Monthly Archives: February 2016

Analysis: When does the movie come out?

OXFORD, Ohio – A movie could be made about this season, and it could be better than most sports flicks in recent history.

Hey, they’re making one about John Scott, aren’t they?

Miami shut out Colorado College, 4-0 at Cady Arena on Saturday to complete a series sweep of the Tigers on Senior Night and the final regular season home game of a number of players’ careers.

Need a solid plot?

A team that didn’t have enough offensive weapons (at least at the beginning of the year) takes on one of the toughest schedules in Division I and fails early – almost catastrophically so – posting a 5-9-2 first half, with the final two games being a pair of losses against one of the worst teams in college hockey in the Tigers.

The team is in utter turmoil, both on and off the ice, heading into Christmas break.

Then it seemingly gets worse as senior goalie Ryan McKay, who has had a stellar career in Oxford, is suspended indefinitely for an outburst as he leaves the ice.

That leaves the netminding reins to Jay Williams, who couldn’t get a starting gig in the USHL and has had to share the cage with McKay for almost all of four years.

Including 2015-16, when Williams was left in to allow seven goals in the season opener and then benched for almost the remainder of the calendar year, not picking up his first win until Jan. 3.

Following the GoalieGate loss, the team was 6-11-3.

The team has gone 9-3 since and somehow gotten itself into NCAA Tournament contention, capping its home slate with a pair of wins over Colorado College, the same team that Miami couldn’t beat in December.

The finale is played in front of one of the best Cady Arena crowds in recent history.

Enough drama?

How about Anthony Louis scoring with two seconds left to send Miami to a 2-1 win over Bowling Green?

Or a come-from-behind win against top-10 St. Cloud State in an action-packed 3-2 win at Cady Arena?

Or another key road win at BGSU after trailing 1-0 after the first period?

Or a beloved usher and huge Miami hockey fan suffering from Stage 4 cancer, coming back for that final home game in what was one of the most emotionally-powerful moments in recent memory in the northeast corner of Cady Arena?

Miami's seniors are honored before Saturday's game (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Miami’s seniors are honored before Saturday’s game (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

We’ve got the characters too, most notably seniors playing their final games with the RedHawks, and all at the top of their game.

There’s Williams, who was never considered good enough to start for any of his juniors teams, posting a sub-2.00 goals-against average since taking over in net exclusively.

He set two school records in that home finale, one for being the first goalie to post a double shutout in a weekend, another for longest consecutive shutout streak at nearly 150 minutes.

And believe us, his story is actually even better than that.

Insert shameless self-promotion: BoB has a feature coming out about Williams in a couple of days.

How about Taylor Richart, the bust-your-hind-quarters defenseman you just can’t help but love? At 5-feet-9 he had earn a spot on an NAHL roster and then a USHL roster before coming to Miami, where he had to overtake several other more highly-touted blueliners to crack the lineup every night and gets beat up like a pinata on a game-by-game basis.

Taylor Richart celebrates his second goal in an as many nights on Saturday (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Taylor Richart celebrates his second goal in an as many nights on Saturday (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

He can seeming do everything on the ice and has elevated his game more than just about anyone in his four years, but he simply hasn’t been a scorer in college.

Richart had one goal in 127 games prior to this weekend. All his did in his final two regular season home games is find the net in both and earn a first star in one contest and second in the other.

Rudy has nothing on Richart.

Or Sean Kuraly? The big power forward who is the son of Miami’s all-time leading sniper notched 19 goals last season but couldn’t find the net with a GPS the first half of 2015-16. After bearing the weight on the world on his shoulders, he had some of his captaincy duties whittled away so he could concentrate on making awesome happen on the ice again.

It’s safe to say he has, tallying 15 points in 12 games and anchoring the Columbus line comprised of the wily veteran and a pair of super-talented freshmen in Kiefer Sherwood and Jack Roslovic.

We can’t forget Alex Gacek who tore his patellar tendon off the bone prior to his Miami career, and how it took years for him to regain his confidence. It’s not even debatable that he is playing the best hockey of his career.

Same goes for Kevin Morris, the super-smart son of an AHL coach who has a 3.6 GPA and has posted six goals in 11 games after finding the net just eight times in his previous 96 contests.

Same goes for Chris Joyaux, who has been so steady on the blueline since joining the team in the fall of 2012.

Same goes for transfer Andrew Schmit, who has gotten to play with his cousin, Conor Lemirande, forming the Crash Cousins line. He is one of the team’s most punishing hitters in recent history but has just eight penalty minutes in 2015-16.

And there’s Michael Mooney, who works so hard when he does get in the lineup and has saved this team’s bacon when it had battled injury woes with his ability to move into any position.

Matthew Caito wasn’t able to play on senior night, coincidentally missing just the second and third games of his Miami career, making the double shutout even more impressive.

It’s unlikely his season is over, and one of the steadiest two-way defenseman to dress for this team since Andy Greene must return for the RedHawks to have any realistic chance at an NCAA run.

BoB won’t forget McKay, whose .917 career save percentage is the fourth-best in school history, and his 1.39 goals-against average as a freshman is easily the best of any goalie to don the pads in Oxford.

Don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes here and not trying to take a side for that reason or stir anything up, but it’s shame how his Miami career has likely ended, without the benefit of taking a victory lap for his final regular season home game.

