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Williams finally in the spotlight

OXFORD, Ohio – Jay Williams’ career at Miami already had to be considered a successful one through his first three seasons.

He played a major role in the RedHawks’ regular season championship in the final year of the CCHA his freshman campaign, and he led Miami to an NCHC Tournament title in 2014-15.

But Williams allowed seven goals vs. Providence in this season’s opener before being pulled in the third period, miring him with an 8.70 goals-against average, and he saw action in just two more games the next three months.

As a result, Williams used Christmas break to reevaluate his priorities.

“It was certainly frustrating,” Williams said. “I think that Christmas break came at a really good time for me personally this year just to kind of get away from it and to get home and spend some time with my family. I had the approach that was going to come (back) and regardless of what happened with playing – I figured my hockey career will be over after this year anyway, and I’ll move on – so if I have three months left of doing this with a group of guys that I love, I’m just going to enjoy every day and try to get better and try to make the most of it because you don’t get these days back.”

Due to an on-ice blow up and subsequent suspension of senior goalie Ryan McKay – who played nearly every minute of the first half this season – Williams was relegated into full-time starter mode and has been in net for all but 39 minutes since.

And Miami and Williams have thrived with him between the pipes.

Despite being swept by Minnesota-Duluth last weekend, Miami is 9-5 in its last 14 games as it recovered from a 5-10-1 start, and in the team’s final home series of this regular season, Williams became the first goalie in RedHawks history to shut a team out in a two-game weekend series.

“Jay’s our guy – he’s been playing awesome,” senior forward and captain Sean Kuraly said. “We expect a lot from Jay. He’s good in practice, he’s a highly-touted kid, and just a really good teammate is a reason why the team is doing well.”

Williams is from McLean, Va., right across the border from Washington D.C. The mid-Atlantic region is not known for producing significant hockey talent, but Williams went to a Washington Capitals game on his eighth birthday and has been a rink rat since.

“I was hooked,” Williams said. “The next day, I found an old pair of rollerblades and a make-shift stick and a crushed Coke can and kind of never looked back from there.”

Williams said as badly as he wanted to play hockey, his mother, Rosie, made him take skating lessons for a year before playing competitively.

“She was like, you’re not playing hockey until you learn how to skate,” Williams said. “At the time I was miserable, but obviously looking back on it I feel like it’s something that’s helped me.”

Soon after he started playing, Williams said he was given a book on goaltending and he was fascinated with the equipment. But he had to sell his parents on the concept.

Finally they caved.

With goalie pads being pricey and kids growing out of their equipment on an annual basis, his parents wanted to trade in his first set for bigger pads, but Williams wouldn’t let them.

He told them that they would end up in the hockey Hall of Fame.

“I was dreaming big when I was nine years old – I had high aspirations,” Williams said. “I think they’re still somewhere (around the house). I don’t think they’ll going to quite make it to the Hall of Fame, but there will definitely be some sentimental value there. They’ll definitely be something that I keep around for the rest of my life.”

In 2009, Williams was 15 and had never attended a collegiate game.

His first one? Miami’s NCAA national championship game at the nearby Verizon Center, during which the RedHawks surrendered two goals in the final minute and another in overtime to lose, 4-3 in ultra-dramatic fashion.

And yet Williams still ultimately chose Oxford.

“For whatever reason, I was really pulling for them there, and the following summer I was in a goalie camp with Cody Reichard and Connor Knapp, and I got to skate with them and be with them,” Williams said. “And then the USA Hockey camp with Trags (assistant coach Nick Petraglia). It was the first visit I came on and I kind of fell in love right away, and I felt a strong connection and a bond. Everywhere else I went I was kind of comparing it to here. They offered and I knew right away this is where I wanted to go – I’m just fortunate that it worked out.”

His juniors experience was turbulent. Selected third overall in the USHL Futures draft at age 15, Williams went 7-10-2 with a mercurial 3.49 goals-against average and an .891 save percentage with Waterloo his first season.

