A season ago, nearly 300 students camped outside of the Goggin Ice Center. Their tents wrapped halfway around the building, all in anticipation of what was arguably the most exciting series in Miami hockey history.
The occasion? A face-off between the two top-ranked teams in the nation.
Though Miami (6-2-2-1 CCHA, 6-3-3 overall) and the University of Michigan (5-3-0-0 CCHA, 8-4-0 overall) are now ranked seventh and ninth, respectively, the electricity and buzz surrounding the series remain as strong as ever.
The No. 1 tag attached to Miami’s namesake last year led the RedHawk faithful to believe that anything was possible for their beloved team. Unanticipated, however, was the possibility that the Red and White might not be able to hold its ground against its nemesis to the north-the Wolverines of Ann Arbor, Mich.
The Maize and Blue scored four goals within a span of six minutes during the first frame of game one last year, evoking a rare and unnatural silence amongst Miami fans in the normally boisterous Steve Cady Arena. Unable to rally in the face of such a debilitating onslaught, the RedHawks fell 4-2 to the Wolverines that night.
The brotherhood fought to defend its honor during game two, battling back and forth fiercely with Michigan for a hard 60 minutes. In the end, despite coming back from numerous deficits, Miami skated to a disappointing 5-5 tie against the Wolverines. A heartbreaking 2-1 CCHA championship loss to Michigan March 22 closed the 2007-08 conference season for the ‘Hawks.
As a result, the RedHawks have a score to settle.
“It’s a big rivalry, obviously, and after what happened last year there’s a little bit of payback involved,” freshman goaltender Cody Reichard said.
Some of the big names in the series changed with the departure of Kevin Porter and Chad Kolarik from Michigan’s squad and Ryan Jones and Nathan Davis from Miami. The nature of the game, however, remains the same.
“They’ll be tough games, for sure,” senior captain Brian Kaufman said. “Michigan, every year, is a great team and they’re a great program. They lost a lot from last year-a few guys, but a lot of talent. But they reload again every year, so they’ll be great again this year. We’ll expect another great battle like last year.”
Michigan’s team is known for its relentless, driving offense and precise, skilled style of play. Last year, Kevin Porter led the team and the nation in scoring, and the same is true of another Wolverine this year. Sophomore Aaron Palushaj currently sits atop that same category with 20 points to his name. The 19-year old right wingman and 2007 draft pick of the St. Louis Blues also leads the CCHA in assists-tied for second nationally-and is tied for eighth nationally in goals with seven.
Palushaj’s line mate, sophomore center Louie Caporusso, is another young force that is sure to give the RedHawk defense a run for its money. Caporusso, a 2007 NHL entry draft pick of the Ottawa Senators, is tied for first in goals, with 12, and in power play goals, with seven. He also holds even with Miami’s Pat Cannone for sixth in overall scoring with 16 points.
“They (Michigan) are pretty good up front forward-wise,” Kaufman said. “They have some of the top scorers in the nation, so they have some forwards that could hurt us if we allow them to. They’re very skilled and a very quick team, so that’s something that we’ll have to make sure we’re paying
The Wolverines’ speed and shock value are evidenced by last year’s four-goal first period. Additionally, the Maize and Blue scored first in eight of their 12 games this season and are 6-2-0 on games where they are first to light the lamp.
Luckily for Miami, the RedHawks have their own pair of power forwards-both sophomores as well. Cannone was one of just four freshman to play in all 42 games last season and has continued to be invaluable to the Red and White in 2008-09. Cannone is tied with Caporusso for sixth in scoring nationally and leads that same category in conference play. Additionally, Cannone ranks second in the CCHA in assists.
Carter Camper is another reason why RedHawk fans have begun a tradition of “going camping” for this series. The Rocky River, Ohio, native finished the 2007-08 season as the NCAA’s top-ranked rookie in points-per-game and already has 14 points to his name for the 2008-09 season. A nation-best 10 of those points are on the power play.
Another key feature of the RedHawks’ line-up is its depth. While Caporusso tops the CCHA in goals with eight, Camper, Cannone, senior Justin Mercier and junior Gary Steffes are all tied for second with 5 tallies a piece. Miami is the only team in the CCHA with more than one player with five goals or more.
“When we’re on, we’re playing real well-protecting the puck and just kind of keeping it in their end,” Kaufman said. “We’re not having turnovers, not just throwing the puck away, not trying to make stupid plays. So really, possessing the puck is, when we’re playing well, what we do best and will be good against a team like Michigan.”
Additionally, though Caporusso leads the CCHA in power play goals with five, Mercier trails closely in second with four, and Camper, Cannone and junior Jarod Palmer are all tied for fifth. The team mentality of the brotherhood presents each player with multiple opportunities to contribute and is the
reason that, despite being ranked slightly lower in multiple individual categories, Miami is second in the NCAA on the power play where the Wolverines rank 24th.
It has been said that the best defense is a good offense, and this statement rings true for the Maize and Blue. U of M has allowed just one first period goal in the last six games, and sophomore net minder Bryan Hogan is on the rise after recently recording his first career shutout against Western Michigan University.
However, due to injuries, two of Michigan’s star defenders are out of commission. Senior captain Mark Mitera and junior Steve Campfer have not seen ice time since the first weekend of the season-a predicament that has prompted the Wolverines to reshuffle their line-up a bit and placed additional pressure on the offensive line.
Meanwhile, what started as one of Miami’s biggest question marks this season now may be one of its greatest strengths. Freshman goalies Connor Knapp (GAA 1.82 and SP .924) and Reichard (GAA 1.86 and SP .928) have risen beautifully to the challenge of backstopping the brotherhood and are now ranked 12th and 16th overall in the NCAA.
“To have two freshman goalies doing what they’re doing right now is awesome,” Kaufman said. “And they’ll continue to get better-that’s the scary thing. It’s something that is very key because it was our biggest question mark and now it’s probably the most stable thing on the team.”
Miami is deadly on the penalty kill, with a nation-best 96.1 percent kill when its opponent has the man advantage. In fact, the Red and White have only allowed three power play goals by its opponents out of 76 opportunities this season.
“The defense is huge,” Knapp said. “Penalty kills are awesome for (Cody and I) because we actually will get less shots on the penalty kill because our D do such a good job and our forwards do such a good job clearing the puck … They play a huge role and they help us out a lot, clearing rebounds, and it’s going to be big against Michigan.”
This weekend’s match-up is one of two scheduled meetings between the two teams this season. It is a pivotal series not only because of the teams’ history, but also because Michigan barely trails first-place Miami in the CCHA rankings. The clash is one Miami fans will certainl
“(Fan support is) second-to-none here…Everyone here really believes that,” Kaufman said. “We go to a lot of other places that are hyped up to be these unbelievably hard places to play in and we go in and it’s nothing compared to here … It gets us going and to see that kind of support behind us is great.”
WMSR will be hosting an hour-long RedHawk Rally Pre-game show outside of the Goggin, featuring trivia give-aways, free food and a chance to win two Bicentennial Ball tickets. DJing will begin at 4 p.m. and the program kicks off at 5:30 p.m. The broadcast can be heard online and also viewed locally on channel 15 MUTV.
The puck is set to drop at 7:35 p.m. Friday and 7:05 p.m. Saturday in Steve Cady Arena. Friday’s game will be aired on Ohio News Now (channel 105) and the NHL Network. Saturday’s game will be aired on Comcast.