Good luck topping that, Hollywood.

Kuraly said at intermission on Saturday that this class hopefully has a couple more memories to make before its players go their separate ways to pursue their dreams, both on and off the ice.

The way this big screen-worthy regular season has gone, fans have to feel like the script has several more scenes to be written.

Even if that’s not the case, it’s been an Oscar-worthy story that’s played out the past couple of months.

Other thoughts…

– For five periods this weekend, Miami played decent hockey, good enough to outscore CC. The RedHawks finally got it right in the sixth and final frame, scoring three unanswered goals on 22 shots, as the puck seemed to spend half of that stanza in the Colorado College goal crease. A plus-7 goal differential is great, but a more skilled team would’ve buried some of its ample chances this weekend.

– A night after racking up nearly 14 minutes of power play time vs. 93 seconds for Miami, it’s mind blowing that Colorado College took 14 minutes in first-period penalties for dust-ups with officials, including contact with a linesman.

– It was listed at 3,155, but the crowd at Cady Arena on Saturday seemed larger and was certainly rocking, despite, well…OK…enough with the music bashing – it’s gotten a little better. If Miami does get back to Cady for a series against Minnesota-Duluth, we will need loud fans at the game. Forget spring break…doesn’t having the campus and the Oxford bars to yourselves with a best-of-3 hockey series sound more appealing?

– Miami graduate Nick Brunker did play-by-play for this game and was fantastic, to the surprise of no one who has ever heard his broadcasts. Few have worked harder to advance their broadcast media careers, as Brunker actually got kicked out of the press box of a Cincinnati Mighty Ducks game as a high school student for trying to perfect his craft and record his own calls when there wasn’t ample room, and he later excelled as the PxP guy for the Cincinnati Cyclones.


FORWARDS: A. Zach Lavalle won a battle along the boards that ultimately led to Richart’s goal, opening the scoring. Roslovic’s beautiful centering pass led to Morris’ laser one-time finish. Not sure if Kuraly intentionally tipped a pass to Sherwood for Goal No. 3 or if it was inadvertent – we’ll call it deliberate, we’re feeling generous – but what a play. Freshman Josh Melnick (this deep into a write-up this is really Melnick’s first reference?) won a boards battle to get the puck to neutral ice then stole a pass and fed it to Louis for the ENG. Lots of offensive positive here.

DEFENSEMEN: A-. Good work without it two-way leader in Caito. If we had to nitpick, this group did turn it over a couple of times early but seemed to tighten up late, even as Colorado College started taking more chances in the third period (thus the 10 shots in the final 20 minutes for CC). Richart not only scored, he gloved a puck down and shuffled it ahead quickly to Roslovic, leading to the Sherwood goal. Apparently there’s nothing Richart can’t do right now.

Jay Williams makes one of his 24 saves on Saturday (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Jay Williams makes one of his 24 saves on Saturday (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

GOALTENDING: A. Not as many difficult saves for Williams as on Friday, but this is a weekend the senior will likely tell his grandchildren about. Fifth-five shots, 55 saves in 120 minutes, including 24 of 24 in this one. His rebound control was excellent again, and the TV color guy mentioned that as well. It’s only the third time a Miami goalie has posted back-to-back shutouts and the first time one has blanked a team twice in a weekend. Williams’ shutout streak is now 148:52, the longest in team history. Cody Reichard held the previous mark at 141:41. David Burleigh also posted back-to-back zeroes and went 136:05 between goals against.

LINEUP CHANGES: It was the same 19 as Friday for the RedHawks. Caito, Schmit and Loe missed their second straight games, while Colin Sullivan, Mooney and Ryan Siroky dressed for the second consecutive night.


Williams blanks CC again, sets records

OXFORD, Ohio – Playing in his final Miami regular season home game, Jay Williams made sure his name would be imprinted in the team record book.

The senior goalie stopped all 24 shots he faced to complete a double shutout weekend and series sweep as the RedHawks beat Colorado College, 4-0 on Saturday.

Miami goalie Jay Williams (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Miami goalie Jay Williams (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Williams became the first Miami goalie ever to blank an opponent in both ends of a weekend series, and he also set the team mark for longest consecutive scoreless streak at 148:52, edging out Cody Reichard by over seven minutes.

Williams also moved into a tie with Connor Knapp for fourth on the school wins leaderboard with 46, and he is now even with Ryan McKay for fourth place with nine shutouts.

The game was scoreless until the second period, when a wrister by senior defenseman Taylor Richart beat Tigers goalie Tyler Marble with 6:56 left in that frame.

It remained 1-0 until senior forward Kevin Morris whipped a shot into the bottom corner of the net from the slot on the power play with 8:56 left in regulation.

Just 1:27 later, freshman forward Kiefer Sherwood backhanded a shot that slid under Marble’s pads to extend the RedHawks’ lead to three.

A fraction of a second before the final horn, junior forward Anthony Louis punched in an empty goal to cap the scoring.

Miami forward Josh Melnick (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Miami forward Josh Melnick (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Freshmen forwards Josh Melnick and Jack Roslovic led Miami in points with a pair each, both on assists. Melnick wrapped up the weekend with a goal and three helpers, giving him 13 points in his last 13 games.

