Miami hosts Western Michigan to Start Homestand
After a thrilling split in North Dakota where the RedHawks earned their first ever win in Ralph Englestad Arena, #7 Miami (8-4, 4-2 NCHC) entertains the Western Michigan Broncos (3-6-1, 1-4-1-1 NCHC) tonight and tomorrow. With last year’s disappointment beginning to fade, Miami will look to avoid the winter swoon and continue to avenge some of last season’s heartache.
Miami and Western Michigan are just about even when it comes to the head to head matchup all-time. We’ll let you decide who is correct on the all-time record between these two teams: Miami says 57-56-10 to their advantage (Miami Record Book, page 47). WMU says 57-55-10 to their own advantage (WMU Record Book, page 46). By my count, since 1999-2000 when Enrico Blasi took over, Miami is 24-12-5 and overall, Miami’s got the edge at 57-56-10.
In any event, we know that last season, Miami was ranked #13 in both major polls as they kicked off the second half of the season in Kalamazoo. 2 1-goal losses to the hands of the Broncos and 2 more defeats just a month later, and Miami’s tailspin was real. Starting with WMU, Miami lost 13 of their last 16 regular season games last season. This year, the teams are currently headed in different directions, and Miami has no doubt forgotten about the 4 losses to WMU last season.
Andy Murray is in his 4th season at the helm of Western Michigan and has 20 years of experience as a head or assistant coach in the NHL. Despite being just 3-6-1 on the year, Murray still likes where his team is at. “I like our compete level. I like our leadership. We may be sitting at 3-6-1, but we feel that our best hockey is still in front of us. I’m excited about the remainder of our games.”
And after his first three years at the helm in which he led the Broncos to winning seasons, why not? After a stretch of 8 years in a row with a losing record, Western Michigan earned itself a spot in the new “SEC of College Hockey” with it’s up-and-coming label. Jeff Blashill – a former Miami assistant – had something to do with the rise of WMU as well, but the sustained success is now credited to Murray’s resume.
Undrafted Junior Nolan LaPorte leads a list of relatively unknowns from WMU in scoring with just 9 points on the year. For reference, Miami has 5 players with 9 or more points already. The 2nd and 3rd highest scorers for WMU are defensemen, so it’s safe to say their scoring is coming from a lot of different places. After several years of well known NHL draft picks and NCAA studs, the Broncos have just 3 Seniors on the roster. All 3 of them (Forwards Will Kessel, Justin Kovacs and Goalie Frank “The Tank” Slubowski) have 100 or more games played in their time in Kalamazoo. But this team is young and promising. Look no further than their Junior Goalie Lukas Hafner, who will likely see the majority of play this weekend. He sports a .916 save percentage and 2.16 goals against average in his 7 appearances, with a 2-3-1 record to show for it.
Western Michigan has 3 NHL draft picks on their roster and each of them are 6’2″ or taller, with Sophomore D-man Mike McKee topping out at a whopping 6’5″ and 250 pounds. Eat a salad, brother. As Miami has done, Western has greatly increased their size with 8 of their 9 current defensemen logging in over 6 feet tall (and the 9th is 5’11”). That size will be on display as Miami and WMU usually play a physical style with lots of penalties. Needless to say, special teams play will be crucial this weekend.
Despite the record, Western is not being outscored by much with a -3 goal differential on the season. They’re in games and have an 0-3 record in 1-goal games. Turn those around and 3-6 becomes 6-3 and they are leading the league instead of Miami.
Jay Williams is making it clear that last season was a departure from the norm and rides an 8-1 record into this weekend’s play. For some reason, Coach Blasi tried to get Ryan McKay back on track in the biggest series of the season with a start on last Saturday night. We don’t exactly agree with that decision, which turned out to be a poor one. I won’t go as far as to say that the 2-headed goalie monster is dead, but I won’t be surprised to see Jay Williams in the remainder of the big games this year. This weekend should be a bit of a “relax” moment and we will likely see the rotation one last time.
In any event, Miami stands at a crossroads. Just take a look at last year’s results compared to this year after 12 games. In 2013-14, Miami had a 7-4-1 record allowing 3.4 goals per game. Fast forward to 2014-15: an 8-4-0 record allowing 3.0 goals per game. Miami finished 8-16-2 last year, was last in the NCHC and had its streak of 9 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances snapped. Where do we go from here?
Miami’s 5-1 at home this year and the one loss was due to a bad stretch of about 20 minutes of play against St. Lawrence. Western Michigan is 0-5 on Friday nights. After a sweep of Western Michigan tonight and tomorrow, Miami should be again headed for the NCAA tournament.
Both games can be seen on NCHC.tv (via paid subscription) and heard on 1450 WMOH, 1490 WKBV and on muredhawks.com. Saturday night is Autograph Night, so stick around and get some signatures and selfies with the team.