After a week off following a sweep of Western Michigan, the #4/5 Miami RedHawks (10-4, 6-2 1st NCHC) prepare to face another ranked NCHC team as Dean Blais and the #12/13 Mavericks of Nebraska-Omaha visit Oxford for a two game series. To date, six of Miami’s first eight opponents are either currently ranked, or were when the RedHawks played them awarding MU the 5th toughest schedule in the country.
And, if that weren’t enough, this weekend’s series against Omaha (7-3-2, 3-2-1-1 4th NCHC) is huge in more than one way.
First, six NCHC league points are on the line.
Second, Miami owes the Mavericks for putting a line of 0-3-1 on the RedHawks last season as UNO owned Miami, especially in Omaha where I had the displeasure of watching both whippings live and in person.
Lastly, Omaha is just above Miami in the PairWise rankings checking in at #3 while the RedHawks currently rank #4 in the all-important table that largely determines the participants in the national tournament at the conclusion of the regular season.
Simply put, this is a monster series to conclude the first half of the conference season.
This is a rekindling of an old CCHA rivalry as Miami and Omaha are once again conference mates with the formation of the NCHC after college hockey’s realignment. Overall, Miami has had success against the Mavericks going 17-10-4 but are a dismal 0-4-1 in the last five against them.
Thinking about Miami’s recent run of poor play against Omaha, it certainly corresponds with the arrival of legendary head coach Dean Blais. Blais, who coached North Dakota for 10 seasons guiding the green and white to two national championships before departing for the CBJ of the NHL, has also led Team USA to World Junior Championship gold in 2010 and will once again wear the red, white and blue later this month as Team USA plays for the title in Canada — ironically the same country where Blais last struck gold for the US. Needless to say, the man can coach and has Omaha’s program pointed in the right direction.
Surprisingly, this team is built from the net out as senior goaltender Ryan Massa has been nothing short of outstanding so far. Massa, who entered 2014-15 having never had a GAA lower than 2.60, leads the NCHC with a ridiculous .943 save percentage and owns a minuscule 1.68 GAA. Of course, Miami can counter with junior Jay Williams, his 10-1 record, 1.56 GAA and .928 save percentage. What a goaltending battle we could have this weekend.
Offensively, the Mavs are led by uber-pest/sophomore Austin Ortega (5-8-13) and classmate Jake Guentzel (5-6-11). Ortega was particular chirpy following UNO’s 4-1 victory over UMD three weeks ago saying, “Tonight we were able to get up on the board; we really showed we’re a scoring team,” Ortega said. “Kind of sending a message to North Dakota that we can score on any goalie out there.” Um, of course, UND took four of six points from UNO last weekend in Grand Forks with the Mavericks securing a shootout win on Friday to avoid a series sweep. During the weekend, the Mavericks scored just four goals so it wasn’t like they were proving to be a true “scoring team.” We’ll see what happens this weekend against Miami’s 12th ranked scoring defense.
On the blueline, Omaha is powered by junior Brian Cooper (2-5-7) and Ian Brady (2-3-5). They aren’t flashy, but the team defense numbers speak for themselves as they are obviously helping Ryan Massa in a big way.
Overall, this is one of the smaller teams that Miami will face in NCHC play. I’d like to see them throw their combination of speed and size at Omaha to wear down the defense and make it very tough on smaller Maverick forwards like Ortega (5’8″ = Hobbit?), Guentzel, Dominic Zombo, Tyler Vesel and Jake Randolph who are all under six feet tall. Let’s get the Crash Cousins on the forecheck and Scott Dornbrock, and possibly, Colin Sullivan in our zone taking the body and making it hard to get to the scoring area, force turnovers and lead to transition opportunities.
Yeah, that’d be my approach if I were Miami head coach Enrico Blasi.
Omaha has been very good on the road this season going 5-1-2 so far. But, Miami is 7-1 at home. I think Miami owes Omaha a little “adjustment” and I really like how we match up against a younger, smaller opponent. I think we get some revenge this weekend.