Sherwood scored his sixth goal in eight games and extended his points streak to a team-best six games, and Morris recorded his third marker in his last four.

MU avenged its earlier two losses at Colorado College (6-25-1), as the teams finished the regular season 2-2 against each other.

The RedHawks have won five of their last six and are 9-3 in their last 12, moving above .500 for the first time since Oct. 24 when they were 3-2-1 before a loss to St. Lawrence.

Miami (15-14-3) remains tied for fourth in the conference standings with Minnesota-Duluth, which swept St. Cloud State on the road this weekend. The RedHawks and UMD play each other next weekend in Duluth to wrap up the regular season, and they will almost certainly meet again the following week in the first round of the NCHC Tournament.

Next week’s series will determine which team is home for the best-of-3 NCHC opener, with Miami needing a winning record on the weekend to send it to Cady Arena.

With the win, the RedHawks moved up to 18th in the PairWise rankings.

Miami’s games at Minnesota-Duluth will be Friday and Saturday, with both starting at 8:07 p.m.

Analysis: Miami thrived on special teams

OXFORD, Ohio – Somehow Miami managed to score twice on special teams despite having just 1:33 of power play time vs. 13:49 for Colorado College.

Miami's Jay Williams (right) and Taylor Richart (left) both starred in Friday's win (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Miami’s Jay Williams (right) and Taylor Richart (left) both starred in Friday’s win (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Those goals propelled the RedHawks to a 3-0 win over the Tigers on Friday, their second shutout of the season and the first of 2015-16 for senior Jay Williams.

A defining moment for Miami (14-14-3) came midway through the third period, when junior forward Anthony Louis was assessed an interference major and game misconduct.

Teemu Kivihalme was also given a minor on the ensuing skirmish, setting up a 4-on-4. But senior defenseman Chris Joyaux went to the box for slashing 49 seconds later, setting up a 4-on-3 for 1:11 followed by a 5-on-3 for 49 seconds.

Nine of Colorado College’s shots came during this sequence, and Williams stopped them all. MU was 7-for-7 on the PK and is second in Division I at 92.9 percent.

It was the second interference major of the game for Miami, as sophomore defenseman Scott Dornbrock was also sent off for that infraction in the second period.

RedHawks senior defenseman Scott Richart buried a shorthanded goal during that extended penalty kill.

By the way, Miami had taken one major penalty all season entering this game.

Not a fan of criticizing officiating, but it was brutal in this game.

For the power plays to be 7-2 favoring a less-skilled team including a pair of majors is lunacy for a Miami team that does not have a reputation for dirty play.

The RedHawks came into this weekend averaging 8.0 penalty minutes a game, in the bottom 10 in all of Division I.

They should’ve just called the Dornbrock penalty what it really was: A Hitting Too Hard Major.

Maybe it was interference. Maybe. As in: A minor penalty. But as someone who thinks interference should be called more in hockey, it’s something I watch for, and there were several better examples of that infraction both ways that could’ve been called prior to Dornbrock’s major.

Didn’t see Louis’ hit – it was along the boards. But when a player stays down for a minute and none of his teammates come to his rescue and the trainer watches him lay motionless it’s pretty safe to say he’s pandering for a call. Which he got.

Physicality isn’t a big part of Louis’ game, and the player he hit was twice his size.

For the record the interference major was introduced prior to 2014-15 as an option for officials if someone gets laid out away from the play, so from a rules standpoint it’s a valid call.

These specific examples didn’t rise to that definition though. We’re talking borderline minors, and the first one didn’t really even look like that.

In the third period it looked like the refs were going to swallow their whistles, as they led several would-be penalties against both teams go.

Then Conor Leminande, interference, 8:46? Yeah, OK.

Right after that expired the Louis debacle which could’ve been a game changer, and in a way it was, just not in favor of the team with the man advantage(s).

Miami goalie Jay Williams (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Miami goalie Jay Williams (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

And that’s the bottom line: Miami turned a negative – miserable officiating – and made it a positive. Taylor Richart shorthanded goal, Jay Williams about 90 saves in the third period.

Miami did what a good team should do: Win even when things out of its control go against it.

Other thoughts…

– All of the above said, the RedHawks really didn’t play that well. Colorado College (6-24-1) only has one decent scorer – Hunter Fejes – and Miami did a good job of containing him. The Columbus line was very good but none of the others could get much going. The Tigers are allowing 35 shots per game and Miami finished with 26. Granted it doesn’t help when you’re shorthanded for a quarter of the game.

Miami defenseman Matthew Caito (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Miami defenseman Matthew Caito (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

– Senior Matthew Caito was out of the lineup for the second time in his college career. He suffered an upper body injury last Saturday but looked fine when he was walking around before the game. Caito has played in 159 games and is nine away from cracking the top 10 on Miami’s career leaderboard. The RedHawks absolutely need him in the lineup for the NCHC Tournament.

– Coach Enrico Blasi almost took a tumble during the Louis skirmish, as he was leaning forward when the action came over the bench, knocking him back. Fortunately he caught himself before taking a potentially nasty spill.

– The UNO loss was nice on Friday but Minnesota-Duluth really needs to lose to St. Cloud State on Saturday. If UMD wins Miami would have to sweep in Duluth to earn home ice.