In 2011-12 he was 11-5-4, 2.62 and .904 but was traded to last-place Sioux Falls at the deadline. He finished 2-8-2, 3.78 and .882 in 12 games there.

“Looking back on it, it’s certainly not how you would’ve wanted it to go, it wasn’t ideal,” Williams said. “First year, kind of up and down, adjusting, and then my second year started out great and kind of fizzled. Sioux Falls, who at the time were in last place, (was) a team that wasn’t in a great spot and a lot of guys had kind of packed it in. You learn from it all and I believe everything happens for a reason, and I guess I wouldn’t change anything.”

Jay Williams as a freshman (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Jay Williams as a freshman (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Senior forward Alex Gacek knew Williams from when the two played in New England prep schools, and along with senior defenseman Matthew Caito, the trio immediately bonded upon arriving in Oxford.

“Both of those guys have made my transition here real easy,” Gacek said. “I talked about how nervous I was coming in, and they really softened everything up and helped me mature as well.”

Gacek and Williams also shared a not-so-memorable juniors experience. Gacek was thriving before blowing his knee out, and then he was rushed back, stunting his recovery.

“We were in kind of similar situations coming into school,” Gacek said. “(We) needed help building our confidence and just our mental state. He’s worked really hard at it, and I think now it’s showing up in his play and how he carries himself on and off the ice.”

Williams averaged just 26 games and logged fewer than 3,000 minutes in two full seasons in the USHL.

Then he headed to Oxford along with McKay, who had won Goalie of the Year with Green Bay his final season in that league as he led his team to a regular season title and a Clark Cup, the USHL’s championship trophy.

Jay Williams as a sophomore (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Jay Williams as a sophomore (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

The pair rotated the first couple of weeks, but when McKay was injured in a game at Michigan, Williams shifted to a full-time role.

He beat the Wolverines the next night and won five of eight before McKay returned.

Williams and McKay alternated much of the season, and Williams tallied a 12-5-3 record, a 1.94 GAA and .924 save percentage in his rookie campaign.

“(The coaches) always said they want to have two guys that they can depend on, and two guys that can play – they had years where they rotated Connor and Cody up until the Frozen Four,” Williams said. “Certainly (McKay) had won just about everything you can win. He was incredible through juniors – he’s still incredible, he’s the best goalie I’ve ever been on a team with and had the opportunity to work with, day in and day out – but I just kind tried to come in, work hard, keep my head down and when I got the opportunity to play, do the best I can to give my team the chance to win.”

The RedHawks also won the final CCHA regular season title in 2012-13.

“There’s something special about that because it’s such a large body of work that goes into it to win that,” Williams said. “With the group of guys that we had, we kind of had the underdog mentality going in because we had such a large freshman class, and nobody really gave us a chance. To be able to win that championship, win a ring in my first year at school, and feel like I was able to contribute a good amount to it, it was certainly exciting and that group of guys you’ll remember forever, you share that bond.”

Sophomore year was forgettable for Miami overall, including the goalies. Williams recorded a 5-7 record, and his GAA and save percentage reverted to 3.30 and .882, respectively.

“Sophomore year, it was tough,” Williams said. “You learn a lot during those tough years about preparation, and really just the competition from Year 1 to Year 2. No disrespect at all to the teams we played the first year, but the NCHC with six teams in the national tournament, there’s no weekend you can take for granted. There’s so much parity and the margin for error is so, so small. A bad goal, a bad mistake, you used to be able to outscore that, and now you can’t.”

Jay Williams at the outdoor game in 2015 (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Jay Williams at the outdoor game in 2015 (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

But he was rejuvenated in 2014-15, notching a 19-8 record and allowing just 2.04 goals per game, and his save percentage ended up at .917.

Williams was also in net for the stretch run, including the semifinal and final wins in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff, as Miami won its first tournament title in the newly-formed conference.

And his five shutouts that season tied him with Knapp and Reichard for the school’s single-season record.

