The No. 9 ranked Miami University hockey team returns to Steve Cady Arena Friday night to kick off its first home series of 2009 with hopes of proving to the Goggin faithful that its recent losing streak is just a fad, not a habit.
Blasi’s boys will battle Michigan State University for the second time this season after earning back-to-back road victories against the Spartans Nov. 14-15.
“Four losses in a row does hurt, but every team goes through times like these and it’s good to have a time like this where it doesn’t necessarily matter as much, as it would at the end of the year,” sophomore forward Carter Camper said. “We just have to come back this weekend and play our game and get back to what we’re good at.”
The heart of this weekend’s contest lies between the pipes, as goaltending has provided the backbone for both teams this season. The RedHawks have been fortunate enough to call rookie goaltending stand-outs Cody Reichard and Connor Knapp their own this season, while veteran netminder Jeff Lerg has put up a good fight for the Green and White in goal this season, despite his team’s unproductive offense.
Reichard (save percentage .915 and goals against average 2.17) and Knapp (SP .907 and GAA 2.09) currently rank 17 and 15 overall, respectively. Knapp boasts a record of 7-3-1, while Reichard’s ledger reads 5-4-2. With such similar numbers, it is easy to see how equally the pair has contributed to the Red and White’s successes this season. This dependability has been instrumental in allowing Miami’s young team to find its rhythm and groove, making mistakes along the way but still coming out on top.
Michigan State’s 3-9-2-2 record, on the other hand-good for second worst in the conference-does not readily showcase the backstopping talent the Spartans truly possess. One look at Lerg’s highly decorated career and continuously reliable stats (current SP .919 and GAA 2.80), however, reveals a different story-the fault does not lie with the last line of defense.
Lerg is the Green and White’s Hobey Baker selection for 2008-09 and has plenty of experience against the RedHawks. Lerg led his team to a 2-1 victory over the Red and White in the 2006 CCHA tournament final, earning the Spartans a post-season title as well as a tournament MVP nod for himself. Three seasons later, not much has changed.
Recently, Lerg garnered four first-place honors in the annual CCHA captains’ poll, including Most Respected Player, Best Glove Hand for a Goalie, Best Difference Maker and Best Shootout Goalie. The RedHawks can surely expect the senior from Livonia, Mich. to try to make a difference this weekend.
“Michigan State’s a phenomenal hockey team,” junior Gary Steffes said. “They’re always good, it doesn’t matter where they are in the standings. They’ve got a real good goalie, they’ve got some scoring power up front, so we have to be ready … I don’t think there’s many teams in the country that could stand with us.”
Goaltending aside, this weekend’s contest will definitely belong to the team that can generate the most offensive pressure. The RedHawks demonstrated strength and skill in this category throughout the first half of the season. They have taken a few stumbling footsteps lately, however, dropping the last four straight games with a combined tally of 16-5 despite consistently out shooting their opponents.
“I think we’ve learned a lot from (the losses),” Steffes said. “I think after taking a hundred shots the first weekend and only scoring three goals, I think it kind of messed with our heads a little bit. But the skill’s there, the talent’s there, everything’s there. It’s just a matter of us coming back and getting back to the things that we’re very good at.”
The RedHawks also need to tighten up their special teams in order to come out on top. Miami’s penalty kill topped the nation for awhile, but sloppy play in the last four games led the Red and White to uncharacteristically surrender five power play goals and three shorthanded goals.
“One of the things on the power play is you do have the man advantage, but that doesn’t mean that things are gonna come easy … We need to get healthy and get back to work,” Camper said. “On the penalty kill, I don’t think we’ve been as aggressive as we need to. We’ve let things into our zone. On the power play we need to get … quality chances to the net.”
Meanwhile, Michigan State has floundered during the first few months of the season, averaging just 1.61 goals per game and compiling a 12-game winless streak that stretched from Halloween weekend to Dec. 27. Recent wins over North Dakota and Alaska may signal an upswing for the Spartans, however.
Regardless, it won’t be easy for either team. According to insidecollegehockey.com, MSU freshman forward Mike Merrifield was recently sent back to the USHL for the remainder of the season, and junior Ryan Turek was released from the team for failing to meet “expectations for members of (MSU’s) program.” Additionally, Camper, Miami’s Hobey Baker Award nominee, and senior Justin Mercier both sat out last Sunday’s game against Michigan, and it is unknown at this time whether either will be back on the ice this weekend.
“I think when you lose two guys like Camper and Mercier, it obviously hurts your scoring power a little bit,” Steffes said. “But the depth is there. I don’t think it hurts our chances to win. I think we have enough guys on this team that are more than willing to step up and they will step up.”
The puck is set to drop at 8:05 p.m. Friday and 5:05 p.m. Saturday. Both games will be televised on CBS College Sports, and radio coverage will also be provided on www.MURedHawks.com, as well as redhawkradio.com.
“It’s up from here,” Steffes said. “We’ve gotta pull some wins out here and we have plenty of games to make a statement.”