– Saturday’s game will be on DirecTV Ch. 608 in retina-burning standard def.


FORWARDS: C-. First line was solid, after that, comme ci comme ca. As mentioned, Colorado College is allowing 35 shots a game, and this corps just didn’t generate the type of chances it should have against the league doormat. Louis looked a step behind before being sent to the showers early. Kiefer Sherwood seemed to have picked up that speed Louis didn’t have, as the puck seemed to follow him all night. He’s proving absolutely deadly from the left side of the slot, where he buried his power play goal.

DEFENSEMEN: B-. This group seemed a little out of sorts without Caito in the lineup, as the pairings obviously had to be adjusted. Richart was outstanding, thriving in his PK role. Chris Joyaux had an outstanding first period but turned one over in the third for a breakaway and took a penalty trying to defend the player that stripped him. Louie Belpedio didn’t have a great game and may be suffering from the effects of playing in Europe over Christmas break. Colin Sullivan had one bad turnover but was solid otherwise.

GOALTENDING: A+. The easiest grade to give all season. Williams was simply unbelievable, especially under intense fire in the third period. The goalie’s best friends – the posts – helped him out a couple of times, and the net mysteriously came off its moorings multiple times to squelch scoring threats. Still not sure how he stopped a one-time shot from point-blank range in the final stanza, and Colorado College kept the puck alive and missed the empty net. Great game plus a little luck equals shutout.

Miami's Michael Mooney (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Miami’s Michael Mooney (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

LINEUP CHANGES: So Blasi shook things up a little up front. Michael Mooney played for the first time in 11 games, and Ryan Siroky also saw action after being scratched for three straight. Andrew Schmit sat for just the fifth time this season, and Devin Loe was also out after playing in four in a row. Sullivan was in for Caito on defense. Goalie Ryan McKay was not dressed for 11th straight contest.

Williams stellar late in Miami shutout

Josh Melnick (37) celebrates after his game-clinching goal (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Josh Melnick (37) celebrates after his game-clinching goal (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

OXFORD, Ohio – After a fairly light night the first 40 minutes, Jay Williams faced a shooting gallery in the third period.

Williams turned aside 18 shots in the final stanza and 31 total in Miami’s 3-0 shutout of Colorado College at Cady Arena on Friday.

It was Williams’ first shutout of the season and the eighth of the senior’s career, as he is in fifth place all-time on the school’s leaderboard.

Miami goalie Jay Williams (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Miami goalie Jay Williams (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

The RedHawks had to kill seven power plays, including a pair of majors that included an extended 4-on-3 and 5-on-3.

Miami (14-14-3) scored one goal in each period and did so in three different ways – on the power play, at even strength and shorthanded.

Senior forward Sean Kuraly sent a one-time pass to freshman forward Kiefer Sherwood, who ripped a shot past Tigers goalie Jacob Nehama 8:40 into the first period.

After being assessed a major penalty, Miami senior defenseman Taylor Richart’s slap shot beat Nehama with 10:33 left in the middle period for the RedHawks’ first shorthanded goal of the season.

Freshman forward Josh Melnick sealed it by going top shelf from the slot with 1:32 remaining in regulation.

Miami forward Josh Melnick (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Miami forward Josh Melnick (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Williams faced a couple of high-percentage shots in the first two periods and several A-plus chances to close out the win.

Colorado College (6-24-1) was on the power play for 6:46 of the third period, with nearly two minutes coming while Miami had just three players on the ice. The Tigers had 13:49 of total power play time vs. 1:33 for the RedHawks.

Despite the lopsided man-advantage time, Miami finished 1-for-2 on the power play and 7 of 7 on the penalty kill plus a shorthanded goal.

Melnick led the RedHawks with two points on a goal and an assist, giving him 11 points in 12 games. Sherwood scored for the fifth time in Miami’s last seven contests.

Miami defenseman Taylor Richart (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Miami defenseman Taylor Richart (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

For Richart, it was his second career goal in 128 games, with his other coming vs. Cornell on Dec. 29, 2014.

The RedHawks were in a three-way tie for fourth place in the NCHC entering Friday, and with Nebraska-Omaha losing, Miami is now tied with only Minnesota-Duluth for the final home spot in the conference tournament.

The RedHawks are now locked into a four, five or six seed.

Despite the win, Miami is in a four-way tie for 20th in the PairWise rankings.

Colorado College and Miami wrap up their weekend series at 7:05 p.m. on Saturday.

Preview: Colorado College at Miami

WHO: Colorado College Tigers (6-23-1) at Miami University RedHawks (13-14-3).

WHERE: Cady Arena, Oxford, Ohio.

WHEN: Friday–7:35 p.m.; Saturday–7:05 p.m.

TV: Saturday – Fox Sports Alternate (DirecTV Ch. 608).

COLORADO COLLEGE RADIO: Both nights–KRDO-AM (1240) and KRDO-FM (105.5), Colorado Springs, Colo.

MIAMI RADIO: Both nights–WMOH-AM (1450), Hamilton, Ohio; WKBV-AM (1490), Richmond, Ind.

NOTES: The earlier series between these teams was a dumpster fire for Miami, which lost in the third period both nights and caused some internal turmoil.

Colorado College started the season 0-13 before beating Air Force and then topping the RedHawks twice, but the Tigers have dropped their last five by an average of 2.8 goals.