“Last year, again, was a special year because we were able to win a championship with those guys,” Williams said. “Especially with the senior class that my whole class was close with for three years because they were such a large part of the team. It was cool to send them out like that and to be a part of it.”

This year, Williams is 10-7-1 with a 2.41 GAA, .909 save percentage and a pair of shutouts. But heading into the break, he had a 5.35 goals-against average and a save percentage of just .812 to accompany an 0-2 record.

Since? He’s 10-5-1, 1.97 and .924.

Jay Williams as a junior (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Jay Williams as a junior (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

“You can see now that he’s calm, cool and collected, and now that he’s got his confidence behind him, there’s no doubt that he’s one of the best goalies in the country, and he’s playing like it right now,” Gacek said. “It’s been great to watch. That’s what the big thing about The Brotherhood is, is that you get to see not only yourself grow but everyone else on the team, and Jay’s a perfect example of that.”

Williams will leave Miami with his name etched in several places on the team’s career leaders list. His 46 wins and nine shutouts both tie him for fourth all-time, he is fourth in GAA (2.32) and sixth in save percentage (.910).

“The biggest thing I look at as a goalie is trying to help your team win games and to win championships, and I think to say that you were part of two championship teams in four years is something that not a lot of guys can say,” Williams said. “It’s a testament to the rest of the guys and the coaching staff and the work that we’ve put in throughout the week and the summer and the off-season. If you told me this is where I’d be, I’d be thrilled with that, freshman year.”

But there’s more to Williams than just his statistics. His enthusiasm on the ice rubs off on his teammates, and even when he’s on the bench he’s one of the first to congratulate fellow players.

“I think we embody a little bit of that when he’s in the net,” Kuraly said. “He brings such energy and enthusiasm every day, but especially you can see it on game days. Definitely something the team feeds off of.”

His postgame celebrations are legendary, as he seems to have a secret greeting for each player that meets him in front of the crease after wins.

“Almost everyone on the team has a handshake with him or a little saying that they say, so he’s a spark plug for us, even though he’s a goalie – usually it’s a little different, it’s a (skater) – but Jay’s a great team guy that we need, and our success is really pivoted around him, going forward,” Gacek said.

Off the ice, Williams appears a bit too normal for a goalie, but Gacek can attest that he does possess some of those strange netminder attributes.

Jay Williams as a senior (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Jay Williams as a senior (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

“Jay can be quirky at times, he can be serious at times – whatever the situation calls for, he can adapt to it,” Gacek said. “That’s why I think he’s one of the big favorites in the locker room.

“He’s a character. Jay’s the type of kid that you could go to about anything. If it’s serious or if you need someone to pick you up, he’s the one to do it. He’s a real personable guy and he’s definitely one of my best friends. I love him to death and he’s just a great all-around guy.”

He will also depart Oxford with a degree in finance this spring. Williams was named to the NCHC All-Academic Team last month with a 3.38 GPA.

He will look into playing professionally after this season but is currently focused on enjoying his waning days at Miami.

Whether he goes pro in hockey or the business field after this season, he has set a high bar for the incoming freshmen goalies in 2016-17, both on and off the ice, and Williams has loved every minute he’s spent in Oxford.

“It’s been everything you could ask for in a college experience,” Williams said. “Everywhere you go, recruiting visits, they try to sell the program, sell the experience, sell everything, but to just hear from all of the older guys and all of the alumni who’ve played here how special the four years are. Even some of our worst, darkest moments in four years are things we’re able to laugh about now with the staff and the guys. We always joke about how we got thumped – 9-2 at North Dakota my sophomore year – that they ran out of fireworks in the third period, so even something like that is something you can laugh about. Just the whole experience: The friends I’ve made, the relationships I have, the opportunity to play against the best teams in the country and to have some success as well as develop in the classroom, it’s been incredible.”

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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.

GRADES

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.

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.”

St. Cloud pounds Miami

OXFORD, Ohio – Despite dominating in the shot column, firing 36 for the game including nearly half in the first period, No. 3 St. Cloud State was much better in the category that counts: Hitting the net.

