA, 16-4-6 overall) will play out the remainder of its regular season games in the Buckeye State, beginning with two conference series at home.
The RedHawks will face off against Western Michigan University (2-12-4-1 CCHA, 6-13-5 overall) and attempt to further expand upon their seven-point lead in the CCHA standings and 16-game unbeaten streak in conference play.
“Right now we’re first in our league, which is what we’re happy about,” junior captain Tommy Wingels said. “We’ve given ourselves a good opportunity here, being first in our league, and we’ve got to take it day by day the rest of the season and finish hard.”
The Red and White already faced the Broncos once this season on Nov. 20 and 21. Two shorthanded goals and a power play goal propelled the Brotherhood to its second shutout of the season Nov. 20 before the Broncos staged a rally effort Nov. 21 that left the action knotted for the remainder of regulation and saw Miami take the extra point in the resulting shootout.
The Brown and Gold traveled to Bowling Green State University (BGSU) last weekend, only to be sent home with a shootout loss and a loss at the hands of the Falcons. Meanwhile, it took the Red and White just two short weeks to reclaim its position as the country’s No. 1 team with a shootout win and a win at Alaska.
“We found our passion and are back in the game – it’s something that we lost for a little bit,”
Wingels said. “The ranking is great for the school, great for the program, but ultimately it doesn’t matter until April 11, after the national championship game, and that’s the way we look at it.”
Rico’s RedHawks lead the series v. the Broncos 28-20-3 in Oxford and are unbeaten in 11 of the teams’ last 12 meetings. The overall action is more evenly matched – 49-49-8. Also, Head Coaches Enrico Blasi and Jim Culhane both coach their alma maters. Blasi is in his 11th season at the helm of Miami ice hockey, while Culhane has coached WMU for 12 seasons.
Since the last time the two teams met, WMU has only garnered one more conference win. However, the Brown and Gold did hold Bemidji State – which currently ranks No. 7 – to a 0-0 tie on Jan. 2. The Beavers handed the RedHawks one of their four losses this season at the Subway Hockey Classic, just a week after Miami’s first series v. the Broncos.
“(Western Michigan has) a good mix of speed,” Wingels said. “They have some smaller guys who are skilled up front, some experienced goaltending and some tough defense on the back end, so it’s going to be a tough weekend. I know they’re going to come in here hard and play pretty well.”
The Brotherhood’s success this season has been a team effort. No single player – or even line – has carried the team. Miami boasts a tremendous amount of depth.
“We roll four lines every game for 60 minutes,” junior Andy Miele said. “Last weekend, our fourth line put up three or four goals, which was huge for us, and it showed how well we did on the weekend, so hopefully that can carry on for the rest of the season.”
Starting at the front line, nine RedHawks have posted 10 or more points this season, led by Wingels’ 13 goals, 14 assists and 27 total points. The forward from Wilmette, Ill., ranks first in goals and second in power play goals in the CCHA, and his five game-winning goals are tied for first in the NCAA.
In addition to Wingels, senior Jarod Palmer and juniors Carter Camper and Miele have also tallied 20-plus points this season, contributing to a style of play that keeps the opponent guessing and the goals coming from any player on any night. Camper leads the team in assists and is tied for third in the CCHA in the same category.
The Broncos’ scoring has stemmed mainly from a more limited pool of players. Sophomore standout J.J. Crew is tied with classmate Greg Squires for the team’s lead in points with 17. Crew has a team-best seven goals, accompanied by 10 assists, while Squires seems to dish the puck more than he shoots it, with 14 points to his name. The pair has combined for 13 multi-point games this season, with Squires tallying six and Crew seven. Junior Max Campbell also went on a scoring spree during last weekend’s 4-4 tie with BGSU, tallying four assists in the effort.
Miami owns the top defense in the country by a significant margin. The RedHawks have surrendered just 1.69 goals per game (g/gm) in their 2009-10 campaign, while second-ranked Cornell has given up 2.06 g/gm. The Brotherhood’s blue liners do a good job of clogging up neutral zones and shutting down passing lanes, limiting the number of shots that sophomore goalies Cody Reichard and Connor Knapp ever have to face. Comparatively, Knapp and Reichard have faced a combined 606 shots this season, while the Broncos two net minders have seen 818.
The fact that the Brown and Gold’s 52nd ranked scoring offense has posted 154 fewer shots than its opponents this season may have something to do with WMU’s woes, but another culprit may be the Broncos struggling power play. WMU has an 11 percent success rate with the man-advantage, ranking 57th out of 58 teams nationwide.
“Power plays and penalty kills and special team goals are huge at this point in the season,” Wingels said. “You play teams three or four times, you get to know their systems and they take away things they might not have taken away the first time you played them, so when you get the man-advantage you’ve got to capitalize on it. They might be struggling now with their
special teams, but when Friday night comes it doesn’t matter about the percentages or rankings or special teams. You take it two minutes at a time on the power play or penalty kill and you’ve got to make the best of it.”
Miami has struggled with the man-advantage in 2010, converting just four of 46 attempts since the new year. This drop follows an outstanding run of seven goals on the Red and White’s previous 14 power play attempts. The RedHawks’ 17.9 percent success rate ranks 33rd in the country, while Miami’s penalty kill (PK) has been more successful. The Brotherhood’s No. 4 PK unit has managed a cool 88.7 percent kill rate this season.
“Special teams is always important,” Miele said. “There are so many penalties with the new rules in hockey. You can completely change the momentum of the game with a shorthanded goal or even a power play goal. You pop one and then you get the momentum, maybe cause another penalty that gets you on the power play again, so it keeps the team hot.”
If all else fails, Miami has an unmatched last line of defense in its highly touted goaltending tandem of Reichard and Knapp. Reichard currently tops three national goaltending categories – goals against average (1.50 GAA), save percentage (0.933 SP) and overall goaltending. The net minder from Celina, Ohio, owns a ledger of 12-2-3 this season. Knapp ranks fourth in the NCAA in overall goaltending with a .918 SP, 1.947 GAA and a 4-2-3 record. The 2009 Buffalo Sabers draft pick also tops the CCHA in overall goaltending, with Reichard in second. The pair has combined for a record-setting seven shutouts this season.
Senior goalie Riley Gill has been the main man between the pipes for the Brown and Gold in 2009-10. Gill ranks 15th in the CCHA in overall goaltending and owns a 2.76 GAA and 0.920 SP.
“We’re seeing every weekend from here on out as championship weekend, so we’re taking every game like it’s obviously the championship game,” Miele said. “Hopefully we can bring our A game the rest of the year.”
Puck drop is slated for 7:35 p.m. Friday and 5:05 p.m. Saturday. Friday’s contest will be televised on the Ohio News Network (ONN), while Saturday’s game will air on Fox Sports Detroit as part of “Hockey Day in Michigan.” Fans can also tune into http://www.redhawkradio.com for WMSR’s live coverage of the action.