CC has had trouble scoring goals and preventing them, which explains its 6-23-1 record.

The Tigers have scored just 64 goals, or 2.06 per game, with just 44 of them coming at even strength.

Only one Colorado College player has eclipsed the 20-point mark, and that’s Hunter Fejes, who has 13 goals and nine assists.

Fejes tormented Miami in Colorado Springs, netting both goals in the come-from-behind 2-1 win in the opener and tallying the game winner with 1:13 left in the finale.

Luc Gerdes is second on the team in scoring (7-11-18), and Trey Bradley is second on the team in goals (9) and third in points (16).

Jacob Nehama has been the primary goalie for CC in recent weeks, playing in six straight games and 15 of the team’s last 17. He is 6-15-0 with a 3.58 goals-against average and a decent .902 save percentage, indicating he has faced a ton of shots.

Colorado College has indeed had a major shooting deficit, averaging 26.6 shots on goal while allowing 35.1 per game.

The Tigers are last in the NCHC but could still move up a spot, as they are four points behind seventh-place Western Michigan.

But Colorado College is just 2-12-1 on the road this season.

Miami is tied with Nebraska-Omaha and Minnesota-Duluth for fourth with 25 points as those three teams vie for the final top-four spot that ensures home-ice advantage for the best-of-3 series to open the NCHC Tournament.

UNO is at St. Cloud State, and UMD hosts North Dakota, so the RedHawks obviously have a great chance to move into solo control of that fourth spot this weekend.

Miami's Sean Kuraly (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Miami’s Sean Kuraly (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

These are the final home games of the regular season for Miami and the last games of 2015-16 at Cady Arena unless it can secure that fourth seed.

Senior forward Sean Kuraly is plus-10 in his last 14 games, notching four goals and 10 assists in that span.

Junior forward Anthony Louis has scored three goals in his last three games, and freshman forward Kiefer Sherwood has four markers in six contests.

Post-injury confidence key to success

OXFORD, Ohio – Alex Gacek finished his first season of junior hockey with 33 goals in 40 games and won a league championship.

He had also been selected to represent the U.S. in the prestigious Five Nations Tournament prior to the start of that 2009-10 campaign.

But in the summer of 2010, at age 17, Gacek suffered a full patellar tear, ripping the ligament that connects the kneecap to the tibia completely off the bone.

Two years later, Gacek limped into Oxford a shell of that standout player.

But nearly 3 1/2 years later, he has become an all-around force, scoring and setting up goals, killing penalties, blowing past would-be defenders and laying out anyone that gets in his way.

“That really did a number on my confidence more than my skill,” Gacek said. “Coming here, these guys gave me a shot. I’ve worked with some great people, and they’ve really helped my confidence pull a 180.”

Gacek hails from Dracut, a Massachusetts town north of Lowell near the New Hampshire border.

As a child, he told his parents while watching a Bruins game that he wanted to learn how to skate and play hockey.

With pond hockey a regional institution in the area, Gacek’s father, Mark, built an outdoor rink for the family to enjoy in the winter.

“I will never forget some of the memories of being out there – late nights, early mornings – how much my parents and my sister have given to me.”

When he reached juniors age, Gacek was fortunate enough to join New Hampshire, a powerhouse that has won seven titles in the Eastern Junior Hockey League. The team was also within driving distance, so unlike many hockey players of that age, he did not have to move.

“It was a team very much like this team: Very tight-knit, we wanted each other to do well no matter what the circumstances were, and we won a championship,” Gacek said.

But that summer while working out, Gacek severely injured his knee. He tried to come back the following season but was ineffective.

He was rushed back into action, which actually delayed the overall recovery process.

Alex Gacek squares off while playing for Youngstown in 2011-12 (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Alex Gacek squares off while playing for Youngstown in 2011-12 (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Gacek still played in 41 USHL games in 2010-11 but he did not score a single goal and finished with just eight assists and a minus-18 rating.

Even after racking up 32 points in 57 games with USHL Youngstown in 2011-12, he was not the same player he was previously heading into his freshman season in Oxford.

A New Englander choosing Miami is somewhat of a rarity, since a large number of the Division I programs are in the northeast.

Gacek said most people growing up in his area wanted to play for Boston College or Boston University, but neither made an impression on him.

“I guess I was an oddball – I didn’t really know where I wanted to go,” Gacek said. “A scout and I started talking more and more, and I did some homework, but what really sold me was the concept of The Brotherhood. I’m a really big family guy and obviously this program prides itself on family, so it was an easy fit.”

One player Gacek already knew when he moved onto campus was senior goalie Jay Williams, whom he had befriended in juniors.

Alex Gacek as a freshman (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Alex Gacek as a freshman (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

“I remember when we first got here, he had had a rough junior experience as well, and that was something we could bond over,” said Williams, who never was able to start consistently in the USHL. “But as soon as he got his confidence and kind of got his footing, he was able to get comfortable with the guys in the room and develop that trust and that bond. He’s not always necessarily on the stat sheet but the contributions he makes, night in and night out – penalty killing, defensive zone, even just generating offense, getting in on the forecheck and stuff – it’s invaluable to this team, and he’s been a big part of the success that we’ve had for four years.