The Huskies pounded the RedHawks, 5-1 at Cady Arena on Friday, netting four straight goals after Miami tied the score at one in the opening seconds of the second period.

The first frame was played almost exclusively in the SCSU end, as Miami led, 17-3 in shots heading into the final minutes.

But St. Cloud State (23-5-1) put the final three shots on goal, including a wicked backhander by Ethan Prow that snuck just under the crossbar with 39 seconds left in that stanza.

Josh Melnick scores Miami's lone goal on this shot (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Josh Melnick scores Miami’s lone goal on this shot (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

The RedHawks (10-13-3) tied it 15 seconds into the second period when freshman forward Josh Melnick batted home a rebound from a bad angle off the initial shot by senior forward Alex Gacek.

The Huskies took the lead for good when David Morley went in alone and backhanded one over the pads of senior goalie Jay Williams with 8:25 left in the middle stanza.

Less than three minutes later, Judd Peterson made it 3-1 when he pitchforked one past Williams from the side of the net off a 3-on-2.

Blake Winiecki tapped home a back door pass from Ryan Papa with 13:50 left in regulation, and Patrick Russell scored from his forehand on a 2-on-1 with 4:07 to play to cap off the scoring.

St. Cloud State extended its unbeaten streak to seven games and Miami dropped its second straight.

Melnick, who had his five-game point streak snapped last Saturday, started a new one with his goal. Gacek now has five points in six games.

The RedHawks are now 0-3 vs. SCSU this season and have been outscored by the Huskies, 11-1.

The teams wrap up their weekend series at 7 p.m. tonight at Cady Arena.

Analysis: Margin for error low for Miami

OXFORD, Ohio – The better team won both games this weekend at Cady Arena.

Unfortunately for Miami, that meant after winning the series opener against Denver, the RedHawks fell to the Pioneers, 5-3 in the finale on Saturday.

The strange thing about Game 2 was Miami was badly outplayed in the first period but came away from that frame with the lead.

The RedHawks were much improved in the second and third periods but were outscored in both.

Typically in the ultra-competitve NCHC, teams splitting against a ranked in-conference team is OK, so long as they are beating the bottom dwellers.

The problem for Miami is it dug itself such a deep hole that 1-1 weekends are no longer suffice if it hopes to get back into NCAA Tournament contention.

At 24th in the PairWise, the RedHawks still have much work remaining before any serious NCAA talks can begin. And Miami now will play the majority of its nine remaining games away from Cady Arena.

As mentioned before, strength of schedule will help Miami if it gets to .500 or above, but one caveat as we move forward: The NCAA now requires teams to post at least a .500 winning percentage to qualify for an at-large bid.

But judging from its positioning in PairWise (24th) vs. its record (two games under .500), this looks like it will probably be a self-policing situation. Just wanted to throw it out there.

A 6-3 finish to the regualar season would suffice the winning percentage requirement, assuming Miami can win at least one in the best-of-3, and there’s a good chance that in that scenario that series would be played in Oxford.

It may take a 7-2 mark plus a trip to Minneapolis to get into the top 14 in PairWise, which is probably where Miami would need to advance to for a fairly safe NCAA berth.

The RedHawks’ small margin for error makes next weekend so important and such a high-risk, high-reward series, since wins will be tough to come by against the second-ranked (in the PairWise) Huskies but could be very lucrative.

Other thoughts…

– Back to the game…too many turnovers, especially in the first period when Miami seemingly was essentially in penalty kill mode for 20 minutes. Forwards didn’t seem to get back on D or backcheck very well, and after standing on his head for the first four periods of the weekend, senior goalie Jay Williams led in a couple of outside shots he normally stops. The flip side of that is: Denver is a very good team that played a very good game in most facets (goalie Tanner Jaillet wasn’t that great would be the only knock on the Pioneers in this one).

– Jack Roslovic’s set-up of Kiefer Sherwood was world class and was shown repeatedly on the big screen, as it should have been. A world-class play by a world-class player. He still needs to stop trying to carry the puck through three and four players, which he was probably able to get away with at the last level.

– Obviously skaters cannot record saves, but both Alex Gacek and Chris Joyaux kept pucks from going into the net by sprawling across the crease. Great effort by both on their respective “saves”.

– Our nightly GoalieGate update: There is no update. Ryan McKay was scratched again on Saturday, and it’s unknown if/when he will return. One thing of note regarding goalies: Ryan Larkin is with the team but is recovering from an upper body injury and is out for the season. Larkin, the cousin of Detroit Red Wings star Dylan Larkin, came to Oxford earlier this month to start on classwork and will be a freshman this fall. Good move by him and by the program.

GRADES

FORWARDS: C. They scored all three goals, but as mentioned above, the backchecking and defense by this group left much to be desired, and they turned the puck over way too much. Nice to see the Roslovic-Sherwood combo generating offense as well as Kuraly scoring by driving the net. So glad to see Alex Gacek having a solid senior season.

DEFENSEMEN: C. Kind of a comme ci, comme ca game for this group. No standouts for either good or bad reasons. It does bear mentioning that Louie Belpedio has been much more solid overall since returning from Finland.

GOALTENDING: C-. Tough call here. Williams was the difference in the first period but was 16 of 21 the final 40 minutes. To be fair, he had zero chance on the first goals, and on the fourth one Shore ended up with puck all alone in the slot for multiple seconds after an unfortunate bounce for Miami. And Williams made the initial save on the third goal. The second and fifth ones were two he would’ve wanted back, but the fifth one was a laser that found the top corner of the net.

LINEUP CHANGES: None again. This is the fifth straight game Coach Enrico Blasi has gone with these 18 skaters plus Williams in net.

Denver snaps Miami 4-game win streak

OXFORD, Ohio – Miami did come back from a two-goal deficit to tie it but ultimately saw its four-game winning streak snapped.

Denver netted a pair of third-period goals en route to a 5-3 win over the RedHawks at Cady Arena on Saturday, handing MU its first loss since Jan. 9.

Despite being severely outplayed in the first period, Miami freshman forward Jack Roslovic went in on a 2-on-1, faked a shot and slid a pass across the slot to freshman forward Kiefer Sherwood, who buried it with 1:42 left in the frame.

The Pioneers would record the next three markers in a seven-minute window.

They tied it on a tic-tac-toe passing play, capped off with a tap-in from the side of the net by Trevor Moore 7:04 into the second period.

Matt Marcinew slipped one through traffic from the blue line, beating RedHawks senior goalie Jay Williams with 9:38 left in that stanza.

Denver went up 3-1 over three minutes later when Quentin Shore beat three Miami players, put a shot on that was saved by Williams and followed it up with the tap-in.

The RedHawks cut the lead to one with 4:56 left in the middle frame on a shot by senior forward Alex Gacek from the top of the faceoff circle that snuck inside the far post.

Miami's Sean Kuraly fends off a defender and eventually scores the tying goal in the third period (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Miami’s Sean Kuraly fends off a defender and eventually scores the tying goal in the third period (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Senior center Sean Kuraly evened it at three when he drove strongly the net and beat goalie Tanner Jaillet on the forehand less than two minutes into the third period.

But the Pioneers went ahead for good less than three minutes after the tying goal when a Miami clearing attempt deflected to a wide-open Shore in the slot, and he shot over Williams’ glove for the go-ahead tally.

Denver’s Nolan Zajac capped off the scoring on a blast from the blue line that found the far top corner of the net with 3:32 remaining in regulation.

It was Williams’ first loss since Oct. 31. He stopped 26 shots.

Kuraly led Miami with two points (1-1-2), giving him eight points in his last five games. Freshman forward Josh Melnick and junior forward Anthony Louis saw their five-game points streaks snapped.

Miami is now in a three-way tie for fourth place in the NCHC with Nebraska-Omaha and Minnesota-Duluth at 19 points.

The loss also dropped the RedHawks to 24th in the PairWise rankings.