“He’s one of my best friends in the whole world. I knew him when he first committed – before I had committed – and we were roommates together freshman year. He’s real quiet at first, comes across a little shy, but once he gets comfortable and opens up, he’s awesome.”

Just four games into his RedHawks career, Gacek scored his first goal at Michigan, tying the score at two early in the third period and sparking a three-goal outburst in the final frame as Miami won, 4-3.

Alex Gacek heads out to Soldier Field freshman season (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Alex Gacek heads out to Soldier Field freshman season (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Overall, Gacek was not a major points producer as a freshman or sophomore, going 3-4-7 both seasons in 73 games.

But junior year, Gacek turned into a complete player. He scored five goals, including two in a critical late league game vs. Denver, and tallied nine assists.

His defense also was noticeably improved, as he became a dependable penalty killer and solid shutdown forward.

“He’s learned the system, he’s one of the best guys in the system, and that’s what the PK is about – knowing the system and being able to execute,” senior forward and captain Sean Kuraly said. “He’s one of the best, if not the best.”

That surge in all aspects of play has continued in 2015-16. Gacek already has five goals and 10 assists for a career-best 15 points, and he leads the team by six in plus-minus with a rating of plus-11.

Alex Gacek as a sophomore (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Alex Gacek as a sophomore (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

And he seems to have saved his best hockey for his final stretch run. Gacek has six points in his last 10 games.

“The knock on me prior to coming in was my defense,” Gacek said. “I really took that to heart, and I really bore down and focused on it, and I’m happy with my defensive game. I really enjoyed PK-ing now – our PK this year is outstanding, and thanks to coach (Brent) Brekke and coach (Enrico) Blasi, we owe them all the credit for sure.”

Gacek is one of the key penalty killing forwards on a unit that is second in all of Division I only to Yale at 92.4 percent.

“He’s the ultimate competitor, a warrior, he sacrifices his body – you see him blocking shots,” Williams said. “Plus, the speed he has, he’s able to put pressure on them and still track back and get back without getting out of position, sometimes force them into errant passes. Luckily, we’ve been pretty good on the PK this year and his is the first name on the list when we have a big penalty to kill, it’s Gace.”

In his four seasons, Gacek has been in the lineup for 143 of 149 games, missing just one since his freshman year and dressing in 92 straight contests.

“You guys can see it from the stands, he’s a top guy on this team,” Kuraly said. “Without him, we lose a lot up front, and in the locker room he’s a leader.”

He has 16 goals and 27 assists for 43 points and has been assessed just 42 penalty minutes. Gacek also has a career plus-11 rating.

“Coming here I obviously wasn’t a perfect player, so the guys here at Miami – the coaches in particular – have really helped me perfect my 200-foot game,” Gacek said. “Obviously I still have a lot of work to do, but from the time I came onto campus to now has been a great improvement.”

Throughout his career, NHL-caliber speed has been a trait Gacek has prided himself on. All four seasons in Oxford he has been one of the fastest skaters on the team.

“Those guys that are playing first line, he creates space for them and sometimes he can be a spark for us,” Kuraly said. “When guys aren’t feeling it he’s the guy that gets us going a lot of times.”

Alex Gacek as a junior (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Alex Gacek as a junior (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Despite being 5-feet-8, another attribute of Gacek’s is his hitting ability. Giving 20 or more pounds to most players in college hockey, he has taken on countless bigger players and often sends them flying.

“He’s a really strong kid – it’s really not a surprise to us,” Kuraly said. “He can lift just as much weight as anybody in the weight room. It’s a combination of speed and power, and he’s got both.”

Gacek weighs 180 pounds, which is impressive given his height.

“He’s a freak, he’s an animal,” Williams said. “You see him without his shirt on in the weight room, he’s just thick and he’s strong and he’s tough. Nicest kid in the world, best kid in the world but when it’s time to go, he’s got a mean streak to him and he’s not afraid of anyone or anything.”

Said Gacek: “I guess I’ve kind of got a mean streak in me – I’ve had it since I was little. My father said the bigger they are the harder they fall, so I kind of put all of my effort into it and try to separate the man from the puck is really my main goal whether they fall or not. I guess moreso they’re falling than not.”

Gacek would like to continue playing hockey after this season but ultimately wants to get his Masters degree in the business field after graduating this spring. He has a 3.43 grade-point average as a sports leadership and management.

He is interested in coaching when his playing days are over, and he said he has already picked a couple of coaches’ brains on the subject.

“He’s a tremendous kid, tremendous work ethic,” Williams said. “Obviously you can see the relentless mindset. Whether he continues to play or whatever he may do he’s going to be a successful person.”

Alex Gacek as a senior (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Alex Gacek as a senior (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

But in the meantime, he is excited about the final weeks of his collegiate career, which will hopefully culminate in an NCAA Tournament berth for the third time in his four seasons.

“I really can’t thank everyone that’s part of this program enough,” Gacek said. “The Brotherhood is really something special. Definitely some of my favorite memories have been here, both on and off the ice. I owe this program to becoming who I am today. Just the growth and the life lessons that I’ve learned here have really helped me mature. I can’t believe my time here is coming to an end – it’s pretty bittersweet, but I really love this program.”

Analysis: Sweep of CC now paramount

Pulling off a sweep at Western Michigan was going to a tall order, even with the Broncos struggling this season.