Miami hosts St. Cloud State next weekend. Game times are 7:35 p.m. and 7:05 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, respectively.

Analysis: Crucial win for RedHawks

OXFORD, Ohio – Miami was due to have a close one go its way in dramatic fashion.

In a season that has seen the RedHawks fall twice in overtime and several other times on third-period goals, they beat Bowling Green, 2-1 at Cady Arena on Saturday when senior forward Anthony Louis buried a shot with two seconds remaining in regulation.

For at least one night, a lot of good things happened for this program, but at four games below .500, much work must be done just to get to respectability.

Taking this one game, though, a win like this can do much to turn any negative attitudes around. Rejuvenate players who – especially at such a young age – may have subconsciously begun to give up on the season.

Students are coming back from their J-term as well, which means crowds should pick up, and the buzz from this contest can do nothing but help gate receipts the rest of this campaign.

This wasn’t the best game Miami has played this season, but the RedHawks were good enough to win.

With their lack of offensive firepower, they would need to win a lot games with scores like 2-1. We’ll find out in the coming weeks if they can make winning a habit or if they are a habitual tease.

Either way, it was fun to be at the rink for this one.

Other thoughts…

– And yes, while the finale made it all worth it, Saturday’s game was flat-out boring for the most part until Louis’ heroics. Choppy play, good defensive play, bad offensive play, linemen who thought they were paid by the hour that should’ve carried penalty flags with the number of false starts and illegal motions they delayed puck drops for. It happens. Not every game can be like, well, every one at the end of last regular season, especially when both teams average a little over two goals per game.

– After not returning to the bench for the third period last Saturday and not practicing on Monday, senior goalie Ryan McKay was scratched for this tilt. That means freshman third goalie Evan McCarthy was technically the backup. Following McKay’s fourth goal against vs. Minnesota-Duluth last week on a poor clear, McKay threw his stick down the hall after coming off the ice, and he yelled something to the team and/or coaches, which is presumably why he was not dressed. It’s unclear how long McKay will be scratched, but with Miami’s grueling upcoming stretch run, it needs both of its quality goaltenders.

– While Miami’s power play has been dreadful in recent weeks – 1-for-20 in its last eight games with two shorthanded goals allowed – the penalty kill is tops in the NCAA at 94.1 percent, leading Division I by over three points. RedHawks opponents have not scored on the man advantage in five straight games.

– Louis has been a second-half player his first two seasons, and with the offensive losses Miami has suffered – and its resulting 2.10 goals-per-game average – the RedHawks NEED him to have a strong second half. This game was a great start.

GRADES

FORWARDS: C. Not a ton to see here. Outside of Alex Gacek’s slam-dunk goal and his set up of Louis’ game winner, this unit didn’t generate nearly enough offensive pressure. Much of this is due to Bowling Green’s defense, but Miami has created more chances against better teams this year. The line jumbling – which is justifiable in large part – didn’t help, as chemistry seemed to be off.

DEFENSEMEN: B-. Even though the Falcons only scored once, this corps made a few more mistakes than usual, especially early. Most memorably, Mark Cooper missed a completely open net after a breakdown deep in the defensive zone. It wasn’t one of senior Chris Joyaux’s best nights, although overall this season has been his best.

GOALTENDING: B+. Early on, it appeared Miami was in huge trouble, as senior Jay Williams struggled in net, and classmate Ryan McKay was not dressed, giving the team no safety valve. Williams allowed the first goal on a shot from beyond the top of the faceoff circle under his left arm and seemed to have trouble picking up the pick in the opening period. However, he was huge the final 40 minutes, making at least one huge save on a point-blank chance. His rebound control was outstanding, and he has now cut his 5.35 goals-against average from a couple of weeks ago – the result of being left in for seven goals opening night vs. Providence – nearly in half, ending the night at 2.83 for the season.

LINEUP CHANGES: Senior forward Michael Mooney was out up front after playing last Saturday, and junior Devin Loe sat for the second straight game. On defense, junior Colin Sullivan was a scratch after playing four of the past five games. Freshman Grant Hutton was out for the first time this season last Saturday but was back on the ice in this one. It’s unclear how long Williams will have the starting goalie joy uncontested, but McKay is smart and it’s likely he will right any wrongs within the team sooner than later.

Louis lifts Miami over BG

OXFORD, Ohio – Thanks to Anthony Louis, there was no free hockey at Cady Arena on Saturday.

The junior forward ripped a one-timer into the bottom corner of the net with two seconds left in regulation to lift Miami to a 2-1 win over Bowling Green.

Teammates congratulate Anthony Louis (second from left) after his game-winning goal (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Teammates congratulate Anthony Louis (second from left) after his game-winning goal (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Senior Jay Williams stopped 28 shots to earn the win, which was just the second for the RedHawks in 11 games.

Kevin Dufour opened the scoring for the Falcons, as his shot from the top of the faceoff circle snuck under Williams’ arm 5:55 into the first period.

Off a steal by Louis, Miami senior Alex Gacek tied it with 4:15 left in the middle stanza, stuffing a loose puck home from the side of the net.

It remained 1-1 until the closing seconds of the third period, when Gacek fed Louis from the side of the net back to Louis, who ripped it just inside the post on the glove side for the decisive score.

That meant no overtime for MU, which had seen five of its first 20 games go to an extra session.

Louis and Gacek both finished with a goal and an assist.

Louis has now recorded five points in his last five games, and Gacek scored his second goal in four contests.

Jay Williams stopped 28 shots to earn the win (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Jay Williams stopped 28 shots to earn the win (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Williams picked up his second victory, improving to 2-2-1 and 3-0 in his career vs. Bowling Green.

The RedHawks resume league play next weekend, as they travel to Nebraska-Omaha. They play at 8:37 p.m. on Friday and 8:07 p.m. on Saturday.

Analysis: Loss follows Miami MO

OXFORD, Ohio – Just a microcosm of the season.

Miami was every bit as good as Minnesota-Duluth in the first period but found itself down two, then four in the middle frame as the Bulldogs eventually went on to win, 5-2 at Cady Arena on Saturday.

An unlucky bounce for Miami – or a lucky one for UMD, depending on your perspective – resulted in the Bulldogs’ first goal.

Poor coverage in the slot ended up in Nos. 2 and 3, and as has been the case so often this season, those were two of the only breakdowns in front of the net for Miami (6-11-3), and the puck ended up in the back of the cage.

A bad play by senior goalie Ryan McKay made it 4-0, and that was essentially the night.

With past teams, a four-goal deficit would be a huge uphill climb but not insurmountable, but this RedHawks team has scored four goals in a game once, and the final tally in that contest was into an empty net.

This loss was crucial because Miami had a chance to pull within two points of UMD (8-7-4), which is in third place in the NCHC. Now the RedHawks are eight behind the Bulldogs.

Miami is now at the halfway point of its league schedule and has just 10 points in conference play, and earning two of six points this weekend made any ascent of the NCHC standings significantly more difficult.

With three points awarded for each game, 1½ points per game should put a team in the 4-5 seed range. That’s 36 points.

Miami needs to win nine of its final 12 league contests to reach that mark, and the RedHawks would likely need more than that to catch the fourth-seeded team.

All that comes back to the same axiomatic point: Miami needs to win more.

Other thoughts…

– McKay was pulled after the fourth goal, and he was visibly angry while departing. He launched his goalie stick down the tunnel, and it hit the edge of the stands and almost made its way into the seats. He also yelled something while leaving the bench. McKay did not come out with the team for the third period, and he also was not on the ice for practice Monday. That almost certainly means Jay Williams will be in net this Saturday. Freshman Evan McCarthy is the team’s third goalie, so we’ll see on Saturday if he is elevated to backup status on the interim.

– Miami ended its six-game power play drought as sophomore defenseman Louie Belpedio scored in the final second of a man advantage in the second period. The RedHawks were 0-for-16 in their previous six games with two shorthanded goals allowed.