Miami fell, 4-1 in the series finale in Kalamazoo on Saturday, but fortunately for the RedHawks, they only fell one spot in PairWise and did not drop in the conference standings, as both teams they are tied with were defeated as well.

Miami remains in a three-way tie with Nebraska-Omaha and Minnesota-Duluth for the all-important fourth and final home ice spot for the first round of the NCHC Tournament.

The problem is: The RedHawks would lose the tiebreaker vs. both teams if they remain even. We’ll explain more thoroughly if it appears this scenario may come to fruition, but for now, trust us, Miami takes sixth if they can’t surge past one of both of these teams.

As we explained yesterday, the RedHawks control their own destiny to a large degree, as they host last-place Colorado College next week and head to UMD to wrap up the season.

(And it could end up Miami and UMD play back-to-back weekends: Imagine the carnage if those teams met four or five times in nine days)

Sweeping hapless Colorado College at home next weekend is now paramount if the RedHawks want home ice, and if that happens it will greatly increase the team’s chance of making the NCAA Tournament.

As for the game itself, Miami outshot WMU, 31-28 including 8-2 the final period. The RedHawks didn’t play that badly but allowing a goal in the final second of a period is devastating.

The Broncos capitalized on the momentum of that second goal by adding a third early in the second period and Miami was essentially done.

The RedHawks’ goal came on a pretty passing play, with Kevin Morris putting it in for his fifth goal in nine games.

Other thoughts…

– So that’s five shorthanded goals against this season for Miami, and zero for. The RedHawks are one of only five teams in Division I without a shorty and the lone team in the NCHC.

– Realizing that down by two goals midway through the third period a team is going to pinch, but the RedHawks’ defense was flat-out miserable on WMU’s fourth goal. Both defensemen were caught up the ice and Anthony Louis weakly flailed at the outlet stretch pass that ultimately resulted in the final goal.

– Senior night is next weekend. How will the team handle the Ryan McKay situation? Tune in next week.

Three quick W. Michigan goals doom Miami

For the third straight game, the final score of Miami’s game was 4-1.

Unfortunately for the RedHawks, after consecutive wins, they fell at Western Michigan on Saturday, snapping a three-game winning streak and a string of four straight wins on the road.

Griffen Molino recorded a hat trick to lead the Broncos, who salvaged a series split vs. Miami.

WMU (8-19-3) opened the scoring with 1:23 left in the first period when Jade McMullen tipped home a shot from in front of the net.

In the final second of that frame, Nolan LaPorte won a faceoff back to Molino, who wired a shot into the far corner of the cage to make it 2-0 heading into the first intermission.

The Broncos extended their lead to three when Molino ripped one past RedHawks senior goalie Jay Williams off a stretch pass shorthanded 1:30 into the second period.

That’s three goals in a span of 2:53.

Miami (13-14-3) finally got on the board less than 2½ minutes later, as senior forward Kevin Morris banged home a pass by sophomore defenseman Louie Belpedio in front of the net.

But Western Michigan regained its three-goal lead when Molino skated in off a stretch pass from Chris Dienes and wired it into the net with 8:52 left in regulation.

Morris scored for the fifth time in nine games, and Belpedio and freshman forward Kiefer Sherwood – who collected assists on Morris’ goal – earned assists to extend their points streaks to four games apiece.

Miami remained tied for fourth in the NCHC, as both Nebraska-Omaha and Minnesota-Duluth lost on Saturday. All have four conference games remaining.

The RedHawks are currently tied for 16th in the all-important PairWise rankings.

Miami plays its final two regular season home games next weekend vs. Colorado College before wrapping up its slate with a pair of games at UMD.

Analysis: No. 4 seed paramount for Miami

Is it too early to schedule watch?

Especially since we’re in the online world, the answer is a definite ‘no’.

Besides, there are only five games left in the regular season and all of them will be important for Miami, which beat Western Michigan, 4-1 at Lawson Ice Arena in Kalamazoo on Friday.

Thanks to that win, the RedHawks are currently in a three-way tie for fourth with Nebraska-Omaha and Minnesota-Duluth — both of whom lost on Friday — and that No. 4 spot is paramount if Miami wants to qualify for its 10th NCAA Tournament in 11 years.

As opposed to missing it for the second time in three seasons.

Here’s why this race is so important…

North Dakota and St. Cloud have run away with the top two spots. The RedHawks can’t even mathematically catch either team.

And Denver is a win away from securing a top-three spot, so the 1-3 seeds are off the table for Miami, unless it wins out and the Pioneers lose out. Which is not realistic.

That leaves the fourth spot as the last remaining one for home-ice advantage in the first round of the NCHC Tournament.

To round out the field, Western Michigan – especially after the RedHawks’ win on Friday – and Colorado College are virtually locked into the bottom two spots.

Meaning Miami will battle UMD and UNO for the four, five and six seeds.

Six plays the third-place finisher between UND, St. Cloud and Denver on the road. No thanks.

Five travels to the winner of this three-team cluster. In other words, it plays the hottest team of these three on the road. Again, nah.

In the scenario in which the RedHawks finish fifth or sixth, they will likely not have the wins necessary to keep an at-large possibility alive, which is why the next 15 days are so important.

The good news is that Miami is playing its best hockey of the season. More good news is that the other two teams the RedHawks are battling for that coveted home-ice spot face tougher remaining slates.

UMD is at North Dakota again on Saturday after losing to UND in overtime on Friday, then it travels to second-place St. Cloud State for a pair of games next week before capping its regular season by hosting Miami.

UNO hosts St. Cloud on Saturday after falling to SCSU, 4-1 on Friday. The Mavericks wrap up their regular season with two against North Dakota at home and a pair at Denver.

Miami is at seventh-place WMU for one more on Saturday, hosts last-place Colorado College next week and finishes with a series at Minnesota-Duluth. Those opponents are a combined 24-54-9.

And if the RedHawks can’t put up a good showing in this stretch run, they don’t deserve NCAA consideration anyway.

Winning three of its final five would be just OK for Miami and would probably hurt its PairWise. Taking four would be preferable, and running the table would be ideal.

A losing record in this span would be devastating and would likely result in a road trip for a best-of-3 and then having to at minimum advance to Minneapolis for a shot at an NCAA berth.

Other thoughts…

– Anthony Louis scored his eighth and ninth goals of the season on Friday. We’ve mentioned his second-half surges before but haven’t thoroughly evaluated.

Miami's Anthony Louis (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Miami’s Anthony Louis (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

This is Louis’ third season with Miami, and he has 10 goals in 52 games in October, November and December and 20 in 55 contests in January and beyond.

In terms of points, Louis has recorded 32 of his points before New Year’s and 50 after, or an average of 0.62 vs. 0.95.

And he has been clutch in the postseason, recording 13 points in 11 games in the NCHC and NCAA Tournaments, including six goals.

– This was the 29th game of Miami’s season and the first time the RedHawks have scored multiple goals in the first period. They had just 12 markers in the first 28 opening frames this season.

Miami goalie Jay Williams (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Miami goalie Jay Williams (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

– Jay Williams stopped 27 of 28 shots to earn the win in this game and has been a rock since taking over following GoalieGate. Williams is 7-2 with a 2.11 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage in the nine-plus games since, and that’s with two five-goal games, with both featuring multiple tallies he had zero chance on.

– Jack Roslovic and Josh Melnick combined for just one assist on Friday but were still integral to the team’s scoring. Roslovic would’ve gotten third assists for two of the goals, and Melnick’s helper was the direct result of him stealing a puck at center ice and lifting it ahead to Louis, who did his thing to make it 1-0. Roslovic also just missed a goal at the end of the second period, so he’s still making offensive contributions, even if they aren’t showing up on the scoresheet.

Louis scores 2 as Miami dumps W. Michigan

Anthony Louis scored the first goal of the game and his team’s last one – which came in highlight-reel fashion – and that plenty of offense for Miami.

The junior forward recorded a pair of goals, giving him three in two games and six in his last nine, as the RedHawks beat Western Michigan, 4-1 at Lawson Ice Arena on Friday.

It was the fourth straight road win for Miami (13-13-3), which surged to the .500 mark for the first time since Oct. 30.

Anthony Louis (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Anthony Louis (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

The RedHawks took the early lead when freshman forward Josh Melnick stole a puck in the neutral zone and lifted it ahead to Louis, who skated in and whipped a shot by goalie Lukas Hafner just 4:26 into the game.

With 2:42 left in the opening stanza, senior forward Kevin Morris banged home a loose puck off of a shot by sophomore defenseman Scott Dornbrock on the power play to make it 2-0.

Miami extended its lead to three when sophomore defenseman Louie Belpedio, who had his intitial pass attempt blocked, fed one to freshman forward Kiefer Sherwood, who roofed it from the side of the net 3:01 into the middle frame.

Louis came in from the right wing, was held as he approached the net and still was able to lift a shot over Hafner for the RedHawks’ fourth goal 1:06 into the third period.

The marker was highlighted by ESPN anchor John Buccigross on Twitter. It was just the second multiple-goal game for a Miami player this season.

Sophomore forward Conor Lemirande recorded a hat trick for the RedHawks on Jan. 23 at Nebraska-Omaha.

Just 33 seconds away from a shutout, Western Michigan (7-19-3) scored on a shot from Aaron Hadley that trickled past Miami senior goalie Jay Williams.

Williams stopped 27 shots to record the win. He did not have a victory this season in calendar year 2015 but has eight already in 2016 and 44 for his career, two away from tying Connor Knapp for fourth place on the team’s all-time leaderboard.

Sherwood has scored in three straight games, and Melnick has picked up a point in nine of 10. Senior forward Sean Kuraly picked up an assist to give him 13 points in nine games.

Parlayed with losses by Nebraska-Omaha and Minnesota-Duluth, the RedHawks’ third straight win moved them into a tie for fourth place with both of those teams in the NCHC standings with 25 points apiece.

There was more good news for Miami, which surged to 15th in the PairWise rankings. It will probably take a final ranking of 13 or 14 to ensure a trip to the NCAA Tournament via an at-large bid, coupled with a winning percentage of .500 or better, but the RedHawks were as low as the high 30s earlier this season.

The teams wrap up the weekend series at 7:05 p.m. on Saturday. Miami returns home to host last-place Colorado College next weekend in Cady Arena’s final games this regular season.