– Let’s try to invoke some positives: For all of the problems Miami’s offense has had, senior forward Alex Gacek has one of the team’s best forwards in previous weeks. He is skating as well as he has his entire career and has been great in all three zones, although his points total doesn’t reflect that (it’s tough to pile up points when Miami scores three goals in a weekend).

– And classmate and captain Sean Kuraly looks like he is close to breaking out. Even with his struggles on offense, he has been solid on defense and in the faceoff circle, and he has been more active in the offensive zone in recent games as well.

GRADES

Miami freshman Ryan Siroky scored his first career goal on Saturday (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Miami freshman Ryan Siroky scored his first career goal on Saturday (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

FORWARDS: D. This corps managed just 10 shots on goal, and Miami had only six the final 40 minutes. Freshman Ryan Siroky, who is steadily improving, scored his first career goal on a laser from the outside of the faceoff circle, but that was one of the lone highlights for this group. Minnesota-Duluth did an excellent job of taking the Anthony Louis-Josh Melnick-Jack Roslovic line out of the game.

DEFENSEMEN: C. UMD was held to just 22 shots, more than a dozen fewer than on Friday, and Belpedio found the net. Players were left alone in front of the net on the Bulldogs’ second and third goals, but it’s unclear without replay ability whether that blame lies here or on the forwards.

GOALTENDING: C. McKay’s only real mistake was on the ENG after his bad clear on the fourth goal, and Williams was 6-for-6 in relief. With this team’s lack of offense, if the goalies’ grade isn’t a ‘B’ or better, Miami has little chance of winning.

LINEUP CHANGES: Up front, freshman Kiefer Sherwood was scratched in favor of senior Michael Mooney. It’s unclear why Sherwood sat, since he seemed pretty solid on Friday. On defense, freshman Grant Hutton did not dress for the first time this season, and junior Colin Sullivan returned to the ice. Hutton is having a solid rookie campaign but did struggled on Friday, and Sullivan continued to play well in limited action. He has to be one of the top seventh defensemen in all of college hockey.

Miami ends winless streak at 7

OXFORD, Ohio – Thanks to a three-goal, third-period outburst, Miami’s seven-game winless streak is over.

The RedHawks beat RPI, 4-2 at Cady Arena in the series finale on Sunday, giving the team its highest offense output of the season and its first win since Nov. 7.

Like Saturday, Miami took an early lead but managed to fall behind.

RedHawks senior forward Andrew Schmit banged home a loose puck at the top of the crease for his second goal of the season at the 2:01 mark.

A turnover by senior defenseman Matthew Caito led to a breakaway by RPI’s Jesper Ohrvall, who buried a shot on the glove side of Miami senior goalie Jay Williams, tying the score with 9:20 left in the opening stanza.

The Engineers went ahead when Jake Wood ripped a shot past Williams on a shorthanded chance after a stretch pass by Jimmy DeVito with 6:52 left in the second frame.

But after failing to score in their previous five third periods, the RedHawks dominated the final stanza.

Alex Gacek taps home the tying goal on Sunday (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Alex Gacek taps home the tying goal on Sunday (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

A shot by senior center Sean Kuraly was deflected to the side of the net, where senior forward Alex Gacek banged it home to tie the score at two.

Junior center Justin Greenberg puts Miami ahead for good with this one-timer (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Junior center Justin Greenberg puts Miami ahead for good with this one-timer (photo by Cathy Lachmann).

Just 1:43 later, freshman forward Zach LaValle sent a pass through the top of the crease to junior center Justin Greenberg, who buried the tip-in for his first goal of the season.

Senior defenseman Chris Joyaux fired a shot into the empty net from his own faceoff circle with 25 seconds left to cap off the scoring.

With the win, Miami moved up three places in the PairWise rankings to 28th. Fourteen of the RedHawks’ final 16 regular seasons games will be against NCHC opponents, including next weekend’s home series vs. Minnesota-Duluth.